Independence is a hard concept to explain. I know because I just tried to explain it (again) to my daughter. She is now fairly convinced that the nation is celebrating the fact that she goes potty by herself.
When I was writing Joe Cafe, thinking about war and freedom (also freedom in the sense of the ways we entrap ourselves), I realized the lines get blurred very quickly.
So, it is the 4th of July. Flags flying everywhere and it seems like it is not enough...I feel conflicted and proud and a little guilty and I don't know what it all means. I will watch the fireworks tonight and think what I always think: money down the drain - could have helped a lot of people. I try not to think this, but I do.
In the mean time, I will focus on the the fact that my daughter goes to the potty alone now. That's pretty awesome. I don't mean to sound negative...I'm glad I live where I do, but it seems like we've come a long way in a short amount of time and not all of the paths we've taken have been good ones. But today is a day to focus on the positive. So, I'm going to eat a burger and enjoy the fact that my daughter enjoys the fireworks and that we live in a country where I can say whatever stupid thing I want.
When a brutal murder strikes a small town, the lives of everyone involved are changed forever. And so is the town. Follow these vivid characters as they try to navigate the strange and ever-changing landscape of mores, beliefs, and self identity that will leave all of their lives forever altered. The lines of good and evil quickly become blurred in this postmodern glance at what identity means in a time of crisis. Mob bosses become vulnerable, strippers become superwomen, cops become craven and broken, and "broken men" try to find redemption in this literary tour de force by one of America's new writers.
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Friday, June 17, 2011
In the time that it has taken you to read this sentence, Hector has died. You look at him in disbelief. One second in the sand-blasted madness. One flash and now Hector is dead. He has a stupid expression on his face. There is a large piece of misshapen shrapnel sticking out of his chest: really big, like a rusted, shot-gunned yield sign. The heat makes your senses malfunction. The dusty furnace throws everything out of whack. For instance, you feel the jolt and you hit the ground and you take stock. This all takes several seconds. You realize that Hector is dead. Only then do you notice that the world around you is reverberating.
You feel all over your body again, fingers probing frantically. You realize that the sweat is thicker on one side of your face. You touch and see red on your fingers. It takes a minute to register. You feel for the hole in your head and find only a bad cut. You exhale fully for the first time. This is when you realize that someone is screaming on the other side of the truck. You stay crouched and look around, knowing that whoever did this is long gone. You run around the mangled truck and see your friend Sammy grabbing at the air where his leg used to be. The blood and sand have mixed and formed an orange paste around him. Oh shit. You radio in. Help. Please help.
You crouch next to Sammy, telling him that everything is going to be OK. That the sound will stop sometime. That you are going to take care of him. Sammy keeps saying: Where’s my leg? I lost my fucking leg. He is laughing. In shock. You tell him you will be right back and walk toward the driver’s door to find Lewis. His face is completely gone. You vomit into the dust and slam the broken door. You grab the fucking radio. We need help, you scream. The help is coming, but it will take a lifetime.
This is one of the things that exists in your mind now. It is spliced in there with the t-ball game where you were playing second base and caught seventeen pop-fly’s and the coach signed the ball for you and you thought it was Christmas. It’s in there with all the crushes you’ve ever had. The stupid things you did in high school. The people you were nice to and the people you were mean to.
You are ten years old. You are playing hide and go seek. The summer air is rich with flower scent and magic. It is thick air. It fills the lungs and makes you feel warm from the inside. All around you, kids are getting caught or running for base. Your hiding spot is perfect. You feel a happiness that is near hysteria. You could shout, scream, giggle for hours, but you don’t. You sit silently and know that you are going to do great things.
There is a certain logic in the slow motion following an explosion. It is as if everything has been instantaneously destroyed and then re-created. From balance to chaos to balance in one swift hammer-blow. You think clearly. It is easy to think because everything is so goddamn slow. You sit next to Sammy and he’s crying now. His fists are balled up in your uniform, and he is crying with the tight, red face of a child. You tie a piece of rope, trying to get it high enough above the artery. You have to stop the blood. You never realized how much blood there is in a person and surely Sammy’s tank is near empty. For a brief second, Sammy becomes still. It is instantaneous, like a flash of lightning. He looks into your eyes and he is utterly calm. He looks at you with a certain gleeful disbelief. You know he is about to die and you squeeze his slippery hand. Then he’s gone. You are alone.
It is only at this point that you remember your rifle. You stand and fire, sweeping side to side…at nothing. There is nothing but sand and sun. You shoot at the sun and, when you look down again, all you see are floating, swimming dots. You shoot at the dots. Then you slump against the side of the truck.
Thirteen. You live in a quiet neighborhood. Not quite country, but the kind of place where you can have a BB gun. You shoot Q-tips at your sister. You shoot at the targets in the back yard. You become quite good at it, but there is nothing new to shoot after a while. You shoot a cat in the ass from your bedroom window. Just one pump, not enough to kill it. But man does that fucker take off.
You start shooting at the birds outside your room. Small and black, they roost high in the branches of the old pine trees. You shoot the same swabs you shoot at your sister and watch the birds fly away, indignant. Sometimes you smoke one of the cigarettes your friends steal from the 7-11. Most of the time you smoke one of the cigarettes. Finally, it’s too much. You load one BB into the gun. You pump it ten times. You aim and watch the bird spiral out of the tree. Oh shit. You run down to the yard and you see the bird gasping for breath. There is a hole through one of its eyes and it is bleeding. Shit. You run inside and grab a plastic bag. Put the bird in the bag. Watch the beak open and close against the blood-smeared Ziploc plastic. Coward. The bird is still breathing when you bury it alive. You hate yourself.
You are getting angry now. You have been getting angry for a long time and there was nothing to do about it, but now you are fucking angry. You have been in the desert too long. You have seen too many body bags. You have seen very few good things. You have done very little good. Sometimes you help families, children. Sometimes you don’t. You realize that you are in a very fucked up situation and that there is nothing you can do about it. You also realize that you have been permanently changed.
He was young. Sixteen or so. Your brother’s age. He was holding a Kalashnikov rifle and wearing the head thing and you remember thinking how he looked just like he should. It was like a movie. He saw you, but your gun was already raised, your bullets already perforating his chest. It happens quickly. One minute he is standing. The next he is on the ground, a red mist hanging in the air. This is what you feared the most because now you will never be the same. You will never be able to laugh again. You will never make love without self-conscious shame. You won’t be able to talk to children. You know this and it terrifies you. But then there are more men and you shoot your gun and shoot your gun. When it is all over, you are shaking and sweating. You know it will never be the same. After that it’s easier because you are not you anymore.
You are still hidden. You are beneath their canopy, but you can feel the sun through the sturdy branches. You squint and you feel your leg muscles cramping. Ever so slowly, you stretch one leg and then the other. The pain is exquisite. You've earned it. You savor it and slowly it ebbs. You can hear birds and shouting and the unmistakable sounds of summer freedom. For a moment you feel confined by your self-imposed imprisonment.
You are distracted by a motion near the toe of your old Chuck Taylors. A fire ant has wandered too close to an ant lion's hole. You watch its legs scrambling in the orange sand and you see pinchers start to come out from the bottom. You can feel the ant's terror. You are torn. Part of you wants to see it ripped to pieces. Instead, you take a twig and reach it into the hole. The scrambling legs try to find purchase in the scree of sand. The ant is terrified and can’t get a grip in the avalanche. Dropping the twig, you let the ant run onto your hand. Its bite is like a match head pressed into your skin. You feel like laughing, but you know you must stay quiet.
The pain is shocking and pleasurable. You feel the burn like the small cuts you tap into your knee with your Boy Scout knife. You breathe deeply and feel the vibrancy of life and freedom pounding in your chest. You are awake and alert. You will never be captured. Nothing can touch you, not even pain.
You are still beside Sammy and the flies are all over him. His bloody stump is covered in them. You are sick again. You wave your gun to scatter the flies but they re-settle instantly. You do this three or four times before you give up. You are struck by the indecency of the whole picture. You hate the flies. You hate the fucking desert. You hate breathing sand and waiting for things to explode. You feel an emotion that is new to you. It is made of hatred and sadness and you know that it will never leave.
Sammy’s face is fucking ridiculous. You cover it with his arm. You pick up the radio again, but get nothing. Goddamnit. How could this have happened? You signed some papers and you had some idea of how the thing would be. Some noble calling. You were a knight of the round table. But then you got to Iraq and everything was crazy and everything was bullshit. And there were a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have been.
You stay hidden in your spot because that is how the game is played. The other kids are yelling and running. You become frightened and don’t know why. You know it’s ridiculous, but in that moment you are afraid that you are going to disappear. That time will snatch you away. That you will rise into the velvet summer air, never to be heard from again. Then the feeling is gone, but you are suddenly tired of playing. You go inside the house and in the air-conditioned calm you realize that you’ve pissed yourself. You wish you had stayed hidden, but it is too late.
“Movie, the Story.”
*Now on DVD (with deleted scenes and special features)*
The movie is about to begin. You know this for several reasons. One, the commercials have become more desperate. Two, you have finished your popcorn and Milk Duds. Three, the coughing man has finally arrived; he is resplendent in stained Dockers and a 49ers sweatshirt. You hear the upholstery sigh as he sinks into the seat behind you. You stare at the lights in the ceiling. They are meant to look like stars, and they twinkle as your eyes fade in and out. The song they are playing is an instrumental amalgam of vapid pop tunes you have always hated. You are afraid for a second that straps will come out of the chair, restraining you. That your eyelids will be forced open. Don’t worry. It’s not that kind of story.
There is a girl in the front of the theatre who looks like your ex-girlfriend. Or, rather, she looks like your ex-girlfriend when she turns one way and like Iggy Pop when she turns the other. This forces you to wonder if your ex-girlfriend looked like Iggy Pop. Wisely, you direct your mind to other matters.
The floor in this theatre is particularly sticky. It makes you think of things you would rather not. Damp, clammy things. Things that happen in alleys and bus stations. You wonder if bedbugs can live in movie theatres. The newspaper and the internet have taught you too much about bedbugs lately. You know that they crave two things…darkness and humanity. Here they have at least one…most of the time.
Your neck is itching now, but the syringe stuck in the seat crack has probably already given you AIDS. So, you’re screwed. Get over it.
The stupid dancing soda and the stupid dancing popcorn waltz across the torn screen. They seem vaguely racist. You are momentarily offended, but soon this feeling passes. It is replaced by the desperate need to go to the bathroom. The bourbon you drank in the parking lot is trying to complete its journey. You cross your sweaty thighs.
The trailers have started. You feel like your brain is being raped, assaulted by the flashing repetition of explosions and explosive, overly white smiles. You will never see any of these movies. This will not be a loss. The coughing man sneezes and you feel the spit and phlegm spray the back of your neck. You shudder and make a mental note not to let your head touch the car’s headrest on the way home. You hate yourself with a sudden vehemence. You want to stand and confront the man. You want to smash his nose into pieces. You are too meek to even change seats. He coughs again and you hate him more than you have ever hated anyone in your life, yourself included.
Shhhhh! You hear it from all around you. You have the desire to shout something. A kid in the back makes a loud farting noise. You are ashamed, not of your furtive lust for sophomoric pranks, but because you are too cowardly to act them out. Shhhhh! Your brain doesn’t listen. But you force yourself to focus. The movie is starting.
There is a tall, blonde woman. She is a department store mannequin come to life. She appears wooden. And yet she moves. The magic of cinema. The blonde woman is angry because her husband has cheated on her. Her husband isTHE VILLAIN. He has salt and pepper hair. A cleft chin. He is good looking, but he has shifty eyes. The blonde is stupid, but she is stupid in a naïve, mid-western way. You should feel sorry for her, but you don’t. She is beautiful and rich, not a fat, ugly bastard like you.
You hear something rolling down the sloped floor from the back of the theatre. It hits your ankle. You look down at an empty forty bottle. It makes you think about the bathroom again. Luckily you are immediately distracted by more spittle hitting your neck. You feel the tendons in your jaw throb. There is a pain in your chest. Maybe you are having a heart attack? You hope so. Maybe the cougher will feel bad. Maybe the girl who looks like Iggy Pop will give you mouth-to-mouth. Do you want that? You do, don’t you.
THE VILLAIN and THE VICTIM are arguing again. They are throwing plates. There is a scared child in the corner, hiding like a wounded animal. You momentarily feel bad for the child. Then you remember that the child is rich. The fear is false. You cry anyway because it strikes a chord. You cry silently and hope that no one notices.
There is a cell phone going off somewhere behind you. It continues to ring. Apparently someone is unaware that their pocket is playing ‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time’. You stop crying. You gag. The song stops.
The movie is halfway over and you still don’t hate THE VILLIAN. You still don’t feel sorry for THE VICTIM. There is a subplot involving their respective childhoods. You have trouble following it and blame it on the bourbon.
You sit up and realize that the theatre is empty. You wonder how long the movie has been over. You wonder what happened with the blonde. Did she get naked? If not, then why not?
You stumble into the parking lot, the lights surreal in their humming brilliance. Your car is the only one left. It is a ’91 Toyota with no bumper. You turn the key in the door. You turn the key in the ignition. You turn your keys when you get to your apartment: deadbolt, deadbolt, doorknob. The apartment is still a mess. It is still empty. You find an old Iggy Pop record and get out the photo album. You wake up with a wicked hangover and the record’s label scratching against the needle. You think about last night. About the movie. You can’t remember anything the preview hadn’t shown you weeks ago. You wonder what you will tell your coworkers on Monday. They will ask what you did over the weekend. You will say that you saw the new movie. They will ask how it was. You will say that it was pedestrian at best and realize as soon as you say it that this is the reason everyone hates you.
I always wanted to write a story about a DVD of a fake movie. Fake movies are important. Art is important. Being an artist is important. I am important because I am an artist, and this story is important because I wrote it. A lot of work went into it. A lot of heart. I’ve got to tell you…there were a lot of late nights. A lot of creative differences. Drunken fights and tearful explanations. My impotence is genetic…they always try to blame it on the liquor. It’s hard for me to speak about my own work. It’s hard because I understand that my work will be misunderstood, but that I must stand by it. I am crushed by the awareness that the words I craft will scatter like so many pebbles against the ignorant window of your mind. Sometimes I am forced to take stock. To tap into the ether, to find my muse and berate her into giving me the good stuff. John Updike had his time in the sun, I say, now it’s my turn. Sometimes she listens. Most of the time she is a selfish bitch. It’s hard to find a good muse these days. But you want me to talk about this story in particular? OK, fine. This project made me a better man. It is my hope that it will also make the world a better place and, really, how could it not? Sometimes I think of the starving children all around the world and what this story about a fake movie will mean to them. I picture their smiling faces above the distended bellies and I realize that it was all worth it after all. There are a lot of people to thank, of course. First, I’d like to thank the folks that made the paper this was printed on. I’d like to thank Jim Beam for being almost as good as Jack Daniels at half the price. I’d like to thank my family, all except for Uncle Titus. And of course Apple Computers, for the laptop the story was written on and for all the free things they will be sending me in the future. The fingers deserve their share of the credit, as does the brain. Both cramped up a bit at times. But they sucked it up. They went the full mile. They were integral in helping this project gel. They were devoted to the whole concept…they are well aware of the importance of making art about fake movies. It was a group effort. I couldn’t have done this by myself. And I don’t just say that because of my charming humility. I say it because fake movies are magic, and it takes a lot of people to make the fake magic happen. It also takes work to read. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried to read whole books on several occasions and fuck if those things aren’t LONG. And so, I also thank you, the reader. You want to know what question interviewers ask me the most? What an insightful question. The answer is that it varies. I do get asked what question I get asked the most quite often, but if I had to pick the most popular I would go with this: ‘JD, what’s it like being an incredibly well-respected, major short story writer who still stays true to his indie roots?’ Usually there is a sheepish grin that accompanies the question. I blow it out of the water with my million dollar smile. ‘It’s awesome,’ I tell them. Then I get drunk on $200 wine and fuck a supermodel.
(click for deleted scenes)
You ask for the large tub of popcorn and the girl behind the counter smirks. She is young and looks like a cheerleader with acne. She puts extra butter on. You wanted to ask, but were ashamed. Now you are ashamed that she just assumed.
(coughing guy showdown)
The man coughs again and you slowly push yourself up out of your chair. “Listen motherfucker,” you say, “I’ve had about enough.” He begins to quiver with fear. You are tempted to spare him, but this is no time for charity. You pick up a pitchfork and impale him with it.
(Iggy Pop makeout session)
The movie has ended. The theatre is empty. You start to stand up, but feel a hand on your shoulder. You turn. It is the girl. She looks less like Iggy Pop close up. You take a step back and she moves with you. She lets her shirt fall open revealing pale cleavage and a Misfits tattoo and soon you are intertwined. The sex is incredible. For once no one is left crying and disappointed. You will have popcorn in your hair for days.
They come and go as they choose, but prefer the cover of darkness. Red eyes and skin stretched bow-string taught across their gaunt, yellow faces. They peer out from oblivion; they are snatches of mist and fog. Wisps of air that melt into shadow. They are often formless, but they can appear in many forms. They are reflections of the past, glimpses into lives long turned to dust. They are unpredictable. They torment me. They are full of lust, weakness, hunger…they lie in wait. They lie about many things.
I often fold myself into blanket straightjackets and listen to them claw against the drywall. I picture old yellowed claws. Raw, red cuticles torn into torrents of thin, sickly blood. They rarely speak. They use my own thoughts against me. It wasn’t always this way. It is the fear. They feed off of the fear. When I am strong, they are a whisper…a soft lurching in the shadows. When I am weak, they cackle as the walls draw closer, forcing me further inside myself where I can feel their sharp teeth inside my rotten flesh. There is help and hope…this is what I have been told. By honey-tongued dreamers full of God and good intentions. I try to be kind. They don’t understand.
The daytime is often bearable. Sometimes even pleasant. There are afternoons spent in the great expanse of green fields, eyes closed red and veined, veiled against the brilliant sun. It is the nighttime. It comes suddenly. Twitches and jumps inside my mind that tell me they are lurking. I hear their voices. Vague screeching and whistles. Am I honest with myself? Sometimes. Sometimes, I can look them in the eye. They cannot stand the confrontation. They cannot abide my strength. But too often, I am weak. And the weakness begets more weakness. They slip in through the cracks of my resolve and I hear my heart pound, feel the sweat break out on my forehead; I twist the blankets around myself.
Ignore them. It is easy for you to say. It is easy for you to use fiction as a shield. To wrap yourself in velvet myth. It is easy for you to say that it will get easier as the days pass. You don’t know the first fucking thing about it. And it doesn’t matter if it is “real” or if it is “all in my head” because the things in my head are real. You don’t understand this. They understand, and that is their power.
The walls pulse and throb, and sometimes, I must leave. Go someplace. Some well lit place. The drug store. The grocery store. But I feel people’s eyes on me and it is almost as hard to bear.
I have been marked. I do not know what the mark looks like. I do not know where it resides. If I did know, I would carve it from my flesh. I would dig it out with tweezers and razor blades. I would burn the skin until all that remains is a thick roped scar. No, the mark is something subtle. You see it. I feel it. They put it there, and I can sense it in the night.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to be a dancer. I used to slip through the corridors of life, unstoppable. Now, my feet are bound, but it was not always so. It was a gradual descent. They came slowly. I remember.
I remember days spent laughing and feeling a sickening power inside myself. Feeling like all the world was mine. One giant red apple waiting to be plucked and devoured. First kisses and passionate glances. I had these things. I can still taste them. I was a monolith. I was a fortress. They bolstered me because I reveled in their wrath. But years pass, and feelings decay…erosion is an unstoppable force. Allies turn against you. When I first saw them, red eyed and wistful, they amused me. They were something to pit my strength against. The idea that they could turn the tables never occurred to me. But that is exactly what they did. Not suddenly. No, it was a campaign fought over years and years. They were patient. I was not. And perhaps that is how I began to lose the war.
Oh, don’t be fooled by my revulsion. I courted them. Actively. They were my ace in the hole. They made me powerful because I could avidly stare while others averted their eyes…pretended at innocence. That was the seduction. I invited them in, and they buoyed me. Together we sailed over rooftops and laughed in the very face of reason. And then they gradually began to snatch at power. One tiny piece at a time until I was clearly the hunted and no one cared what I had to say. They lived with me, not with other people, so really, why should anyone care?
That is the ugliness I live with. This is the hell of my own making. My brain is wrapped in barbed wire that, every day, is cinched tighter and tighter. Yes, we lived in a kind of symbiotic nightmare. Devil and vampires. Yes, I stole from them as they stole from me. We were parasites. I knew the fire I was playing with. But the fire illuminated the darkness that had ruled for so long. Deals were struck. Negotiations played out. I traded a part of myself…they accepted readily. They stroked the cheek of my rare suspicions. I defied the world.
One day, the turn came, and it was too late. Too many nights spent huddled inside my mind. The walls closing in. It is a nice cliché. But it is anything but nice when it is actually happening. And that was how it started. The world became too small. I bumped my head and knocked my elbows. I could not navigate. I had become a separate thing. I was not part of anything. I did not eat. I slept when the rest of the world was awake and I woke when the darkness came. And they were waiting for me, flitting back and forth behind my eyelids, gossamer confusion, shadows, piercing hate and horror. Sliding down the walls to collect in laughing puddles on the floor. They shone with a ferocious abandon. They were important. They were my allies. They convinced me, even as I knew that they were feeding off me, that I was becoming like them.
As a small boy, I had an imaginary friend. That is what the adults said. They were incorrect. He was not imaginary. He was as real as I was. Perhaps more so, because I knew that he existed, whereas he ignored me. I do not mean that he was flesh and blood. I am not a simpleton. I mean that he and I were one and also distinct. I worshipped him. He was not afraid of school. Not afraid of bullies. He got me into trouble, but I loved him.
We grew apart. He was cast off with other childish trifles. Things that held no value in the eyes of the world, but meant everything to me. But I did as I was supposed to do. I relinquished my control. I allowed myself to be guided.
I am a coward. I am a thief. I am a braggart. I have accepted my sentence. I deserve all of this and more. I have sold my soul. Or whatever it was that made me. I have tarnished myself. And I have been tarnished. I give in to them because it is easier than taking a stand. Because, in my surrender, there will be one brief moment of peace. And that moment is worth a million nights of terror. A million nights of smoking cigarette after cigarette as the room shrinks around me. I hate them, but I will dance with them, embrace them, placate them…because it is useless to fight. Pointless to resist.
It is all soaked in blood. Drenched. This life. My clothes. I wake with the taste of it in my mouth. With teeth clenched and jaw throbbing. I feel the sticky ooze in my ears and I am blinded by the sanguine film on my eyes. Their song is horrifying and beautiful. It is like nothing you have ever heard. It is a siren song which washes me up upon the shores of my own indifference. I crash because, even in their repugnancy, they are almost angelic. Because they are terrible and beautiful. Because the fear they bring is an emotion so pure that it forces everything else out. Who has use for happiness? For laughter? For friendship? For watered down, ambivalent life? How can one settle for this when they can choose that beautiful terror? It is stronger than love. It is palpable. My heart races and my muscles ache. There is some part of me, always, that whispers warnings, dire, into my ears. There is part of me that wants to dive into the pool of blood, to drink it in and feel alive. You don’t understand this.
I find myself hiding in the periphery. I beg them to leave me be. I make promises that I know will never come to fruition. I am willing to do anything. They sway like satin curtains in a summer breeze. They brush against my damp cheeks. They sweep the wet hair from my eyes. Tonight, I must appease them. I let them feed. I open myself to their hunger. I feel warmth throughout my body. I sink back and let my mind go blank. I am offered soothing images. I take voyages through time. I visit the world I used to know. I soar across the barren trees of winter night. I gaze inside yellow windows at the banality of “life”. I am distracted by the flickering of a million televisions. But it does not matter. I can stay up where no one can touch me. I know, in the back of my mind, what awaits me. I know that I will soon be back, wrapped in blankets, full of fear, cowering from the ghosts of retribution. But it is a small knowledge when compared with the greater understanding I have achieved.
They wait for me as they wait for all of us. It is a simple matter of recognition. I have decided to stop running. I accept my lot in life. I accept it all. The fluid simplicity of abandon. It has trapped me and made me free. I would not trade it for anything. I would not go back. Even if I could.
Life is a convoluted thing, John thought. Wrong in so many ways. No matter how you choose to live your life, you have no choice how or when it comes to the end. You can live for the first sip of wine, the perfect sunset, adrenaline, the sudden rush of soft, first-kiss lips…you can live a series of climaxes and the end can still be anticlimactic. White rooms that smell like disinfectant and friends who avert their eyes when they visit. Or you can live a life of safety and reserve and be eviscerated by a bear. There’s no sense to it.
He knew that his days were numbered. He’d always hated that cliché, but the fucking doctor had numbered them, literally, so what was he supposed to do? Nothing. And John was not a man who could do nothing well. So he lay on starched sheets and endured visits from old girlfriends, women still beautiful and fresh. He knew they tried not to look at him. Tried to ignore the patchy head of hair and the gaunt cheeks.
He was aware of everything, but his body was betraying him. He could not speak. He could not walk. He lived inside himself and thought of former victories. Carefree days of sport and drink and conversation. They tortured him, but he could not stop them. He did not want to remember. Yet, he could not help it. Convoluted. Indeed.
He had no real concept of time except that he knew it was passing. He could feel it whispering in his ears, shimmering into the distance. So much irony in dying. You live your whole life with all the time in the world. And then, like an optical illusion, you see it refracted and shrinking into nothing. All the hours spent watching bad movies and forcing your way through depressing chit-chat small talk at cocktail parties. Not enough time making love. Too many books still waiting to be read. But all of this means nothing. It all means nothing.
Doctors and nurses and orderlies and janitors shuffled in and out, but John was becoming less and less aware. He lived in a dream. It was comforting and horrible. He had lost all his senses save the sense of touch. He felt the violation of needles and sponge baths and poking fingers.
Deborah was new and not yet bitter. She still believed that nursing was the greatest calling in the world. And maybe it is. But along the years her colleagues had stopped believing it. She hadn’t. So, some nights, when things were slow, she would stop and sit with the patients. Read to them. Tell them stories. Some smiled or cried. Some did not move. Some could not hear. John was a mystery to her. There was something about him. Something different. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew somewhere deep inside her mind that he was in pain. He did not move. He did not speak. His face was blank and soft like freshly poured concrete. But the whisper of pain was there. She was there the night he died. Sitting beside the bed, she had the sudden impulse to grab his hand. To softly kiss his cheek. And suddenly John’s mind exploded in light and sound. He was in a vast ballroom. He was wearing a tuxedo. He was holding the hand of the only woman he had ever truly been afraid of. He was watching her twirl in her brave red dress. He was thinking maybe he could love her for ever. And they spun together, laughing, finally free.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
“There are many things you can say about a man like Tom. I don’t feel like getting into it, really. But I will. To oblige him. Tom was not a man of contradictions. He was not a tortured soul. He was neither a pragmatist or a decadent. He defied categorization. And perhaps that is why I always hated him so.
Yes, he made me see the weakness in myself. It was a weapon he could wield at will. It is why I am here. This is his final prank. In fantastical daydreams, I imagined myself at Tom’s funeral, but it was generally not in this context.
I am going to try and prove today that Tom was wrong about me. That I can and will take the higher ground. Judging by the turnout today there were many people who loved Tom. I can only assume there were sides to him that I did not know. Parts of him that were only displayed for certain people.
But I will not be false, either. And perhaps that is why Tom stipulated that I deliver his eulogy. I hope that is the reason. Because the man you loved was also a cruel, sadistic, bastard. He made my life miserable for almost twelve years. I am not glad he is dead. I feel nothing. I feel the same as I felt when I found out his wife left him. Unable to hate him enough. Why? I have asked myself that question over and over.
There is perhaps one other reason why Tom asked me to be here today and I will not shrink from it. We grew up together. Tom was the hero. I was the sissy. It was all very American and petty. Until one night when I ran into him at a bar. He followed me out to the deserted parking lot. I fought back but was overwhelmed. It affects me to this day.
When I think of Tom I will try to remember you folks and not the snarling face of a bully. I will think of your kind faces. I’m sorry for this, but it could not be avoided. I think this may have been what Tom wanted. It is for damn sure what he deserves.”
From the depths of the creeping jungle the gypsy voices flowed. A soft, lilting rhythm. A song of the ages.
In the trees, the monkeys played and the colorful birds sang their sandpaper songs. The frogs hopped. The ants marched onward, intent in their six-legged transfixion. Was I frightened? Certainly. No matter how many years one spends in the jungle there is always the fear. Frightened. Yes, I was frightened, but I was also intrigued and so I crept close. Silently. Slowly. Maddeningly so.
When I came to the edge of the clearing the sunlight was explosive. I shielded my eyes and tried to look beyond the few remaining trees. And there she sat. A tiny girl with light brown hair and eyes the color of loyalty. Around her, a gathering had formed. Old and young. Poor and poor. They sang, and presented the girl with presents and sweets.
And in the jungle, the panther crept. In the jungle, the eagle shrieked it’s dominance with no reply. And the river flowed. And time marched on. And I stood transfixed, watching and wondering what the coming years would bring.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Check out the flip book. It's neat. And many thanks to Brian (coversareus) who made it possible.
Click on the links to the right. Unemployed Imagination - Short Stories. Avoiding the Stairs - Articles.
And look for 'The Flying Black Hats' on Last.fm and Bandcamp.
Click on the links to the right. Unemployed Imagination - Short Stories. Avoiding the Stairs - Articles.
And look for 'The Flying Black Hats' on Last.fm and Bandcamp.