Story #29 – Vieques part 1

When I got off the ferry on Puerto Rico’s little island of Vieques, the sun had gone down. The dark was as dense as the milling crowd I pressed through in search of my Brooklyn friends. They had been here for weeks, some of them months, working as bartenders and waiters at the far end of the island’s smattering of hotels and restaurants.

“Slim Jim!” Randy’s sunburnt face appeared in the crowd. “This way, man!”

He grabbed my hand and yanked me across some rocky pathways to a rusty Jeep. Darnell was in the driver seat. Randy took shotgun and I hopped in the back.

“Sup Slim Jim,” Darnell drawled, putting the ancient vehicle into drive and maneuvering onto a dark dirt road.

Randy handed me a beer. “No one cares here. It’s like the Wild West.” He proceeded to drink as Darnell sped up into the thick darkness.

The Jeep may have had a cover over the back 100 years ago when it was cranked out the factory, but I was currently able to enjoy my road beer under a sky framed with tropical foliage and glittering with more stars than New York City had ever seen.

The engine of the Jeep was too loud to scream over so I was able to just lay back and enjoy the ride and the frosty effervescence of my first island lager.

I was staying with them at our friend Brownie’s house. He lived about an hour’s drive across the island, closer to the far side, but in the jungle at the top of one of the island’s modest mountains. He was another Brooklynite transplant who had come to the island to wait tables and then defected completely. He was now an artist of note and was currently on an extended trip to Cali so we had his crib to ourselves.

“Hold on,” Randy piped from the front seat as we slowed down at the foot of a winding and muddy driveway. I did as I was told and quickly learned why as the 4 wheel drive vehicle began tumbling forward over the slippery peaks and troughs.

Brownie’s house was an unimpressive concrete block from the outside, but had a screened in porch which was to be my bedroom. The porch and lawn were crowded with rusty metal sculptures.

More beers were cracked open and I caught everyone up on the Brooklyn exploits they weren’t privy to. Our laughter and storytelling competed with a symphony of invisible frogs in the surrounding jungle. Enough beers were drank to drown out the symphony and I fell asleep on a couch under a mosquito net.

In the middle of the night I awoke with my heart racing. A strange stomping and huffing sound came from the gardens surrounding the house. In my post-dream delirium, I sat up on my futon mattress careful not to make a sound. The huffing and stomping continued from the darkness just outside the screens of the porch. I imagined the sculptures alive, having broken from their concrete bases, performing some primitive dance.

Perhaps they would come inside and take me next. My friends would awaken to find me missing, replaced by some new abstract metal sculpture.

Somehow I fell back asleep to the sound of the stomping.

I dreamt I was back in Brooklyn. I was in my tiny windowless room in the art space I ran with my friends. I was chasing down and swatting mosquito after mosquito that were buzzing by my ears. They left little red flowers on my walls where I smacked them. When the walls filled with enough flowers I was suddenly no longer in my tiny windowless room but in a spring field chasing fireflies.

When I awoke from the dream again, the blue light of dawn filled the air all around me. I lifted my head and saw the metal statues still frozen in their strange postures. The huffing and stomping yet continued.

Curious, I crawled out from my tent of mosquito netting and stretched my back from its futon crink. A pack of wild horses were grazing in the yard among the sculptures. Intermittently they stamped their hooves and huffed their lips.

They looked at me and I could not tell if they were my dream or if I was theirs.

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Story #28 – At The Furniture Store We Kept Sitting In Chairs

At the furniture store, we kept sitting in chairs. There was a flash sale going on and we were drawn in by the signs screaming about the outrageous discounts.

This Brooklyn warehouse location was closing. Apparently the landlord had sold the capacious brick and wood warehouse to a developer interested in building another condo.  Soon, all of Brooklyn will be condos. The modern glass and steel buildings will glare at each other as hip people stroll out drinking iced coffee in search of avocado toast.  It used to be all warehouses and bodegas, barber shops and bakeries. Soon all the places that defined this neighborhood will be gone. It will be a blur of iced coffee and avocado toast at every corner. It will be completely lacking of any definition.

My girlfriend and I kept sitting in chairs because we only had two in our condo. Everything in the store was half-off so she saw it as a perfect opportunity to double our chair collection for half the price. I had the dog on one arm and an iced coffee in another. I could still taste the avocado toast and two bloody marys I had for breakfast.

I sat in one wooden chair. American Walnut, light varnish; quality woodwork. The chair had a high curved back and depressions carved into the seat to help your butt find the center easier. Then my girlfriend had me sit in another wooden chair, also American Walnut. It’s a rare tree apparently, according to the shopping consultant, yet most every wooden chair, table, and shelving unit in this capacious warehouse soon-to-be-condo was carved out of American Walnut.

The second chair had slightly different legs and the back was a little lower. It’s arm rests were just long enough to rest your elbows on. They curved down into the legs. The seat also had the butt-centering divots. It felt much like the first chair.

The third chair was also American Walnut.  It was a slight modification on the first design, but it had an inch more width to the seat and a leather cushion in place of the butt imprint. It was just slightly more comfy.

The walls of the warehouse were dressed with variations of dark oil paintings of elk and mysterious dancing ethnic women. They were all very similar, like paint-by-numbers, but not prints. They were the type of paintings you saw in the background of other oil paintings–the paintings that decorate a still life. They were tasteful, yet said very little.

In one corner of the showroom the airspace was a constellation of Edison bulbs. The fixtures housing them were ever so slightly different, brass or bronze, aged, faux-antique, almost steampunk, the kind of lighting fixtures a serial killer would decorate his dungeon with. Apparently they also look great in a modern kitchen or living room surrounded by furniture carved from the last trees of the last American Walnut grove on the planet.

I sat in a chair with a woven wicker seat and a wooden back, a leather strap seat and back, a velvet cushion. One chair had horns, another appeared inspired by Japanese watercolor. They all felt about the same to me.

My girlfriend, distraught at the lack of variety, stared at each one as if it were a koan. She puzzled over how they might fit into our life. The dog whimpered, echoing her spiritual distress. I sat in a couch and briefly reveled at the innovation.  

We gathered all the chairs we liked from the distant corners of the showroom and we lined them up on either side of the center aisle. They were all American Walnut with four legs. Some had cushions, others were carved to make use of the cushion your body comes with. We piled some on top of others testing them for construction, design and tensile strength. It became a thicket of American Walnut. Legs protruded like thorns, backs were wedged together and into seats and between arm rests. We piled every chair in the showroom along the sides of the aisle.

People came in and couldn’t reach any of the other furniture in the store. They couldn’t see anything but the thicket of American Walnut. All the fluidity of the design was lost in the chaos of construction. There was nowhere to even sit. It was so starkly homogenous that everyone left.

At that point, we didn’t want the chairs anymore either. We exited back into the blur and embers.

 

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Story #27 – The Back Row of Broadway

There are two back rows on Broadway.

The first back row is at the back of the audience, so far from the magic of the stage the patrons who sit there need binoculars.  The back row of the audience might be in the back of the balcony seats where the air is thin that sound from the stage could never travel there without amplification. The people who sit here dream of the day they can afford the good seats, the front row center where the spotlight sometimes spills and the eyes of the stars sometimes fall.

There is another back row for every show, however. On stage, behind the stars are the chorus members, the dancers, the ones who hold up the stars. We are the stage and the electricity, seen yet barely felt. We sing and dance so that the hero’s journey can take center stage. 

We are the ones who might be stars one day but probably won’t. Most of us feel dejected for having been passed over so many times already.

I am a trained dancer. I was the star of my high school musical senior year. I studied at Juliard. I played enough supporting roles in Off-Broadway shows to accumulate enough stage time to join the Equity Association, to be a professional stage actor so that I could step onto this stage and shine.

And I do shine. I shine from the back row of the dancers. My face aches from the smile I beam as I kick my legs up as high as anyone and I belt out every note the composer wove from her dreams. I am a small yet crucial part of the harmony that spins across this stage and over and through the audience every night.

I know “there are no small parts—only small actors.” I know that there are thirty other girls who would have sold their first born for my small role in the back row. I know that I am still making my living as an entertainer and that I should be grateful.

But no one has brought me flowers since my parents came to see my first night in the back row of Broadway. And every night I dance and sing and titter and spin for strangers who barely see me, I wilt a little inside. And as my inner light fades little-by-little, show-by-show, I move further and further from the front row.

I search the eyes of the audience, the ones who gather up the stage light on their eyes like diamonds. I watch them watch the stars as I disappear into the night. I sing louder until my voice smolders and crumpled in my throat. I dance so that when I get home and take off my shoes, my feet are bruised blue up to the ankles.

I do this because, even in the back row, when the house lights go down and the orchestra swells into the overture, a spell is cast that is beyond us. It draws us all together into our roles in the journey, into the story we share that night, the seat that we paid for, and we do not leave until the show is done.

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Story #26 – You forgot my birthday again. (Starstruck)

The room lights up automatically after my alarm gongs and I blink away some dream.  I think you were in it.  We were dancing in our little kitchen in Brooklyn.  The dog was singing along.

I wonder where you are right now, who you’re with. 

Are you thinking of me?  Did you almost write me a card?  Did you look me up on the internet again? 

Are you still mad after all these years?

You shouldn’t be mad at me on my birthday.

Believe it or not, I wish you were here.  It took me a long time to get there.  By “there” I mean here, in this silver bullet, shooting through space at 38,000 mph, about to blow out of our solar system’s heliosheath.  The culmination of this forty year mission: The Big Zamboni.

By “there” I also mean being able to admit that I miss you.  That feeling sat in me like a stone for 39 years before I said it out loud.  Now it’s easy to say.  The feeling was there anyway.  It was silly to ignore it.  You always said I was a silly man.  As usual you were right.

I throw my legs off the edge of the bed.  Same legs.  Spindly and very white.  My last legs.  Ha ha.

The thing about puns is that they’re funny even when you’re not here to scowl at me.  In fact, without your judgement—playful as it may have been—I’ve discovered some real gems out here.  Like why didn’t Neptune get a birthday party?  Because Pluto couldn’t planet. 

Are you scowling yet?

I slip into my slippers and shuffle to the bathroom.  This is where I get my first present!  My plumbing still works; the pee drills out of me like a triumphant drum roll.  I even fart a little.  It’s a grand start to the day.  The flush sounds like applause as I slip into some sweatpants and a sweater that’s perfectly gigantic on me.  Further proof of my diminishing significance.

Remember when I used to apologize for a fart?  That was the difference between you and me.  I am the type of guy who apologizes for farts.  You are the type of woman who pretends they don’t exist.  Like ghosts.  But some of them could be quite haunting indeed if memory serves, and trust me it does.

I always liked your farts, to tell the truth.  They were usually soft and slow, like a jazz trumpet in a dark hallway.  Your farts wore fedoras and smoked Russian cigarettes.  They were mysterious and exciting.  The dog thought so too; she would seek them out like important secrets.

There are no dark hallways here though, dear.  The lights flicker on everywhere I go.  They flicker off in the rooms I leave behind.  I know this because they flicker back on when I return.  At first I couldn’t figure out why that made me a little sad.  Then I got it!  If they had stayed on, it would have implied that someone else might be by to do something in the room I just left.

But they always flicker off.  It’s okay.  Solitude was a part of the mission.

I enter the mess hall.  It’s a mess hall for one person, so it’s more of a room, but that’s what they called it when I got my tour, so that’s what I call it.  The Mess Hall Room. 

What should I have for breakfast on my birthday?

“Mildred, I’d like pancakes for breakfast.”

Mildred’s Avatar appears on the wall and she smiles that same smile I go back and forth loving and hating.

“Your triglycerides are high.  How about a boiled egg and a grapefruit?” The A.I. responds.

“Aw Mildred.  It’s my eightieth birthday.  Can we start my diet tomorrow?”

“I’m sorry, Daniel.”  Her voice comes from speakers somewhere while her mouth moves on the screen.  She pouts then and that’s something I imagine she learned from me.  Who would teach an A.I. to pout anyway?

Funny thing about Mildred.  She looks old now too, slightly hunched and matronly with a sensible haircut, but she was a young Avatar when we started this voyage.  Her hair was longer and darker, she was more pert.  We both appeared in our thirties and were excited to embark on a mission into the unknown.  I guess the NASA folks programmed her to age with me so I wouldn’t end up an old man hanging out with a young woman.  They thought that this would be more “natural.”  I guess they were right; she was a cute young avatar, but I can’t say I mind old Mildred.

“Hey Mildred!  It’s a little stuffy in here, would you open a window?”

“Ha Ha,” Says Mildred.  She’s a good sport.

Mildred is my accompaniment in lieu of other living humans.  I didn’t want any other living humans to come.  I have to be alone when I work.  It was part of the deal and we artists are forgiven for our quirky demands, our petty insanities, our silliness.

They insisted on Mildred though, and I suppose she has been a suitable companion.  She’s good at leaving me alone when I need to work, but she’s good at breaking the silence too.

She opens the ReconFoodifier revealing a plate with some yellow and some orange mush piled up on it like alien turds.  It’s not pancakes, not even close.  There’s not even a candle in it.  But I can’t blame Mildred.  Thoughtful gestures aren’t really A.I. territory.  She smiles at me and I smile back; another mushy morning.

Now to the good part.  My window seat to the Universe.

Somehow it worked out that today, on my eightieth birthday, I would be the first human to ever glimpse with the naked eye the universe outside our Solar System: Interstellar Space.  Pretty exciting for anyone, especially an old artsy fart like me.

I shuffle around the corner into the dining room with the viewing window and plant myself down in my seat.  The cushion is getting a little too worn in again.  I’ll have to have Mildred find my sewing kit.  I pull down the tray table and deposit my plate.

And… I forgot my coffee.

“Mildred!  I forgot my coffee.”

She appears on an adjacent wall and smiles at me.

“I can make a cup for you,” she says, calm as forever can remember.

“I have coffee every day.  You could maybe just include it with my breakfast.”

“But what if you didn’t want it one day?”

That day will never come, but I nod at her and smile.  I would hate for her to worry that she wasn’t being sensible.  I think that’s probably the greatest fear an A.I. has.  It would probably keep her up at night.  No good would come of it.

I shimmy out from under my tray being careful not to upend my plate of mush.  It’s pleasing to know I can still shimmy.  I wonder how many eighty-year-olds on Earth can still shimmy.  Can you, my dear?

I sigh on my way around the corner back to the Mess Hall Room.  Mildred is there smiling and the ReconFoodifier is open.  There’s a cup of coffee and a plate with a pancake on it.  No syrup, but I guess I hadn’t specified.  She looks so happy that I don’t mention it.  It’s her first thoughtful gesture and I wouldn’t dare spoil it.

“Very sweet, Mildred.  Thank you.”

Beaming, she blinks away.

I take the pancake and coffee back around the corner to my little breakfast nook.

“How much longer ’til The Big Zamboni?” I ask.

The big viewing window shutters are still closed.  I want to be seated and ready to fully experience the moment when we burst from the heliopause.  I’ll open the shutters five minutes before so I don’t get distracted by a hang nail and miss it.  Hang nails are annoying like that.  You notice it, enter a biting fugue, and then wake up six hours later with a bloody slit in your finger stinging like the dickens.

“Ten minutes until the Zamboni,” she says.

It really took some convincing to get Mildred to refer to the entering of interstellar space as “The Big Zamboni.”  But what else did I have to do over these past forty years?  Even Seinfeld episodes get old after awhile.

What does the edge of the Solar System have to do with a machine for clearing and smoothing ice? she asked.  I told her it didn’t matter I just liked the sound of it.  She didn’t get that either.  To an A.I. system everything matters, otherwise it doesn’t compute.  I explained to her that most words were just arbitrary strings of letters anyway and their only purpose was to convey an agreed upon message or association.  Apparently that did compute.  I added that it could be a private joke just between us.  That seemed to get her on board.

My easel and paints stand at the ready next to the viewing window.  I set them up last night so I could get right to work on the first painting ever of the interior of our solar system’s Bow Shock.  The Bow Shock is the piling up of the star dust and dark matter that happens as our solar system spins and plows through the universe; it’s kind of how water splashes up at the bow of a boat.  No one knows what it will look like up close from inside.  I have a lot of black paint ready just in case.

In another room in this shuttle are 1999 (mostly) finished paintings.  I’ve painted one a week since I left earth.  The first one was of the moon and some satellites.  I painted the Earth really big behind it to show perspective.  It’s a little nostalgic, but I still like it.  One of the tiny dots of paint on Earth is meant to be you.  I know which one it is but I’ll never tell.  No one will probably ever ask.

There were quite a few paintings of the moon before I got to Mars.  I have to admit some of the later cubist attempts are quite striking.  The Man in the Moon comes into a queer focus, sharp and cold, stern as George Washington on a two penny stamp.  I had it hung in my room for awhile but Mildred didn’t like it.  She said it contributed to my depression.  She’s usually right about those things.

Mars was fun.  I got to paint Mars from a few different angles as I passed it.  On some, when the sun is behind me, you can see the little colony NASA set up in 2024.  It’s just a tiny glob of gray paint, but you get the point.  It’s all globs of paint when your mood is sour enough.

There have now been about 400 weeks since we passed Pluto.  That was a tough time, watching and painting Pluto getting smaller and smaller week after week.  The last one where I could make it out was of little Pluto’s silhouette in a sea of distant stars, an almost-planet so tiny and cold and far from everything.  I got so glum that I almost didn’t even put Earth in that one, but in the end I added a pinpoint of blue.  It’s tiny, but it’s there if you look for it.

Honestly, I get bummed out every time I paint the back sides of the planets.  I think because to paint them I have to look back towards Earth and that always makes me a little sad.

I don’t like looking back.  The whole point of this mission was to only look forward; to only see new things, no repetition ever again.  New images of new experiences!  Inspiration every day!  What a joke that turned out to be.  I may look out the windows at new expanses of space every day, but the insides of this cruddy shuttle are dull as a dishrag.  Mildred tells jokes to spice things up.  I’m pretty sure she’s started recycling them though.

My favorite paintings, I think, are the random craggy asteroids I’ve passed in the years since Pluto.  They looked like the wrinkly old heads of giants decapitated and frozen after some war bigger and more destructive than my little brain could ever possibly comprehend.  Their agony is palpable.  It made for great painting.  Dark and moody like a Heironymous Bosch daydream.  I’m sure he would have approved.

There was initially a lot of debate over whether I should send an image of each painting back as I finished it, but I didn’t want to and in the end I won.  I mean, there’s no one here to coerce me.  And, being an artist, if I felt coerced I probably wouldn’t be able to paint.  So there’s that.  But I am looking forward to presenting all of the paintings as a complete collection.  A reflection on my life, my work, and my journey to the edge of everything.  I won’t be back there on Earth, of course, as millions of eyes pour over my smatterings and globs.  But maybe you will.  Will you?

These past forty years alone in space (with Mildred) have given me all the contemplation time I wished for and more.  I’ve contemplated my navel, my toes, my nose, and every constellation of freckles my eyes can measure.  I’ve thought about my sister and her kids growing up with only recordings of their uncle.  I’ve wondered who is putting flowers on Mom’s grave.  I’ve considered everything I gave up to ride out this one-way train to nowhere in particular.

I don’t think I regret it.  I can still send email.  It just takes a little longer.  The mush Mildred feeds me tastes like real things I used to like.  And Space is really, really, breathtakingly heart-explodingly beautiful.

I just don’t really know where you are and I promised that I wouldn’t bother you if my heart started to flutter out here and my brain turned inside out.  “To interfere” I think is what we said when we said it.  But here I am, on my eightieth birthday thinking about you, composing some sort of letter to you in my mind, wishing you were here to shimmy with me.  I know you can’t see the universe the way I do.  I’m pretty sure you were perfectly content with the view you had from that little blue rock.  Maybe I should have been too.  Maybe I should have been too. 

Not that I’ve ever had patience for ‘maybes.’

“Robert,” says Mildred.

“Yes, Milly.” I reply, taking a bite of my cold pancake.

“It’s time for the Zamboni.”

“Thank you, Mildred.”

And when she opens the shutters to the Universe I can’t believe my eyes.

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Story #25 – The Well Dries Up

I was wandering through a vast field cluttered with wishing wells.  The wells, rings of stacked dark stones with wooden roofs, stood in various states of weathered dilapidation.  They were close enough together that I was unable to walk in a straight line for more than twenty steps.  It was like walking through an apple orchard, except that instead of trees, there were wishing wells, millions of them stretching to the horizon.

I remained in bed for several minutes going over the dream before finally getting up and heading to the bathroom.  I looked at myself in the mirror and thought about the wishing wells.  Why wells?  I had never lived by a well or used one, really.  The only wells I had ever seen had been in historical re-enactments and movies.  In the movie Goonies, the wishing well was both a path to riches and an escape to mundanity.  Symbols can be interpreted both positively and negatively, like flipping a coin.  Maybe I should play the lottery today.

My haggard face blinked at me.  Ugh.  The difference a good night sleep can have on one’s face increases sharply as you approach forty.  Prodding the bags under my eyes, I resolved to stop eating ice cream before bed.  A mud mask was in order—I would have to be a little late to work.

After rinsing off my mask, I took my time showering, shaving, and styling my hair.  I put on my blue work uniform and checked my posture in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom.  My butt looked great as usual.  My gut could use some work.

I walked down to the kitchen and put the kettle on.  Grabbing the coffee from the freezer, I ground up two tablespoons of the cold beans.  I flipped the grinder upside down and tamped it several times from each side before removing the top and examining the grounds for consistency.  Satisfied, I dumped them into my french press and sat to peruse the newspaper while the water boiled. 

Turning directly to the “Style” section I was flummoxed to learn that paisley was making a comeback.  Taking a nod from gang culture, some young fashion influencer had crafted an entire line of blue and red paisley outfits.  Blue and red like the Bloods and the Crips.  Blue and Red also like the sirens that chased them.  Neither was my style, so I moved on to the front page.  The economy remained in shambles; children in third-world countries were still committing atrocities that should only be reserved for the most sociopathic adults; natural disasters were devouring various corners of the world rich and poor alike (the only noticeable difference being the size of the headline).  

My water kettle screamed and I sighed.

I poured the boiling water into the glass pitcher and watched the grounds bubble up like ravenous quicksand.  While the coffee’s aroma wafted itself into my brain confirming the imminent tide of caffeine, I again reflected on my dream.  Why would anyone need so many wishing wells?  Were they all capable of granting wishes or were they all simply for water?  What would happen if you cast the same wish into several different wells?  What would I wish for anyway?  Less paisley in the world, that’s for sure.

I pressed the pump down and finally poured the coffee into my Garfield mug and took that first hot sip.  As the heat danced itself down my gullet, I held up the mug to savor the aroma.  Steam vapors undulated above the dark surface like evanescent spirits detached and dwindling.  I looked across my kitchen table at the empty seat facing me.  It was actually dusty.  How long had it been since I cleaned?  I couldn’t remember.

On my commute to work my mouth began to taste like a third-world urinal so I pulled off at a gas station for some gum.  Inside, it was empty except for the two brown persons working the counter.  It wasn’t until I was pulling out my wallet to pay that I realized that they did not really have faces.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t see their faces; they actually had no faces.  They had heads and they had hair, but where their eyes, noses, ears and mouths, cheeks and foreheads should have been, there was only smooth skin.  I tried to remember if they had faces on my numerous previous visits, but I couldn’t recall with any certainty.

The cashier’s voice emanated from a placid pool of flesh, “Your change, sir.”    Fighting off the impulse to reach out and caress the flesh to see if it would ripple, I thanked her, turned abruptly, and swept myself out the door.  On the way out I tripped slightly, and they blatantly laughed at me.  Instinctively turning to scold them, I stopped short.  Their combined lack of feature and the flat silence that greeted me had me at a loss for words.  Making sure of my footing this time, I turned and resumed my swift exit.  

__OoO0O0 (?) O0O0O0oOo__

My fine black silk suit held me together like a second skin.  My designer leather shoes reflected the infinity above.  The grass whispered a hushed incantation below me as I wandered from well to well.  Now and again I would pat my empty pockets searching for change that I knew was not there.  I shouted into one well and then the next, but they just swallowed up my cries with stoic finality.  When I grew frustrated and my voice hoarse, I sat down with my back to one of them.

I was still picturing the faceless convenience store employees when I scurried into the back door of the Post Office where I work.  Was that some form of birth defect I had never heard of?  How was it that two people with such a rare disability were employed at the same gas station?  Was it a genetic thing? 

Those questions were quickly put to rest as I made my way to my desk.  Every single one of my co-workers was also faceless.  It was a little strange. 

The day crept forward otherwise without incident.  Diverse and varied bodies ambled in toting taped-up packages and stacks of letters.  A little old lady with delicate skeletal hands purchased six books of “Phantom of the Opera” stamps.  A young man in tight jeans and an unfortunately loud and clashing hooded sweatshirt picked up a package in a giant box that weighed almost nothing.  No one had a face.  No smiles or frowns, no rolling eyes, just the fluttering phantom huffs of impatience.

The co-worker who sits to my left—I can never remember his name—was still obese and smelled of crackers and blue cheese.  I shot a few discreet glances in his direction and, although he never looked directly at me, I could make out the pale curve of his featureless countenance glowering just under his mash of greasy hair.  I tried to imagine how he used to look to no avail.  Breathless, I reached up to feel for my own features and was relieved to feel my hawklike nose, soft lips, and gummy eyelids.

My supervisor emerged from his office in the back and approached me slowly with small clicking steps.  I have always wondered if he unknowingly wore tap shoes.  His non-face drooped a bit at the chin and was marked by a few liver spots, but otherwise was smooth as an ostrich egg.  I must have looked strange, staring and sweating, because he called me into his office for a chat before my lunch break.

__OoO0O0 (?) O0O0O0oOo__

 The stones of the well were cool through my jacket and the smell of damp earth filled my lungs.  As I ran my fingers through a tuft of soft grass, a small brown rat with two tails scurried from the other side of the well and sat up on his haunches scrutinizing me.  I have never liked rats, their severe black eyes and gnarled hands recall specters from my haunted youth.  I shoed him away with a quick gesture and muttered, “Go away, Rat.”  To my surprise the rat responded, “You go away.  Go lean on your own well.”  His voice was larger than mine, hearty, commanding.

We took our seats on opposite sides of his desk.  He sighed heavily and I picked some lint from my pants.

“Mr. Solodis,” my boss said, his voice floating around his head from a speaker directly behind his skull.  He knows my first name but refuses to use it.  His close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair reflected the fluorescent bulbs sizzling high above us.  “Are you feeling well today?  You seem a bit–”

“I’m fine.  Thank you,” I interrupted with a thin smile.

“Yes.”  His pause congealed around his blank visage.  It was a heavier silence than usual.

He didn’t have eyes so I attempted to stare where they should have been.  There were three photo frames arranged on his desk with their backs to me.  I have no idea who is in these pictures, but I imagined them faceless as well.  I was getting anxious to be out of his small office.  The light felt like poison on my skin, and I was sweating again.  The wall clock sneered down at me. 

“Have I done something wrong?” I asked. 

“Are you on drugs?”  He asked, body completely still.  People move their faces a lot more than their bodies when they talk.

“No, Sir.  I’m just feeling a bit… off today.”

“You are not on drugs?”  He folded his hands over his belly bulge.

I find drugs detestable.”  It was true.  I never understood the compulsion.  If anyone ever offered me drugs I would call the authorities immediately.  I decided to move things along.  “Actually, Sir, maybe I should go home.  I do feel a little bit achy.  Perhaps I’m coming down with the flu.”

“The Swine Flu.  Or maybe bird.  No laughing matter either way.  Maybe you should go home.”  He often repeats others’ suggestions to give the air that they came from him in the first place.  He’s not fooling me.

“Yes Sir.  Great idea.  I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.”  I got up quickly and left.

__OoO0O0 (?) O0O0O0oOo__

“My well?”  My voice had shrunk.  The little rat was impetuous, “Yes.  ‘Your Well.’  As in ‘Not My Well.’”  He paused, sizing me up, before continuing, “Unless you have something to eat?”  I shook my head and sat up a little bit.  He looked soft and was pretty cute for a rat, not so daunting after all.  “May I pet you?”  I asked, reaching out to stroke his pelt.  He sprung back, nipping at me.  “Of course you may not!”  Tiny fangs and whiskers glinted, “You must move on from here.  I’m very busy.  What do you want?”  What did I want?  I looked up to the sky where the sun hung like a frozen egg in a blue glacier.  “I don’t know.  I have been wandering through this field, but I have no money for wishes.”

Driving home, I examined the people in the cars I passed, all equally faceless.  A world full of egg heads.  Some of them noticed me scrutinizing them and turned their non-faces to me.  I knew I was staring.  I couldn’t help it.

At a stop light, I rolled down my window and summer heat rushed in.  A rusty blue pickup truck pulled up next to me, and a man with a sunburned cherry-head nodded along to a soft country song.  His equally sunburnt elbow hung out the passenger window.  

I shouted at him, “HEY!  YOU DON’T HAVE A FACE!”

The sound of idling motors rumbled in the heat.  A heavy drop of sweat streamed down my face and leapt to my collar.  It was impossible to see how he was taking my observation.  I grit my teeth and squeezed the steering wheel.

“Well you look like an asshole to me!”  He drawled before motoring away.

I quickly rolled up my window, turned up Rod Stewart’s Greatest Hits, and focused on getting home.

At my house, I watched some TV.  Characters in my favorite shows all had faces.  News Anchors had faces.  The President giving a speech on healthcare reform had a face.  But incidental people, background people, special guests that I had never heard of; none of them had faces.  I didn’t feel ill, but I was beginning to think something might be wrong with my brain.  A tumor would be quite an inconvenience.

I turned off the TV and called my friend, Sturgis.  Sturgis was his last name, I didn’t know his first.  We met some years earlier at a bar in downtown D.C.  We had both been hitting on the same woman at the same time without realizing it.  He must have said something to turn her off because she left before I could buy her a second drink, but then he and I started talking.  Since that night we have often gone out to bars together to pick up women.  Often enough, disputes over who would get the cute one repelled our prospects.  He paid for most of the drinks though, so I tolerated him.

When he didn’t answer the phone I left a message asking him to come over right after work.  I didn’t give him any details.  I would just wait and see how he looked and decide how to proceed from there.  My couch felt harder than usual.  I decided to give myself a manicure to pass the time.

__OoO0O0 (?) O0O0O0oOo__

The rat brushed his whiskers with his little hands, “Well, if you had some money, what would you wish for?”  His two tails thumped the ground in quick succession.  I chewed my tongue and examined my shoes thoughtfully.  “Hmmm…  I don’t really know.  Perhaps to go home?  But I don’t really know where that is right now either.”

The sun had set when Sturgis finally arrived.  He had eyebrows, and nostrils like inverted straws pulling up into his brain.  The dimple on his chin and his obnoxious freckles remained.  Strangely he had no mouth and no eyes.   

As usual, he headed straight for the kitchen.  I had just finished some Chinese food delivered by a faceless presumably Asian teenager whose only noticeable characteristic was a giant aching pimple in the middle of his sprawling forehead.  The open cartons were clustered on the counter, mostly empty.  Ben sniffed at them absently before moving on to rummage through my refrigerator.  I attempted not to stare at him. 

He was telling me about his date, “She’s a fox, I’m telling you—straight out of a lingerie catalog.  Long brown hair.  Long brown legs.  Mad eyes.  She’s the kind of girl you want to trap in a glass case and hide away from the world.   Chicken still good?”  He grabbed a two-day-old drumstick and proceeded to talk with his mouth full, “She can talk though.  A little too much for my taste, really, but she’s hot enough.”  He was a revolting creature.

“I hate you.”  I was deadpan.  My face may as well have been blank too.

He was quick to retort, “Fuck you, Solodis.  I hate you too.  I just hate you less than most people.  What did you want from me anyway?  You sounded pretty wacked-out on that message.  Find out you got cancer or something?”  His eyebrows were twitching on his forehead like two caterpillars caught in a mating dance.  The freckles held their ground.

“I’m fine.  TV trouble.  That’s all.  Fixed itself.”  If it was cancer, I’d be sure and call him right away to confirm his heinous prediction.

“Grand.  I’ve got to be going anyway.  Sylvia’s already been waiting…” He checked the time on his Blackberry, “for fifteen minutes.”  I followed his back to the front door.  He spoke over his shoulder as he left, “Let’s get together for a drink next week. Ciao!”

I shut the door and locked it.  Back in the kitchen the gnarled chicken bone glistened quietly on the counter.  I returned to the couch and thought about my dream again.

__OoO0O0 (?) O0O0O0oOo__

The rat took two little steps forward and jutted his nose at me, “You don’t even know who you are, much less where you are.  You’re lost.”  His thin rat lips pulled back to a sneer, “Maybe you should pick a well and throw yourself into it.”
My chest tightened up.  “But… What would happen to me?”  I had two tufts of grass in my fists and was tugging at the roots.  He was right, I was lost.  I couldn’t just wander around this field forever.  The rat sighed.  “I couldn’t tell you.  It’s different for everybody.  You just have to try it.”

It’s been four months now.  I haven’t had another dream since the wishing well/rat dream, but every morning I wake up remembering little details from it as if I had just dreamt it.  About two months ago I stopped going to work.  It became maddening smiling at the constant parade of unintelligible blankness, all those people who weren’t really people.  Sometimes, if an exchange dragged on, the faintest traces of an eye or lips might begin to emerge, but the customer would always leave before any real change could register. 

For awhile I imagined faces for them.  I pictured faces from my past, like James Benton who would beat me up if I came to the playground when he was there, or Susie Swans who only decided she would date me when every other option was taken.   I invented new faces.  I attempted to squeeze as many noses as I could between the hair line and the chin.  I imagined mystic arrangements of multiple eyes blinking at me in unison, or just a giant mouth grinning at me dumbly.  But this game quickly lost its luster.

In my bathroom mirror, my own face withered and jaundiced under a lifeless swath of hair.  My butt and gut shriveled up as well; I became desiccated like the abandoned shell of a cicada.  Even my designer shirts and slacks, usually reserved for the nights I would cruise bars, hung forlorn on my frame.

One evening just a few weeks ago, I was examining my ruined face in the mirror.  My cheeks had deflated and my eyes looked shriveled.  I sighed and one of my teeth, a small molar, clinked to the sink and danced down the drain.  I was falling apart!  It was like my entire being was suffocating.  I decided to go out and get some air while I still could.

I dressed myself in my favorite black slacks and burgundy button-down–a combination that had proven effective multiple times for attracting desirable women–and drove downtown to my favorite bar.  The bartender, not surprisingly only a mouth, greeted me apprehensively.  

“Mr. Solodis, you don’t look so good,” he said with some concern flickering in his eyes.  

“Yes, ahm.. my mirrors are broken,” I coughed through a weak smile.

He lifted a clean martini glass waving it like a crystal wand.  “The usual?” he asked.  

I nodded and slid a few seats down the bar where the lighting was less revealing.  The cool air had me shivering already.  “Straight up,” I added.

It wasn’t until my third manhattan that I noticed her: No face, but lovely hair and a shapely form, nice breasts and a firm-looking ass.  She was probably a little older than me, maybe in her late forties, but it was hard to tell.  Her dress, lime-green and slick like icing, clung to her curves as she ambled over to the free seat next to me.  I offered to pay for her drink and she turned to me.

“Why are you sitting over here all by yourself?” she asked.

It’s hard to flirt with someone while avoiding eye contact.  “I can’t see anyone anymore,” I said.

Her Vodka martini arrived and she spilled some down her arm as she raised it to where her mouth should have been and absorbed the liquid through her skin.  “I hate relationships too, but that hardly answers my question,” she said tilting her egg-head a little to the side before continuing, “You look sad.”

“I’ve had better days,” I said, still avoiding looking at her directly for fear of scaring her off.  She slid to the edge of her seat and her perfume wafted over me, a soft alluring scent like powdered berries and sex.  She put her hand on my knee and brought her non-face close to my ear.  

“This one’s not over yet,” she whispered.

Her forwardness stung me in a strange way.  A hole in my chest opened up and I felt as though my ribcage was being dragged down to the sticky shadows of the floor.  I was furious with her, but at the same time I was more lonely than I had ever imagined possible.  My whole life had been spent maneuvering from exploit to exploit, completely unfazed by the world at large.  I had taken what I needed and moved forward with a content smile and blissful ignorance regarding the smoldering emptiness of my wake.  Being alone never bothered me as long as I could launch myself at the next pretty face.

I felt like an old, rotten teddy-bear, the one a child keeps around on the shelf even after it has been replaced by a newer, softer, cleaner friend.  I reached up and scratched at my leathery cheeks.

“Let’s do a shot,” She said, waving at the bartender.

“Why?” I croaked hollowly.

“What?”

“Why are you talking to me?  Why do you want to do a shot with me?”

“Because I’ve been sad before too.”

She ordered two tequila shots and the bartender brought them over with limes and salt.  She ran her arm across her face and sprinkled salt on her magically moistened wrist.

“I’m not sad anymore,” I said, pushing the salt away and grabbing the shot.  “I’m furious.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said, raising her glass to toast.  “To feeling something.”

As she said this I thought I caught a glimpse of her lips, a red smudge coming into focus, like a koi fish rising to the surface of a deep pond.  I squinted at her face as she brought her glass down to cheers mine.  She tossed her shot back and by the time her glass was back on the bar her face had resumed its nebulous burnish.  With a sigh I tossed back my shot.

“How’s that feel?” she asked.

“Are you fucking with me?”  I asked, turning my whole body to face her.  Maybe she hadn’t gotten a proper look at me.

“Nope.”  Another sip of her martini was absorbed into her face-skin.  Her giggle evaporated into the nothingness from whence it came.

Suddenly I found myself fighting back the urge to weep.  My throat closed up and my eyes glassed over.  I gripped my knees.

“What color are your eyes?”  I blurted.

“What color do you think they are?”  She turned her head playfully, succeeding only in obscuring the irony.  I took a guess.

“Green.”  I said and took a big swallow from my drink.

And then there they were!  When she looked back at me I was staring into a beautiful set of light green eyes.  They were magnificent.  The rest of her face was still missing, but I just threw myself into her luminous eyes.

“Someone’s paying attention!”  She giggled again.  I smiled and signed to the bartender for another round of shots.

“I must be,” I said, passing her the salt and raising my glass.

We toasted and shot our drinks.

“What else do you see?”  she asked, tossing her hair back over her shoulder.

Flustered, I groped for a response.  “Where are you from?” I asked.  Always best to answer an unanswerable question with a diverting question.

“Why?”

She knew the game as well.  I stared into her eyes.  “You have a bit of an accent.”

“What?  Aw shucks.  I thought I had that under control!”  Suddenly she had lips.  Full, red, luscious, perfect lips.  She continued, “I’m from Birmingham, Alabama originally.  But I’ve lived up here for over ten years.  I thought I had beaten back the ol’ twang.”

I looked around the bar.  Everyone else was still starkly faceless. 

“Nope,” I stammered, “Still there.  Listen, —Fuck!”

“What?”  Her lips made a perfect ‘O.’  I wanted to dive into it.

“What’s your name?”

“Well, that took you long enough.”  She smiled exposing fresh dimples.  “I’m Crystal. And you are?”

My heart was racing.  “Crystal?”  I asked.

“Yup.  And you are?”  She cocked a freshly sprouted eyebrow and in the center of her face a shadow congealed into a straight, longish nose.  I giggled and bit my lip.

“My name?”  I had forgotten my name.  She nodded slowly, still smiling, eyes half closed, enjoying the game.  “Uhm..”

“Your real name.”  She said, sipping her drink.

“Justin!”  My name is Justin.  I wiped my sweaty palms on my slacks and downed the last of my martini.

“Another round, Justin?”

I was feeling pretty drunk, and the exhilaration from seeing the first normal face I had seen in months had my head spinning with greater fervor.  I put my hand on her leg and she let her own hand fall on mine.

“Crystal,” I said, “You are so beautiful.”

She pursed a perfect smirk and I reveled in the way her eyes dug into me.

“Flattery will get you everywhere, but drunk flattery is a sign of desperation.”

“I’m serious.  I’m a little drunk, but I’m serious as I’ve ever been.  You are the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in . . .forever.”

“Right,” she said, replacing my hand in my own lap and finishing her drink.  She stood up.

“Wait!”  I grabbed her hand and entwined my fingers with hers.  She sat back down and looked at me with what I hoped wasn’t pity.  I stared in her eyes and took a deep breath.  “Crystal, I’m sorry.  You’re right.  I am sad.  I’ve been going through the most horrible ordeal for the past several months.  I feel like you’re the first person to actually look at me, to talk to me, to smile and laugh with me.  I didn’t mean for it to be a line.  I really do think you’re beautiful.  I’ve been lost in this maze of emptiness and you just stepped into it like this torch, this heavenly bright light, and, well, you’ve just brightened up my night in a way that I didn’t anticipate.”

She mulled this over for a second, eyes hard, but still eyes.   Suddenly she let her shoulders drop and her hand relaxed in mine.

“Heavenly bright light, huh?”

“I’m no poet,” I shrugged.

“I’m still here.”  She smiled and underneath her hair I caught glimpse of her ears for the first time.  “Now what?” she asked.

“More drinks?” I rebuffed, another question for her question.  She shook her head and her ears danced under her hair.  “I love your ears,” I added.

She looked at me and smiled, squinting her eyes, reading my face.  I took another deep breath.

“Come with me to the bathroom.”  I said.  She stiffened and I began to regret the suggestion.

“That’s what you want?”  She asked, voice iced over.

“I need you.” I said with as much assertion as I could muster.

She looked at our intertwined fingers and then back at me and sighed.

“After all this, that’s what you really want?”  Her eyes dug into me.  I knew I was taking a leap, but she had been working the seduction angle pretty hard initially.  I had come so far with her, I had to see how far she could take me.  I tightened my grip on her hand and held her gaze.

“I need it.”

The bartender sauntered over.  “Couple more shots, guys?” He asked.

“Fuck it. Sure.” she said to me and stood up before I could register her expression.  We left the bartender where he stood and walked to the tunnel in the back of the bar where the restrooms were.

Once locked inside the small bathroom, I immediately started kissing her neck.  She moaned softly and I slid her dress strap down her shoulder, my other hand groping for her breast.  I kissed down the front of her dress and was about to inch it up over her hips when she grabbed my face and lifted me up to kiss her.  I froze.  There was no mouth, no lips, no tongue.  Her lovely face had been replaced with empty skin, smooth and horrible, her cute ears swallowed back into her skull. 

Her breath, sharp with vodka, poured out of her.  “What’s wrong, baby?  This is what you wanted.”  The small room tightened around me.  Her gristly hands on my cheeks pulled me towards her blankness.  I couldn’t make a sound.  There was no air.  I was choking.

With a violent motion, I pushed her off and fled back into the bar, falling onto the crowded dance floor.  I must have blacked out for a second, because when I opened my eyes I found myself in a dark hole staring up at a hundred wobbling moons.  But the moons had hair, and several hands were reaching down and prodding at me.  Music was pounding.  Voices clattered from everywhere.  I conjured what little energy I had left and flung myself out the bar and into the street.  The next thing I knew I was in a cab speeding home.

I haven’t gone outside since.  Too weak even to rise from my slab of a couch, I flip through channels; Celebrities and Public Officials, faces miraculously intact, smile at me from their distant realities.  On talk shows, movie stars laugh and I scrutinize their features for some hidden meaning, some sacred revelation that might free me from this festering nightmare.  There is nothing.  Their faces, the last faces my miserable world has deemed fit for me to perceive, show me nothing.

__OoO0O0 (?) O0O0O0oOo__

I looked around at the stipple of wells stretching off into a distant oblivion.  Cold and silent, they stared back at me from all directions.  “But which one?” I asked, “They all look the same.”  The Rat’s two tails thumped again and he cocked his head, squinting his black eyes.  “You aren’t looking close enough,” he said, “Each of these wells are unique with their own depth and secrets.  They can help you find out what to wish for, but first you must dive into one.  You must dive into its heart.”  Such a large voice for a small rodent.  He looked at the sky for a moment before continuing, “I have to go.  Whatever you do, don’t throw yourself into your own well.”

“What happens if I throw myself into my own well?”

“The well dries up.”

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Story #24 – Somewhere Close To Mine

When I was a young boy, my Mom and Dad sat me down in my bedroom and the room became very serious. You know a room has become serious because all the colors become muted, washed in gray. Sounds fall away like leaves onto a pond. Time slows down to the point that you can feel your skin breathing.

They told me they had been talking and they decided that the world was too scary and dangerous a place. They said that because they loved me so much and never wanted me to suffer from the turmoil of the world, they were going to take my heart away from me and put it somewhere safe.

Because I trusted them, I gave it to them. They put it away somewhere safe and then we all forgot about it.

As I grew up, I learned that they were right. I never became attached to people and so I never got hurt by anyone. I love to visit the pet store, but I could never own a pet. A struggling snake plant in my bedroom is my only companion.

Over the years my understanding has intensified. You see, without my heart swelling up all the time and flooding my mind with emotions, I can function as a much more logical creature. It is easy to ignore the wars that are happening on the other side of the world and, instead, focus on my career as an arborist. Tragedies that happen far away like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that not only take people’s lives, but also take everything from the living from their houses and cars and possessions to their memories–they have no effect on me. I continue on my day to day. I eat a hamburger and drink a soda and go to the movies.

Even the sight of suffering people doesn’t bother me so much. I can walk by homeless people all day and never feel a thing. I don’t give them money as I’ve seen my mother do. I don’t offer to help them get on their feet. I don’t volunteer at homeless shelters or soup lines, so I can be even more dedicated to my own work studying trees.

One day on my way to Central Park for work, I saw a crazy old white man on the subway talking to himself. He was dressed normal enough if maybe a little dirty. His clothes were a little big on him as if he hadn’t realized he was shrinking. It was a busy morning so the subway car was fairly full. There was, however, a fair sized halo of space surrounding this pungent and maculated angel.

Everyone was pretending he wasn’t there. For most of us, he was not an appropriate accessory to our idea of our lives. He was a detail of the day that could be put on mute.

The train stopped at Bergen Street and a young woman of color in a smart suit entered and made her way to the halo surrounding the nodding and twitching man–from across the car it just looked like a less-crowded area to stand. When she got to the spot, however, she had no choice but to cross into the invisible barrier and land in the man’s line of sight.

She must have been a native New Yorker because she was still able to pretend he wasn’t there. I was impressed.

As the doors shushed closed and we became a moving diorama of New Yorkers going to work, the man’s garbled mumbling began to coalesce into an intelligible stream of vulgarities.

“Fucking Gerald said to LET HIM IN. But I TOLD HIM I was busy. I TOLD HIM. There are BATS IN THERE. The dust is too thick. I can’t MOVE MY FEET.”

He was looking at her and through her and his eyes were big enough to swallow the whole car. She turned her head and calmly searched the invisible crowd. She read some ads above the seats.

The man’s voice kept rising, “They shouldn’t have done it! Gerald let the MONSTERS IN. HE LET them in and they started eating everything. THATS WHY THE FLOWERS CANT GROW!”

Then she looked at him and all Hell broke loose.

He stood up and his head could have been on fire but no one else moved or looked in his and her direction. He started clapping violently in her face.

“I AM NOT NOT HERE YOU DONE WITH THIS YOU BURNT THE BED AND ALL THE FLOWERS NOW NOW WE CANT EAT YOU STUPID BABY!”

She was frozen in a spell of fear and bewilderment. He was a ragged wizard wrapping her in a furious tempest. Still no one looked in their direction. I watched their reflections in a dark window. The man started flailing his arms sharply as if he were catching pebbles in a wind storm. The woman faltered backward and hit a cold wall of people’s backs.

She attempted to quell the storm by looking away and he spat on her. The walls of bodies did not part. Her eyes grew to match his. He kept clapping.

“What the fuck?!” She screeched.

“FUCK IS RIGHT WE FELL! WE FELL FOR IT AND FELT NOTHING YABIGBABY. STUCK IN TIN AND TARNISHED. YA SCARED WE ALL SCARED IN HERE WE AINT DONE!”H

Then the train doors opened and people flooded out. The episode they weren’t watching hadn’t even ended. I hadn’t even noticed we were slowing down. The woman stumbled off, impotent and the appalled in search of a napkin.

As the car emptied the man continued his ramble, though he lowered his volume and dispensed with the clapping. It was just him and his ghosts now.

I sat far enough away that he couldn’t see me. He looked in my direction and I stared straight ahead. He let me be the nothing I wanted to be.

“Let me CHEW this okay? ITS HARD to chew with no teeth no teeth but I do it anyway. I eat THE DIRT the dirt and you EAT THE ROCKS and well that’s that’s just how it is, Gerald. That’s just how it is.”

I didn’t even consider what might have driven him to eschew conversation with actual human beings in favor of the sprites and phantoms he fervently addressed.

I wondered if his heart was somewhere close to mine.

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Story #23 – The Last Wish

It’s not what you think. The cartoons have it all wrong. You probably think there’s a bunch of velvet pillows and a hookah, but it’s not like that at all.

When I enter the lamp, I’m not really anywhere. I don’t shrink into some small being and sit there in silence until someone rubs the lamp, releasing me from the tiny chamber and gigantic boredom of how every many hundred years have passed since my previous master.

When I enter the lamp, I am not aware of anything until the next time I am summoned. It’s as short as a blink every time. It doesn’t hurt. One moment I’m standing there breathing air and wondering if humanity will ever learn anything ever. The next minute I fly down a tunnel into darkness and silence. And when I emerge, it’s more like I bloom than anything else. I unfold into myself, onto my legs, and I stare into the eyes of a bewildered human.

You see, most people don’t realize that they have their hands on a magic lamp. Often enough, it’s a servant who was tasked with cleaning the recovered artifact. That’s always fun, because the poor and indentured can be fairly creative with their three wishes.

Of course, no one ever realizes that the wishes are cursed until it’s too late.

One old man in particular, his name was Barbar, he nearly had a heart attack when I appeared before him! He screamed like a child who had just seen her pet rabbit get eaten by a lion! His dark skin peaked and he fell to his knees all but weeping.

“What-what-what..?” He stammered.

“You have summoned the genie from the lamp!” I said calmly, my baritone rich as a pharaoh’s birthday cake frosting, “You are not hallucinating or dying. I have traveled through the ages to appear before you today and grant you three wishes. You may wish for anything you can imagine, but be careful. You will receive what you wish for, so make absolutely sure you want what you say and that you say what you want.”

“Wishes?” Babar asked timidly.

I nodded. “Yes. Many ages ago a powerful mystic crafted me from a collection of errant energies, scraps of spirit and will, powerful dreams, tatters of curses, broken hearts, and, yes, unfulfilled wishes. He molded me into this wretched creature to give poor servants like you a chance for a brighter future.”

This was half-true. The mystic did mold me from all of those things and attach me to an old lamp his mother-in-law had given him which he didn’t particularly favor. However, he did not care for poor people; he did not care for people in general. He knew people were generally selfish and greedy and short-sighted and impulsive and seldom paid the price for their solipsism. So he crafted me as a means by which man might usher himself toward his inevitable demise with a little more facility and urgency.

I am a joke, and not to be redundant, I am a trap.

So when this little old man stopped cowering and realized I was as real as any other magic, he uttered his test wish–everyone has a test wish.

“I wish for a sausage for lunch,” Babar said.

So I gave him one. Of course it was raw which disappointed him. He poked at it with his pinkie finger and grunted disapprovingly.

“Not cooked?” He asked.

“Perhaps you should have been more specific,” I said through a sharp smile.

“Can I wish for more wishes?” He asked. They always do. Once one wish is used up and they realize that maybe two wishes won’t give them everything they ever dreamed, they start looking for solutions to the diminishing wish problem, which gets funnier every time, believe me.

“No. You have two more wishes. What is your next wish?”

“I will need some time to think about it,” Babar said. “I don’t want to waste a wish if I only have two left!”

I stared at him and smiled as warmly as I was able. “You can do a lot with two wishes,” I said.

He sat down on the dirt floor then and shut his eyes. This was the first time I had ever seen someone in his position do this. I didn’t mind, though. It was more time to breathe air and enjoy the passage of time.

Time came in through the window and swirled around us. Time mingled with the other artifacts he was to polish and clean. Time kissed every wrinkle on his face and washed his hands and feet. Time held us there in that room as Babar sat and thought what his wishes would be. Time gave to me and took from him and then he stood up and looked me in the eyes which is not something many humans ever did.

He was a surprising one indeed!

“I wish you knew what it was like to be human,” he said.

And suddenly I did know what it was like to be human. I had memories of childhood and parents who had loved me before they passed on. I had memories of love and heartbreak and I had scores of insecurities amassed from years of rejections and manipulations. I had hopes and dreams and jealousy and rage. I felt time as both a blessing and a threat at the same time. For the first time in my existence I pitied my charge, the poor man Babar, and the pressure of his final wish; it was a key that could unlock any door yet provide no direction for the journey on the other side.

I knew that no matter what he wished for at this point, it would bring him no solace in the world.

And he knew it too.

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Story #22 – the spins

On his way up the escalator, Jim looked down over the handrail and vertigo immediately seized him. Below was an endless-seeming corkscrew of steps twisting down and away from wherever he was heading. A cool wind blew by nipping at his ears and knuckles. It was so quiet he could hear his heart beat soft and slow like a distant drum.

He was in the sky somewhere above the clouds. It was so blue that it was like he was inside a blue-walled silo. There was no depth to his surroundings. No clouds and no birds.

He rode the escalator up. It was the quietest escalator he had ever ridden. At the top of every flight it would twist around on itself and continue carrying him up slow and steady.

Jim looked down at himself. He was wearing a red plaid dress and combat boots. This was not his usual vibe. He was a hip-hop DJ and preferred a uniform of baggy pants, oversized t-shirts hoodies, and Adidas shell-toes. The getup was comfortable, though, despite the slight draft.

As he ascended he tried to remember how he got there. His last memory was of walking his little terrier, Bobbito. They were on their way back from a friend’s birthday picnic. Sarah turned 40 and blew out four little candles in a circle of five good friends. They ate cheese and crackers and fruit and drank mimosas and listened to 2Pac. They talked about their jobs and the new hot TV shows, music, and new places to eat and drink that had recently opened up.

It was a good way to spend a Sunday, and a ritual they repeated often whether there were birthdays to celebrate or not. None of them loved their jobs. They were just getting by and content to have some form of income with which to pay rent, but food, and party. Their weekends were a sacred spoke in the wheels of their lives. When the sun plopped out of the clouds and slid past the horizon, Jim and Bobbito made their way out of the park.

Later that night, they would all convene in a small back room of a dive bar where Jim would spin vinyl 12″ records and craft a night of slamming jams for his crowd of friends and the folks who appreciated his selects. He was looking forward to spinning a new dig he had copped recently–a rare vinyl of the Jonesun Crew blowing peoples’ minds with their vocoder synthesis.

He passed a lemonade stand. A little Asian girl and a brown-skinned boy sold him the best lemonade he had ever tasted. They also had a fine selection of baked goods from which he chose a coriander blueberry scone that couldn’t have possibly been crafted by human hands. The children must have been angels or Gods or sociopaths.

He was taking a bite of that scone when the city bus came careening around the corner. Bobbito was three hairs from becoming roadkill. In an effort to save his sweet pup, he leapt down and flung the little guy into an adjacent lawn. Bobbito looked back at Jim as he bounced three times in slow motion.

Jim felt the bus hit him like he was a fly being swatted by a giant steel hand, and he just let go.

He blinked and when he opened his eyes, he was on the escalator spinning up the corkscrew to Heaven or somewhere.

Jim realized then that nothing in life really spins upward. If something is moving in a circle, it tends to be either succumbing to gravity or being pulled down by something sinister or at least mysterious. He thought of whirlpools sucking down ships and helicopter seeds floating down from trees.

He thought of people driving busses in circles for large chunks of their lives. They weren’t actively being pulled down, but were instead victims of their passivity. Each day of one’s life spun off into the void of history meant another day closer to dust.

In fact, any job that was repetitive by nature was such a deadly corkscrew. You spun until you were dizzy, until direction lost meaning, until you were wearing your mother’s clothes and your sister’s boots. As you spun the world turned into a blur, all detail and meaning dissolved into the spinning. You became hypnotized by the spin and lost grip of your free will.

So it was ironic that this corkscrew escalator was spinning him up through this blue tunnel of sky. And it was ironic that he was someone who spun black discs to elevate people’s moods and allow them to escape the stresses of the circles they were caught in.

And as he rose steadily, slowly forgetting who he was and everything he had left behind, he wondered if maybe he was about to begin yet another type of circle, and would this circle carry him upward or was everything just a bus crash spinning down the Universe’s drain?

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Story #21 – Funnybones

I should have known it wouldn’t end well, but good ideas don’t often come to me so I kinda had to go with it.  Honestly, I’m surprised that no one else tried it before me; the fiscal potential was undeniable.  Fame is a potent drug and most people are easily taken advantage of when confronted with even the most thinly-gilded opportunities.  A human being will sell his soul and make a complete fool of himself for his fifteen minutes.  It was only logical that Death would be prone to a similar vanity.

Tracking him down wasn’t easy.  Lurking in ERs proved to be ineffective.  Death was just too unpredictable, and the nurses quickly became suspicious of my presence.  I tried volunteering at nursing homes, but the poor old folks passed away too sporadically, and I found the atmosphere a tad morose.  I investigated other options, but my efforts were exasperatingly fruitless.

Luckily, it was Death who eventually found me.  Funny enough, it was here, too, on this bench, a night like this, maybe a little cooler, overcast I think; a little pig came trotting up to me from behind that large oak tree over there.  He leaped onto the bench right where you’re sitting and regarded me in an earnest manner.  I was flabbergasted.  “Where’d you come from, little guy?” I said, reaching out to pet his fuzzy pink head. 

“Don’t touch me!” He squealed, “It’s not safe.”  My eyes bulged in their sockets and he continued, “I apologize for my tardiness.  There was a blaze at a chemical plant in Pittsburgh, quite a mess, really.  This is the first lull I’ve had in ages.” 

Perhaps it was rude of me not to respond immediately, but I was understandably caught off-guard.  He waved a hoof in an effort to calm me.  “You have been looking for me?” His dark little pig eyes burrowed into my soul. 

I stammered briefly, confused and still attempting to gain control of my faculties in the presence of a talking pig.  He huffed impatiently, “Perhaps my present form is confusing you.” 

His transformation happened quickly, a swirl of ragged black fabric reeking of earth and cloves, a sound of unfurling, and then there He was, sitting next to me on the bench, long black robe glistening oily in the starlight, scythe lolling above our heads.  I could just make out the murky features of his skull in the shadow of his hood.  He was smaller than I imagined, slight even, but carried an imposing gravity nonetheless.

He told me that it was highly irregular for him to meet anyone prior to their appointed extrication, but he was curious.  Apparently, in the thousands of years of his service, no one had ever showed any genuine interest in meeting him outside of dying, and even then it was usually a reluctant introduction.  I was touched by a hint of pride being deemed magnanimous by such an epic figure.  Acknowledging that his time was precious, I got straight to the point. 

I told him about my plans to make a modern celebrity out of him, to manage his radio and TV appearances, magazine shoots and potential endorsement deals.  I extrapolated on the potential movie deals, toy franchises, and designer robe fashion lines.  I flattered him, explaining that most models and celebrities shared his slim physique.  He was wary at first, professing his lack of need for material wealth, expressing concern about negative publicity, but when I made the case for all his adoring fans, people far and wide who would clamor to get a glimpse of him, to be in the same room with him without any fear, he gave pause.

I told him he was feared because no one really knew him.  He acknowledged that sometimes while doing his job, newly departed souls would comment on how personable he was and how they never would have expected it.  I told him I never doubted it and that I was excited to give him the opportunity to share his glowing personality with the world. 

This is how I became Death’s agent.

His first appearance on a daytime talk show was a bit awkward.  A miscommunication between myself and the casting agent had Mr. Death placed among a selection of cult leaders and religious fanatics.  He was nervous, of course, sitting rigidly silent through most of their vicious banter and prattle, quiet as a corpse.  He obviously wanted to make a good impression, but was fettered by the raucous company hogging the spotlight.

The host, all moustache and tweed, eventually turned to him and asked, “Mr. Death, what makes you so special?”  Death cleared his throat, a bulldog’s hiccup, and the whole studio fell silent.  “Well,” Death began, nervously scratching the base of his scythe on the floor next to his chair, “I’m a great dancer.”  The silence solidified as if the whole room had turned to ice and I was sure we were done for, but then one person in the back started laughing, a dusty laugh, but earnest, and soon everyone in the studio joined in, including the stuffy old host.  Death looked up to where I stood in the back of the audience and shrugged and I knew that somewhere in the shadows of that hood he was smiling at me. 

It had worked!  Mr. Death, as it turned out, had a tremendous sense of humor—he’s quite the practical joker.  Every now and then while we would be planning his next public appearance, he would stop mid-sentence and chase me around the room saying “I’m gonna get yooou! I’m gonna getchoooo!”  And when he finally had me cowering in a corner, weeping and begging for my life, he would fall to the floor, clutching his ribcage and laughing. 

And what a laugh!  It wasn’t anything like the cackle you’ve heard on TV.  It was a hearty bellow, the kind that resonates as if born in the moist earth at the bottom of a well, the kind you imagine Santa Claus to have.  Death said he met Santa once.  He said “Clausse” actually had a very high pitched laugh and a voice like Michael Jackson.  I don’t know how true that is, though.  It’s hard to tell when Death is being serious.

Deciding that the moniker “Grim Reaper” was gravely inaccurate, I coined the nickname “Funnybones.”  It didn’t catch on publicly, but instead became my sort-of pet name for him.  He said he liked it a lot.

Death’s fame was progressing splendidly.  We were being flown around the world first class to make appearances at everything from celebrity funerals to a Dia De Los Muertos parade in Mexico City.  The crowd roared with delight when, scheduled to speak in Boston, Massachusetts for Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, he alighted on a podium as a raven before swiftly transforming into his more recognizable form.  When asked by a local reporter if all the traveling had left him fatigued, he wagged his boney finger and said, “No.  You’re thinking of my cousin, Sleep.”

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and due to an unfortunate accident, the whole bonanza was forced to a dead-stop.  We had just finished a taping of Saturday Night Live that Mr. Death hosted.  It was a hilarious episode.  He performed skits with Hillary Duff and Denzel Washington and everyone was amazed at what a good actor Mr. Death was.  For the finale, the audience leaped out of their seats with joy when he sat in with Tom Waits to sing a fresh rendition of “Time.” If you closed your eyes, you could hardly tell them apart.

On his way to the limo, Mr. Death had stopped outside to sign a few autographs.  His fan base was diverse – chubby homemakers and slender metrosexuals, gothic teens and cherubic toddlers; all types came to marvel at this glowering demigod.  Crowd control usually was not a problem, but this day someone had called in sick, so it really wasn’t anyone’s fault when the child broke away from her star-struck parents and ran straight at Mr. Death.  He didn’t even see the little angel coming.  She ran up behind him and hugged his knees, startling him, and when he turned around to see what was happening one of his exposed hands brushed the little girls head.  She dropped dead then and there.

After the crowd dispersed and all the paperwork had been taken care of—it was clearly an accident to everyone present—I suggested that we retire to Death’s suite at the Marriott.  The room was for appearances mostly as Death doesn’t sleep, but we were grateful to have it on that terrible afternoon.  He sat on the foot of the bed looking more forlorn than usual, slouched over, skeletal hands dangling lifelessly.

I pulled up an armchair adjacent to the bed and I could smell him, warm and rich like a mud puddle in the sun.  It was a smell that I had grown to enjoy.  I was searching for the proper consoling words when he began to cry.  It was a shrieking wail like the sound of a thousand earthworms thrown into a fire.  There were no tears, but he shook and shuddered so violently that his pain was palpable.  It filled the room and I found myself overcome with the most unimaginable despair.

Between sobs he apologized profusely.  He said he knew this would ruin everything for me.  He told me that he had only ever wanted to help me.  I told him that everything would be fine in time, and the ensuing silence choked us both.  His pale finger bones twisted into the dense fabric of his robe.  I held my breath and fretted over the impossibility of comforting Death.  Then he raised his head, took a deep breath himself, and told me that he was in love with me.

At a loss for words, I stood and went for a glass of water.  I plunged my hand into the ice bucket and asked him if this was another of his jokes.  He shook his hooded head and said he wished it was.  I filled my glass and sat down rigidly.  He said that everything he had done had only been an attempt to get close to me.  He said that he knew it was foolish and impossible, but that he couldn’t ignore the feeling.  He had never known love before, had never expected to know it, and was now doomed to be tortured by it for eternity.

I sat there momentarily immobilized by the gravity of my present circumstance.  I desperately wanted to hug him, to give him the comfort that only physical contact can provide, but I knew it wasn’t possible.  Death also did not move.  Could anyone have looked in on us, we would have presented the most surreal still-life – a man facing Death in a moment of harrowing contemplation, the subtext of our particular grievance, of course, beyond visual intimation. 

Then he stood up abruptly giving me a start.  “I have to go,” he sniffed. 

Clutching my glass of ice, I could only nod in response.  He shifted in his sandals, attempting to muster some composure, and half-turned to me saying, “It’s okay.  It never would have worked out.  I have no regrets.  You probably won’t be seeing me for awhile.”  Then he walked out of the hotel room and, with the soft click of the door being pulled closed, Death was gone from my life.

I’ve been coming back to this bench for years now, reminiscing about the good times we had, and hoping that little piglet would come prancing out from behind that tree again.  I even carved my nickname for him, “Funnybones,” into the wood here.  See?  I didn’t love him, but I definitely had developed feelings for the old guy, so it hasn’t been easy, all these years without Death.  Of course, I know I’ll see him at least one last time one of these days, and I’ll finally be able to give him that hug.

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Story #20 – sleeping dogs lie

I was in Greece. I hadn’t been to Greece since eighth grade when my father was stationed there with the foreign service. Everything looked different now that I was twenty-five. I felt as if I was in a completely new place. A place from a dream.

Usually when you visit a place you’ve been before, even in your distant past, there is some glimmer of recognition, like shadows on the surface of a lake, a faint feeling of familiarity, but this time there was none.  Nothing looked familiar.  Time had undone my relationship with this place.

I was hungry. I remembered how much I loved Greek food, and I followed the hazy smoke of grilling lamb until I found a food cart.  This food cart was the first piece of a long forgotten puzzle. I had been to it before back when I was twelve!  My Greek began to come back to me and I was able to recall the name of—and ask directions—to my old neighborhood – “Kefalari Platea.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was strange that, while so much had changed, this shabby old food cart serving up souvlaki and egg sandwiches was still around. As the vendor gestured that the train station was just over the hill, I let the smells overtake me and stir up emotions associated with this country I left behind so long ago. 

A short train ride later I found myself back at kefalari platea and was pleased to find the neighborhood less altered. I wound my way past the park where I  bought cigarettes and consumed my first teenage beers, where my best friend Billy got so drunk that he threw up on my shoes. I passed a bench where later, on a separate occasion, I had my first make out and pawing sessions with my first legitimate girlfriend Martina. She was Italian and Greek and our two-week romance broke my pubescent heart. The bench and I were both a little weathered since those days.

A couple turns later I was waking up my old street. “White Pecker,” an old black dog whose underside was stained white from the pile of chalk he used to sleep in, was no longer there. I thought of my father who so aptly named that foul beast who would snarl and bark at me from the end of his taut chain every time I walked home. My father used to instill a sense of safety in me when I was that young boy. It was absent now, having moved on with us and somehow decided to allow me this trip on my own.

The building looked that same. It was a modern three-story structure with an apartment on each floor. There were balconies overlooking the street, behind which dark tinted windows glared a silent remonstration. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone on these balconies as a kid whenever I would come home. Approaching the building this time was no different. It was cold and quiet as if nobody was home, almost as if nobody had ever lived there.

I have to admit now that when I lived there I had suspicions that it was haunted. On the rare occasion that I was left alone in the apartment I never felt completely alone. The atmosphere was thick enough to feel move around you as you walked from the kitchen to the bedrooms. It was always cold and I always felt like the corners were whispering things just below intelligible levels.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t think and hope as a child that every house I lived in was haunted. I was fascinated with the occult; things that went bump in the night, instead of causing me to retreat under my covers, would lure me to investigate with a flashlight and wide eyes.

I rang the buzzer of the old landlord, Costas. He had always been cordial to me despite his poor grasp of the English language, and had warmed up to me further as I learned and became adept at his mother tongue. However, it had been twenty years since he last saw me, so when he showed no signs of recognition upon heaving open the old oak door, I couldn’t be surprised.

My Greek was no longer at its once solid eighth grade magnificence, and my attempts to relay that I was once his tenant were stunted and awkward. Once he gleaned that I wanted to see my old apartment he nodded curtly and turned to shuffle down the tiled hallway waving after me to follow. I let the large door swing shut behind me and had to pause for a moment as my eyes adjusted to the crepuscular hall.

Costas had stopped at the mail boxes and seemed genuinely excited to show me that my old mailbox was still there. I nodded and smiled and then gestured that I’d like to maybe go upstairs. It didn’t seem like an unreasonable request, and by the look of the mailbox, the apartment wasn’t even rented out, but his eyes immediately glazed over and his lip began to quiver,

“no. no. It is not possible. I’m sorry. No.”

He froze there, breathing but motionless, eyes rolling up into his head. I walked past him and took the small box of an elevator to the second floor.

To my surprise the apartment was still furnished and immaculately clean. There wasn’t a speck of dust and all the counter tops gleamed yellow reflecting the setting sun framed by the tinted windows facing the street. It was essentially one room, a large rectangular living room/dining room with adjacent kitchen and bedrooms at either end.  

My father’s stereo was on one side by the dining table. The couch and TV were on the other. 

I went into my old bedroom and my Iron Maiden posters were still on the wall. My tiger bedspread was rumpled on my twin mattress. The CD player boombox on the nightstand was open and there was a Pearl Jam CD inside. 

I tried to open the small balcony in my room and the door wouldn’t budge.

Walking back into the living room, all sound seemed to be swallowed by the threadbare Turkish rugs my father always told me were silk and worth thousands of dollars. I tried to open the sliding doors in the living room but they didn’t budge either. I tapped the power button on the TV but it wouldn’t turn on.

I walked into my father’s old room. It smelled like him, like sweat and sacrifice and confusion and world-shattering love that never found its way into words. His water bed was frozen. The naked woman in the painting over his dresser glared at me. I tried to open the balcony and the door didn’t budge.

Just then a black cat leapt onto my father’s old water bed. The bed did not slosh nor give any indication of the cat’s landing. It stared at me with luminescent green eyes. I didn’t like the look of it so I backed slowly out of the room.

It followed me into the living room. I tried to open the front door and it was as if it were just a nob on a wall. It didn’t give in the slightest. When I turned around, a gray cat leapt from the kitchen onto the counter facing the room. It stood there staring at me with eyes like flashlights.

A third cat, white and matted, appeared on the top of the living room couch. Maybe because it was white, I noticed that it was actually filthy. Oily smears covered its fur. Its paws were black like it had clawed its way from loose soil.

I looked at the gray cat and realized it was the same. It was filthy with matted fur. The way It stared at me I knew I should never had come back here. The magic of the past had been left too long. It had turned sour. 

This though entered my mind as I looked back to the black cat. I could feel all them looking at me in that turgid silence. Suddenly I couldn’t move and all three cats began to growl.

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