Entries in 4. Fiction (3)

Charles Israel Jr

On Break

I’ve got a rented fishing rod at my side and the end of the pier all to myself. A shitty place to fish, but a fine place to think. I walked the couple of blocks down here from Ocean Drive (O. D.) Memorial Hospital. They’re keeping my daughter overnight—in a room where all the light is green and wavy and comes from a respirator. Caren’s got pneumonia—a weird strain they can’t draw a bead on. She’s only one and breathing like she’s underwater. Elise, my wife, is watching her for the next eight-hour shift, midnight to 8 a.m. Me, I’m on break.

The waves are little numbers rolled tightly as Havana cigars. I’ve heard that the moon tries to tear each wave off the earth. From here, thirty feet up, you can watch the moon try and fail, try and fail. You could watch all night.

When I slide a shrimp onto the hook, I catch my finger. Suck on it to get it to bleed. My blood tastes like a knocked-down wrought iron fence with rust blooming over it.

I hear whoops from the shore-end of the pier where the real fishermen hang, those who love fishing or those who need to catch tomorrow’s breakfast (three pan-fried sunfish and a leftover cigarette), or those who can’t do anything else right. I head their way, over the planks that roll just a bit with each big breaker. The real fishermen are in a small circle, and I work my way through pretty easy—I’m tall and not smiling. Somebody’s pulled in a baby hammerhead about the length and size of a woman’s forearm. With the hook cutting back out through the skin about two inches behind his wide head, blood is running on the wood. He keeps trying to flip himself. The pier lights seem latched to his white belly.

Hammerheads don’t have eyelids, so they get 360 degrees of all this. Day and night, underwater and out of water.

Some guy with urine splashed on his pants, beersmell, and slit-eyes: Why’ont you club that mother to death? Before the guy can grab a cooler, the fisherman who caught the shark cuts his line to save his line, leaving in the hook. Then he kicks the hammerhead toward the far end of the pier, nailing it right between its wide-set eyes, over and over. A fisherman can do whatever he wants to with his catch: that’s the code of the pier.

I hope he don’t do that to his wife, the one woman there says.

My shark, slit-eyes says, but he stops kicking it.

I pick up the hammerhead, go over to the rail. His blood pools warmly in my palm; his skin is deep-ocean cold. The fishermen go back to fishing, talk soft. When I drop him, I remember the old saying about dead bodies falling faster. With his wide head and fins as wings, he glides down. I stare at his wake in the waves.

Darrin Doyle

My Dead

 

I chalk her corpse into the dimpled pavement under Hell’s heat lamp, where no cars dare pass on this day. Her angelic death, my final version this Backless Corpse (Un)Dressed, I work toward until my bicep is tight and my shoulder burns. Chalk to pavement, I push and grind like I’m sanding skin, then pucker my lips, puff puff, and scatter colored dust piles with rum breath. When my sweat makes puddles, I blend the red, green, and yellow pools with my fingertip. The sun bites my shirtless back. It must be afternoon, and I must be a piece of bacon. Or a piece of shit, if you ask the dead, or the Dad for that matter, although to the Dad I am one of the dead, more worthless than a piece of shit because at least shit will fertilize.

I keep working (How much time has passed? Fuck time.), working through the pain.

Joe and Judy college professor throw their shadows onto coloring book chalkings that give them orgasms. Mabel and Marty khaki shorts with athletic socks punish me with their children’s squeaky voices (mice with broken spines pinned to wooden slats). Grandma and Grandpa pension plan glide like clouds past my Backless Corpse (Un)Dressed for reasons I care nothing about. I only see the pits in the pavement. I only chalk.

Then, the inevitable:

“What’s this one, Mommy-Mom? It’s a funny-bunny colory-color.”

“Umm…That’s a…What? Oh MY. Avert your eyes, Billy. Avert them with the aid of my hand, or your brain will liquify and drain out of your ears.”

“That looks like a donut!”

“Billy, for the love of humanity come with Mommy, away from the man with the gnarled teeth and bird’s-nest hair who is so out of his mind that he doesn’t even notice that his knees are blistered because he’s so wrapped up in drawing a naked woman’s corpse, behavior that is both repulsive and strangely compelling and might make me leave your father for a life of wild-dogging I’ve never gotten at home…COME, BILLY! BEFORE HE TURNS YOU INTO AN ART LOVER.”

Yes, go Billy. Go before I drag my lobstered body to the curb, light my cigarette, and allow your 2,000-day-old eyeballs to view in uncensored grandeur the lifelessness that awaits even Christian soldiers like you and your sweet, under-penetrated mother. Go, Billy, to the other lane of the street. Dance around the colorful vomit stain of chalk that more or less resembles a tree, a river, and a bridge with a cat on it, and which was created, if you can call it that, by Greta VanDerBilmenn, Judge Garrett VanDerBilmenn’s long-legged only daughter, who before today has never created anything other than one shredded heart, thousands of Dentyne bubbles, and a pair of amateurish renderings of an unplugged computer monitor. Enjoy Greta’s super-sized vapidity, because I have no time for you, and she has no moving blood in her veins.

I, meanwhile, am living my wedge – this baby blue wedge – into her lips.

“Excuse me.”

This man’s voice is not for me. It can’t be. Blue. Puff the blue dust. Scatter it. Puff.

“Sir? SIR?! Jasper Goodwin, I am required to talk to you? I’m Burt Farmer, Head Executive Director Chairman of the Street Art Panel Committee Board for the Artistic Advancement of Street Chalk Artists and Their Fellow Artists’ Art.”

I lift my face to the retina-scorching sun. Somewhere up there, a shrimpy shadow inspects me.

“You are required to change this drawing,” he says. “You are Jasper Goodwin, aren’t you?”

No need to answer. It’s a rhetorical question.

“Say,” he chuckles. “You’re not related to Jessup Goodwin II, founder of Goodwin’s Laser Plastic Surgery Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are you? I really wouldn’t ask (judging by your hair, flip-flops, and odor, you and he are as different as butter and milk), except you do resemble the Great God Goodwin in profile. He and I shared box seats at the Chicago Opera House in 1992 for a performance of the three tenors, while his wife was still bravely battling the cervical cancer that eventually – ”

Enough.

I yell at the cement, hoping my words will bounce upward, hit me in the face, give me amnesia: “Call me President Drone Grunt Clock-Watcher of Dead Beauties Incorporated, Established 2005AD, two days after the One-Time Coming of the woman in this chalking, sir!”

My outburst snaps him out of his reminiscence of a woman he doesn’t deserve to have known: “I’ll have none of your bullroar, Mr. Goodwin. You can’t leave this artwork the way it is.”

“I don’t intend to. I’m going to finish her.”

By puffing his chest, Mr. Whomever throws his machismo into the air, where it dances away like a sheet of fabric softener on the breeze. “You’re planning to put some clothes on this thing?”

This “thing” is the woman who hugged me to her naked bosom so many times (okay, only once, but for many seconds) during her brief life.

By contrast, this dwarf, this seven-thousandth slave of the Judge, this coincidental lacky to Laser Plastic Surgery Barons, this delicate (slouching under the weight of the soft briefcase slung over his shoulder) who mistakes power with the ability to crush a cardboard Pepsi cup in his fist, knows nothing of the ways art can both destroy and resurrect a human life.

His beard is red, twinkly, spooged-on by the sun. “We’ve had eleven complaints, Mr. Goodwin. I’m not sure what sort of family you grew up in, but families here do not wish to view filth. Your cartoon doesn’t come close to the sketch the Board approved, which, conveniently, is here in my hand. This is a unicorn.” He points at the joke I mailed to the Advisory Board last week under the influence of King Cobra, depression, and Costbusters baked beans. “That, Mr. Goodwin?” His finger droops like a dead caterpillar.

The corpse’s flesh form, meanwhile, stands across the street in the shaded gap between Tink’s Café and the brownstone, pulverizing her Dentyne, peering surreptitiously to make sure her portrait artist is skillfully, and with an abundance of humiliation, destroyed. She sees me seeing her for the first time today, even though we’ve been coloring the same pavement since 9AM. Her eyes are vivid even at thirty feet distance. That bright, watery life. How could I recreate it, if I ever had to, on this scabrous surface? It’s a good thing she, and others, are dead with their lids closed. If I had to capture her eyes in life, I’d need more than chalk. I suspect I’ve known this all along, which is why I waited, like I always do, until she passed away.

“Mr. Goodwin!”

Then, “Mr. Goodwin!”

Then, “Mr. Goodwin!”

And so on.

A few minutes later, the annoying man is gone, and Cheyenne Lovely’s bare toes are an inch from my face.

“You’ve got guts,” she says.

I keep chalking. I’m nearly finished.

“They’re coming back, you know,” she says. “But I’m behind you. It’s bullshit.”

A final touch-up on the collarbone, one last trip to the appendix scar…it is complete. I’m a pile of sore flesh with pebbles lodged in my knees, ready to witness my creation. I push myself from the pavement, rise.

“Wow wow wow. It’s amazing,” Cheyenne says. She lays her bare arm across my shoulders.

I scream. “AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”

She apologizes in four languages, rubs lotion over my burns. We smoke her cigarettes on the curb and talk about My Dead (my new, more accurate, more inclusive title), all eleven feet of her: her majestic, heavy breasts, parted legs, fluffy flower vagina. Cheyenne calls it disturbing and primitive. I ask why primitive. She doesn’t know.

We turn our heads and see a guy dragging a hose toward us. He’s a dark black fellow with close-cut carpet hair and a fuzzy mustache. In his green jumpsuit I don’t recognize him until he winks at me. It’s Montel. I give him a nod, feel the urge to hurl him to the ground, rifle through his pockets, and steal the limousine keys. He tells us: “Watch out.” The nozzle is turned, and she washes quietly into the sewer. The other chalk drawers (Dead included), along with Joe and Judy college professor, Grandpa and Grandma pension plan, Marty and Mabel athletic socks with khaki shorts – and yes, even the hydrant-sized victims (the children, with uneven haircuts) – stare and lick their lips while the street bleeds.

Cheyenne puts her face on my shoulder. I absorb the pain. My Dead is melting, melting, melted. I want a burrito, and I want out of here, because my living Dead is no longer standing between the buildings.

* * *

Cheyenne and I feed our faces at the Latin American place down the block. She’s a describer: in literary detail her love of urban art (“Graffiti is so meaningful”); her disdain for the design academy that flunked her (“for political reasons”); her happiness at breaking her poverty-induced diet of rice cakes fried in cinnamon butter (she actually sold a drawing to some blind man); and finally, touchingly, her intense description of the clinging curl of spiced beef in my beard.

“I’ve seen you around,” she says. She tweezers the beef with her thumb and finger, offers it to my lips.

“Not surprising,” I say, chewing. “I’m around.”

“Everyone knows who you are.”

“Not quite everyone.”

But how do I know you, Cheyenne Lovely? Have I listened to the tinkles of your ankle bells as you answered the call of the coffee shop ladies’ room? Have I overheard your name mouthed by your gaggle of college-dropout friends? Have I noted your furrowed brow as you chatted on the five-dollar-an-hour public computer? Have I internalized such visions while I pondered, oh so uncomfortably, what level of familial privelege might allow your sub-rudimentary art to “sustain” you?

She says: “I could never ever draw like you. I can see the thing in my head, but it comes out all wrong.”

“See it other ways.”

“I try to see it with my heart.”

“I meant your goddamn eyes.” I suck down the Corona, exacting my small revenge on the sun. “Buy me another.”

She does. Then she does again. And again. We get drunk and full on her dime. I’m belching into my hand. Her hairy calf is making friends with mine. “I’m peaking,” she tells me.

“I’m way too much for you,” I tell her.

She pouts like a phony.

“Fine,” I say.

* * *

Number 17 takes us to Over the Rhine, where buildings are burnt matchbooks. In the entryway of my brownstone an empty (gotta lift and make sure) forty stands on the floor in a sack under the row of metal mailboxes. The compulsion to return the bottle rages impotently, even after a decade.

Turns out I don’t need the dime (that I wouldn’t get anyway) anyway. It’s pay(off)day! My bulging baby boy, the 5x7 manila in my mailbox, gives me, as usual, a hard-on. But Cheyenne doesn’t even question the fatty I withdraw before her eyes so giddily. Her barely-there ass leads me up the steps. I follow, rip the “Notice to Quit/Nonpayment of Rent” off the #202 door, key us inside.

I tack the notice on the wall beside three other lovely notices Lovely notices. She sees words where I see only black lines. “You’ll get evicted,” she warns. “It happened to my sister last month.”

Maybe she wants to be a hero. Maybe she’s already in love.

I tell her to lose the clothes if she wants to be captured. She drops them, drops glances. My duds join hers on the carpet. She is patchouli-fragrant, the age of an infant if I call myself twenty-one. We walk into my bedroom, two nude binaries.

She screams, “They’re everywhere.” It’s a quiet one, a whispered one, but still a scream – of wonder, awe, ecstacy.

She means my Dead drawings – my wallpaper, carpet, bedspread, clutter, snowfall. Fourteen minutes of grotesque bliss had inspired chalking like never before, ten pieces a day. I dripped as much blood and plasma as the center would allow, visited the Kinko’s, relieved a construction site of its staple gun, and began the Artistic Initiative for Spreading Beauty to the Uncultured Masses Via the Branchless Trees of the New Millenium. Even before the phlebotomist plunged his needle, I’d tapped a vein for this art. It was too good, too important. I needed to let humankind touch it with its eyes.

Cheyenne ’s not frightened. These are a window into my passion, and she wants me to know that she knows passion is a cool thing. She rolls in the drawings, whitewashes her unfleshy flesh.

The telephone brrrrings. From the floor, Lovely frowns my walk to the nightstand. She wants to be more important than this call.

“Tell me something,” I say into the receiver.

“Jasper Goodwin? Greta VanDerBilmenn here: long-legged chalk-artist daughter of Judge Garrett VanDerBilmenn and admirer of all things colorful except, of course, you.”

“I wish I could say this was unexpected.”

“Cheyenne Lovely’s in your bedroom?”

“Me, too.”

“You’re both nude?”

“Mostly,” I say. My brown socks, feet intact, agree.

Cheyenne pretends she isn’t eavesdropping. Warms herself by breaststroking in my art.

“Leave the phone off the hook so I can record it for posterity.”

“Impossible. I’m burned over most of my body.” I hang up.

“These portraits are haunting,” Cheyenne says, seated on the carpet, holding Treatment of a Future Corpse I and II. (Two of my lamest from just after this Dead died, when Officer Billups gave me a warning.)

Still, I didn’t invite Cheyenne for her taste. Her eyebrows are untamed. Her legs, drawn up against her barely-bigger-than-mine breasts, are neglected by razor and treadmill. Teeth and gums don’t fit in her mouth. In short, she’s picture-imperfect. A living negative of a dead positive. Binaries again.

“Model for me,” I say. I arm-sweep the bed, spread drawings across the floor like seeds atop other seeds. Cheyenne mounts my single mattress and sniffs the sheet. I grab the tin of chalk from atop the disconnected computer moniter, assume the stool, face the easel. Many thanks that my cheeks are unkissed by the sun today.

“Legs,” I tell her, gesturing.

“I’ve never modeled,” she says. Her eyes are canisters of worry, fear, and hopes of string-free, acid-soaked sex with a local legend.

I swipe, swipe, swipe – my initial attack, my mountain-lion-on-the-sheep-of-the-canvas method, my decade-without-a-father fury – and the colors morph into an orderly nonsense before my eyes.

Lovely is on her back. Her pupils open like tiny throats as she addresses my ceiling: “I got Honorable Mention in last year’s Street Drawing Chalk Festival for the Families of Recently-Scorched Firemen.” As if this will excuse her for the damage she and all of the other ‘artists,’ especially Greta, did to my eyeballs today.

Yours was a coyote portrait, and for that, Cheyenne, you should be violently educated.

She believes we are engaged in foreplay, that this session will end with a slapping of damp groins, a few bowls of grass, and a shared gaze out the cracked bedroom window at whatever stars are strong enough to penetrate the forcefield of Cincinnati’s lights. The phone rings. Her eyes study my mound of unwashed clothing, my caseless bugle tied to the corner by spider webs, my closet door off its hinges, leaving visible the full brown garbage bag within. The phone rings.

“I’m digging your ceiling,” Cheyenne says. The phone rings. “The trick slopes up there. I feel like a total mustard ball.”

I chalk. Smudge the shit brown of Cheyenne’s hair, a chocolate shake upset on the mattress.

The phone rings. The phone rings.

Then my recorded voice, groggy and hateful: “If you are one of my dead, leave a message. If you are anybody else – ” Beeeeeeeeeeeeep!

“I’m already lost,” comes the voice.

Bravo to that growl. I can taste it in my mouth.

Cheyenne flashes eyes at the machine.

The voice keeps coming: “I’m lost, and so are you, Cheyenne Lovely.”

Lovely bolts upright, covers her breasts with her arms.

Dead: “If you don’t want to end up like me, you will get the fuck out of there! Now!”

Lovely’s bewildered, broken expression is probably the same one I showed Dad when he killed me. Except she’s giving it to a telephone. She paws near the edge of the mattress for her clothes.

“I’m not through,” I say.

“Go, Cheyenne! Get help! Find the police and bring them to his apartment!”

“Who is that?” Cheyenne’s arms are bursting through her shirt sleeves. “How does she know my name?” Her skirt she wraps around her. Everything else – panties, sandals, bandanna, hipsack – is gathered into a hasty bundle.

Her second question is valid, though easily explained since Dead’s father was on the committee that chose this year’s chalkers, and since Dead, morbidly afraid of making public her love for me, couldn’t prevent me from being selected (though to my shame she did stop me from immortalizing her) and was therefore within viewing distance when Cheyenne Lovely escorted me to my first burrito of the new millenium. Those goddamn burritos are not cheap. Lovely deserves better than this.

She arms herself with the lamp from the top of my dresser. She swings it. “Keep away!”

She runs from my room, her face gray.

“He’s done this before!” comes Dead. “Look under the floorboards!”

I pick up the phone. Uncradled, Dead’s rant stops abruptly.

“She took my lamp,” I tell the mouthpiece, “before I could tell her I love her.”

“Enough screwing around, Blump. The Judge is in Boston, and Montel is on his way.”

“You’re dead,” I say. “Officially. They – or you – even sent an underpaid African American man who bore a strange resemblance to Montel to hose you from the street, which means I am purged of you forever.”

“Pack it all into a sack,” she says, being carefully aggressive, or aggressively careful, like she’s convincing a lion to eat a basket of cheeses. “Every drawing, doodle, napkin splotch, pencil sketch…every goddamn semen-stained blanket. I’ll show you what a purging is.”

I keep listening. It takes a few seconds to distinguish the dial tone from her voice. She’s a demanding corpse, just as she was a demanding lover.

Twenty minutes later (enough time to prepare), there’s a buzz. I buzz back. Then the knock. Montel has swapped green jumpsuit for tuxedo. I’m happy to see him.

* * *

“What’s your problem? You need to clean yourself up. It’s a matter of personal pride. That ain’t hairstyle, that’s Grizzly Adams.”

A lecture is what I get, from eyes in a mirror. No concern that a fellow human being’s most sacred art project is crammed like common junk mail into a trash bag. Not a care that the stench of leather interior makes me nauseous, or that my father pays me – like it’s a vocation! – to stay out of his life.

“How bad do you want to go to jail?”

“I’m already there.”

“That’s offensive.” His rear-view eyes shoot me. “I am personally offended by that statement. ‘I’m already in jail.’ If you were black, you’d be in jail last month. Pictures in a trash bag, getting off no problem…”

“She loved me.”

“Okay. You proved it. You need to be institutionalized.”

Without Montel’s scrutiny, I slide the manila envelope out of my cutoffs’ pocket. Open it. Two-thousand in fifties so new they could slice tomatoes. No note. Why would there be? The stack says enough: Keep out of Michigan; Do not attempt to contact me; Pay your rent and feed your bloated face; If you must self-destruct, do it under a different name. Ten years ago, at the Kent County lock-up, Dad resembled a zoo visitor as he watched his $400 Italian leather Raffaellos get splattered by withdrawal puke.

I open the garbage bag. In go the Grants. Seeds on top of seeds.

Montel is talking: “Listen to me, Jasper. YOU CANNOT KEEP FOLLOWING MISS VANDERBILMENN. Do you comprehend that? I’m trying to help you. I got three little girls. Financial pressures, all kinds of new shoes with red lights on the soles, softball mitts. Lunchables, Munchables, Crunchables – no end to what crap I got to buy. When was the last time I paid more than four bucks for a six-pack? You think that’s fair?…”

It’s not Montel’s fault. He knows the facts that paint me as enemy. They’re all he’s paid to know – my name, for example, but not my NAME. He knows I’m a word-of-mouth chalk and charcoal legend in the Gaslight district of Cincinnati because Greta told him so after he limousined her affluent ass to the coffee shop on Ludlow two months ago so she could slum with the local color. He knows (he stood at her side) that Greta:

1. spotted my Fanciful Dagger Self-Portrait with “Bride” series populating the coffee shop walls

2. spotted my tanktop and beard (and the haunted loneliness in my eyes)

3. spotted the work-in-progress on my lap

4. practically begged me to give her lessons at forty bucks per half-hour

(To her credit, tears did fill Greta’s eyes, and she sniffled into her kerchief. She later blamed these secretions on seasonal allergies aggravated by smoke, but such an elaborate excuse couldn’t hide the fact that she’d recognized my most serious, most moving work: a series of portraits of my cancer-ridden, half-dead mother, begowned in traditional bridal garb and being given away, by me, to the skeletal, somber groom – the Grim Reaper himself – whose bone structure was modelled upon Daddy’s, of course.)

Breaking into my sphere now and then:

“…She’s the daughter of a judge? A fucker with a gavel? IT IS NOT MATH, MY FRIEND. He’ll drop that hammer on your head if he knows you’re stapling his naked daughter to telephone poles, creeping her out when she wants a manicure…”

One apprisal at the coffee shop, and I thought that even my dreams wouldn’t allow me to bed Greta. Her form, clothing, carriage – all were sickeningly familiar, as if my drawings had stepped off the walls. Still, I agreed to teach. Montel couriered her to her lessons. Like clockwork, my ears suffered the pleasurable zzzzzzz of the buzzer, the soft knock at my door. My eyes suffered her expensive eyebrows and aquiline nose. Thrice she wore the velour sweatsuit that hugged her midriff and accentuated her jiggly little behind – only once the backless black dress in which she was (supposed to be) buried. Ordered to remain in the hallway (leaning against the wall, tickling his Blackberry), Montel never witnessed Greta’s eyes floating upward to meet mine whenever my hand covered hers to demonstrate the swiping motion of the chalk.

On the fourth day of lessons, Greta seduced me on my bed, leaving me nauseous.

On the fifth, she called to cancel her lesson, citing a “blinding migraine.”

On the sixth, Montel informed me by phone that Miss VanDerBilmenn would no longer be needing my artistic services from now until Satan’s warts were nitroglycerined off his ass cheeks, and that Miss VanDerBilmenn was requesting my utmost discretion in this matter, and that if a few hundred dollars would be necessary, this could be procured…I hung up on him.

* * *

The world stops rolling. A gate swings open. We crawl like a beetle up the driveway. Outside the tinted window is everything I imagined – golf course lawn, shrubs like rows of teeth, distant grove of trees violated by a dirt path.

Our deepest dream is not that Heaven smells of fresh-cut grass, but that it stinks of rotten apples.

I haul the trash bag to the mansion’s front door.

“No chance,” I warn Montel. He wants to take the bag.

First it’s an I’m-not-kidding glare while we tug. Then he relaxes, probably because although I’m a flabby guy with unruly body hair who possesses little in the way of combat training to compare to his security guard certificate and Tae Kwon Do orange belt, he knows I’ll beat him on passion alone. I’ve never thrown a punch but also never received one.

Even Dad couldn’t lay a hand on me. Even his 600K per year laser surgery empire couldn’t paddle me into Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, or any on his laundry list. Even his obese stock portfolio couldn’t paddle me out of jail three times, or out of a heroin enslavement followed by a series of heroine enslavements. The collection of landscapes scabbing his walls prove(d) Dad’s inability to truly see art (and also, therefore, with the slight extension of a fingertip, death).

“Blump,” Greta says – smiling, but not sweetly, not like Mom – with a pistol pointed at my face, but not sweetly, not like Dad – when she opens the door.

“You’re aiming wrong.” I heft the garbage bag up to my chin.

“I tried to take it,” Montel answers. “He’s being uncooperative.”

Her pistol becomes a maraca. “You had no cause to hurt me. Just because I showed a moment of weakness while I was in a fragile state after I got rejected by the University of Michigan thanks to reverse racial discrimination, you cannot prey on me. You have no idea what it’s like to have a reputation and a future that is tied to that reputation.”

Montel suggests that she lower the gun and eat a blueberry muffin. “Your blood sugar,” he says.

She’s wrong about my understanding of reputation. This is precisely why I decided ten years ago to construct my life in chalk even if it meant food stamps, welfare checks, and stolen art supplies. Only occasionally have I sold my art. Five pieces in as many years. If I am honest, my legendary status is based upon my Sasquatchian beard and habitual street-roaming. I am everything my father hated. My failures are my success.

I am Jessup Goodwin III. I would tell Greta everything – who I am and who she is to me, and that it was a son’s love that drew me to her – except there are body parts in my arms that need a proper burial.

I speak: “Greta VanDerBilmenn, a.k.a. My Dead, I certainly admit the possibility that I walked near you on public streets during a few of your trips to the post office, hair salon, bank, petting zoo, and workout gym. Perhaps I walked near you to an unlawful degree. But you must remember that you died to me those long weeks ago when you stopped caring about my artistic method. After that point, I was only doing research for the purposes of – ”

“Give me the bag,” she says.

“It’s too heavy for you.” (It weighs eleven pounds.)

“Give it to Montel.”

“I won’t.”

She wants to evacuate my cranium, but instead she tells me to bring it inside. And in we go.

Hello, vestibule with unbearable cathedral ceilings. Greetings, vulgar spiral staircase and four way-up-there windows that turn daylight into an overhead airplane which might or might not be worth craning to see. You are no different from Dad’s house.

Greta leads me to living room, or parlor, or whatever she deems this soulless chamber.

“Drop it there.”

Thirty-eight steps later, I squat, depositing my treasure in front of the fireplace. I study the garbage bag, so full of something other than life. I lift my face to my Dead/Greta/Mother.

“The problem isn’t me.”

“You don’t know when to shut up.” Her voice is as hollow as the room. She cocks the gun with a click.

“We’re water from the same faucet,” I say. Forward steps. Leaving my brown lung alone within distance of the tongues.

“Cell phone, Montel,” Greta says, “and dial nine, one. I’ll tell you when to hit the other one. We’ve got an intruder. I have the right to blow his head off.”

“Miss VanDerBilmenn, this dude is not violent. I got kids. I don’t need any bullets flying in the same room as me.”

She turns on Montel. “Did you get stalked like a gazelle? Did you have to wonder if your father would discover you’d slept with a hobo?” She points the gun at the bag. “If my father knew about even one of those things, this asshole would never see the sun again.”

“The judge,” I say, my non-threatening trajectory bisecting Montel and Greta, bisecting the scarcely-furnished chamber, “passes judgment even when he declares your innocence. He sets his watch by your errors. I’ve met his kind before.”

“Keep talking,” she tells me.

I can’t prove it, but I know she’s leveling her gun at the back of my head. I visualize her one squinted eye and her other bright, watery eye. It feels good to be in somebody’s sights.

I’ve visualized death many times in the past ten years. Perfumed, it stands behind you in the mirror. It helps you ride your bike without training wheels. It shows you how to straighten your bow tie for prom. Pink flowers from its kisses remain bloomed on your cheek even after you’ve gone AWOL from the Army, even after its lips turn blue.

I’ll walk ten miles. My apartment may not be mine. Days will pass. I’ll sleep, shit, and eat. Another envelope of art will find me, somehow. Another bag will begin its filling. I’ll meet Cheyenne Lovely again. My chalk tin will open for her.

I feel free, floaty. My brains might come barfing out of my forehead. I might collapse, bleeding my epitaph across the marble. Montel mutters prayers.

It’s my best work over there, that brown lung stuffed with five thousand mini-canvases, each bearing the stern patrician, the green Grant who grants nothing but obedience.

Greta will open the bag – there is no doubt – but will she recognize My Dead?

Michael Piafsky

Barking Angels

 

 

Snail Tracks: The first thing you will notice is a slight numbing of the tongue. Consonant blends will become difficult, and then impossible. Still you will think it is not so bad: the pills had bright and pretty colors and even a slight sugary taste. They left a residue trail down your throat. When the trail goes away you won’t know whether it is because the residue has washed down or because you can no longer feel your throat. Following this, a slight tingling in the stomach. You will lose feeling in your extremities— pinky fingers to begin, and then fanning inward towards the thumbs. Your body will be retrenching, making its sacrifices to whatever god it worships. Your feet will become detached from your body. You will not be afraid because, after all, you can still see them. They will not really be detached; you’ll know it just feels like they are.. On the other hand the gentle burning you will feel in your stomach is closely correlated with actuality. The inner lining of the stomach will in fact be eating itself. It will be among the very last to know that something is wrong.

 

BASF: You cannot be sure this is working correctly. We are trained to place our faith in engineers and moviemakers, and here they work together in opposition to your cause. It is not just the many commercials that have reinforced the elements of quality craftsmanship. It is not just the reassuring rubberized lining, or the robotic assembly line arms, or the slight change in pressure felt on the ears when the door is slammed shut. It is more than these things: the constant and daily barrage of cinematic images of cars trapped underwater and ever so slowly filling up. You squint hard to catch a glimpse of the monoxide molecules spreading, stare through heater slats hoping to see the Zyclon B effects of air conditioning on a hot day. You wonder if the windows will fog up. Then you consider how well manufactured the car is, particularly in comparison to the wood planks of the garage door. You can see now as you look the chimera air forcing its nose between the rotted wood planks. You finally conclude that you are impervious, a firefly in a jar without holes, and then your neck begins to sag. This is much better than rainbows, you think, smiling sleepily, as you wave your hand in front of your eyes and see it distort.

 

Somewhere Between Drips Exists A Proof For Higher Mathematics: The porcelain bath is slick and you are balancing your arm against its side so as not to slip. The irony of danger does not escape you but since you are alone it is not worthy of comment. And anyway, who would there be to direct your comment to? Your toes scrape against the sandpaper strips. The other arm holds the toaster by its cord and, like a crane, suspends you from the sink top above. As you lower yourself into the tub, squatting while your most personal parts hang and bounce, you speculate on how much of yourself should be immersed. You can imagine the current running up your legs and the one dangling arm, but wonder if this is enough. It might do well for the torso and heart to be under as well. At the last, you will compromise by splashing large waves of water that bounce off of your chest and drip downward, falling in the same unpredictably chaotic route as the charge climbing upward. You will imagine the two forces meeting in a second rate diorama and then the lights will flicker. Your knees will be grinding on the sandpaper and you will feel your most personal parts hanging and bouncing. There is my decorum, you will finally conclude. There it goes dripping downward and flowing up, hanging and bouncing, bouncing and hanging and repeating and shaking, like a shampoo rinse or champagne bubbles. This is a vertical ending, no more or less than flying.

 

The Tourist: The man behind the counter leers at you while describing the many features of the gun. He waits patiently while you juggle it in your hand, produces a wry smile when you ask about the type of wood in the handle. He tells you he doesn’t really know too much about that. But he does show you the correct way to hold the gun and squeeze the trigger. He also hands you a card that entitles you to 10% off membership at a gun range. There’s an additional 20% if you show your NRA membership, he says. You nod. “Just in passing,” he says, “if you want the gun I’d go ahead and buy it soon since the damned government is going to institute mandatory child locks.” You tell him you don’t have any children and he replies: “that’s what I’m always saying. It doesn’t matter.” So you show him your driver’s license and fill out a form and a few days later you go back to pick up the gun. He’s already oiled it for you, no charge, and you purchase a whole box of bullets. The whole affair leaves you feeling slightly disoriented, like you have just changed demographics and then you think that’s probably just as well so that people know what they’re getting into. You drive out into the woods because you don’t want the neighbors to be disturbed and it all seems so loud. You remember at the last minute what the man said about squeezing rather than pulling and think that’s good advice. The oil is sweet coating your tongue and you can taste metal shearing where the barrel has been shaved. The man told you in confidence that the intricate barrel design is bullshit aesthetics and something about the way he said the word aesthetics makes you think maybe he was once in a different demographic too.

 

Meniscus: Even though you are a hopeless romantic, your pragmatic side will ensure that the bridge is high enough. You will remember reading all about this in a magazine. What is important in the end is the change in air-pressure, the high speeds. It is the falling. Like an astronaut. Like G Forces. When you are high enough you don’t have to worry about the ground. As you fall you will feel time slow down. You will imagine the curve of the horizon and birds’ nests floating far away at sea. The water below you will seem as smooth as glass, stretching endlessly. Your last knowledge will be the discovery that gravity is an illusion and you will know religiously, without question, that you are not moving but that it is the water that rushes upwards to meet you. You will be flattered.

 

I think I think I think I can: Because of the constant shaking you have to wedge your forehead beneath the iron track. The legs and ankles dangle. You listen but hear nothing, only the faint rumor of a baritone rumble so subtle a dog might miss it. You may have come too early and you think about the spot you have chosen. It is on the beginning of a straightaway following a curve. You have chosen it so that the conductor will not have time to see and slow, but will in fact begin again picking up speed knowing that he is coming into the straight part. Then you look, pushing your eyes to right and left, confined by their sockets as real movement is impossible from within the track grid, and you think of where you might end up. There are shrubs and bushes and tiny little pebbles to all sides. It is possible, you acknowledge, that they might never find you. Particularly if the conductor is not paying too much attention, and there is a good chance of this as it is miles from a stop coming or going. You wonder if it is actually a conductor, or an engineer? You mouth each word in context but reach no epiphany save this: you did come too early. Then the iron jumps and dances like a jazz club with the heavy bass and your eyes adjust to the darkness and feel wet against your cheeks. The rhythm wrangles your insides and you feel blessed. Oh Clickity Clack, this ho-rizontal ragtime speakeasy jig sure feels good and sexy. You wish you could snap your fingers but know they’ll understand and your vibrating throat breaks up the notes from your whistle and they escape your lips in beautiful shards that float and dissipate and grow into the clouds above you. There is money to be made in any field.

 

Madame Sosostris: In The Tarot pack the hanged man rests amiably, a rope suspending him downward from his ankle. As you climb to your perch you think of the differences between you and him. For one thing, in most packs he carries a saintly aura, like a Renaissance Virgin. He does not dangle but remains perfectly aligned with the perfectly symmetrical tree trunk. And yet despite these obvious differences you are forced to conclude that there are more similarities that bind you together. There is naturally the coarse rope digging deeper and deeper into your skin, producing as it does the almost imperceptible smell of burning. There is the waiting, the patience and also the sense of vulnerability. No animal leaves its belly unprotected. Then there is gravity working in its disinterested manner. To gravity, you and the Hanged Man are equal, a simple equation of mass and weight. But as the winding strands tickle at your nape you think of other affinities as well. You think perhaps that the Hanged Man knows as well as you do the dangers of pursuit and the benefits of submission. Perhaps he has found in his figure- four legs the glory of divine understanding. You wonder: is your share waiting for you? At the very last you conceive of one final correlation: you have both learned the secret to living in the moment. Does this make you a prophet?

 

Progress: While the water is running you remove your watch and jewelry. You leave these in the bedroom, resting atop the heap of clothing. You spend a moment in debate over whether to keep the bathroom door open before finally ruling against it. It is the sight of the watchband hanging over the cotton towels (inverted from the shaving mirror) that clinches the decision for you. The hotel bathroom has mirrors etched in mirrors bubbling out of mirrors. They all have different magnifying capacities that seem interesting at first, but then begin to frighten you as you consider their implications. They show like millions of different yous in millions of different worlds in a thoroughly exhausting manner. So you switch off the light. Because the plastic window blind is an imperfect fit, and because it is the middle of the day, there is plenty of sunlight. The hot water makes your wrists puff up and redden and it feels so good you keep at it for a few minutes, but then the old metal pipes growl at you to stop. In order for it to be effective, you must first cut long-ways and then across. There is reason to all things, even if this reason is not readily apparent. There might well be a diagram. The razor blade has a titanium alloy tip and you think, thank heavens for science.

 

Ascension: At a certain speed the car begins to vibrate. At certain speeds cars alongside become part of the background. At unwise speeds, all of your concentration is focused on the lane directly in front of you. Your prayers are for the engineers who designed the steering column and the wheelbase. You have placed your faith in these men. They are gods to you. You cannot see the neck turn slightly, or the eyes close. You hear nothing, you sense nothing. You see nothing but the asphalt ahead, feel nothing but your own adrenaline. You are invulnerable, albeit in very short bursts. Then you see the road curving gently and the heavy brick wall in front of you. You know that without the sound barrier, people blocks away will hear the echoes of traffic for the first time in years and think that it must be a special way the wind is blowing. And in a way they will be right.

 

The downside of rental units: Unfortunately you don’t have a gas oven and it doesn’t seem right to borrow one from a friend.

 

Sugar Rush: Finding a hypodermic is harder than it looks and must be for junkies too, you think. But eventually you find a medical supply store and explain what you want to the woman behind the counter. She looks at you strangely until you tell her that it’s for diabetes and then she pulls up her shirt and shows you her own skid marks, which would be vile even on a normal person and are made much, much worse by her obesity and the stomach fat rolling over the tiny puncture holes from both sides and you think how fat can someone get if they can’t eat chocolate? But you smile and she asks if you need insulin. You think for a moment as if considering whether you have enough when really you are considering which option to take because insulin would work just as well, but you don’t have a proscription, so no thanks, I think I’m OK, just the needle please. Then home with the paper bag to wonder which room has the cleanest air. You decide on the living room because it has no window to the outside. Sitting on the couch with the sharp jabby needle and you punch down on your left arm to raise the vein and stare through the cylinder and think how clean and perfect, and the plunger is hard to force through empty but eventually it goes down, and fairies start to dance in front of your face.

 

Down The Rabbit Hole: Businessmen with bruising briefcases will scurry past you as you pay for a single ticket and maneuver through the turnstile. Metallic voices will shout at you from tiny speakers impossible to discern, so high up they are like barking angels. As if in a trance you will count the steps down onto the platform, 113 in all, and be somewhat surprised that it came out an odd number. Near the bottom, after two landings, you will have to decide between cars going north or south. Most people at this time of morning are heading south into the city, and you think it best to head north or else you’d disrupt all of their schedules. But then you think, maybe that’s a good thing, sort of a gift to a thousand or so people and their secretaries. Surely this excuse is as good as any. Surely they are not to be held accountable for the vagaries of public transport. But then, an ancient woman suffocating under a woolen shawl stumbles as she passes you. You hear the tiny bones of her wrist and hand crack as she grabs the rail for support. And you decide to head north after all. There is something unnatural, this is true, about walking down so many stairs into the earth. Maybe you are getting younger with each step. But then the lights peek through the tunnel and the metallic box shrieks again and you will never know.