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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Zartan's LiveJournal:

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Tuesday, January 13th, 2004
7:27 pm
Carnivals: Bucket Two.
Two
SUFFOCATION RISK: NOT A TOY

The man who just defused that ugly scene over by the jukebox with fifty cents and a leathery smile; the man sitting there, in the ugly textured smoke and grimy light - the kind that sticks to the roof of your mouth, clings to your clothes, wafts up in laughing tendrils from your painful streams of urine to remind you that You've Been Bad - quietly, now, with a drink, drawing something with a greasy cheap little stub of "golf pencil"; he shouldn't, technically, be here tonight: in this bar, in this city, in this story. He stepped sideways into this life of stagnant waters and arguments and fat red faces, probing curious pressed up against glass and metal, etc etc, because it felt natural. He didn't know how not to fill the role, how to politely decline, and now he's here, paying the price of admission to this gruesome story of tenderness and violence one day at a time.

He never signs anything he creates (drawings or paintings, mostly - almost exclusively, really; it's more to do with a transient lifestyle than a lack of interest), but his name is Brandon. His name has been Brandon ever since he realized that it wasn't Walter, which was probably a good ten years ago. The trouble is that no one's really counting, any more; Walter knew people who counted, in the literal and figurative sense - people who bought wall calendars in December and read their Credit Reports and went on Dates. Brandon's problem is that the lifestyle and backstory took him all at once, rather than dribbling in over a period of months or years and triggering a series of horrible dreams and weird doubts and abused substances; Brandon stopped dead in his tracks one day - right there in the middle of the drugstore, cool green bottle of dishwashing liquid right there in his calm dry hand throwing cool green translucence on the inexpensive linoleum - and realized that Walter was nothing more than a character in a series of stories, and that for the longest time (it felt like forever, really, to Brandon) he had been going through life believing he was that character in those stories. Case in point: standing here in this drugstore, waiting in line to buy a bottle of dishwashing liquid and sneaking glances at the cheap little horoscope scrolls thinking maybe, this year, just for a laugh is something Walter would have done. Brandon could tell you about it, and could explain why Walter would have done such a thing, but not from a first-person point of view, not anymore, not now that he had remembered. Walter was a collection of stories, anecdotes all hung together that fuelled motives and scenarios all adding up to a vague forward motion, drifting in the quiet black hum of the routine until there was another Remarkable, Character-Defining Story, at which point things would change as though they'd always been that way -

But Brandon, at this point, was Brandon, and he had a life to get back to, and so he did. He eventually made his way back to Louisiana (and the ranch and the beautiful tyrant of a woman that had given him a single idiot son) and plugged himself into the hole that seemed to have been waiting, motionless, for him. The trouble was that Walter had left a relatively large and conspicuous pile of evidence attesting to his existence: a series of jobs (gimmicky retail gigs at The Mall), a police record (oops), debts (both public and private), family members, ex-girlfriends, etc etc. It wasn't long before people with muscle and leverage and, it was intimated, firearms came along behind him to convince him that, no, Brandon was the Imaginary Story and Walter was the Reality, and would you kindly hold still for six to eight months while we provide you with the proof? And it was thus that Brandon the ex-Walter found himself at
NEREID LANDING CLINIC
Comprehensive Inpatient Care of Substance and Psychological Disorder
admission by referral only

Three
"Milk or juice?" "Juice."

Nereid Landing Clinic was not an original structure; it didn't have to be. To the minds of its founders, the ideal building for Nereid Landing, in terms of both architecture and functionality, already existed, and had - would you look at that - very recently been vacated. A private school had closed its doors, and the property and buildings therein were for sale at prices so low they must be insane. The property itself (a relatively large chunk of land, given its Great Location) was quickly sliced up and rezoned; the majority of the grounds were razed - basketball courts and sidewalks and lecture halls ground into playful, harmless piles of dust and rubble and twisted rebar - and the Math Building (which had been the unofficial home of the school's Marine Biology Program, and as such was both surrounded and permeated by an exquisite water garden and aquarium complex) was snapped up by the brain trust behind Nereid Landing. The Clinic and the Math Building, however, could not possibly have been at more complimentary cross-purposes. The Clinic was, apparently and on paper (which, after this story is told aloud for the last time, will well and truly be The Truth - and why not?), a place for people with damaged minds and / or souls to recover and regain; the Math Building was the site of literally hundreds of highly stylized and ritualistic rapes committed with the sole and explicit intent of generating Power and Influence. Another just fucking typical braid of blood, money, and semen throbbed invisibly over the campus, drizzling benefit and axiom on the few Old Families that gripped it at its root, and those who stood to benefit already had when the force of public opinion, taking the form of an insatiable and unstoppable metal cylinder, gleaming and angry along its perfect lines, had ground them down into accusation, escrow, and - the unkindest cut - a final and permanent stink of humility.

The number of rape victims that went on to serve time as inpatients at Nereid Landing is unknown - I am the narrator and I am telling you that I really don't know, here, I can't, it's the nature of the place to be ungraspable and inspecific - but is greater than one.

There were no ghosts in the building; no specific souls stuck in the corridors and ventilation shafts, winding and mining and pleading in windowsill dust for a path to release and recovery - no one actually died there. Some of the acts of sexual violence were terrible and shocking enough, particularly upon the frail and the na�ve and the Truly Pure, to leave psychic residue. In other words, any given rape could possibly have a resonance, an anchored spiritual something, real and palpable, attached to the backrooms and broomclosets etc etc for the foreseeable forever; an awareness in a spot or a stroke of the clock containing both the pain and the pleasure of inflicting it, victim and rapist at the pivotal moment distilled and combined forever into an invisible column of experience, rooted to a something. A something in the Math Building, hence the problem with the Math Building as a site for an inpatient psychological clinic.

There are good reasons, though, why Nereid Landing was "invitation only"; this is because invitation is an almost-but-not-quite anagram for abduction. Every resident at Nereid Landing was someone that had been positively identified by a Private Concern with a Reach both Far and Thorough as currently experiencing a "fugue state". These binary human beings made the ideal abductees as they, which is to say the they that they would identify themselves as, do not actually exist, and making an imaginary person disappear is a non-issue - no one's watching, no one cares, no one even knew to look - as long as you've got long enough sleeves. The people behind Nereid Landing had the Math Building, now, sorry but we're off-limits, patients' health really comes before publicity, a-heh, but there are a number of press releases we've prepared if I could get your address? Or if you've got a fax? Having to explain a benign, quiet little Clinic in which, um, excuse me, but every room is filled with at least three feet of water - this is not something the people behind Nereid Landing cared to do even once, much less dozens of times a day for concerned parents who needed a Cheap and Local Place for their stupid fucking teenager to Dry Out. The pivot upon which Nereid Landing and its residents turned was drowning, the irreversible death, one of Those Things hardwired into mammals as very, very bad; worse than burning alive and maybe on a level with falling (falling being somewhat ineligible, a write-in entry, really, as the pure primal dread of falling comes from the moments of consciousness during the fall itself and not the actual impact / violation of body accompanying landing). Water yields drowning, drowning yields death, death yields sudden and catastrophic memory dump. Which itself, in the mind of a fugue state, yields ???

This is why Nereid Landing was filled with water. This is why the walls flowed with it, constantly, from thousands of tiny and invisible holes; this is why residents slept every night in soft cylinders of polyethylene and coated vinyl, up to their chins in water. For a clinic, Nereid Landing made an excellent retirement home. The patients spent every day doing nothing: playing cards, talking to their Pair Partner, occasionally being whisked away into a side room for a quick flooding and / or a game of Twenty Questions:
- Where did you grow up?
- Arlington.
- No, you didn't. You grew up in Chesterfield.
- I've never been to Chesterfield. I grew up in Arlington; I lived there until I was nine.
- Okay.
3 second pause
- Where did you spend most of your time, as a kid? Hanging out.
- There was an old convenience store. The Saftee Stop; we'd all meet there, most days, after school...
5 second pause
- On Arapaho and Needles, right? On the corner, there?
- No, it was on Shiloh and Seventh-
- This is an Arlington phone book, John. 1974. Took us a while to find it. Look it up.
35 second pause
- You grew up in Chesterfield, John.
- M-m-my name is Clint-

The phone books, and the receipts, and the school yearbooks, and the mortgage notes, and the bankbooks, etc etc, were faked, unless they weren't. The idea was to cause a catastrophic split; the founders' A+ result would be to have the Original State (P1) and the Fugue State (P2) manifest themselves, suddenly, physically, simultaneously.

Brandon's Pair Partner had been in Nereid Landing for a long time - or not; it may have broken her more quickly than the average. It didn't really matter, in the long run. There wasn't much left to her but a body and a few unbreakable threads of identity and persistence; on her personal dry erase board, she would write, for anyone who asked:
JEANETTE
1 / 12 / 1972
This was the beginning and the end of her linguistic faculty, her Final Message to a cruel, bizarre, dehumanizing world. Jeanette had taught the flute; Jeanette had realized that she wasn't actually Caroline, a chemical engineer, and it had come to this. She could beat Brandon game-for-game at Mastermind, Connect Four, Battleship, Cribbage, and Uno. "Good game, Jeanette," Brandon would say, reaching across the foamy petroleum mushroom of a table and squeezing her shoulder. Jeanette would look at his hand, sadly, until he removed it; Jeanette would lift her board from her lap and write her name and birthdate; Brandon would remove the pegs from the board and wiggle his toes in the water, angry for Jeanette and everyone. There was a day Jeanette was gone; and then that night Brandon freed himself from his cylinder and waded to hers, now softly lit, rippling and empty. He slipped his hand into the water and concentrated - on his life, on the life she might have had, on the stupid imaginary lives they had gotten rid of forever - until it began to boil around him. A bulb shattered beneath the surface. He let himself out of Nereid Landing and set out again for Louisiana. They only bothered bringing him back once or twice before they wrote him off as a waste of effort and resources.

Current Mood: Quartet (Sega, 1986)
Monday, November 17th, 2003
9:17 pm
Carnivals: Bucket One.
One
USE ONLY AS DIRECTED

And there we were, in a manner of speaking. "Going away" had meant nothing more exotic than a motel out of town. We'd ridden a bus for a couple of hours - silently, for the most part; she was wrapped up in a book, one of those books that cannot be categorized by anything less than a trained expert armed with the Library of Congress' latest - some supernatural romantic mystery thriller one of her girlfriends (not Girlfriends, mind - the sort of girls she brought home or, more often than not, into the ladies' of some underlit pulsating nightclub, were not the reading type; they were almost exclusively (a) Art School Chicks who used expressions like "Mixed Media" and spent hundreds of dollars on Special Art Knives or (b) ignorant, most likely illiterate huckleberries Brand New to the Big City, trying out the glamorous and forbidden from sunrise to sunset, biweekly) at the supermarket had recommended to her. The book concerned a private investigator (no! yes) who gets mixed up in some sort of werewolf / voodoo goings-on on a thinly-veiled New Orleans stand-in... in the future. I sound dismissive, even condescending, but I thought about it for a second, staring here at the blank page and the ballpoint pen in my hand - thinking about all the wonderful places these hands of mine have been, really; gropes and caresses so goddamned prosaic, no more enlightened or daring or transcendent because it was us and not a couple of bruised, raspy drug dealers, resplendent in their jean jackets and fiftieth year of life - and I realize that I remember such a stupid, throwaway detail because it was, secretly, so very important to me. I sat there on the bus, looking out the window and wishing, over and over again, that I'd brought along a camera; there must be dozens of small businesses along that stretch of road with their own uniquely clumsy and earnest homemade signage, and one day someone's going to get them all down on paper and it won't be me - I sat there on the bus and I thought about what must have been going through her head, as she read. I snuck a glance at a sentence or a paragraph and I wondered what it must have sounded like in her head. I wondered if she had assigned any of the characters my face.

Kids, you know.

Sometimes I'd look over and see her looking at me. You weren't there. You wouldn't understand, except maybe generally.

She had checked us into the motel and - there was a dynamic to our relationship, which to be honest, wasn't much of a relationship at all. This was the first time we'd gone away together, on anything like a deliberately romantic and selfish junket. The second and last time would be about a year later. We were both married, in our early thirties - no longer even able to pretend that we were Young, but doing stupid and impulsive things like this anyway; the biggest secret ever spilt is that impulsive behavior is the real elixir vitae, which is why we both continued to chase tail, in our own fashion. The bulk of our lives, the part that wasn't wild and young and Fun, was largely spent on Damage Control. We were wonderful for each other - and entirely too smart for this sort of thing. The dynamic, then: she whisked, and I happily allowed myself to be whisked. I would be whisked into an alley, janitor's closet, stairwell, car. Motel room.

"Get out of here," she said, then. "Go and get us dinner."
"I don't know what you'll want," I whined, "and I'll get the wrong thing, and it'll ruin everything. You're terrifying when you're mad. I can see it -" At this point, she had placed a hand on either of my shoulders and was walking me with a determined patience (I could have drawn a photo-realistic picture of her expression, then; I couldn't see her face but I could feel it asserting itself against the back of my head) toward the door. " - no, stop, I don't have my wallet; oh, wait, it's just - thanks, okay, but seriously, I'm going to get the wrong thing and everything will get off on the wrong foot and and and -" I was at the door, which had been helpfully opened for me, and was pushing my luck. Faking it. I could read her well enough to finish her sentences and pick out her outfits; I wasn't afraid of getting the wrong fucking food and she knew it. I was just being clingy and lazy, which was also largely faked - she seemed to truly enjoy, in a perverse way, my worst qualities, and so I overplayed them. She did, too. With each other we were Ourselves++.
"I'm going to be busy," she said. "Take a while."

I bought two bags of cookies, a carton of ice cream, a box of instant hot cocoa, and two big jugs of red wine - the nice kind, that comes in the little wicker basket or whatever, the kind artsy and lonely people save and burn candles in. They'd had these pre-cooked chickens in plastic containers, all glowing goldenly and bound up with greasy string; we'd not eaten since that morning, before the bus ride, anyway. But I wasn't here to be a fucking adult.

Walking back to the motel, I noticed a bar; it was attached to the motel, but the two obviously weren't officially related. The architecture suggested some sort of sitcom-style begrudging tolerance, as though they'd both started off as baby buildings, maybe just one or two square feet, and had grown and grown until they bumped into each other, and just sort of said huh, and stopped. Realistically, they were probably wonderful for each other. As I walked into the bar - I hadn't forgotten that I was carrying two jugs of wine, but the sight and sound and smell of a bar (and this place was a real hellhole, which in a perverse way similar to the way she and I enjoyed and encouraged each other's faults, only made the craving more cinematically intense) made me want a shot and a brew. Or two. I wanted to get a little lubricated before I walked back into the room - I would have to knock, because there was only one key, and she'd kept it; fair, really, as we weren't in a terrific neighborhood and there could be all sorts of crazy people just waiting for - okay. It made sense then. I needed drink in me so I could really appreciate whatever it was she was trying to do for me, so my mind would just slow down and shut up, so I wouldn't miss the forest for the trees, so the chattering neverending anti-sequential roar of weird suspicion and analysis wouldn't drown out the obvious. I wanted to be normal when I went back to her. And it wouldn't have been very classy to come back with a half-empty bottle of wine - hey, babe, started without you, hope you don't mind and all - this is the sort of thing women notice. Free advice.

The bar was a hellhole, all right - I played a computer game, once; I tapped on the keys to make my group of adventurers (you see now, maybe, why I had found her choice of literature on the bus so charming?) enter a building and it prompted me, quite simply and starkly, white on black in a font that probably hasn't been used in fifteen years: "Entering a hellhole. [Y]es / [N]o" This bar could have been that hellhole. Corners were described and demarcated by what could only have been called "rubble". Chairs were wherever the hell they wanted to be, as were the patrons; they looked as though they might have been there forever, frozen in place, obsessed with tabletops or the surfaces of their stale brews or the neverending horse races on the old Magnavoxes mounted here and there. There was a dart board, and a scoreboard populated entirely with obscene nicknames: my neighbors. There were worse places to be. Subtlety died on the doorstep. I got my drinks and eyed the jukebox; the only songs I wanted to hear, as the booze vaporized and found its shape in my gut, would be unavailable or start a fight.

Someone did approach the jukebox, and sure enough, some horrible, shambling thing that could only have been a regular (these are the sort of things I remember: a t-shirt, yellowed under the armpits [obvious even with the scant available light] that featured an abstract design and the word Racquetball; a ring on his pinky with a fat oval piece of turquoise) crept up behind him, acted threatening. Shit, I thought, a fight. And I felt terror, that sort of terror that pushes its cold metal pole up the soft part of my spine and into my mouth, when I know things have gone bad and it is too late to fix them -

I don't want to die; I am terrified by the thought, which I screen for myself against my mind's eye almost constantly. There are two kinds of deaths with which I am obsessed: the first has to do with a violent and thorough and poetic sort of death. I would want it to be a ballet; I would want the people around me to recount the event using the same words - it seemed to happen in slow motion. Bullet(s) are always involved, although I suppose I could drink poison, unknowingly, as long as the vessel hit the ground and shattered at the same time as my head. Preferably nearby. Maybe it could be snowing, or in front of a burning high-rise, with gently weirdly bits of burning ash streaming and settling through the air, I would want my body to be an exhibition of anatomy's beauty as it fell, I would want the last shred of consciousness to end only just as my head touched ground for the last time, allowing for bounce and settling. I have watched too many movies. The facts of the matter are:

1. I am absolutely terrified by the idea of my body's envelope being violated. I do not want to be punctured, pierced, penetrated - of course I had the brief and bluntly stupid "Self Mutilation Makes Me Mysterious and Subtle" period as a teenager, but those were never anything more than surface cuts, never meant to impress anyone other than myself and perhaps the sort of people who, when they dealt with others, actually looked for scars and scabs. I cannot imagine holes in me, I cannot deal with the idea that I would learn to feel my own organs, those strange and convoluted and fragile insides, that they could actually fall into my hands after my body's envelope had been torn.

Of course, I will never be shot. Despite my fantasies of twisting languidly, this way and that, against the force of successive bullet hits, I realize this. I will never be in the position, again - my life has ceased to be Interesting. I used up my lifetime's allotment of Intensity and Experience in a few short, glorious bursts. This story is my last stand as Protagonist; from here on, I will play supporting roles. My life experience, all the memory and sensation and hope and motivation, will be distilled into an easily gelled set of character traits and quirks; I'll appear in other lives, as they take their turn as Protagonist, and then recede as I'd appeared: apropos of nothing. I am to be taken into other lives and stories in carefully measured doses. Something so dramatic and permanent as a shooting - I've burned it off, I'm no longer capable of that sort of relevance. Which brings us up to

2. When I do die, I realize that I will just stop, and that terrifies me even more. It won't be a grand, conscious, memorable death; I am neither Rasputin nor John F. Kennedy. My kidneys will just cease, one night: I'll be dreaming, but I won't ever wake up to remember the dream - or I'll have a stroke, behind the wheel, singing along to a song and that's it, black, pow, nothing. To some Protagonist I will be a detail, the car, the bloodied and battered body against a stupid, filthy concrete column supporting an untrafficked overpass. But I. won't. be - consciousness doesn't even get the courtesy of a wrap-up, a montage of greatest hits, even that Jack Chick light-bulb-headed God that plays your whole life for you on a celestial movie screen. I'm just going to stop, one day, and it's not going to mean anything to anyone. Least of all myself. I won't know enough to regret it.

But nothing happened. The two guys at the jukebox talked. The first gave the second some change; the second fished in his pockets, gave the first a grubby nub-end of golf pencil and pointed him at the bar. That first guy then did an amazing thing: he sat down and began to draw. I watched his hands, drinking away my panic and anxiety, thinking more now about what he might be drawing than my own death - what and why, in this awful place? I wished that she hadn't brought me here (we picked this town randomly, on a map at the bus station, but I still was able to find, in my memory, a semantic twist allowing me to grant her one hundred percent of the blame); I wasn't ready for this, tonight.

Current Mood: Virtua Cop (Sega, 1994)
Sunday, November 9th, 2003
11:19 pm
Carnivals: Bucket Zero.
READY?
MANY MORE BATTLE SCENES
WILL SOON BE AVAILABLE!


Prelude One
QUICK, SMOOTH, COMFORTABLE

"Are you terrified of paperwork?" she asked.
"No," I said. "Not really." I ran an uncut fingernail down the corrosive ribs of a strap on my satchel and looked up, like I'd found something interesting, decoded only by middle school lies and a pair of tightened eyelids. "It's just that, you know..." She looked at me, crossed her arms under her breasts. She was about to laugh - would have laughed, really, I think, were it not for the fact that she was not Getting Her Way. And that I was right, I think. "My handwriting. People know it."

They did, as well. I had been seeking a job for six months before I met Cheryl. Cheryl had gone to college, once upon a time, and furthermore had implemented that college education to decide, once and for all, that capital letters out of my hands were marketable. "Excuse me," I would have said, had I been still drunk from lunchtime and feeling more than a little fearless. I wouldn't have dreamed of ever speaking to Cheryl, familiarity be damned - we rode the same bus, every afternoon, like clockwork, and I adored her. She looked like a teacher I'd had, once. I'd been in fourth grade, and I'd done something just terrible. My conscience was this awful, quivering, reflexive organ with a memory like iron filings in the gut of a career narcoleptic, and she'd caught me at it, and I sat there, in the huge papery mysterious expanse of surfaces and implements that was Her Office -

- if only I'd known, right? That office was little more than a broom closet shared by the fourth grade teachers, that all those bizarre two-dimensional non sequiturs (lesson learned here, people: sleep with a copy editor once and never hyphenate "non sequitur" again) were intimate, personalizing touches, that it was all just a game I was too young to decypher or remember -

I bawled like a damn baby, almost. Except that I wanted to marry her, and I knew somehow that she wouldn't marry someone that cried. Crying was something that little children did - second and third graders, that weren't allowed to climb the stairs - and I was a fully grown fifth grader, bodily dipped into the river Styx of harrowing experience (I had once climbed the chain link baseball backdrop - and had fallen off! and had landed on my back! and had lived, etc etc) that didn't cry, whose gritted teeth sang out like Isolde for a smouldering, masculine cigar.

I might have cried a little. And I might not have figured all that out, not until she put her hand on my shoulder and told me that it was okay, and that I wasn't a bad kid. She started laughing - she pointed at the math tests she'd stapled to the wall - how could a bad kid get one hundreds all the time? she asked. I didn't know. Donna Ross always got one hundreds on her math tests, too, and she was an awful human being - and yet, somehow, no one saw it. No one came to my defense when I stole her sandals and put them down the garbage chute and told her that I wished she had the breast cancer.

(Terrible, terrible. Where was I? Why did these things actually come out of my mouth and my fingertips? I remember the look on the face of the janitor as he trudged into the classroom, later that afternoon - he'd had one sandal in either hand. He'd looked so tired. That, then, is my only impression of another human life; that it was a tired one - once, I'd asked the lunch ladies if I could sit with him during lunch; I'd seen him sitting alone, up against a wall, quietly eating soup out of a styrofoam container no bigger than his two fists - was I ever really that good, or am I just inventing stories and details that at least excuse and at best beatify my youth - some sort of latter-day Hermann Hesse, oh my goodness, haven't we all just been there, etc etc)

But I wanted to marry her, then; and she'd waited with me - she'd let me sit in her car - teachers had cars, cars full of things, things like Kleenex boxes and cassette tapes and receipts, can you even believe it? - until my dad came to pick me up. And things were different, after that. I was a better kid. Not perfect, but I was better, at least for her. There was a look, a little bit of something she could put into her eye, and I'd know how to be. I wanted to keep getting one hundreds, and I wanted her to touch my shoulder again and tell me about when she went to the grocery store, or the movies, or the roller rink, or even home. Sometimes I thought that teachers slept at the school, after a big test or something. One time the sun had gone down and my dad still hadn't come to get me and there were still teachers in there, moving around and talking against the yellow lights. Sometimes I'd climb the backstop and watch them trickle into their cars; sometimes I'd memorize their license plates. Once I laid down in the parking lot and hoped that my music teacher would run me over; then she'd be sorry.

- and Cheryl rang too many bells. Which is why I couldn't talk to her, and why I couldn't stay away from her. She bought sewing magazines every other week at the newsstand. She wore the sort of sunglasses that fashion-conscious people who can't actually afford to be fashion-conscious wear. The trouble with Cheryl was that I simply couldn't stop paying attention to her. I'd never said a word to her, and yet I actually considered her my friend, at the end of the day - God knows I didn't have many, and that was actually something I would sit and think about, sucking on a beer and staring at tape-recorded soap operas: well I've got lots of friends, there's the guys at work, there's the couple that run the convenience store and their little kid - that kid's so damn cute, always hiding and waving and being all coy and such - there's the bus driver and, yeah, the woman that rides the bus with me all the time, we always smile at each other and sort of sit near each other, almost like it was on purpose shut up and the one guy from work, Peter, he's seeing that girl and we all went out for drinks once and I'm sure she would call an ambulance for me if I needed it - that sort of thing. Really. One day we actually ended up sitting next to each other.

"Sorry," I'd said, as she sat down next to me. As in "sorry the seating situation was so dire that you had to resort to sitting here", I suppose. I don't even remember. I zipped up my jacket and worked on a crossword and tried to ignore the two conches strapped to my skull. Finally she took interest in me -
"Is that your handwriting?" she asked, nodding at my crossword puzzle: a stupid Celeb-U-Fact, Even Hospitalized Children Can Solve This One (e.g. "Det. Murphy [Dock Police, Chan. 9] solves these (6)") - well of course it's my fucking handwriting, did she really think that after all these months of riding the damn bus and sweating in the fucking heat and opening the windows and reading all those books and sleeping against the toast-warm windows that I was fucking remote controlled?
"Uh?" I said, pretending to be caught off guard. "Oh, ha ha, yeah, that's me." There were a couple of beats, ample time to beat my own head in for its gracelessness and transparency. "Ah that's my handwriting, there."

It turned out that she worked for a government department, did something in design - she wanted to hire out my own personal ABC's for an ad campaign, something against overfishing our natural resources. I was paid fifteen hundred dollars and got to spend three eight-hour work days with Cheryl, during the course of which I learned nothing about her.

We weren't friends at all, I guess, and I let her have my language, anyway.

"Fine," she said, "you wait outside, and I'll go in and sign the register." She did: she was good like that, impeccable with people. She made them melt. I was the rare catastrophe that was a reverse likewise; "all your boyfriends were assholes," I'd say at the end of a sleepless night of confidence and mystery and fucking, just completely, laughably oblivious to the obvious. In the tiny mirror of my lenses I saw question and answer, parry and reposte. I watched the street for familiar faces, vehicles. Anticipation clawed its way to the top of my throat and made itself up for Mardi Gras - everyone, meet my dear fat friend, can you guess his costume? Pacifism? No... Unrequited- Who said that? Don't even finish, someone get him a drink. Grief? Must I adopt my patented Jewish mother voice? Yer breaking my haaaat, Paranoia? And who's your handsome friend? The little man with the David Koresh shades? Pleased to meet you, Guilt, bathroom's the second door on the right. No, the right, honestly I am never again hosting one of -

Much earlier. "I want to go away with you," she'd said.
"You want - but wait, come on, now. You're not even thinking, go where-'
"You leave that to me, boy. But I've got to get away and I have to have you come with me." Do you have any idea what that sounds like, to actually hear someone say that to you and mean it? It's romance as a landmine.

Prelude Two
NEVER TOUCH THE LENS.
NE JAMAIS TOUCHER LA LENTILLE.

Here they were again, the two of them - the catastrophic, charismatic Master of Ceremonies and his Little Miss and never mind the horrible capsizing thing in the shallow tank in the back of the U-Haul; did you see that? See what? I know! Isn't it weird? Come over here with me for a little while...

It was a moonless night, which means that any idiot with an almanac and a reliable chart could have seen what was coming - he was convinced, later that night, that it - astrology - was an inherent thing. All the shriveled old bastards in the motel bar had seemed restless, irritable - these symptoms are not the end effect of watching the horses and pounding down pint after pint of strong bitter all day. No sooner were the quarters out of his pocket than he felt hot fumes, making their way up the molecular ladder, riding the sluiceways up the back of his his neck: You gonna play some music? Someone feeling sorry for himself? He could have crippled this drunken barstool therapist with three fluid motions; this was due less to a formal training ("formality", for him, was a clean pair of underwear and a stick of wintergreen gum) than the fact that this had happened to him before. Twelve, eighteen times? - in this body. There were sounds beating up against his skull and his knuckles, they had been along for the ride for hundreds of years, and they wanted to feel blood tonight. Let's open up a folder:

Best-case scenario: he takes the strange hand off of his shoulder, gives the forearm a solid twist just beneath the elbow, tears it loose from its socket. At this point Exhibit A should be on his knees, screaming, or at the very least staggering back on disbelieving legs, staring at his ruined arm, hanging at the end of that shoulder like a wet sock full of chicken bones; Exhibit A surely has friends, or at least allied xenophobes, and this is where the Fun Starts. There was a jukebox; there were two pool tables, each with its own compliment of balls; there were countless chairs and bottles and cue sticks; with a bit of concentrated effort and a sincere hatred for the human form and all of its mothers, he could have been ankle-deep in blood and jagged, hairy bits of scalp / epidermis in, what? Three, four minutes? The problem is that at this point he cannot die, so it follows that he might as well keep going.

"Aw, nah," he said. "I was just looking at the selection." He handed the drunk his two quarters. "Just tell me you like AC / DC."
The drunk smiled. "Kid, you're --" he stopped. It wasn't even a pause; he stopped as though he had been seized, snatched out of time and given a thousand years to wonder why; his eyes rolled up, and over to the darts league scoreboard. "-- you're all right. Did I say that already? Remind me of me. You know what I mean?"
He sighed up from his lower lip, rolled his eyes. "I do," he said. He pointed at one of the television sets over the bar. "What, you don't play the ponies --"
The drunk shook his head. "I like to watch. You get it? I like to watch."
"I get it." He looked left, and right. The drunk was holding the two quarters like a dagger; his aesthetic was suddenly given license to shine. "Tell me where I can get a pencil and some paper 'round here."

Current Mood: Space Harrier (Sega, 1985)
Friday, March 7th, 2003
5:56 pm
Bubble bath
Thank You for being part of Our Success. No clear results :: referenced ambivalent architecture and non-lethal containment strategies in the public sector. Coughing up dust, kicking up blood, rubbing rough reticulum over a Polaroid still wet with secondary colors like a workbench, in Edwin Land's garage, all covered with dust and head sketches and vile private pamphlets from the east side where the alter ego beats its feet against ice cream bricked streets, in a fever dream. The old methods are the best and storage is crucial, a hot button topic for cavalier cold fish, information professionals hard at work, flipping the switches, jacking up the bonus multiplier. The medium as a magician, method and message inseparable, billions of nanoscopic packets all containing a bronzed placenta and Our Fifteen Hints for Better Hair Today. The final resting place of our linguistic legacy marked with a pink flag at the summit of Molehill Mountain, pop. 650, elev. 256K ft. Middle class secret racists seethe at their AM radios, waiting for their signal to grasp great babysoft spoilt handfuls of soil and clods and turnabout scalps, shouting through bristling mustaches about the sort of ideals only the invisible and indifferent valkyries of capitalism could appreciate. Ripped roughly from the gold box within a protective envelope of birthscum and a/v cables and shoved into waiting eager mouths pornographic with pulsing expectation, trapped in a feedback loop of fury those little milk teeth budding and bursting forth with anticipatory hazy-blue knob-ends of their own: only decorum prevents an honest naming of The Likes Of You. The cream rises to the top and the glass ceiling, semi-permeable to those who can afford it, terrified and teetering on dull gray claws, creaks and yields and cracks out another ovoid op-ed piece passing through hearts and hearsts, non-toxic creativity smelling faintly of asparagus deposited gently in the bowl, click here to find out how. All smiles for free bicycles; a mockery of range and spectrum designed only to provoke, who's got a whiff of the blood now, dumbshit? Waterproof and girlish alone in an escape pod against the twenty-first century volcanoe, we have met the enemy and it is boredom, flaccid mealwormy throats tilted back to accept the rain and the muck in lightning fast dollops all promising the Rite of the First Night inalienable and eminently destructable scrolling languid in neat, sharp little tickers and windows and frash prugins - who's that tapping at the window, winning their own personal war to find an enemy that they can call their own, define and deify themselves with, defineded by economy of character and absence of presence place? Pipes and tubes encrusted with yellowish withering carbohydrate, for the thirty-first month in a row you've mistaken blind carotidcartwheeling bombastic breathy blasts of noise and nothing for content and character and mistake number two is ankle-lock ignorance affixed with tricolor wax stamp of the grandfather's claws in place of integrity and fortitude in the phace of imagined or otherwise hyperlinked plus-boredom adversity. I'm gonna put both of my hands onto that neck of yours and throw you in front of a runaway police horse, screaming foamy crazy am-scray from mexican roadside snap-pops and dimestore stinkvials snap-popped themselves under toes or between thumb. Nostrils the size of dinner pilates directly routing to dangling exposed branes, sharply snapping and popping themselves against invisensible anchors only two molecules wide constructed in 1963 at a cost of five million dollars resulting in the loss of singular pluritudes lived half-lives faithfully - snap! - swimming upstream.

Thank You for being part of Our Success. A fluffy white balloon full of rusted gears and levers and pulleys, a fanatic machine grinding itself itself into electron-poor snuffling dusts on behalf of the lockjawed, the infirm, the perenially quiet and terrified critical case of crippled cognitive dissonance on a salty-pure fluorine drip, staring straight ahead into cobwebs of needlepoint and bric-a-brac versus dust and familiarity; this whole package is itself, wiping its nose on the back of its hand in guilty pleasurable secret and adjusting its brassieres and guessing To Win "how many teeth in the pillowcase?" - borne on the backs of improbable beetles, hilariously and grotesquely overspecialized, prongs and knobs and dials and gently pulsing recessed discs of vaguely defined insect-tissue, trundle trundle like a proud prizefighter gone to seed kicking up his great and terrible rough feet, pods of war, in a comfortable and personalized gleaming wheelchair: the Champ Will Rides Again. It won't be easy - replace this part first - always out of the cobwebby corner of humorless and rheumy frugal eye, a nook for the phantoms of blooklists and publishers, weakly; always adjusting or sorting or rearranging or confirming and tip of the pencil and check-OK. The face like a conjugal visit trailer, looking at the future with a fluffy resigned sadness, too sapped to blast out and up into independent existence above and beyond the sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four walls of politer, polizei, arms'-length acquaintance. A taste like latex capping silver crowns capping scorched enamel is a small price to pay for an affectation that disarms, friendly and safe and unassigned. I think if you bring any of these twitching jumping novelties with liquid-paper eye-points into your Home and Hearth, it and / or they will hatch and you'll have had enough; for this, you are correct to ask, i Killed My Television, I don't even like the Rock Music, whatever the heck? Declaring war on culture to save culture, chameleotherapy of the eyes and ears and neck breast chest great gaping lolling stupid head falls back on its greasy hinge and refuses to take its medicine. Steal the things that Great Unwashing Unnaming They, reckless in their relentless sense of personal and skeletal leverage, refuse to appreciate.

Thank You for being part of Our Success. And here comes the King of the Teenagers, coulombine on eels, more fascinated with the idea of maturity, secondary and tertiary characteristics, than the actual more difficult execution - but my oh my, doesn't that fascial hair rook tellific? You bought your fucking rebellion at the mall; you have failed to keep it new and the lifeblood ran green at the first papery whiff of opportunity, commodifying the silly slipstick just-a-phase shit you were Just Going to Do Anyway, Right? The glow-in-the-dark wolf on your t-shirt symbolizes your deep and meaningful connection with your totem animal you picked late one night over Pepsi and Pizza Hut out of the third edition Monster Manual; good job, there, Captain Neo-Pagan, tell us all about your fierce sense of independence and personal struggles to maintain That What You Believe In, Third Revised Edition, against the forces of the Combine, the System, the Pink Floyd Lyrical Device that could not be happier, frankly, at your choice to remain all sanitized and safe and fucking ridiculous, wanking quietly in the closet and those little mushrooms between your toes are a sign of real personal growth, growth you could tell your shrink about if you really and truly needed one, of course; the people you make a sport of inconveniencing and menacing can't afford casual exorcism and instead purge their demons in public, sharing the sickness in little twitching spores left all over I/O hardware purchased from the lowest bidder. Personal!!! Do Not Open Dot Doc, left right on the god damned hard drive, and where you you, Captain Idle Hands, doing the dipshit's own work for real and free with millions of other like-minded adult babies and giving me a fucking ulcer, a great gaping hole spurting up and out the bile and infected good and weird swollen nodules around the aperture twitch menacingly so as not to be mistaken for nutrition. Rock, paper, stomach lining: nature adores a spiral cheat, curling wet slivers of dialed-up dead centipedes shiver and twist lamely in the wake of a thing best defined by its Endless Quest for IN; the ins justify the means, everywhere, with pores like portholes and gaping clock-lipped ingresses rolling out a red carpet, wet with the saliva of tin dicktators, for the little things wanting in and then some. Like all satire, they are protected forms.
Sunday, December 15th, 2002
12:04 am
Bah ba bah da bap bah
You don't know what you've got until it's gone: Mary Hansen gets hit and killed by a car.

$SOULLESS_TALENTFREE_MUSICAL_ACT continues to live and breathe.

I feel a bit like a stupid child - no, worse, really, as children usually have a sympathetic / justifiable method to their madness; it's the fucking teenagers whose emotions burn predictable and stupid holes in their jaws / pockets - being so angry and sad about the death of someone I've never met. Losing Mary, though, made me take a look at the music that my world revolved around for a handful of crucial and beautiful years, and realize that it's all artifact now. Nothing's ever going to sound like that again. Sorry; I'm new at this whole "music and the people who make it meaning something to me" gig.

That joke you just told? The one about the rebellion-by-numbers cadre living the lives of comfort and luxury they're supposed to be Raging Against (tm) and the quietly lovely just quietly slipping under the wheels of reality without so much as a long goodbye? Someone, anyone, feel free to explain it. Me, I'm going to sit here and enjoy those harmonies; I'm going to miss the ones I never got to hear.
Saturday, December 14th, 2002
9:21 pm
1 December 2002: in a bar somewhere near Alesia Station, later in the evening.
I went looking for one of the holiest sites in Catholicism and accidentally found an area that, if not Paris' armpit (if this city can be said to truly have such a place) (1) then most assuredly its dry, flaky scalp. The umpteenth cold drizzle of the day had begun; I was near a Metro station and decided that a good, long train ride would beat my heretofore foolproof "see Paris by wandering around in the chill and wet" plan. The ticket machine underground kept rejecting my five-day pass, and I doubt that the attendant understood and sympathized with "it keeps rejecting my ticket for the Number 12" so much as wanted the pitiful idiot foreigner out of his queue. On arriving in Abbesses - I was actually delighted, maybe in a condescending way, to discover that there was not only a train station but an entire part of twon called "Abbesses" - I realized that I had no idea where I was. Nor where I was going, apart from this vague idea of a big church on a big hill. Another secret of my success: follow someone who looks like they know what they are doing. I had spotted such a person on the elevator coming up out of the station, and the plan was working / would have worked (2) perfectly except for two critical factors. Number One! The person whom I was following was not, as it turned out, headed anywhere of any even remote importance. Number Two! and you'd think I'd know better by now - I am entirely too self-conscious to follow any one person for too long. I thought I'd be all subtle, you see, and cross the street after my subject but, um, I guess, headed in the same, um, cardinal direction... How subtle is "subtle"? Subtle is getting distracted and losing my [really and truly illegible word here, "lead" I think] entirely. This, I thought, was but a minor setback - I'd just point myself down (literally, in this case, as I walked for at least three minutes down a forty-five degree slope) a side street and wait for the history and beauty of Paris to find me. The first landmark I found was, in red neon letters at least three feet high, the word (and until tody, I didn't know that this was a word) PORNODROME. If pornodrome@hotmail.com isn't already taken, I will be a very disappointed man (3). The Pornodrome proved not an isolated incidence but indeed the crown jewel of an entire street devoted to low-rent perversity. I'm not a - no, scratch that. I am the last person to turn his nose up at pornography, but something about it seemed all wrong: not least of which being the word "HETERO" in big bright yellow letters in just about every window. Open letter to France: nothing takes the illicit and immediate thrill out of pornography and its adjuncts than the word HETERO in big old fucking letters, as though your entire sex shop was some sort of alien experiment, i.e. "Here come the Heteros!" (4) Ugh, help me swear off bad puns forever - insist on cheap innuendo everywhere. I kept walking and, for better or for worse, the non-stop blatant selling of sex // I saw, advertised, in one window, live sex acts, complete with action photos from what I assume were past performances. Look, dammit, it's one thing to watch strangers fucking on video or, god help us, the Internet, but it's quite another to be an active accomplice to the straight-faced (Ha.) murder of joy and humanity that comes from performed sex for an audience. Living eyes turn fantasy into perversity or, at bottom-dollar worst, third-party rape fetishism. The glossies in the windows left nothing to the imagination apart from from bruised labia and choked-back tears in a dark, rented room above Dad's garage. Anyway, the worst (such as it was; I am, after all, a male, heterosexual, masturbation addict) had passed and had questionably progressed into a concentration of the dead berries, crushed underfoot on the Rue de Capitalism: fucking Bargain Stores. To be honest, I had wondered when I'd come across Eiffel Tower snowglobes (5) and tacky blue sweatshirts reading "j'taime paris!" in big swoopy gold stitchery and then, printed in smaller letters across the bottom, "PARIS FRANCE". If the powers that be have relegated such ruthless crap to the outskirts of the city, more power to them. The whole row was what Philip K. Dick would have imagined a Radio Shack to look like if and when mankind recovered from a third world war. There were more subcontinental shysters than you could ever hope to shake any stick at - and even then, they'd probably try to sell you a "real ivory" handle for said stick at three times the retail price. I was almost embarrassed to see these silicon shylocks staring expectantly out of their storefronts; I was "almost" because I caught sight of Sacre Coeur's steeple up a sidestreet - admittedly while I was looking for a cheap place to sit and have a beer and register my not at all unique mix of surprise and terror as regards the Pornodrome and its satellites - and so I broke off to the left. Up this alley, interesting types were trying to sell by way of disinterested demonstration what was nothing more than a Wacky Wallwalker, taken a more human, more expensive shape. I was across the street from the church, trying not to make an ass of myself as I fit the majority of its beauty into my viewfinder, when I realized something. I knew it was important and true, and so I ignored it right away and went on with the mission. What I'd realized, by the way, was that I'd be happier in the long run not so much bothering with all these poorly framed and photographed pictures of ages-old historical landmarks etc when I could just (a) hit a postcard shop - of which there are no shortage around Montmartre and (b) devote my energy to taking pictures of pretty girls. (6) I realized this as I, stupid me, tried to get a cute (in an accidental sort of way) blonde in a t-shirt the color of baby powder out of my shot of a church that has probably been photographed literally millions of times. It was a truly beautiful thing - as I crossed the street, and stood on the Sacre Coeur's land for the first time, the first words I heard were: "Hey you! You speak English?" This from a dreadlocked black guy with a thick Caribbean accent, who had broken free of a pod of at least eight clones to deliver this not at all threatening and suspicious sales pitch. Of course it was a sales pitch - it was happening all around me, some ridiculous bit of sleight-of-hand involving brightly colored string - and before I knew it, the plan was in action: I just stared at him blankly. Yes, the soulless sort of stare, or at least I hoped. "English?" he said again. I squinted and said "Deutsch". He started to try and demonstrate anyway; he must have had quite an opinion of his operative charisma, putting himself directly in my path and insisting that I put my index finger into a loop of the string. I would have, at this point, told him to fuck off, but he would have only gotten a bunch of his fucking friends to beat my ass stupid in the nearest Metro station. On my way up the many, many steps to Sacre Coeur I saw Clone Number Nine running the scam on a group of four. I heard their nominal leader, looking on indulgently, say "this'd better be cheap!" Clone says "oh, yeah, man, cheap cheap." For a second, I thought about calling out to them - should've told him you don't speak English, suckers! Then I got a better look at their eyes - I realized that most people are evil dicks and just because an evil dick speaks English doesn't mean they're my friend. I ended up alongside a little girl, maybe about eight or nine, counting the steps under her breath as we climbed. I had no fucking breath to count under, at this point - outperformed by a small female child, for fuck's sake, who proudly announced the number to her grownups when we hit the big level area be[something - could be anything, really. The entry doesn't continue for much longer, and what's there is an absolute disaster. I remember the act of writing it - I remember the bar and the table, the drinks and the completely fucking disgraceful toilette, nothing more than a glazed hole in the floor, at the bottom of a skinny spiral staircase and somewhere in all this memory is the conscious (well...) justification of this disaster. Cigarettes on a Sunday in Paris are surprisingly hard to find, especially if you've got no fucking idea where to begin looking. This bar, however, sold them, so I gratefully sucked down a couple of beers - which actually went quite nicely with the hours-old cheap supermarket whiskey already roiling away in there - and wrote. Now, I don't remember leaving, or walking back, or or or but I do know that, so caught up was I in the thrill of it all and the drinks that followed, I forgot to eat on 1 December. Such a brave, stupid young man; all this culture begging for a blessing or a beating and not a mitre in sight.]

*

(1) Oh, yes, it can. Ah, to be young and naive again: a few days later, I would head up to Blanche to take a genuine, saw-it-myself photograph of the Moulin Rouge. I had expected something bigger, I guess; I had also thought that I'd have to do a little bit of walking around, hunting for it, taking in the night scene and atmosphere. That famous fucking red windmill fairly slapped itself across my face just as soon as I'd ascended from the underground. There was also something of a line to get in - and here I am, twenty-four years old and still thinking that lines to enter nightclubs, velvet ropes, that whole scene had been nothing more than a silently agreed upon narrative conceit. Having taken the picture, like the thousands of other tourists determined to "get their money's worth" by photographing things and places that had barely registered on their conscious peripheries - well, to be honest, I really didn't care all that much about the Moulin Rouge itself so much as having a convincing and productive excuse for another series of rides on the Metro - I decided that I'd continue to "get my money's worth" by walking up the line to the next station, rather than turning right around and heading - where? I can't remember, honestly; doubtlessly more aimless wandering capped with a few stiff drinks somewhere interesting (7) - this was a bad and stupid move. The Pornodrome was a goddamned drop in the bucket; I kept my head low and shouldered past hustlers with faces like the flat sides of knives, all spreading their open palms, their weight on the good leg, demanding "English? English?" I'm getting some weird looks and all the sex shops are pitching "poppers" and okay, I get it, thanks. On a side note, on my way the hell out of there I did see, in one blackened window, the word "Anal" in pink neon - the script delicate and effortless, like the P.S. on an old lover's grocery list. I'm still not entirely sure how to feel about that, but it's not something one easily forgets.

(2) I had actually written out the word "slash" here, rather than just making a little diagonal line and moving on. What the hell was I thinking? Rest assured that the rest of this transcription is a fucking joy, as well.

(3) Amazingly, it isn't. The disappointment is easier to bear than I had imagined.

(4) In light of footnote One, it all seems so... sensible now. To the cautious and specific smut peddlers of Paris: I apologize for my rash judgment. Still, the word Hetero does come off a bit clinical, n'est-ce pas?

(5) Obviously, I had at this writing not yet visited the Eiffel Tower, where forty thousand North Africans will attempt, with a dashing and cavalier disregard for courtesy or personal space that really ought to be justifiable grounds for felony assault, to sell you one of the Same Five Souvenirs. Over and over, forever, until the Earth crashes into the Sun. I offered a guy from a group of British tourists - inexplicably kitted out with a South Park backpack - in the elevator heading up to the top of the Tower, ten bucks if he hit one of the fuckers with a reasonably-sized glob of spit. He pretended not to hear me, which is fair play as I only pretended to say it; there, in my head, where I say speak randomly and with confidence to complete strangers and end up a better and wiser person for it. In my imagination, which almost always runs a little amuck on elevators (8), it went over quite well.

(6) Of course, I'd have to be able to slow down time to really make this worth the while. One of the times I've wished my eyes were cameras forever: seeing a pretty girl, bored, staring blankly but not pitilessly out of the window of a passing car. Just one photo as such, perfectly executed, would be worth one thousand dollars to even the most jaded set of eyes. You'll never know what she's waiting for.

(7) I remember, now. I capped the aimless wandering with a whiskey at a bar on a street named - no shit - the Rue de Babylone. Wouldn't you?

(8) Making the events of 2 December as they happened seem almost anticlimactic.

*

(and if someone doesn't confess, i'm punishing the whole class)
Wednesday, December 11th, 2002
9:08 pm
1 December 2002: Paris Sud Hotel, somewhere between four-thirty and five o'clock in the evening.
I'm sitting in a hotel room in France, sipping scotch whisky and watching horse racing on Canal + with the sound turned off. Is there that much of a difference between self-parody and sincerity?

*

(the strangely fulfilling boredom of an unassigned patron saint)
Tuesday, December 10th, 2002
10:29 am
1 December 2002: La Dfense, six o'clock in the morning.
One of the best mornings I can remember spending, really, walking alone through the empty plaza in almost complete silence. Every five minutes or so, something will break it - an improbable huddle of pigeons directly in my path, fasteners clanging against their flagpoles, leaves scraping across the pavement - not a detail out of place; the effect is literally dreamlike. My dreams, to be exact - for years I've had recurring dreams that play out along certain themes, and this morning they're all around me. It's a peaceful feeling, this waking conscious refusal of reality, and true to form, I want more peace - desperately unaware of the contradiction, my peripheral vision straining against nature for more light, more evidence. The available light - which is to say none at all apart from the economical hum of white artificial light, hanging in a cold black hardened magnificence in their own perfect circles and squares... signs: numbered, suspended, spattered with those eerie universal symbols - everywhere along the plaza of La D�fense. Just as in all my dreams of carefully ordered panic and concrete, they are incomprehensible yet clearly following a strict and unobtainably sensible method. Always in the One True Typeface, smooth open lines too perfect to have ever once been drafted by human hands, much less duplicated. - This light is unapologetically enough. The moon, even a single star, would have wrecked the scene; the only permanence allowed in this world is the confident, posturing fragility of words like halogen and fluorescence. The architecture is the most important of all; it's a place I want to be, clean angles of flat affect rising up seemingly forever; only I can feel without seeing the almost hysterical impulse to complexity hidden in these buildings. I want to soak their floor plans in cognac, wrap them around thick, bleeding cuts of meat and eat them with my bare hands. In the cold quiet imperfect dark, absolutely alone, I'm free to believe that I created them, years ago, forever anywhere, and this morning was what lay in wait, wanting to be found. The silence always has a way of amplifying echoes in my mind - the last words I spoke aloud, "je regrette," are played back and re-recorded again and again until half an hour later, the voice is not really even my own. Like so many of the faces here, the sound is slippery - naggingly familiar. On the train, a girl had asked me for the time of day. I couldn't give it to her, pulling back both sleeves to reveal my bare white wrists, and I apologized. We rode together, then, in resumed silence to the line's terminus - La D�fense - disembarked. I turned my back, heading for Le Grande Arche, and then back again, but she and the perhaps twenty other passengers had vanished forever, assumed up into escalators or swallowed, lettered and labelled, by any one of the innumerable sorties. Curling columns of wet wool, the swirling smell of a minute's worth of politely quite bustle, with practiced feet gently and precisely finding their way up my nose, meeting those poor ragged dangling bits of brain left to meet them, trigger the inevitable feeling of detachment and longing that comes from any one good, solid, almost religious instance of public transportation. Everyone had somewhere to be, some reason for being on the first train to the end of the line; the big black X where that true sense, in the fingertips and guts and sinuses, of purpose is a hole, inside, with gentle old claws that direct my attention to the crook of an elbow, an errant strand of hair, a stain on a shoulder strap - trying to piece together incidentals, the hand-me-down collisions of strangers into something more like the real thing. About a car length away, a man had started laughing, really and honestly laughing - not the ostentatious and forced laughter of the pitiful urban attention-seeker; this was true laughter that just fed on its own awkwardness, embarrassment, the sort of laughter that lets you think it's over, for a moment or two, only to tickle just under the snap of the spine with now what was I - oh god and it's back, again. His friend had laid a hand on his shoulder, tried to quiet him but it was infectious. Eventually I clamped a fist to my grin, glanced at the girl, smiling quietly into her lap, made as to clear my throat. They all had places to be; this was all a means to an end that would never be verbalized or comprehended and they're really and truly gone forever, this morning, the trail is as cold as the ceramic tiles and second hands here in this train station; terminus, end of the line, pulled up a small snatch of stairwell here in the understanding arms of Mother Defense. The wind, a gentle laughing constant, plucked up the dangling end of my scarf with two thin fingers and slapped it playfully across my face; from this I gathered that serious and ridiculous are often interchangeable. The forty-five minute fugue, a pearl in the geographic center of my brain, throbbed its wavelength repetitively, as compulsive as any epiphany or delusion. I need to find a place out of the wind to write this down, I thought. You need to do a lot of things, I replied, walking on regardless.

*

To be continued.

*

(i've got a notebook full of the things you forgot to say)
Monday, October 28th, 2002
10:23 pm
What doesn't get saved is called "fiction"
I didn't know where you'd be, but you were there anyway - at the seashore, with salty water seeping in through the crackling new canvas of your American sneakers. I waited for you there, right where I said I would, windward of City Hall, sharing cigarettes and stories with a centuries-old general draped in bronze and birdshit, and I pictured you there, too, returning to the scene of the crime. The place is the same, always, same rough rocks and pliable sand and listful looks, practiced offhand remarks aimed out at the sea. I told the general in a quiet voice, that broke to smile tight-lipped and hopeful at pretty girls, about that sadistic, useless French game show, "The Place is the Same," in which a nearly identical parade of suitors are presented to a no doubt discerning and deserving ranking member of the gorgeous, aloof oligarchy - but can she determine, at the end of the line, where The Place is the Same? I could have heard my name or seawater or "c'mere" through the ringing in my ears, or between it, or because of it, a function of: an illness with misplaced compassion fixes the roulette wheel.

I'd bought you something. It was going to be a surprise, when I got home, no pushpins, so it wasn't even technically mine. Not until four corners are flush against the wall - you'd have laughed at that once - but I didn't expect that to be any sort of a pleasant surprise, like heartstrings pulled and nostalgia plucked would end up in some rainwater-soaked greeting-card ending upon which we embrace, eating each other's mistakes and imperfections and incompatibilities all at once I assume, and then living happily ever whatever to run down our batteries stripped of all drama and interest in a haze of moist sandy dust that I could swear wasn't as thick last year, was it, sweetie? He asked, peeling off your cellophane, crinkly like the poster I'd bought you and now can't remember, it's rolled up tight in the corner against the fading power of light and temptation, and it's a red herring. I carried it swick! double-tight against my armpit, a trick I picked up from the general. At the last minute, without thinking about your wet shoes and socks and the skin, downy hair, nails caked with dried salt and trace metals - I wouldn't have even noticed, not this time or ever, the gift of a Big Brain somehow an antidote to all poisons - I picked up that trick as though I'd need to flash out with your gift and swat any and all comers. Shoulder and wrist and whap, bet that stings, go fuck yourself. Rank has its privileges.

I waited for you for four hours, almost five, before I went outside and waited by the statue on the windward side of the building and so on, because I left early and I arrived early because I was eager. Everything that I was doing that wasn't preparation or transport seemed noisy and sloppy, half thought-out, fifty-two aces tossed into a hat and a stack of old National Geographics, that's all psychic curdling and I'm too young to curdle. The use of "almost": but I never told you about the first teacher I had way back when I was just a tiny thing that taught me about rounding. Her old man was a car salesman and an adulterer and she taught us to round down and I did and do think it's the nice thing to do, no one was ever hurt by not enough. I'm going to enjoy curdling one day - I saw that sort of thing, today, waiting for you in the Public Library which is right next to City Hall, with a cold fountain in front and shady shade for smoking and squatting and resting, sympathetic types will hold your place in thousand-page reference books while you sneak away for a secret break. Giant women lumbering - lumbering, as in made of lumber, with a minimum of joints and smooth edges, and as in the plural - stomping the periodical section, snatching up newspapers like offensive Soviet placenta and photocopying THE HELL out of the daily crosswords, then leaving, without a sound, feet lost thousands of pounds with the mission accomplished until tomorrow, it's probably a rewarding sort of curdling after years of soaking up restless nothing, ironing out dents in the old lonely bones and brainpan without taking chances or losing hair. We were their opposite, once, teeny-tiny little kids that dressed these humorless heavy shrively things in leopard skins, made the paint on cave walls, fight dinosaurs, um drink lava or whatever, we were creatures with bedtimes and they never seemed to sleep. Now we don't have bedtimes, either. Look, someone that lives here got high and started talking, and he found two stupid words that rhyme, and he fell in love with those two words. I'm not going to name his name because you know who it (okay, oops, HE) is and you might not in a month or a year or a decade, and so in a way this stupid mistake of a stoner roommate of mine might be the only visceral, emotional anchor to this entire letter.

In waiting for you, I missed what was almost a sure chance to have sex with a girl named Dagmar. Telling you this doesn't really help set that whole "betrayed martyr" tone I thought I was going for when I sat down to write this - I'm back at the library, actually, not because I'm one hundred percent hoping Dagmar will come back, because the chances of that are quite slim because Dagmar was doing genealogical research on microfiche (which, I might mention - I'm saying all that to myself out loud and it sounds like it should be in capitals. But apparently, lots of people do just that sort of research every day, and most of them are unhappy, elderly, religious types, the sort of person that can tell you WHO built a windmill but not WHY if you know what I mean, and oh god, why WOULD you?) and she was done, because she was a woman that knew how to do her research. So you're sitting there reading this and thinking "poor baby, missing out on a quick and dirty pick-up, whatever, thanks for the letter but I've got expensive stolen prescription medication to abuse and" yeah, well, okay, it's not just like that. I didn't want to have sex with her, initially, nor would I have picked the back of her head out of a row of hairy balls hunched over microfiche readers and said "ah yes, I shall have zees vun," I'm just saying that it would have been inevitable for good or for ill, the way things were going, and that her name was Dagmar, and do you know how many girls at or acceptably around my age are named Dagmar these days? You can't not be interesting in this day and age with a name like that, much less with the added burden of being reasonably attractive and having a perfectly symmetrical tomato tattooed on the back of your neck, but at the end of the day, this boy had to go wait for his girlfriend. Dagmar went away forever to go be interesting and compelling and, no doubt, someone's "I can't believe I met you" while I cultivated lung cancer and guano and you went swimming. Again.
Tuesday, October 1st, 2002
12:14 pm
Light from dead stars
1. Deciding who rents a room here, who's going to live in our house and pass us in the halls and eat with us in the kitchen or breakfast nook or living room in front of the TV, that is up to me. I didn't decide that my family would be living here, and of course we'd take in anyone Prentice had found, but apart from that, I'm responsible for holding everything together. It's an important job, because the dynamic around here is a little fragile at the best of times. Filtering out the cranks is, probably, the easiest thing to do, but it took up the most time until I came up with a simpler way. People who want to come and rent a room here are almost always doing so under the impression that this house is full of sex maniacs; I don't know how, exactly, that rumor started circulating, but it became pretty obvious while interviewing people that by and large it was believed that we, well I anyway, was running some sort of exclusive extended-stay brothel or swinging singles resort or some silly shit like that. I guess having Prentice around is partially responsible for that, but it's not as though he can help it, and anyway, he's completely harmless. I mean, I could tell you that Prentice spends most of his time in bed, which is true, and if you're ready for it to sound all kinky, it will. If I told you Grandma spends almost all her time in bed, which is also true, though... Like I said, it's a fragile dynamic. So now, to apply to live here, you have to take an electronic quiz that I created. It runs in a web browser; I've only tested it in Internet Explorer, but it's nothing too flashy so it ought to work anywhere. I like to think I know a lot about people, and how they work - living here long enough will open your eyes to that sort of thing - so the quiz screens out, I assume, the thrill-seekers, etc. At the moment, I'm watching TV with Grandma. More to the point, I'm watching Grandma watch TV; what she chooses to watch, and her reactions to those choices, are really entertaining. When she dozes off, I'll go do something else, passing the time. I'm waiting for a new applicant to show up.

2. Nobody hates Prentice: he always tried to do the right thing, and to help people however he could. The bad things that happened - the side effects of Prentice's help - weren't his fault, and in a lot of cases the good he did outweighs the bad. I guess you could say that most people, including myself, sometimes, just resent the fact that Prentice exists. Before his brain went weird and he came to live here, he made his money betting on horse racing and helping the police and the FBI and other concerned protagonists find missing people. He had a real soft spot for missing children. He had a desk drawer full of those "Have You Seen Me?" postcards that get bulk-mailed to every boxholder in North America; you could sometimes call his house and ask him what he was up to and he'd say "oh, nothing much," or whatever - but if you listened hard enough, you could hear the drawer sliding closed. He had this plan: as soon as he had enough money and his talents weren't so damaged, he was going to go from town to town and find these missing kids. I don't often lose my temper, but I was getting sick of watching him beat himself up and I just flipped out, one time, and started yelling. Really yelling: by the time he got around to it, they'd all be dead or grown-up or recovered or trying to adjust themselves to their new normality. He didn't take that too well, and he didn't get rid of the cards, either. When he came to live here, I finally got to throw them away. He's not allowed to get mail; even if he was in a condition to read it, he's not allowed to get mail.

3. A voice on the phone says come answer the door. When the door opens I am hit with the color orange and the salted corn smell of toenail clippings. This is the new applicant: he is gigantic. When I was a kid, I met a professional wrestler - I'm using "met" in the sense of shaking hands, receiving a "thanks for coming out tonight" - that was supposedly seven feet tall. This guy at the door, in this puffy ribbed orange hunting vest and stocking cap, is the real deal: it's the same feeling of being benignly dwarfed here. He doesn't shave at all, not even his neck, and it's only when he opens his mouth to speak that I even think to look for a mouth. I don't want to laugh in his face, of course, but here, right before my eyes, is this colossal overblown archetype of a man, grinning and explaining how he thought the doorbell would've woke up the whole house, so he used the phone. Actually, the doorbell only rings in selected rooms, but I don't feel like standing here and explaining the how's and why's of the house to this new applicant, who I don't even really know. I mean I don't feel like it would be appropriate.

4. Harassment while seeking medical or dental care; trying to buy car, food, (grocery store or restaurant, fastfood or sitdown). While trying to rent apartment, hotem, or motel, being exhausted while traveling. Even something as simple as getting a haircut requires quite a bit of jumping through hoops. Phone tapped. Cell phone remotely controlled. These activities are designed to provoke, create retaliation, make appear as mad man and to cover up something.

5. We go into the kitchen and I sit at the table; he leans on the counter, drinking a can of ginger ale. About halfway through the "interview," actually, halfway through one of his own sentences, without even pausing, he fishes a fat manila envelope out of his vest, tosses it over, where it goes splat on the table right in front of me. I could still feel heat coming off of it; it turned out to be full of cash. Apparently, he's decided that he's in, just like that, and this really is all just small talk. I feel a weird little sense of satisfaction as I count the money, neat tight little stacks of crisp twenties, because I've put one over on him, just like everyone else - he didn't even realize he was being interviewed, examined. I have to admit, the cash seals the deal. I walk over to the gray metal key box on the wall, nodding and mm-hmming, and toss him the duplicate key to Room 12. I catch myself doing it, and I realize this is totally unlike me, there's the slightest kleengy snap as he pops the keys right out of the air and into his pants pocket. I am not at all at ease with him, but I want to feel at ease with him, and it's this unnatural want that makes me uneasy. I had hoped that giving him the keys would end the conversation - i.e. all right, you pass, go to bed - but instead he just sits right down across from me, still sucking on that can of ginger ale. That drink must be well above room temperature; his beard, such as it is, is matted with it and I wish I'd been paying attention because now he's talking about cryptography? I wish that my brother was here: he can small-talk at anybody. He's a "people person," he reads self-help books, he's out in the world and I'm here at three-thirty in the morning, in a bathrobe and slippers, drinking coffee and responsible for the safety of Mom and Grandma and Prentice and Lucia and the rest of them. I know it's three-thirty now, I only just thought to look at the clock because he finally ran out of steam, decided it was time to "turn in," and oh shit, I haven't done a thing to prepare for tomorrow.

6. When the sun rises, I am still sitting in the kitchen reading and mixing chemicals. The new guy comes into the kitchen and shoots me a quick wink of greetings, then heads directly for the phone. His beard seems a little more bedraggled, but otherwise he looks exactly the same. I only really see him as a beard sitting on top of that absurd orange hunting vest, which he probably slept in, if he got any sleep at all. He spends most of the conversation, it seems, barely able to control his anger. He actually shouts a couple of times - "must've been the goddamn CIA that shot it down, you know I don't have that kind of" and "I'm real sorry, six-two-four, but I want two men on those checkpoints" - and then looks over at me. This worries me for two reasons: Number One is that the government taps every phone call and when they hear enough stuff like "CIA" and "checkpoints" they start paying more attention. Number Two is that I have to change Grandma's fluids soon and that's easier if she's sleeping, which she won't be if this guy, who I guess works for the Border Patrol, can't get a handle on himself. He hangs up and goes out the back door, and I'm sure he'll slam it, but he doesn't.

7. The guy who works for the Border Patrol or whatever belongs to several online communities. When he went outside to smoke and seethe, I used his laptop to search for his e-mail address. He likes to go by the handle "Tyrannosaurus" if it's available. It's it's not, then he uses "Mr. Tyrannosaurus," or just adds a couple of numbers to the end. In one forum, he tells a bunch of people talking about what they're going to dress up as on Halloween to "shuuuut up," which is ignored. The dinosaur you pick to represent you probably says a lot about you; I wouldn't know, as I'm just getting the hang of the concept. I would be an Ankylosaurus. Mom would be a Maiasaurus. Grandma would be an Oviraptor.

8. There are all sorts of transmitters, monitors, and bugs in my residence and automobiles - even the one that I lease - for the past 30 years. Which I would not mind, because I have nothing to hide. Except the monitors are there to follow me for harassment.

9. "Come in here boy," says the old lady living in Room 17. She really talks like that; her mind isn't so good and she'd decided, somewhere along the line, to talk and act like a wizened Victorian-era spinster. God only knows what she realized about herself that finally flipped her switch, but it must have been a real hum-dinger. I go on into her room because, apart from the overwhelming sense of must she generates, I assume, through sheer force of personality, she is harmless and will often slip me money for no good reason. "Why you wear" oh, you know, the hell with it. Quoting her is entirely too hard and her dialogue wouldn't even make sense on the page, you really have to see and hear her, follow her eyes and her tones and her hands, to have any idea what she's talking about - she asks me about the button I wear everyday, white with a big black "23" on it. I don't mind answering her. That is probably the most sensible thing ending with a question mark I'll hear all day. Everyone in my family wears these buttons; they designate which room you live in. They're for Grandma's sake, so she doesn't wander into the wrong room. She is forgetful and often confused. "23 rooms! And tell me my boy, who owns this... this palace?" (I couldn't resist.) Actually, there are thirty rooms, but I don't tell her that. I don't see any sense in prolonging the conversation. She gives me five dollars and tells me in a very roundabout way that I am to use the money to buy myself a pair of presentable shoes. It's six-thirty in the morning and I'm in slippers, of course, but I keep the money anyway.

10. Going back into my bedroom, I pass Lucia, who is on her way out of my bedroom. No one's supposed to go in there, really, especially when I'm not in there, but that's just Lucia for you, nonchalant as hell. She's completely fearless and goes wherever she pleases - she has, on more than on occasion, just walked right in while I've been trying to use the toilet. And just stand there and stare until I'm finished, and then just walk out. She's a funny kid, and she's going to be famous some day. Wait and see. My notebooks are scattered all over my bed, open to pages full of old homework. I still have all my notebooks from school, but I can't read them anymore. It's nothing emotionally riveting, it's just that they literally seem to be written in another language. The English assignments are the worst: I can only read - parse, actually - about two or three sentences at one time before I get a splitting headache. The math assignments I can look at safely, because by now I've forgotten all the math I learned. So the mathematics are a language once removed, I guess, and that seems to be what Lucia was interested in here. Across the top of the pages (I was always a bit fastidious about keeping my margins, in case anyone wanted to borrow my notes, ever) she has written things like "GOOD JOB" and "A+" and "SUPER!" Spattered all around these encouragements are checks and stars and hearts and smiley faces and, bizarrely, a caduceus. I close the notebooks and put them away and smooth out the wrinkles in my bedspread.

11. Apartment and truck vandalized. Pets tortured and killed. No maintenance on apartment. Isolated and alienated so there can be no one to tell.

12. "I don't like this new fella," says my mother. I shrug. "He's nice to me," I say, "has he not been nice to you? Has he even talked to you yet?" "Well." "I think he works for the government. The Border Patrol." "I'm telling you, I get a bad feeling about this man. Like he's dangerous. Shady." "No offense, Mom, but that's probably just because he works for the government." "I don't like men with beards, either." I pause, here; this is in its way irrefutable logic. It's not as if I can say "oh yes you do" or "why not," and anyway, I'll be plain, I don't care for beards myself. "Well, it's not as if I could just up and ask him to shave it off, Mom, honestly." "You're picky enough about who gets into this house." Great, now she's in a bad mood and we're completely off of the subject. This could go on for hours. "Well," I start, sighing a little to concede if not defeat then my willingness to call it a draw, "he didn't seem like a prick, and he's got lots of money. He's downright normal, considering." Mom just looks at me, right in the eyes, and I suddenly feel myself holding back the giggles. Great. "You mark my words, he's going to fuck things up around here." That's the way my family is - straight to the point and a paranoid to a fault.

13. I figured out why the notebooks didn't give Lucia headaches - she often pretends that she doesn't speak, read, or understand any English. And she was pretending extra-hard, here. She's got her own language that involves lots of clapping and stamping of the feet, and she uses it to not only ignore but render completely moot any arguments, commands, or facts she finds undesirable. This drives Grandma up the wall, because Grandma wants me to teach Lucia how to mix the chemicals and change her fluids. Grandma is desperately paranoid that I am going to move away and that she'll be left to dry up and die. Anyway, Lucia is not at all interested in learning about Grandma-maintenance. Lucia is interested in being, and I quote, "the lady who puts the stickers on the bananas at the banana factory." I had to quote her there so you wouldn't think I believe in such a thing as a banana factory. I didn't have the heart to tell her that it's probably done by machines; anyway, she'd just decide that she wants to be a machine etc. That's just the kind of kid she is. She has also indicated a desire to see that movie about Jackie Chan and his magic tuxedo. We'll probably have to wait for video.

14. My brother has two guests right now: these two girls, both aged sixteen, that seem to know each other. My brother is out of town right now, again, and those girls never leave each other's side and stick to the same few rooms, every day, never leaving. When I go into the upstairs study to find an old encyclopedia, they are in there playing Twister and laughing. My guess is that they were playing Twister for the express purpose of being seen playing Twister, since they still think it's a very transgressive thing for two girls their age to do. Finding the book takes forever, since everything is in such a mess and most of the books have been pushed to the back of the shelves or removed completely to make room for board games and videotapes and holiday decorations, which can be fun even without a holiday involved, sometimes. Another reason this is taking forever is these girls won't stop talking to me. One of them claims to have been born on a Twister mat: her mom went into labor when they were driving across the country and that was the only clean thing in the car for her to be birthed onto and wrapped up in. It's a stupid story but I don't bother shooting holes in it. Then the other one asks me if people masturbated before the Internet was invented, and she seems to actually mean it. "Of course they did," I say. She asks me if I do. "Everyone does," I say.I don't mind her asking these questions all that much. Almost everybody in the house is a little fucked-up or more, sexually. Either they were that way when they got here or a proximity to Prentice made them that way. Later I will worry that they had conspired to ask me those questions in order to have me arrested as a pedophile, even though I'm just ten years older than they are.

15. I'm doing yardwork and Lucia's playing with this little bald-headed kid from the neighborhood; he looks like a black Charlie Brown. Of course, they're not saying anything, and as long as I've been paying attention - and you have to, you have to watch that Lucia like a hawk, especially around strangers, which you can read as anyone who hasn't ever been in the house - they haven't uttered a peep. Lucia was just sitting there on the pavement, dancing with the fairies in her head, and the black Charlie Brown just came and plopped himself down next to her, and now they're pushing marbles and little rubber balls back and forth at each other. If you could figure out the complex little games kids make up on the spot and market them at adults, you'd be filthy rich. This game, though, has got to end; Lucia needs to go inside and eat lunch, so I just walk right over and tell her. She looks up at me and makes a face, crinkles up her nose. "I made a friend," she says. I ask her, what's your friend's name? She shrugs, then practically paralyzes the poor little bastard under sudden and intense eye contact, thrusts out her grubby little hand, and blurts out MY NAME'S LUCIA, WHAT'S YOURS? I squat down, pat the kid on the shoulder, why don't you tell her your name. Silence. I stand up, come on Lucia, go inside for your lunch. She looks back at me, about halfway up the path to the front door, and says "His name's Crunchy, and he's five." The newly-christened Crunchy gets up and runs off down the sidewalk. Time to tend to the roses.

16. There have been too many forms of harassment to mention. I touched on only a small segment. Even physical damage to my body.

17. I'm still pruning the rosebushes when the guy from the delicatessen comes up and starts talking to me. He's wearing that same powder-blue bowling shirt with the piping, he must have a closet full of the things. I guess he thinks it makes him more approachable, like a pot-belling Chicano uncle or something, but it makes him come off cartoonish. Like God couldn't bother making him distinctive in any way, so he wears the same clothes every day so you'll know who he is. I don't really want to talk to him, but he seems pretty okay and not really eager for any sort of response. The talking's enough for him until he asks a question, the context of which is lost on me as I've been playing more attention to the rosebushes and mosquitoes than the sound of his voice. "How's your brother, did your brother make the swim team?" he asks. I tell him that I don't have a brother that was trying out for the swim team - I consider messing with his head a little and telling him I don't have a brother at all, then pretending to suddenly go blind. It turns out I wouldn't have had to bother; this alone really spins him out. "What do you mean, you don't have a brother trying out for the swim team, how about a sister?" I decide to end the conversation at this point by hosing the blood and sweat and dirt off of my hands and arms, and then saying "goodbye" and going back inside. I don't see how anyone could mistake a brother for a sister and something doesn't seem right about his questions. I wonder if that was for a hidden camera TV show, to see if people will tell amusing lies rather than deal with an awkward situation. I'd probably watch that.

18. Friends have come over tonight. They're a couple, and they've been a couple for as long as I've known them. I've talked to some of their friends, on the odd occasion we've all agreed that the big social gathering thing is what's called for, and no one remembers them ever being single, or with anyone else. This is alternately charming - they have a rapport that they really seem to enjoy and benefit from - and frightening. She of course greets me with "you don't look so good;" if she didn't say that within five minutes of seeing me, I might really begin to worry. I shrug, because now that she's got me thinking about it for a second or two, I realize that I can't remember having looked into a mirror all day. She's probably right, but neither of them need impressing. They're both healthy and fit, and my disrepair is probably as much a comfort / worry to them as their perfect relationship that extends in both directions, forever. I find myself falling back into the easy give-and-take of natural conversation with intelligent, sympathetic human beings; our laughter must have been a bit more than I'd expected, as Lucia, like clockwork, appears in what is now a wide-open doorway without a sound, just staring. It's framed perfectly - this little girl, standing in one of Prentice's old Smiths t-shirts she'd adopted as a nightgown, in this rectangle of soft orange nightlight Those thirsty, silent eyes. I don't want to ruin it by speaking - just wondering what will this girl know when she's my age? - but Edward and Margot snap out of their Surprised Mode and squeal and coo and fawn over Lucia, which is evidently the right answer. We slice the dirtier words out of our conversation, and Lucia sits silently in Ed's lap, shooting Margot one long look of possessive pity and disdain. "Me and Margot are moving in together," Ed says, finally - I say finally because his sentence has that waiting-for-it cadence and structure, "and, you know, if you wanted, we wouldn't mind getting a three bedroom place. Maybe downtown." "Ed, I - I don't know where I'm going to be in three months." There's a pause; I sigh and stretch like nothing's happened and I reach for the remote. "You guys feel like watching a movie?"

19. After we finish the movie (something PG, in deference to the little ears in attendance; however the owner of those ears found the movie boring and wordlessly wandered out after fifteen minutes) and a couple of cups of coffee, they leave. I trust them to be able to find their way out of the house in dark - they've done it before, and they know where and, more importantly, where not to go. I throw darts at the board and fool around with my old metronome for a few minutes, trying to hypnotize my hands and arms, trick them into not feeling so swollen. At the moment, I don't know where to put them. I get a weird feeling and decide to stick my head out of my bedroom door, look up and down the hall - the couple are there, in the stairwell, a rustling, undulating silhouette that couldn't, apparently, wait the three minutes it would have taken to get to the car. A door opens, loudly: they break apart and pad down the stairs, young cat burglars, a single-minded single mind. Border Patrol comes out of his room, moving a few deliberate, lunging steps at a time. Singing quietly to himself, he pisses into a potted rubber tree at the end of the hall. He's still wearing the hunting vest, and he's got one shoulder against the wall. In his moment of weakness, I feel sorry for him, because he doesn't want to fall down; he can't even count on his own legs right now, and that must be terrifying. The vest rubbing against the wall makes a weird noise, like a fiberglass pterodactyl calling for its mother, begging for a bit of something dead. It hits me that I would like to have Prentice's opinion on this new lodger; it then hits me that I haven't thought of Prentice as something apart from another broken human-thing to which I tend in a long time. Again I find myself wishing my brother was back, in reference to this man: my brother is older, and stronger, and bigger than I, and is impossible to intimidate. I'm ashamed of myself - I realize I'm fetishizing him as my personal attack dog, but I just don't want any trouble.

21. The thing about Prentice: I think his natural talents are what finally pushed him over, made him snap inside, and I mean that literally as well as in a broader sense. Prentice could find anyone by handling one of their important possessions, like a wallet or pillowcase or wristwatch. This wasn't the sort of phoney parlor trick telemetry, either; he would and could know where people were just as surely as I, for example, can know how far my hand is from my face while blindfolded. That's how he had explained it to me, when I finally kicked up the guts to ask about it, and it's a good example. Try it. We were best friends, had been since forever and had shared just about everything, growing up, but I knew talking about it, thinking about it, just having that talent took a lot out of him, which brings me to the broader sense. He felt overly responsible for people, strangers; the fact that just because they were found didn't make them saved drove him just wild, in the worst way. In fact, being found by Prentice, it turned out, wasn't always such a great thing. Again borrowing from someone else's explanation, shamelessly: when Prentice made that connection with you, it was like your long term memory got crammed all at once into your short / immediate term memory. At any one time, you're sitting there reading a book and listening to music in the background and maybe eating some potato chips, and you sense them and assess those senses, like the chips are salty and crunchy and, I don't know, ranch flavored, and you decide that it's a good thing and you want to keep eating. Or reading, or listening to your music. But the effect here was like having all your assessments loaded into here-and-now, all at once, for just an instant, so that in addition to being the sum you can see the many parts - it sounds flaky, but it tended to break people, some of whom live here now. It broke Prentice too, eventually, and now he just sits there in his bed, except for when I wheel him out around the block for fresh air and sunshine. He sits there just radiating pure Prentice; the closer you get to him, physically, the closer you are, emotionally, which is why I'm the only one that can look after him, which is why everyone who lives here is a little crooked, which is why we keep Prentice in Room 13 -

22. Oh no.
Saturday, June 29th, 2002
8:05 am
Forget as an active verb
My foster parents had gotten me up early to help them set up for the picnic. It was ridiculous - I hadn't even eaten yet, myself, and here I was surrounded by all these glistening all-American lunchtime foods. I was actually putting hot dogs into little baggies and scooping potato salad the color of an old soldier's infected discharge into little serving-size plastic containers. I was still too sleepy to even handle the concept of a "picnic," much less this garish kitchen, which was a testament to how much time and money and effort went into looking casual and comfortable and natural. That soft light breaking through yonder window wasn't even real; my foster parents could not reasonably expect it to be sunny outside all the time. Everything was arranged and predictable - now, they're great people, and this was what made them happy, I mean truly happy. They're living proof that "arranged and predictable" has value. It just made me sleepier. Speaking of predictable, I heard my foster mom take in the little half-second puff of air, punctuated by the soft paf of parting lips, that meant that she was going to start talking. Talking to me, of course; she and my foster dad got along great and I always suspected this is mainly because they never ever talked to each other, that I knew of anyway.

"You know," she said, and let me assure you that there was only one sentence since she'd told me about this damn picnic that had started off this way, and I was about to hear it for the forty millionth time, "if you want to bring along any of your friends, your fa- Roger and I don't mind. There'll be more than enough."

Same damn sentence. I mean, here I was practically up to my elbows in the picnic, I was in a pretty safe position to know exactly how much food there would be - in this case, enough to provide a moderate, almost laughably traditional Fourth of July picnic lunch to a horde of paratroopers - and she still tossed in that little coda there. Oh, and about that little slip-up in there? Completely intentional. In fact, she did it every single time she referenced my foster dad, whom I did not address as "hey dad" or "hey foster dad" but "hey Roger." I let myself believe that it was an honest mistake for a long time. When I figured out that it was intentional, I was furious - furious! - and just refused to address either of them, period, for a while. The house was very quiet then, and I was able to pick what I was supposed to say out of the silence; I was supposed to stop her after she corrected herself and say: "no, mom, it's alright," and smile warmly at both of them. It sounds terrible, but they really did have pure hearts, and that's what hurt like hell.

I've gotten so carried away in picking my foster mom to pieces that I actually forgot what, exactly, I said back to her. Probably nothing important; some variation on "uh-huh" or "I know" or "okay." I was feeling pretty shitty that morning - this was the high point of my day, remember - so I might have thrown in some wisecrack about 6 AM not being the best time to call up friends I didn't have to invite them along to a goddamn picnic. Then my cell phone rang, and as soon as the sound hit my ears I knew for one second exactly how the day was going to turn out; the day's events were dumped into my brain and immediately erased, and I dropped the knife and cucumber and ran down the hall, flinging a "dunno" over my shoulder to answer the "what was that?" I couldn't hear for the blood pounding in my ears.

So I pressed the button and I put the phone up to my face and I tried not to breathe heavily. She was going to have to talk first, but that was okay - she could be relied upon to talk first, middle, and last if you let her. For a second I was curious as to how, exactly, she'd gotten this number; no one, not even my foster parents, knew that I had a cell phone, and frankly I couldn't have explained why I'd bought the damn thing if you held a gun to my head. The few conversations I did have with people, apart from my foster parents, were never so important that they couldn't be attached to a wall. I realized as soon as she spoke - it broke the spell of wandering hypothesis, I guess - that I knew her well enough to know that I didn't need to know. If she didn't eventually tell me, then I could safely assume that I didn't want to know.

"It was good seeing you yesterday," she said, and it broke my heart that she had to be so literal. We had seen each other, all right. In the sense that we shared a couple of minutes of eye contact across a busy street downtown, and yes, it had been good seeing her. So I let her go right ahead and tell me things - what she was doing back in town, how she got my number, and most importantly the identity and origin of that asshole who had been holding holding holding her hand, sorry - as I climbed out the window and jumped over the high hedge of guardbushes into the front yard, where I paced and smoked and waited for the other shoe to drop.

"I want to see you," she said, and there it was, ker-plunk. The fact that she'd whispered it made something in my throat tense and snap; it felt like the last tick of a dying clock.

"Yeah," I said, "but I can't today, I have to go on this stupid -"

"It has to be today," she said, still whispering, "and it has to be in secret."

"Secret? Jesus, it's not a secret that we were friends. Don't you think your fucking boyfriend" (you better believe I'd intended that word to sting) "would realize you'd want to see old friends if you were back in town?"

She ignored all of that. Just like old times, I only knew after the fact when I shouldn't have even bothered opening my mouth. "Meet me," she said, "meet me at the rest area."

"The rest area?"

She sighed. "Our rest area-" and here I realized that she didn't mean a literal rest area, she meant the Rest Area, that little park we'd named the Rest Area because, yeah "-the one up by Black Oaks Mall."

A second something in my throat snapped; now I was whispering: "Good, when."

"Fifteen minutes," she said, breaking the spell.

"Oh, you stupid, stupid girl," I said, kicking for punctuation the shopping basket some derelict had left in our yard. "You realize-"

"Fine, fuck you then," she said. And we waited. "I need to get a shower first anyway." It's always that innocent shit that stings the most, if you let yourself think about it too hard.

"Clean yourself up," I said, "and call me back when you're finished. I'll see what I can do." She hung up. Weird combinations were reeling through my head as I walked up the path to the front door; the whole conversation in this fifteen-second post mortem seemed scripted, but I realized that I'd had the power to break free of the script at any time by giving into the urge to vomit. And I pictured it, I closed my eyes against the power of it, blood and bile and phlegm and tar and steaming chunks of shit on training wheels all over my bare feet and the bare patches in the lawn, sinking into the ground and being immediately absorbed, shit, now I'm sinking into the ground, and millions of gossamer roots are sapping my strength just by brushing against my skin, absorbing me, breaking me painlessly down into a useless gray goo -

It was then I realized I'd brushed up against one of the guardbushes, and the nerve toxins were well and truly fucking me up; I was walking on carpet and feeling surrounded by soil and hair and earthworms, wrapping themselves around my limbs, these soft tense pink cords of altruism insistently silently lifting me to the surface, leaving me propped up against the back of a couch where my foster parents sat, watching television. Half of my vision was blurred out, like someone had pissed ions all over the screen of an old television. I was making my way to the bedroom mostly by touch; I couldn't take the good half of my vision off of the screen - this show doesn't come on in the morning!

then they must have taped it

Right - where my foster parents were watching one of those "adult animated comedies" they'd taped the night before. The animated face and bare shoulders of some guy on screen, who from the sound of things was date-raping his girlfriend:

"No," came the voice through softly muffled sobs through the big expensive speakers on either side of the screen, "no Will I don't want to tonight, it hurts Will, please stop," and he wasn't stopping, and there were my parents, watching, with these awkward blank pre-smiles on their faces, waiting desperately for a punchline, any punchline, but the girl was still crying and stringing together little broken beg-words and Will was still huffing and fumbling away as I tumbled through the door to my room and slammed it behind me and the toxins from the guardbushes shoved me to the floor. My big stupid head scattered a stack of dirty laundry and magazines, and I thought I saw Red Racer 2 standing in the corner, over by the desk, just behind the pole lamp, staring at me and crying.

Fucking Red Racer 2. I can't believe that comic was ever sold to children, on purpose - this wasn't some comic for grown-ups that had just fallen into the wrong hands, month after month, nope, Red Racer 2 was drawn with clean open lines and colored with that bright, reliable four-color process and written by what had to be the most sadistic and purely black heart of its generation. The story was (as was helpfully recapped at the beginning of every issue) that an ordinary man, a man of no fucking consequence whatsoever, was kidnapped. His kidnappers always called him "Red Racer 2," and for twenty-six pages every month, twice monthly during the summer, they put him through physical and psychological torture that had no purpose at all. After the first couple of years, he stopped wondering why; he just endured.

One issue that always stuck with me: So they wire up Red Racer 2 (by the way, that was the only name we were given for him. we couldn't even cheer him on with his own name) and march him into a room. The room is divided by a transparent wall. On the opposite side of the room, there are twenty people wired into chairs. They then explain that Red Racer 2 is going to be tortured through those wires for a full hour. There's a button he can press, though, that will stop the torture for five minutes. The downshot being, you guessed it, every time he presses the button, someone on the other side of the room is gonna die. Oh, and they have of course also been appraised of the situation. And the torture begins and these people on the other side, none of whom knowing who's going to be the first to die, are all shouting and screaming across at him, all trying to make themselves sound like they have lives worth living, and Red Racer 2 is just silently convulsing and he can't close his eyes, he's just watching them and trying to take it all in. He spent the last twenty minutes of it, I think, just in a heap in a corner, up against the transparent partition. Of course he didn't kill any of them. Of course the twenty didn't realize the chambers had been soundproofed. And they just come and drag Red Racer 2 out of the room and that's it. Tune in next month. In another issue they found out through trial-and-error what he was most afraid of. You know, just to see.

I read all this when I was a little kid. I hate talking about it. I blame Red Racer 2 for fucking me up.

My cell phone began to ring, and I couldn't move my body above the waist. It had to be today, she said. It had to be today.
Sunday, June 9th, 2002
12:21 am
Jason loved Medea
It had been raining, on and off, for about three days when the angel crashed into our house. We didn't know it was an angel at the time, of course - we didn't know what it was, actually, and Sarge actually wanted to call the cops. The idea of the cops in this house didn't sit well with me, though, and so Sarge and I weaved our way around the seven or eight or nine, whatever, chrome pots musically spattered to a hidden rhythm with rainwater to the big hallway. And we went into the attic, stinking with humidity and ozone and a smell like - well, if teeth could sweat, if they could feel individual pain, and be taught to fear that pain - the air stank of terrified teeth. And right there on a cushion of filthy cardboard and old books was the naked body of an angel. There were a few feathers, still, in the air. The books that had been in the box - I never actually knew what was in any of these old boxes until I opened them - were ruined, now, by wet and impact. I knelt and slid a torn dust jacket out from beneath a perfectly muscled thigh; I read it and realized that I would never read my uncle's copy of A Pictorial History of the National Football League. Sarge put his hand over his mouth - actually, he'd probably done that as soon as he'd seen the angel, wet and naked and torn, in small and secret slits, by the rough roofing - and I just stood there, staring at the dust jacket of another forgotten book. The rain was all over us, right there in my home.

Sarge had his hand over his nose and mouth. We were still in the attic. No time had passed. Sarge's eyes were terrible and they were flaring up; the lids were squinting and the fury and poor health were just concentrated out through the slits, tearing a razor-sharp path full of nothing, acres and gallons of nothing, back and forth between the angel and my face. Sarge started talking, then, right into his fat old palm - I didn't even hear the first few words he'd said; I had to figure them out, all backwards and double-quick, from the context. All I could think about for a few seconds, even though Sarge was screaming through his hand and it wouldn't stop raining into my house and there was an angel struggling to breathe on a pallet of cardboard and wood pulp - hang on, okay - all I could think about was how terrible it must feel to have an opened mouth against Sarge's palm. If my mouth had ever, ever, brushed up against any part of Sarge, I am certain that I'd convulse and die on the spot. There was something about Sarge that I knew sought out wet spaces, open pores, climbed in and hijacked and ripped apart. You know more about someone - I mean, I don't know. Not anymore. I learned more about Sarge by watching him eat what I'd fixed than I had in the three years I'd watched him kill people. There is survival, and then again, there is survival. The only thing worse than Sarge living was my dying. I made his meals and washed his shirts.

I didn't like him. I think that he liked me, though. Actually, I can't say for sure, because I tried not to pay too much attention. It may have been that he didn't like me, at first, but eventually resigned himself to admitting (as he would have said) "well, s**t, I guess you are A O K" - once he lived in my home, and I cooked his meals and washed his clothes. Sarge was my boss back when I was in the Army, and we were fighting in the Colonies. Sarge was the boss of a lot of people - fifteen of us - and I killed a lot of other people because he'd said so. You know, go here and kill such-and-such group of people. Well, actually, it was more "I'm going to point X to kill group Y and you (in the plural) (he didn't actually say that stuff in parentheses, I'm just saying) are going to come along and help me out. So you ought to know what I'm up to." He was pretty terrible. When he killed people, when I was watching him, from the corner of my eye - the only bit of my cowardly face not buried in vegetation and mud and my best friend's blood - make all these bullets go everywhere, into houses and cars and streetlights and, worst of all, into people -

When he killed he seemed to me to be one hundred feet tall, and burning. All the gases spit out of his gun faster than I could think to hear and catch up with and realize, all that noise is just fire and laughter, and my boss is killing everyone, so that they don't kill me. Partially, that's what it's all about - Sarge is going to kill these Enemies that, when you boil it down, want me dead, end of story. When someone makes an active effort to save your life, I guess it sort of sticks. I guess that's a truth, a human truth? I was also more scared of Sarge than anything, except death. I would have kissed the devil on the lips to stay alive, though. I almost killed myself, and everyone else, though, on my last day of the wars. I didn't know it was my last day of the wars; I mean, I was so far gone, I didn't know that any day was the any day of anything. There was something about a fire zone, and the smoke was mixing with the dew was mixing with the mist was mixing with the sunrise, and something crawling in the rotting meat that is running through my bones said: this smell and pressure is how you're supposed to die. I knew it was right. I had only smelt the smell once before: my father had struck me against the temple with a baseball in his fist. I had lost the game; I had lost a pop fly in the sun and had lost the game. I lost. I lose. And just before all the senses were switched off by rough impact with sand, I smelt that smell. I stood there with a gun in my hands - enough gun to make many, many hours of labor obsolete - and I smelt the smell, and I thought you lose and I dropped to my knees and started screaming. There were already bodies everywhere and my gun was actually empty and I couldn't hear anything until they let me come off of the drugs.

I went home, then. I went back and lived with my aunt; she didn't know anything except that the war was over, and that I was in it, once. So I was her hero. I stepped through her tiny tin doorway and onto the dusty wood floor, carefully nudging aside slips of junk mail and uncooked pasta; I dropped my two bags onto the rug and gripped myself by the armpits. Sometimes, you don't know where you belong until you go back. I didn't belong in the jungle or in the desert; I didn't belong on the steppes or on the tundra. I rejected all of geography and made myself a willing prisoner of my aunt's house. The one and only other place, I think, where I might have Belonged is the Moon. I could tell you just about everything there is to know about the Moon, if I wanted to. I don't usually want to talk, though. My aunt didn't even think twice about this gigantic mass murderer showing up on her doorstep and expecting a bed and regular meals - before I had become a mass murderer, before I'd become gigantic, even, I had lived in this house. I had four aunts, two of which were still alive. All of them had been more reliable than my mother, who had gotten herself shot dead in a convenience store robbery. I swear that the last words she said to me were: "Back in a second.' The last thing I ever said to her: "Okay." Okay! Okay! Carry me in your belly, try to make me survive and try to make me useful and, and - okay!

I love you, Mom
I'll miss you while you're gone
Come home soon

Okay

So the aunts had Fidelity; they didn't go off and die and leave you alone. And I went off and killed one thousand mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, and I did it on purpose, with bullets. Then my mind got broken, somewhere, and I came home. She took me in, and I lived with my aunt for a long time. I found that I couldn't leave the house, though, once I'd stepped through that doorway. Going outside made me throw up, sobbing. She lived her life, and I taught myself how to repair everything. Everything that we relied upon - the telephone, the stove, the alarm clock, the television - I knew how these things worked. Taking these things apart, and understanding them, felt like eating my own fingerprints; it was a right and okay hiccup of memory and feeling. I was stealing something back from the bad guys. Of course, I couldn't fix everything - I didn't know how to make transistors or batteries or whatever from scratch - but I could find bad parts. I could diagnose. The guy from Books on Wheels was always bringing over the manuals I'd requested, always laughing, calling me Einstein, maybe coming in for lemonade or a piece of pie. "Yeah," he'd say, "when're you going to open up your repair shop, Einstein?" And I'd laugh and look at my hands, and he'd say: "You could probably fix everything in town," and I'd say "well I hope so."

Then the books stopped coming, because I'd read them all. Then my aunt died, and left me alone. She was killed trying to board a bus. How does that happen? I survived, of course - I would survive until I died. The government sent me a check - well, actually, they sent me a slip of paper that said that money had been put into the bank - every month, because my mind had been broken while I was helping them secure the colonies and ensure peace by killing people. I don't blame anybody for the way things are. Actually, I don't even think about it. This is how you get by, the "this" is a simple series of facts: The sky is blue. Wolves are carnivores. My mind is broken. And the government sends me money because my mind is broken; it got broke when I was helping them and all, and another aunt - they all live around here, and they all still love me, for some reason - brings over the groceries. Sometimes she even takes the groceries she's bought with my money and cooks up something nice, and brings that over instead. Sometimes, that makes me want to cry. I'm a really good cook. I taught myself how to cook. Still, she wants to make me food, and watch me eat what she made. That's not a bad thing - but I bet I killed someone who would have done the exact same thing for her nephew, had I not, you know, marched her out onto a mud flat and put a 7.62 millimeter round through the back of her head. Compassion just seems so common until you miss it.

And then, one day, Sarge showed up at my door. He said that he was moving in, and I didn't stop him. In twelve hours, it felt like he had been there forever. His things were everywhere and I'd already moved my favorite bedding into the guest room. His smell was everywhere, and he was sitting on the couch, smoking and sobbing, and it was late, and I went out to clean out the birdbath. I couldn't bear to watch him like that. To be honest, I couldn't bear to watch him at all - I couldn't bear to watch him do anything. When he ate, when he smoked, when he dressed, when he stared at the television with his mouth just like that, just like he's about to laugh, but he never did. Etc. I learned his comings and goings. I pretended like the money was just about to run out, and that I was glad to have him, living in this house, with me. In fact, the money would never run out, but he didn't need to know, and he didn't need me making him feel unwelcome.

Sarge brought in money, anyway. I pretended not to get any money; I just cooked and cleaned and kept things running so that he wouldn't have to ask. I buried my bankbook somewhere between the dry, useless mounds of earth that had once coughed up, in great weird green coils, horrible fat red tomatoes for my uncle. Sarge made his money by selling weapons to children. He really did, teenagers, I swear. This was out behind the supermarket, he said. Sarge knew a lot of people, I mean, he had a lot of friends that he hadn't killed yet, some of which were in the perfect position to provide Sarge with evil, precise, beautiful weapons. Sometimes, he would come bursting through the door, and throw a great greasy duffel bag onto the sofa, and heave this sigh - and I'd know that the bag was full of guns, precise and powerful and illegal guns, just from the way that their bodies clacked and clicked and settled against each other, and those stuffed shades of outline against the olive green burlap, and I'd get a hard-on in spite of myself. Anyway, he sold some of the weapons to kids and kept the rest for himself, and he kept them everywhere. The house was even, in places, booby-trapped. I can't explain Sarge without asking Sarge, but I can give you an example that might help you along:

See, one night, we passed each other in the hallway, and he said "Why do they have to play their music so loud?" Our next door neighbors must have been having a party, or something. There were screams and varied thumps of bass everywhere.
I shrugged. I mean, please, I really didn't know. I couldn't imagine; I had no right to say.
Sarge sighed. "Those blacks," he said. "I'm not saying... but, you know. You know what I'm saying."
I had always, in secret, hoped he'd misread FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY and blow his face off with one of those Claymores. Claymores, in my aunt's house, rigged just inches away from the beaten rubber mat she'd bought (and meant) that read "WELCOME FRIENDS."
Sometimes I cried, in secret.

And then there was that angel that came through the roof, that crash landed in the attic dead square in the middle of two lives' worth of forgotten souvenirs. The first thing that Sarge did was go down into the kitchen and come back with a box full of black plastic trash bags. He stood on his toes, and on boxes important people had packed - they'd meant to come back to those boxes, I was sure of it, only they'd died first - and he patched the hole with black plastic. And then he wrapped the angel, which was still and quiet apart from the slow swelling of its chest, in black plastic. And then he told me that we would have to kill it. That we didn't know what it was, and that it could have all sorts of diseases, diseases that we'd never heard of and we're not immune against. He said that we should kill it and wrap it in plastic and leave it on the curb with the trash. I just stared at him, and at the angel, back and forth; Sarge looked more and more scared every time I switched back to his face. I had never seen him scared before, and I wanted to throw up, but I was the only block against the terrible, violent exercise of his will. Eventually, he pushed past me, and he went down the ladder, and I heard him throw up in the tiny bathroom below. I wrapped the angel as well as I could in black plastic, I descended the ladder, I closed the hatch, and I wanted Sarge to forget about the angel. I thought that he had, too - he hadn't mentioned it for a while.

That other aunt, after Sarge moved in, still cooked meals for me. Only she wouldn't come in after she'd met Sarge. She would leave casserole dishes right there on the front porch, usually with a short something scribbled in her shaky handwriting on a peeling post-it note. Sarge had caught sight of her, once, dashing away after she'd left us a meal. He couldn't understand why any woman would run away from him. He said that he'd never had any trouble with the ladies, that they always flocked to him, that he had something he didn't understand, sure, but that something had kept him confident of, well actually he said "up to [his] eyeballs in" female company. Right, I believe it. He didn't say "female company," but you know. Even I know, and I'm a virgin. I didn't mean to be a virgin, actually; it's just that every man I was ever attracted to was just terrifying, so I didn't ever say anything. I knew that they would want to hurt me, that they had it in them to hurt people, and I was just people, one in a long line of casualties. Of course, that only made them more attractive, I think. But still, you either say something or you don't. I didn't, and eventually, I just forgot that I'd ever cared.

I do believe the hype, though; Sarge was once a very handsome man, and you could tell just by looking. I could imagine people looking at him and saying: "He was once a very handsome man." I think that's worse than being ugly, or plain, like me. Plain people equal zero, but people who were, once, obviously handsome or beautiful - they're less than zero. Their fall is somehow satisfying; their faces evoke the opposite of sympathy, unless there's love there, somewhere. Sarge said that my aunt must be a lesbian if she actually made the effort to avoid him. They were the same age; they should have known better. He put his hand on the wall, and he leaned on it, and he sighed, and said: "Lesbians just aren't worth the f***ing trouble." I don't really remember what people say, unless it doesn't make any sense. That didn't make any sense.

The angel had been in the attic for two days when that other aunt - I know it sounds terrible to refer to someone so nice like that, but I don't want any harm to come to her - left a thermos of chicken noodle soup on the porch. Sarge wasn't home. I know how to make chicken noodle soup. I decided to go up into the attic and feed it to the angel. I wanted the angel to still be alive, under the black plastic, and to get better and fly away. The angel might have been at home here, once, but it just wouldn't stop raining.

I went up into the attic, one step at a time; there was the creaking of old wood under my feet, threatening to be drowned out forever by the thousands of wet mouths impacting against the roof and its surrogate. With every step, the thermos shifted its weight. I pushed myself into that hot, open space; I smelled gunpowder, drying paint, dusty cardboard, and white wine that had been left too long in the sun, in a plastic cup, surrounded by maniac black ants. My pores seized up and I wanted to put my fingers into my eyes. But I reached up, with my free hand, and pulled the string - snap - just once, and. All at once, you know?

Blood and feathers and bloody feathers everywhere, all the lightest and most sensual bits of red and white dancing the helix into little hot slipstreams against and above cracks in the floorboards. In the middle of it all: the angel, and Sarge. The angel was, still half-swaddled in black plastic, breathing desperately, raggedly, through its nose and mouth and an ever thinning film of blood. And the round, raw stump staring out from its back next to the intact wing. The sergeant, covered in blood, sat on his knees with a length of clean, bleeding, meaty bone in one hand and a hacksaw in the other. Sarge looked up; his head raised with his hand, the bone went to his mouth, his teeth closed around a wet red chunk of angel flesh. His beard was soaked through with blood; it appeared to be clotting in spots, bright red boogers behind the sun. He grunted in recognition and tore the bone away from his face; he pointed the bone at me.

"S'good eating," he said, with ragged red sloppy divinity flopping from and around his lips. "Make you live a thousand years." No.

I stepped forward, silently, and reached out my hand to accept the meat on the bone, this living rain-soaked flesh, first generation everything, to accept my four mouthfuls of immortality. Then I shoved Sarge; I planted my hand into his neck and pushed as hard as I could. He fell back onto his hands and dropped the bone and the hacksaw. I saw his mouth open to speak, or to express surprise, or anger; I saw mounds of chewed spitty angel in that hateful little hole. I threw myself upon him. I pinned him to the floor. I felt the pinpricks of feathers against my legs. I picked up the hacksaw, put it against his neck -

"This is the last terrible thing you will ever do," I said -

and then I pushed, with both hands, and when his head tumbled free, I pissed myself. The angel had stopped breathing. The rain continued.
Friday, May 31st, 2002
6:18 pm
Why I Hate Everybody
WORLD WAR THREE
(a play for young people, grades nine through twelve)


DUBYA: Um, maybe you guys ought to cool it with the whole "nuclear brinksmanship" thing, people over here, I mean everywhere are starting to get a bit worried. Not as worried as we are about, say, who killed some cocksucking intern, but you know.
PAKISTANI PM: Fuck your yankee blue jeans, mister! Why not go and ask the advice of your women?
DUBYA: Oh, c'mon now! I thought that Islam was peace! In fact, I practically told the entire world as much DESPITE OVERWHELMING FUCKING EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY!
PAKISTANI PM: We have NUCLEAR WEAPONS!
INDIAN PM: So do we.
PAKISTANI PM: This would be an excellent time to mention that we NEVER SAID WE WOULDN'T STRIKE FIRST!
DUBYA: Um.
INDIAN PM (to PAKISTANI PM): Does THIS provoke you? No? How about THIS? Well? What if I do THIS?
DUBYA: Dad?
INDIAN PM: PREPARE FOR VICTORY!
PAKISTANI PM: Okay, that'll do it, thanks.
BUSH THE ELDER: Sorry, son, I'm too busy rolling naked in the giant pile of money I made setting these and other terrible events in motion. Why not ask your vice president? You DID remember to get a vice president, didn't you?
QUAYLE smiles shyly.
BUSH THE ELDER: Um, never mind. Gotta go.
DUBYA: But I haven't seen him in, like, six months? Has ANYBODY seen Cheney ANYWHERE?
ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT: If you ask questions like that, obviously you are on the TERRORISTS' side!
DEP. SEC. OF DEF. WOLFOWITZ: Does anyone else find my name hilariously appropriate given my hard-on to bomb the living fuck out of everything?
NAT'L. SEC. ADV. RICE: Does anyone else want to kill my parents for getting my name from a fucking round of "Boggle" rather than, say, A FUCKING BOOK OF DECENT NAMES FOR BABY?
SOMEONE IN THE AUDIENCE: Since when was fucking WORLD WAR THREE a forum for airing personal grievances?
SHARON and ARAFAT look at the audience with a goofy grin, and shrug to a comical sound effect.
PRESS SEC. FLEISCHER: Watch what you say!
DUBYA: Wait, what the fuck do I care? I'm rich now and soon I will be rich in the Kingdom of Heaven! Bring on the apocalypse! Ooh, this is just like those thrilling "Left Behind" books!
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Only I will be "left behind" under thousands of feet of reinforced concrete and earth - with all the comforts of a modern, lavishly appointed home at an undisclosed location, apparently forever.
DUBYA: Who said that?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Hackers. Look over there, quick, I think someone's STEALING MUSIC!
THE MEDIA: Ooh, inconsequential AND mildly provocative! THIS will surely distract the masses from their quickly approaching nuclear death!
BIN LADEN: Is anyone even TRYING to find me anymore? No? Good.
ANTHRAX-MAILING GUY: And me? Remember me? Cool. Shit, this is so easy. I bet all you people who stocked up on Cipro and gas masks feel like real suckers right about now.
ENTIRE WORLD: Kaboom.
EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE: Oh, shit. (Dies.)
MILLIONS OF DEAD AMERICANS (to DUBYA): Why did you let this happen?
DUBYA (nestled safely in underground post-nuclear Shangri-La): How was I to know? It wasn't on the Yahoo Dot Com.
HUMAN CIVILIZATION: (Dies.)
GOD: Remember what I said about being all-loving? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, oh boy. Suckers.

don't worry, the next entry will be back to desperately romantic, cryptic, and doomed business as usual
Friday, May 3rd, 2002
7:34 pm
This is for emergencies
I stood there on the sidewalk, in front of her grandmother's house, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world if I'd just ring the bell, and tell her nicely that I wasn't going to do it, that it was a terrible idea, and would put both of us through the wringer. Near my feet, there were dried yellow stains, bits of eggshell - spring had been unusually windy. The air was calm at that moment, though, and the atmosphere just hung self-conscious, unapologetic, like a filthy bathrobe. I needed a bath. The sidewalk needed a bath, this weird and crooked little house, stubborn and decrepit like the mind of its only advocate - I'd watched the bathwater drain as I'd gotten dressed to come over. I'd specially picked out clothes while the bubbles had broken with a constant zipper sequence of tiny protests and while the water had cooled; this was so she'd think that I didn't care about my appearance. Around her.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to ring the bell, and one hell of a lot harder to stick around and wait for her to open it. I'd asked her Why me, for something like this, especially and she'd said Because I couldn't get a hold of anyone else and then she said No, because it's your fault. I didn't want to argue about it because I'd had enough of arguing, with her, and because I knew that she was right, and that I'd lose. If I thought I'd stood a chance of winning, I probably would have given it a shot; I could be shown to be right about something, it would just follow that... Right. It was a terribly stupid thing she'd done, reckless with anger or, more probably, a dully enraged disappointment, and it was a terribly stupid thing to call me to ask me to help her fix it. I didn't tell her that on the phone, though, and I wouldn't tell her here, face-to-face in her doorway.

We were, after all, trying to make things right, which was as much a struggle against apathy as it was against each other. We were so desperately incompatible; our path was too convoluted and instantaneous to capably retrace. Now entering Mutual Admiration Society. Now entering Just Friends. Now entering Stolen Glances. You are now leaving This Relationship. In sixth grade, some kid had written a "text adventure" that had consisted of one room, over and over. You had five, no, six choices: North, South, East, West, Start Crying, Sit Down. We were taking turns Crying and Sitting Down; we were doing it in shifts.

I'd gotten stopped by a train on my way over. Covered with graffiti, usually some name or handle rendered with such angular loving care as to be illegible. I didn't care much for the people that put too much effort into graffiti. Graffiti "artists" are, more or less, the equivalent of a child who comes running into the room, proudly waving a wet piece of shit in your face, saying Look what I did in the potty. The ones who really take my interest are the ones who have something burning them up - the temperature is, weirdly, usually in inverse proportion to the banality - and just gracelessly scrawl a message on a public surface. Fuck You. Robert + Gina 4EVER. Fuck The Police. Mandy Is A Ho. On a boxcar, slowly sliding - you'd expect metal against metal to be fucking unbearable, I'd thought as a stared into the two blinking red eyes - past, I'd read something out of place.
Jamie Says Fred Is Cute.
No one, to my knowledge, had ever marked up a train in my honor.

I mention the train because of its tracks, which we will be returning to (in my car, probably; I insist on driving because I get to pick the music. I claim that I love to drive, but that's a lie. I just like listening to music in cars.) shortly. Once I go up there and perform the supremely easy action of pressing a little button, which glows a faint, broken-sort of yellow, she will come out of the house and we will drive to the train tracks. This is because last night, after she left the restaurant, she used those train tracks as a sort of target. The firing range was the driver's seat of her car and the projectile was her wedding ring, the ring that I gave to her when we got married. If she hit her mark, that ring is long gone; it has been ground into a sliver of nothing under those terrible quiet wheels and, hopefully, delivered to the doorstep of Jamie and Fred, who hopefully managed to hit it off. They will use this mysterious shiny sliver of nothing in a homemade mobile to hang over the baby's crib, because they have read that babies like shiny things. That and because it will remind them, forever or its closest negotiable equivalent, of the day that they found it; they sat on their couch and passed it back and forth, making themselves laugh, making up ridiculous origin stories, none more ridiculous than the truth, actually, which wouldn't make them laugh at all.

I rang the bell, and etc etc. I managed to hold out; I waited until the engine had been switched off, and we were getting out of the car, there on the side of the fucking highway:
"I still can't believe you want me-"
"It's your fault we're out here in the first place. If you hadn't said, if you hadn't brought up-"
"I know, OK, I'm here, aren't I?" I could barely stand to hear it come out of my mouth and I wasn't about to let it come out of hers. I finished:
"It just seems like, to me I mean, that I should be the one mad. At you." She gave me a look, a what-did-you-say look, in which the correct answer is silence. "For this."
So we picked through the rocks and weeds and trash: beer cans, used condoms (?), faded and dusty campaign signs, take-out menus, broken glass. Why all this broken glass, she said just before sunset, who the hell throws bottles and shit at train tracks. Who the hell throws their fucking wedding ring at train tracks, I said.
No I didn't.

We gave up after it had grown too dark to keep up the search. We hadn't brought flashlights. I guess we'd both expected it to be over quick, that there would be this blinding golden glint, somewhere amidst the Bronze Age mess, that we were obviously meant to find, eventually. Once we'd learned our lesson, through the whole effort thing, the answer would thrust itself into our faces. Here, you kids've earned it, go home. And don't let this happen again. Who said that? We gave up because we hadn't found it.
"We had a motivational speaker at work today," she said, in the car. She turned down my music to tell me this, I swear to you.
"Uh huh."
"And she was going on and on about group dynamics" - the sudden enthusiasm in her voice was completely faked, letting me know that she gave not two shits for group dynamics - "and she kept using the example of a marriage. She even said, 'I keep going back to marriage because it's such a great example,' she really did."
I didn't want to hear some wry observation about marriage - some fucking second-hand wry observation about marriage - that had its origins in the mouth of a motivational speaker. I skipped to track 9, which was meant to show (a) that I was still more interested in the music than in her story, the buildup for this million-dollar, funny-cos-it's-true punchline that was waiting for me and (b) that I really like track 9.
"And she said" - my wife has missed the clues, she is determined to tell this story - "people who don't like to conform will probably end up divorced. In those words."
"Huh."
"I mean, she probably meant 'compromise,' I just thought it was funny. I thought about-"
"You thought about what?"
"I thought about what kind of fucked-up behind-the-scenes life does this woman have, shoehorning the word 'conform' into the definition of 'compromise,' you know?" She really talked like this, my wife. I winced. I'd misjudged her intent, and I didn't like her pissing on motivational speakers. I loved their sincerity so much that I wanted to cry; I swear, I wanted to drop to my knees and hug their legs and bawl, and just barely manage to choke out the words you mean it, you really mean it. It just broke my heart that everything they believed in, everything they felt was really worth sharing, was just bullshit.
"Look, will you stay? I really ought to make you dinner," she said. "what was I thinking, calling you to go dig through rocks in this fucking heat-"
"There was a breeze, come on, it wasn't so bad." I would sooner eat every piece of broken glass we'd spotted than go through that afternoon again.
"Will you stay?"
OK.

I felt like a heel watching her cook, knowing that I'd be eating some of it - you're going to be involved, you fucker, so why don't you help? - but I didn't feel like helping, so I went into the living room and read one of her grandmother's magazines. Actually, I didn't read any of them, but I sincerely leafed through at least a dozen of them, looking for pictures that said, somehow, this article will interest you. No dice by dinnertime. I suggested that we open a bottle of wine, you know, with our meal. And we did, and that bottle suggested that we open another one. By this time, we were back in the living room, on that little L-shaped couch. I was drunk enough for the terrible twins: realizing that I should start thinking before I opened my mouth to speak, and forgetting and re-learning that realization every minute, minute-thirty. She was drunk enough to dig out the photo albums. Our photo albums. And we ended up in bed together.

We didn't fuck, or make out, or anything. We barely touched, I think my legs may have gotten tangled up with hers somewhere in the night - I really couldn't say. We'd decided, through some process involving nostalgia, optimism, and alcohol, that it would feel good to share a bed again, once. No, not feel good, be a good indicator of, you know, how we were, and if it felt good then maybe, you know. We'd really written the end first by getting drunk and looking at old photos, only it was one of those fake-out endings: a-ha! not quite what you expected, you thought it was all sewn up and over, right? Well, not really, because I read the back of the box and it says this movie is two hours long and it's only been an hour and a half, so your cunningly planned fake-out ending just came off as a conceited irritation. Asshole.

"Will you stop moving around? You keep waking me up," she said. Ever the sensitive one, a delicious counterpoint to the pitch black. I'd come out of a nightmare at around 4:45 AM, and according to the tiny glowing dots and rods on my wristwatch, it was 6:15 AM.
"Sorry. I had a nightmare, and I can't get comfortable." She adjusted herself; I think that she thought that the conversation was closed and, now that I'd gotten the whole 'had a nightmare, can't get comfortable' thing off of my chest, that the problem was solved and we could both drop off and sleep until at least noon. Or until my tongue doesn't feel like shag carpet. I didn't fall asleep, and, apparently, neither did she.
"What time is it?"
"Six seventeen. Uh, in the morning."
"Oh. Might as well turn on the lamp." That was a request, mind you. So I reached out to where I thought the lamp was, and - nothing. I was sure that I'd seen it there last night, and I was pretty sure that it was there, oh you know, all the time, but things can change. And I might have been seeing what I wanted to see. Or, and I wanted to say it before she did, I wasn't trying hard enough. I stretched out further, reaching for the lamp. Further. A little more.

And ended up falling off of the edge of the bed. Hit the floor hard, wrapped up completely; the sheet was like a soggy tortilla. I felt my mouth fill up with blood.
"What the fuck has just happened?" she said, panicked. I mean, my wife could say something like that in a panicked tone of voice. I keep telling you, she really talked like that.
"I fell out of the bed," I said, "and I've bit my tongue, I guess."
"Oh God," she said, "you poor thing, you poor thing." I heard her arms scraping around, looking for the edge of the bed; they found it, then they found me. That's my cue, I guess, to stop laying here like a coma patient and get back into bed. Like there's a difference.

I got into the bed and rolled onto my back, swishing the blood around in my mouth a bit before swallowing it. She rolled onto me, put her mouth on mine, tried to kiss me, pry my lips open. By reflex, I raised my leg, rubbed my knee against her crotch. I swear it was by reflex.
"No," I said, through a breaking bubble of blood. I could almost see her eyes, even in this pitch black.
"I thought we - you don't want-"
"I can't. I can't. I could, but I can't. God, I'm sorry."
She rolled off of me.

The light snapped on, after a few seconds - I was in no position to judge - and she's standing there over me. She's wearing her pajamas. I'm not. How drunk can you be and still think about pajamas? Her eye makeup had smudged and run in the night; I almost called her back to bed, heh heh, let's try that again, shall we? I couldn't. She was still my wife. And we were in the living room.
"My brother and his friends must have moved the bed while we were sleeping."
"Passed out, but, OK. Here we are," I said, in bed, in the fucking living room, with a hard-on for a wife I wasn't even sure that I wanted. "I guess he still hates me."
"I don't know. I mean, ever since-"
"I know." We waited, and it was weird and awful. You'd have never guessed at our history. She, standing (at the same time!) by the couch and the bed, in her pajamas; me, fully dressed (fucking hell, even the boots are still on) under the covers, both of us looking around nervous and paranoid, afraid that that thing, by sheer virtue of reference, is going to come out from behind the TV and possess us, force us to re-enact it. "I can't believe he came into your room, though. What if you'd been, I don't know, naked or something?"

She said, He's seen me naked plenty of times, and I wanted to throw up. I wanted to throw up because all at once I had been seized with another paranoid terror fantasy, hatched fully formed from my headache - Zeus gets Athena, and I get this - a terrible thing that makes a sick sort of sense, a constant, consensual incest. That is governed by a card game of their own creation. You see why I feel sick? I have invented years of complicated back story, sick, twisted, menacing, in an instant from one more-than-likely innocent remark. I just kind of looked at her, thinking and hoping that my expression said oh and that she thought it said you sick, degenerate, useless whore. I "just kind of looked at her" until her grandmother came bursting in, which of course sent me bursting out of the displaced bed and into a literally military attention.

"Cats! Cats! Cats!" screamed my wife's grandmother. This ought to show you why my wife lives here. Her brother has a key, but only comes around every now and then. The grandmother has a good, sharp mind - and has completely lost the ability to communicate her thoughts. She will shout a word, three times. This is how she communicates. My wife has learned the lay of the land. I am still terrified of this grandmother's judging eyes and her stale green wardrobe and am dependent on a certain ritual of deference. I am also happy, at the moment, that I am fully dressed, boots and all. The last thing we needed was for her to start screaming about toes or socks or, I don't know, what do senile people scream about the barefoot? But sure enough, six or seven cats came streaming through the doorway after her. She screamed it again. More cats came out.
"Holy shit," I said.
"They all got in through the chimney. Someone left the flue open," said my brother-in-law, who justifiably hated me and had moved my - our - marital bed (OK, well, sort of) into the fucking living room to, I don't know, prove a point. But he had said it, pointedly, to my wife and no one speaks to my wife like that but me.
"This wouldn't have happened," said my wife, "if Scout hadn't run away." The irony of a dog named Scout running away and then getting lost wasn't lost on me, but I decided against sharing it. But:
"Maybe," I said, "you should just put a square of carpet in your yard. When he comes back to shit on your carpet, grab him." Brother-in-law scowled at me; I had made fun of his shitting dog and used a Bad Word in front of his grandmother. I'm Leaving, said Brother-in-law. Toodleoo, we said.

My wife and I went through the house, the closets, the attic. There were at least five cats in every room. We called Animal Control, and some guy eventually showed up and started snaring them. I couldn't figure out what, in the house, was infinitely appealing to an infinite number of cats. My wife and I stood in the kitchen and watched the Animal Control guy come and go, over and over, every time with an armload of squirming fur.
"I guess I should make you breakfast," she said."
"No," I said, "I really ought to go." Her grandmother stormed through the swinging door into the kitchen.
"Eggs! Eggs! Eggs!" she yelled. "Sex! Sex! Sex!"
Friday, April 19th, 2002
12:06 am
Back to reality, struggling against recovery: 3 pharmacies
Drug Emporium: The Valkyries of Capitalism

I was seven or eight years old, and standing in the shampoo aisle, staring up at a mile-high wall of colored plastic and bottled viscosity and luster. Somewhere in between the cycles of snapping fluorescence and heels against tile, I was seized by a daydream, picked up by the neck and shook with the sheer force of it; it was a vision, then, a full speed sensory meltdown in the style of those ugly old saints and sexless martyrs. I saw all the bottles swelling until they burst - shapely smooth plastic distending, straining, then finally yielding their gallons of colorful, fragrant, dreadful slime. Running off the shelves, coating every surface, permeable lukewarm layers of clean miasma painting over and patching up the chipboard and aluminum and ceramics. The shredded plastic played no part in this vision; those inevitable torn, rough pieces were victims of their own asymmetry and swallowed by my imagination.

A message punctured the reverie: I could get the same effect, more or less, with a machine gun. TV had taught me that a "machine gun" was any firearm larger than a pistol; mutation corkscrewed in through the puncture and I was suddenly central to the vision, slowly, lovingly walking down the aisles, exploding the rainbows with a slender, downy armful of divine fire. It would be beautiful and silent. I would have to tell someone, but not my mother; she was already angry at me and would have assumed anything I might have said or done to be an extension of our Argument Forever. This wasn't even our regular drugstore. I coated the vision in myself and held it gently with little white talons. It sang hunting songs to me through the cool yellow linen of my pillow and, throbbing gently, it grew.

I didn't get on with the other kids too well around this time. The prescribed weekly visits to the school counselor (whose daughter was one of those kids, white plastic beautiful in her frictionless dismissal) helped, if only for the fact that they got me out of class and away from the violently indifferent. We played strange board games with musty, early-Bandura vintages and I was allowed - encouraged, even - to chatter along with free associative gossip and flights of fancy. This set an ugly precedent, which is a nice, non-contractual way of saying addiction. She asked about my latest sequence of illness, and I was happy to make the narrative leap from Dimetapp to Drug Emporium and the beautiful oozing fugue that had boarded me. I looked past her the whole time, all rickety babbling, mashing my hands and waving my arms. She sent me, inexplicably, to the principal.
"That's neat. Tell her about it."

And so I did, watching the principal's face - this time, carefully, because the referral had confused me and I hadn't yet decided if I was in trouble. Had they? Her face was a Pink Pearl eraser, carved into heavy curves and tiny lines, then dusted with itself, twice; soft, yielding sympathy lived there, so much so that you forgot to guard against it. I wanted to be her kid, to ride in her car - do principals have cars? why would they bother, don't they live in the school? sign this petition and then I'll tell you what it's for - to the Drug Emporium and show her just how evident the truth could be. It would be the opposite of a fire, and she'd understand because it's her business. I made myself finish when I forgot how long I'd been talking. She left the room and came back with two paper cups full of water. The one she placed before me was printed, behind the flaking wax, with flowers and vines in light orange inks. I drank down the water and she explained, in two paragraphs, the dignified hopelessness of life.

Some people, see, spend most of their lives - waking hours - designing and making and printing and shipping and selling those plastic bottles and the mysterious thick fluids within them. This is how they make money; this is how they survive. That aisle is a testament to their effort and existence - and here I wanted, for some reason, to destroy it. I thought I'd start crying. I might have, anyway, without realizing. Life was just too hard, and I was sure that we were the only two people who really knew it. And people like me, bad little kids with secret destructive daydreams, were the reason. And everybody keeps right on trying, showing up to work, washing their hair, regardless.

Osborne Park Clinic: Same As The Old Boss

I was used to being alone in the dingy little broom-closet pharmacy; three orange plastic chairs, fluorescent lights, a rack of brochures - each of them preaching to the choir or the Devil herself - and a forbidding slab of bulletproof glass that seemed to hang in the dirty air, with its six neat little holes in a puckered circle. Talk here. Kiss me, here. Most days I'd wander through the halls after my appointment with a fresh prescription and a terrible, purged sense of emptiness until the pharmacy found me. Today was different, because I had sought it out. I was being evicted and I needed to be home soon, or, anyway, at the house, so I could move my life from the bedroom to the driveway. I was going to uproot myself braced with pills and cheap wine; the liquor store was on the bus route, and I was as inevitable as a bolt from a crossbow.

I was going to have to get over myself, first, because I wasn't alone in the room; there was a woman there, in one of the chairs. Sitting on the floor between her feet was a little girl, maybe five years old, maybe younger. This woman belonged to this room - I could feel it. This woman went bowling with this room. This woman stayed up late telling her favorite secrets to this room. This woman was carrying this room's secret love child. Only it wasn't a secret, damn it. She thought that she was full of secrets, but the only secret left in her life, the only thing with a shred of subtlety and beauty left in her life story was that all her secrets were common fucking knowledge, and her friends - the people around her, anyway - got a cheap laugh, now and then, by skirting the edges of these open secrets and watching her dismissive squirms. She wore a faded, fraying tank top that advertised: yes, I once took a holiday, got out of this city or I had my chance to escape forever, and I blew it. The skin under her eyes seemed windburned, sandstone-spiteful, as if she'd ridden in too many convertibles and spent too many nights outdoors, face down.

The litte girl contented herself by picking bits of foam from the woman's flip-flop sandals.

The sign above the buzzer said "Ring bell ONCE and Wait for Service." That underlined bit wasn't printed on; it had been underlined with a black magic marker by an irritated pharmacist. He must have known when he applied for the job what it meant - the job is giving out drugs to crazy poor people, and we are infamous testers of patience. He must have been at it forever, which wasn't long enough. Forever had hardened him and made him into a god: Albert, the God of Pills. Albert, the God of Pills, could like any other god worth his or her salt be summoned with the correct offering. My offering was on nice letterhead, had a vague memory of striped adhesive across its back, and was covered in ballpoint scribble. Albert, the God of Pills, did not have to like being summoned by reckless and hopeless mortals; that was OK with me, though. We followed the rules, one of which being that Male Deity X, God of Y, was invariably going to be cranky unless he's getting laid. In third grade, I had been referred to the pastor for reading the hardbound Bulfinch my grandmother had given me instead of playing Bible House or Bible Blocks or Bible Barrel-Of-Monkeys or tending to the Bible Seeds that were growing in Bible Plastic Cups full of Bible Dirt sitting in the Bible Windowsill. So I knew the rules, anyway, and I pushed the button, once, and took a step back and waiting.

"I already rang for him," said the woman. I looked at a crack in the ceiling and fidgeted, trying to project nervous and shy because I was terrified by the prospect of having to look at her eyes again, much less into them. Ohthanks, I said, and I examined my fingernails. From the corner of my eye, I caught it. And I caught it before the woman, and I got a few moments to appreciate it, and I thank my lucky stars. The little girl had gotten up, taken one of the brochures from the rack - something dreadful about date rape, close up photograph of a woman's face, eyes downcast, printed in lavender tones with big blocky Government Information Office fonts - and was quietly reading it. She won't even feel the bullets that are tearing through her brain right this very moment, I thought, until it's entirely too late.

"For fuck's sake, Alicia, I said don't touch things!"

Like it'll make a difference, I continued thinking, jolted a bit by the immediate slap of the publication against the dirty floor. Alicia was going to burn up in the atmosphere; a beautiful misguided streak against the sun. Alicia would know how to read and never bother with it. Please be still and quiet, Alicia, please for your own sake just be invisible until Albert, the God of Pills, rides down on his starched white cloud and delivers unto us that which keeps Mommy from holding your little hand over the stove or holding your little face under a running tap or breaking your little knees with a shovel.

Alicia, maybe five years old, maybe younger, sat down and fingered the hem of her sundress. Albert, the God of Pills - who'd been to more school than I'll ever sleep through, and really isn't all that deserving of this repetitive condescension - gave Mrs. Something-Something (my god, missus - how sick is her man?) her medicine and, before the door had even had a chance to hit her in the arse on the way out, he fixed those pinballs-under-glass on my sorry ass.

"All right, let's see it," he said. I wondered if: if he'd never seen me here, and I, say, married his daughter - would he hate me reflexively? Instinctively? Can he smell the sick by now? Or is it just the room that does this to him? I dug into my pocket for the prescription. My knuckles caught on a fold and I yanked my hand out in a flutter of bleached white paper wings. There was something else in there, a folded piece of notebook paper. I picked it up and unfolded it. Those bullets that had long since passed through Alicia's little blind brain sank into my heart, one-two-three. It was a love note from my wife.

dearest josh / just a little note / to let you know / THAT / I LOVE YOU / so very very much

The bullets went haywire, new orders? and exploded. It would have taken me nine seconds to write those words - hell, anyone without some sort of degenerative nervous disorder could have done it - but my wife had obviously spent at least half an hour on it, doting on the lettering, fine details with the points of those curious pens she adores. And then, the little drawing of me, hair flowing out everywhere, hands behind my back, half-smiling - those bullets were packed tight with good faith. Those bullets were an antidote to me. She had charming handwriting, diplomatic, even - but when she wrote in all capitals, it scared all hell out of me. And, to this day, I have never seen more frightening images than the ones in the margins of her notebooks. Mouths full of loose teeth; her neck, broken by a noose; wild, bulging eyes peeking out terrified from behind a wall; stick figures, falling, always falling. And here in my shaking hands was evidence that her love for me, which the record will show I clearly did not deserve, was stronger than all that fear and doubt and confusion. She had made her medium cough up a thing of beauty and sincerity, and all I wanted was a fucking bottle of pills. This isn't a love letter, this is a ransom note.

I gave Albert, the ___ of _____, the other love note from my pocket, the one that spelled love and respect with a few carefully chosen, polysyllabic, illegible words. He nodded with what I hoped was resigned acceptance - we understand each other, right Albert? on some terrible level, you must know that we both do what we have to do. please, Albert, don't fucking hate me - and descended into his stores. He came back with the pills, nice tight little white paper baggie, stapled twice.

"You know not to mix these with alcohol, don't you?" He had my number, the terrible bastard. "Well?"
"Yeah. Uh thanks."
Like fuck I do.

City Chemist: Functioning Alcoholic

I couldn't believe that my work had brought me back to this town. Work, of all things; someone was paying me to be where I wanted to be - that much was accident, and as far as anyone who mattered concerned, it would remain an indifferent accident, because there was no god damned use in fucking up a good thing with confession and sentimentality - and to do what I loved to do. What I'd probably be doing, anyway, were there not a need for it in the real world, where "the real world" is defined as "all that open space outside your room, and the unpredictable and cruel motherfuckers that roam free there." So here I was, back again - only it wasn't "back again." I'd never been back, period, and I never thought that I would be, and my ribs and lungs and heart ached with sheer terror. Every single step I took quaked with familiar sight and sound and crunch; I smelled broadsheets and sausage rolls and city buses in the here and now and every step, every particle that blasted in through my eyes and ears and nose and skin and feet presented the terrifying prospect that it was not all a bad dream, that it really happened, this place existed and continued to exist and here you are, back (again) and it's still here, moving like clockwork and getting along with or without you just fine, thank you very much.

It was true. All the time I'd spent walking around in the city and the neighboring suburbs, and on public transport, I half expected a total stranger to approach me and ask me where I'd been. I'm not easy to miss, or to mistake for anyone else - I had this half-assed idea that someone, back (back? I'm here now - sort of) in this town had tripped over an idle thought, maybe a pebble in the teeth, and wondered where that one particular constant face in the crowd had disappeared to. Whatever happened to. I did it, still do it, I have favorite constant strangers and I would never tell them that I wouldn't be able to sleep nights if they decided to break their routines. Someone, then, should have come up and asked about my invisible three years, but they didn't. Only one person spoke to me, directly, while I was out and about and that just put the fucking fear into me.

I was going to see her, at least, I thought that I was going to see her. I assumed that I was going to see her; I was a detective on a case two years cold, working with - with what? Memories. Happy memories, flashing back to scenes and pictures and single lines, spoken, careless offhand feminine things that tattooed themselves on my soul with white hot joy: them's the tools, kiddo. It was hopeless, and stupid, and my arms felt terrible. Someone had stitched heavy packets of lead, the Death Metal, under the flesh in my arms, and now they weighed one thousand pounds - each - and I could feel my sloppy, angular fingernails scraping up street grime and gutter filth with every loping precambrian step I took. She's not going to be there. or You're going to get there just in time to see her meeting her brand new, handsome and upwardly mobile boyfriend, and yes, he probably could kick your ass, even though you think you fight dirty, that won't matter because you'll be fucking unconscious with the first punch, well what do you expect, you started it, you jealous fuck, and you'll only be spared the second because your girl AHEM his girl knows how sick you are. or She will have died yesterday in a car crash, they will remember you and your honest, handsome face (awwwww) and feel the terrible romantic irony, because she was never over you and talked about the good times, your good times, constantly and if only you'd been a day sooner!

There were a million ways for things to go wrong. The lead seeped into my bloodstream and moved, possessed of a single mind, into my heart. It built statues and small temples and waited for a sign. I walked past a construction crew, worrying over the corpse of a toppled street lamp. I walked past the bookstore I once daydreamed of destroying with rockets. I walked past the pubs that knew my face, knew my same-again, never cut me off because I slipped neatly into the general sense of we're in this together. I walked past bus stops where I'd read brilliant books for the first time and I walked past tea rooms where I'd joylessly eaten peanut butter and honey sandwiches, thinking about suicide, surrounded by old ladies and veterans and the desperately lonely and I walked past music shops that would still never have what I was looking for and I walked past cheap bootleg shops that changed their names on a cycle, every few weeks, always going out of business, always choosing their new name from the same list of interesting and catchy English words, I walked and walked and a Filipino carrying a bicycle over his head raped my gaze and said, laughingly, slowpoke, said it like it was two words. I kept walking. I peeked into the pharmacy and she was there, oh my heart. I couldn't feel my brain; my lungs had knocked it up, suddenly, and the two were now living together out of some sense of obligation in my throat. She was there. If I wanted, I could walk over and put my hands on her, I could smell her. I knew exactly how she'd smell, though; I can smell it right now, as I type, through the booze and chlorophyll, and I will be damned if I ever ever put it into words. I smelled it in the mornings before she went to work and I smelled it in the afternoons when I met her for lunch and secretive kisses and I smelled it when I heard her flats on the pavement and rushed over and opened the door and whoosh a thermodynamic faceful of that smell, don't you fucking dare tell me that I don't remember that smell, don't you fucking dare tell me you want to know about that smell.

"You'd better clean yourself up," she'd say, coming home and seeing the empty wine bottles and the shameless spilled pills over by the Playstation. "I am not going to be with an alcoholic. You hear me? I'm not. It'll change you, Josh."
"M'not n'alcohlic. C'mere," I'd say, so happy to see her, adoration and love and relief somehow magically transmuted into charm and forgiveness.
She's right, though. I'll quit tomorrow.

I walked into the pharmacy quietly. I wanted to be invisible. I crept around the edges of the shop, looking interested in things but not so much as to need, you know, help. Shit - Emma caught my eye, Emma being a co-worker of hers that we'd socialized with, and it hit me: what is Emma doing, still working here? Why is she still working here? Emma and I looked at each other's eyes for a bit, then bing, access granted, into each other's eyes. Her mouth opened a bit and she tilted her head. She got out the barest inky smudge of the first phoneme of my name before I put a finger to my lips - shhhh. And then I mouthed: I want it to be a surprise. She reddened and ducked her head, smiling. We're in on a secret. Good fun.

I got behind the counter without being seen or being shopped, as they say, and then I dived. I hit her legs with a flying tackle - not enough so she'd fall, but she'd know that there was some force and feeling behind it. Our eyes met for the first time since - oh, jesus, my fucking heart - since fucking forever. I really got to see her eyes, and she was still wearing those colored contact lenses, and I was still able to instantly find the edges of them and to see the bits and blasts of real hazel that picked their way out and through. She had thought I'd like her better with green eyes; she still wore those green contacts. She thought she'd never see me again - who is she wearing them for, now? Fuck them, I am wrapped around her legs and I am a drowned corpse in love, test me.

There was a lot of stammering, nervous and displaced and whatnot. I didn't care. She could ask me questions forever if I could keep my nose pressed against the back of her knee. "Hey," she said in that certain shade of irritation which meant it was perfectly OK to go about my business, "hey, Josh, I have to work, here." I made myself stop staring at where her heels met her shoes and looked up, oh yeah, some old guy, humorless - never been in love, you old piece of shit? - wanting to pay for his medicine. Right, extend a humorless and hopeless life, that's the ticket. Ha! I have love and everything! I live a charmed life!

"I'll meet you after work," she said to the top of my head. I detached myself and wandered the city, wanting, desperately, something to be different. Wanting to be known, wanting to be as beloved and familiar as these stupid mute sidewalks and storefronts were to me. And I wandered, and I checked my watch every five minutes, and I went back when I thought the pharmacy closed:

And she was gone. Everyone was gone. The storefront was locked up tight. Hopeless. Empty. Lights out. One million places to sit out front and my girl is not in any of them. I looked at each of them, for a second, and I thought - and remembered! - the music I'd listened to, the books I'd read, sitting out front, waiting for her to get off work, we'll hit a pub, we'll hit the bottle shop and head back to her place, we'll hit the park or the ferry and pretend we're the last ones alive. This is why those memories, this city, would be the death of me; the acceleration of memory. What's the formula for A again? You got it. The city was too important to me all at once. I hammered on the glass next door; a wraith - no, an optometrist - was tidying up in the darkness. He slitted his doubtlessly perfect eyes (the sign did say "since 1929") at me and cracked the shutters:
"Yes?"
"Have you seen Stella?"
"Who?"
"She works next door, at the phar- um, chemist's. Long red hair with dark streaks, or maybe it's more like dark hair with red streaks, it depends really on how the light hits it..."

To my surprise and embarrassment, the optometrist let me go on with my adoring and repetitive description before pointing at the staircase in the passageway between his shop and the phar - um, chemist's. Of course! I thanked him with a flurry of hair and the back of my head. She was sitting on the brick, under an umbrella, waiting where she'd always waited to meet me, every single time. For lunch and secretive kisses. She was staring at the passageway where she knew I'd appear and she stared at me when I did appear and she kept on staring (and I could have suckled those eyes forever) motionless, I was right up beside her, and what?

"So what do you wanna do?"
"Stand up," I said, and she did, and I threw my arms around her, and vice versa, and my god, all the bullets in the world wouldn't have brought me down.
"I wanna be back with you," she said, right to my ear, I could feel the damp heat of her breath against all those useless ridges. I felt the itching of tears in my eyes. I buried my face in her wonderful wonderful hair. This was going to be the right hair, the way hair should smell, forever.
"Oh, god, baby, you - you beat me to it, I, I -" I was helpless. She took the back of my head in her hands, then, and pulled so that we were eye-to-eye. Yes. Wonderful. It's us, again, at last, you angel.
"But I'm not going to be," she said, "because you will just screw it all up again." She kissed me on the forehead and let go of me, completely; she stood there, indifferent, and I did not know what she wanted.
Tuesday, March 19th, 2002
10:23 pm
Subtle as a car crash
I woke up. "Welcome to everything," I said, and I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, and tried to ignore the stabbing useless heat and the morning moist and the painful, useless erection - where do you think you're going? - and so I put the accessories I'd come with together and left the room, went out to finish the mission, et fucking cetera.

I stood just out of sight, in the cool graypainted metal nook between the elevator and the lobby; maybe this little two by eight box of space, of confused winds and surrendered carpet, a nice place to catch a couple of breaths and learn the braille for "G." I was watching the desk clerk read something, I think the newspaper. Her lips were moving a little and her shoulder shifted just enough to let me see through the black plastic counter, watch her fingertip slide over words and drop paragraphs like old pebbles. She was just beautiful. I realized - this was while I was fishing my pack of cigarettes from my jacket pocket; my fingers touched an old, dulled, abused key and I flashed my head into her purse, looking at her keys, knowing she's got some keys, uses them every day to open filthy and regular doors - that I didn't know what she looked like in the morning, or under fluorescent lights, with two nights' worth of groceries, waiting in line behind the neighborhood drunk and a blue-haired coupon hoarder. It didn't matter. Her black hair, shining like sins that hadn't even occurred to me, hung down her line of symmetry in a single, thick braid. I wanted that braid to come undone, suddenly, a thermodynamic miracle snaps the rubber band, so I could stand in the lobby, invisibly smoking, and watch her redo it.

She looked good at this ungodly hour on purpose, had made an effort, and that effort was squeezing my heart like heavy water pressure. She was beautiful like architecture, beautiful like arch like flying buttress. If I hadn't slept all fucking day with the phone off the hook - the receiver actually removed from its host and introduced to Gideon and his guests, dead deluded Trojan soldiers, in the dresser drawer - I wouldn't have had to talk to her and ruin this instant forever.

"Uh three sixty-three. Any, yeah. Messages? Phone messages for me?" Those eyes ricocheted off of information briefly; all I could do was watch, gently, and try not to look impatient.

"No, sir." Sir? How old am I? It is obvious that I have been wearing the same clothes for almost three days - I am rumpled and repetitive, and this suit has hidden only a million unconscious erections and panicked sweats, and I'm only talking about while I'm sleeping, dig - and here this immaculate bust of service calls me "sir." The tie, loosened, dangling around my neck must trump the adrift desperation of waiting, of loneliness, of being a cartoon character. They wear the same thing every day and no one complains. I could use the dried fabric against my armpits to break up polar ice caps.

"Sir?" she says, and I've just been staring at her forehead, too much in love with her eyes to admit it, but there's that "sir" again, and now it's war! A battle of deference: I look at my feet, scuffle them around, put my hands behind my back. I won't be talked up to, young lady, just try it now!

"Fie get nee calls," slurring my words like a scolded child, "ull be at a bar called Max's Hutch." I looked up at her for a second, made my "aren't I stupid" face, "I guess they're in the book. But uh mexpecting someone - some guy's gonna call" what a genius, going out of your way to let her know you're not seeing anyone, well no shit, clever enough to lay subtle hints for people who do not give a good god damn but not clever enough to, say, keep normal hours or normal company or maybe even bring a change of clothes along on a mission -

"I'll let him know, sir." Will you stop it?

"Thank you, ma'am. You're a credit to ah -" I touched my hand to my forehead, yeah, here's your praise, I salute you, miserable beautiful working girl, gotta go! What was that you were going to say? Shut up

On my way to Max's: I hit every red light, almost committed "first-degree murder," met God himself. First things first, that's fair enough, let's talk about the red light. That red light, I mean, where I'm sitting and trying not to sing along with the music - traffic here is heavy, and I look like a fool at the best of times, to say nothing of the grimy maniac in a dirty car (new model, thinks the guy next to me, fingering his cellular phone, probably stolen) moving his lips frantically, silently, at nothing. Let's not be that, OK, but I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw this guy. Thick necked, eyes squinted against what? The light blasting off of the beads dangling from his rear-view mirror? The sun? Emotional pain, so secret that he only feels it alone, in still moments, in his indestructable car?

No. He was squinting at me, sizing me up - he'd caught my face, the bridge of my nose, my upper lip, through my rear window, in my mirror, nothing but net, and had just automatically assumed the posture of brutal and quiet defiance. I caught those eyes first, and then the beads, and then the hat, twisted around tight against his skull, a blasphemous ring, shading nothing. A monstrous and gasping truck, its commanding view of the road Exhibits Everything, your honor, in defense of sheer frictionless arrogance and id. I was looking, for a couple of seconds, into the eyes, hateful and tiny and mathematic, of an anhedonic hedonist. Of all the things this twenty-something monster eighteen feet away had ignored or forgotten, Public Enemy Number One was the word "enough."

The light turned green and the column of cars lurched across paint and cement. The menace kept watching me. Here, I thought, this is amazing. I couldn't explain this to someone just one hundred years ago, could I? This impulsive, lurching, critical thing, who laughingly date-rapes with this power of consensus and bad faith and, occasionally, with nothing more than a rough hand over trembling lips and that blind staggering prick, this mongrel, this throwback is presently daydreaming of my death because I'm not driving fast enough for him. I'll show him fast enough, I told Orville and Wilbur - and then I caught myself, because I heard them encouraging me, and I would have done it, too.

I had to pull off of the road and rub the lines out of my eyes, smoke a cigarette, let that unholy - I had to pull off of the road, or I would have run him off of the road. I felt it in my fingertips, right under the nails, tingling just above where I dug them into the trusting and pliant black rubber. I would have run him off of the road and beat him to death with my bare hands, I really would and not a jury in the world would convict me - you see that? That is exactly the sort of scary and unhealthy and wrong thought that makes me pull the car over. Most times I believe it. Someone just said because it's right, but I am not listening.

I stood there, smoking, and a car pulled up alongside, slow, and there it is - it's stopped. Pulled off the road, parked in front of me. So I'm going to be murdered, here, standing on the shoulder, busy road but no matter, sociopaths don't stand on formality. A little tiny old man gets out of the car, and I'm struck by the size of his head, because there's nothing to it; it's as if his skull had shrunk to fit an action figure, or a box of cereal. He toddled over, that smile, I could have bisected his living head on that smile, a neat seam splitting his face, and I swear to God he asked me if I needed any help. Embarrassed, I look around, just sort of toss my head and eyes here and there, trying to be casual, not like a hitman or charity case, you know, funny you should ask, grandpa, that sort of thing. And his license plates are from South Dakota.

South Dakota! I realized, then, that here is God, He of infinite mercy and compassion, He having seen this well in advance, leaves his comfortable cabin and drives all the way here, silently, or maybe humming along with his favorite songs, for days, just to pull up and save me from the fire, from the Wrong Thing. It's God, all right, all smiles and unconditional help and quiet ability, and from South Fucking Dakota. All that way because I cannot maintain something like a sense of perspective.

"Heh, no, but - hey! ah, thanks for stopping," I say, casual as all hell, fighting every sensible instinct, all of which are telling me to gouge out my eyes and beg, weeping and bleeding, for understanding, "you've got to fight highway hypnosis, you know? You drive long enough, and, eh -"

"You're going to need a bit of a rest," he said. I think that I nodded. We stood there staring at each other for a while. He was waiting for me to confess, to confess weakness or need or something, he wanted to be useful and helpful, he wanted me to see how much he could care, and I just wasn't giving him the chance, just returning his smile like a newsreader or a mannequin.

"Okay," he finally said, and he didn't say it like I do - he didn't say the two letters, he somehow made it a Word, "good hunting!" God from South Dakota drove away to parts unknown and I fought the moonlight and slick roads and worst impulses and made it to Max's Hutch. At Max's Hutch I gave the bartender a twenty-dollar bill for the third night in a row and drank the drinks, fizzling and stupid metal beer over and again, that he kept coming. Betting against my endurance.

"You look like you're into computers," said the girl next to me. I say girl but she was at least my age, probably older - I just thought of her as a girl, for an instant, for having been capricious enough to talk to a stranger. Girls always are, and that comment was uncalled for, but, damn it, she was right. I made a couple of quick noises to prove it and wrapped my lips around the beer; I defused discovery. "You play games?"

I couldn't drink forever. Not all at once, anyway. "Some."

"So did my ex-boyfriend -" I want to mention, here, that everything she said here happened all at once, at a great speed, that I not only had no chance to interrupt, but I had no time to even think until she stopped talking. It was all I could do to keep up, barricaded into a wet safe house. "- he would play those games ten, eleven hours a day. You know that game, oh, hell, what's it called, you've got the humans and the orcs, and they're always chopping down wood or whatever, yeah, Warcraft, he would play that for eleven hours a day, or more. I couldn't even talk to him, he wouldn't listen, playing that game, didn't do anything. He liked that game more than anything, more than finding a job, even; that's why I divorced him."

She waited for me to say something, I think, but I wouldn't for a while; I was trying to make everything that had just been dumped into my ears match up. I had ex-boyfriend and divorced him, and I had a complete stranger who knew nothing - she had seen my lips curl up and quiver around the edge of a glass, and that's it - telling me, one of one billion computer-literate strangers, the intimate details of a recent divorce, bang bang! She knew I'd fill in the blanks, and I did, and afterwards she was still there, real as life, daring me to imagine my ghostly counterpart who'd given up her love and her bed for some other game. I thought about this girl's guts - I thought about the sheer volume of intestines and tubes and passageways that worked tirelessly to keep this beautiful wreck alive, all the time - no rest, no dispute, not a fucking word in the matter, if she put had ever put a gun to her throat, and meant it, those guts would keep on working, regardless, complex and invisible forever - and here all that effort was, presently, all about telling me, telling me!, a strange blank dirty car crash, these intimate and sad details. It's not as though it didn't hurt, but hurting was worse than not trying, right? Right?

"I'm going to get some more cigarettes," she said. "Come with me."

"Going to, hey, what? Going where," I said, you know, ha ha, very funny, what's the score, here, anyway?

"Gonna walk over and get some more smokes. Come with me."

"Girl, you are crazy. You will get yourself killed out there. Do you not know where you are?" Oh no, I thought, I am - fuck, I'm - talking like an asshole!

I looked at her and smiled. She smiled back; I drew patterns in the wet on the bar and waited for her bladder to save me. When she was out of sight, I took my drink, and those that would follow, to the Asteroids machine in the darker corner. I hadn't even noticed the Asteroids machine, two nights I'd come and drank myself blind in this bar - in a row! - and never saw it, standing like a forgiving parent come slowly striding out, with open arms, from some reactor disaster. The last time I'd seen an Asteroids machine, I'd had to sit on a bar stool just to play; now I tucked my pint glass behind the softly glowing, filth-hazy marquee, within arm's reach, you understand, and blew smoke into its gentle black face. This was all wrong: Asteroids should have come out of the darkness, placed a glowing white hand on my shoulder, led me away from temptation and entropy. My presence, all fuming with complex weird molecules and unright intent, didn't match up - enough - but the machine hid me from bad love long enough. For just quarters, forgettable laundromat fodder (he said, as though he washes his clothes) I could forget, just pitch a triangle of light around and focus upon a purpose. And keep drinking -

"You bastard," said my friend, finally, thumping my brainstem with two fingers and killing, accidentally, another god damned UFO, "you know where your mom's at?"

"No," I said, playing along with tradition.

"Um," he said, and I tried to bite back the laugh of recognition until he delivered the line, and I did, I guess, "I don't know, but it's probably somewhere terrible." The pause afterwards was crucial. "Because she's a whore, fuckhead." Then I let the laughs come, we both did, and hands everywhere, gripping shoulders, laughter bursting like anti-aircraft fire just everywhere - thank God you're here, thank God you made it, thank God you still feel the joke, thank God you still get it - we tried harder. Old friends always do; they never need to, and they do anyway, that's how you know. That gentle, familiar effort is as blatant as sepia.

"Drink," I said. I pushed my glass at his face. It was more than half full; Sam had taken care of me, probably because Sam had remembered the twenty - I'd hoped that it was more because Sam was overloaded with the complete and total sincerity I'd felt myself radiating since, I don't know, earlier. She was cute, that Sam, short for Samantha, cute in the sense that I wouldn't let any harm come to her, cute in the sense that she probably introduces herself with her name, age, and three favorite hobbies, knows intimately the definition of the word "naive" and decided, rightly, that lexicographers are just grumpy, lonely cynics. It didn't matter; Samantha wouldn't be back over again. I figured this out; the bar had filled with bodies while I played Asteroids and looked over my shoulders, at that empty couple of spots at the bar - yes, OK, I was looking for her, and she'd left, and I felt personally responsible. Try to be nice and reach out and the whole world turns into a noisy, panelled vacuum, right? I looked out for her, in spite of myself; wouldn't you?

"I can't," he said, "I have to -"

"Time to pay up. Your tab," said a muscular someone to my friend. "We're trying to close, come on," he said, with a big hand - why did he ever go to school, with hands of that size? - under his face.

"I haven't been drinking," said my friend.

"Right," said the giant, making his eyes do something significant. I felt the floor shifting.

"I haven't been drinking," I said to the giant. "I have to go."

"I know," he said. He paused for a second, smiling at something - was it that I hadn't, after all this time, dethroned AAA? - but he was smiling, anyway, when he said "you can go." I squeezed past fifty-five drunken debtors and made my way into the street, and watched cars pass, and wondered if Samantha was in one of them, and if she cared - had she even noticed? - that I was bad at Asteroids. My friend came out, three cigarettes and nineteen regrets later, with a black eye.

"Let's move," he said.

"Jesus! Did that -"

"I want to get home, man. I mean, now," he said, and that was OK.

"I'm going to crash at your place," I said, and I could almost see and smell the weird horrible fumes coming off and out of me. "I can't, you know, drive -"

"We're going," he said, and we ended up spilling out of his car: the apartment complex didn't know or care, as long as someone had a magnetic swipe card and the will to use it. The elevator was out of order; he apologized, and I countered with an exhausted, exhaustive gospel of and for stairwells. The echo and angles, everything, nothing. Never mind, he wasn't in the mood to hear it. "Break right," he said, suddenly, and while my mind was still trying to make all that noise into a thought, something important just came out of his mouth, now what? - my body lurched right and missed a doorframe by inches. We got to his floor and cracked the seal of rust and crept bolting and silent - what a pair we were, fear and fear - into his hallway. We almost got up to his door, together I mean.

"Wait!" I caught myself and repeated it in a stage whisper, stupid, people live here, you got it, punk, "wait, what the fuck -" he was close enough, he'd come back over, was close enough to hear the italics, "is this?"

"Oh!" and then he caught his own voice, because it didn't feel like half past two in the morning, in spite of everything, all this trying and failing, "oh. I'd meant to show you this, this is -" His voice was rushing now, he was a broken valve, he had meant to show it to me. Everything he'd meant to say was rushing back at once, choking him, and meanwhile, I just had stuttering audio and these fucking pictures to go by, and was not impressed.

"Looks like he thinks he's some kind of psychic ninja," I said, and that was true. That was the best description of the photos, ever, and I will die to defend that description. The scoop: here's a photo of this guy, short spiked hair, dark with bleached (um, yeah, orange) tips, scowling out at the viewer from a maelstrom of photoshopped flames. Muscle shirts, clenched fists, flattering angles. Different poses and expressions, barely, every arrangement of self-absorbed arrogance, taped all over his front door. "Who the fuck allows these sort of pictures to even happen?"

My friend laughed, and then caught one of those bursts in his throat and turned it into a few words. "That's, yeah, that's what -" here came the giggles - "psychic ninja, jesus, you're right," and we looked at the photos and held our ribs in and quietly convulsed together for a while. "That's Harry Hate. That's what he calls himself, anyway; his mailbox downstairs says 'Sullivan' but whatever, he's some sort of -"

"Harry Hate?" I said, I just could not believe this, I was sure I'd walked into a comic book or a clumsy allegory or something. "OK, number one, that's a clear rip-off of that 'Pump Up the Volume' flick, and number two, no, hang on, let me guess, he thinks he's subculture." I just couldn't take my eyes off of the glamour shots, all over his door, it was all I could do to talk: Warning! Guard Wanker On Premises!

"He's pretty popular on the Internet, people love him, he's like the voice of our generation," said my friend. "Makes fun of all the stuff we didn't realize was stupid, or anyway, what he thinks was stupid." I just stared at the photos; my guts were trying to boil away the sheer hubris and yielding nothing but angry, heavy lead, "That's weird," my friend went on, "I mean, that you've never heard of Harry Hate. He used to be pretty funny, before everything went to his head. I don't know, I think he stopped, I mean, he wasn't worth anything once he took himself so seriously. Believed his own hype - get this, I read that he's coming out with a book -"

"You will wait here," I said, talking like a wanker again, "and I will be right back. I mean right here."

"It's like a combination autobiography and best-of sort of thing," he explained to my back, "he's like the 'humorist gone bad' or something, like there's not a million already, hey, hey wait," but he managed to figure out just how far down the stairs was too far to change my mind. When I reappeared, he looked like, for a second, that he wanted to finish his sentence. Then he saw the toolbox, "where'd you get that?"

"People leave shit just laying around," I said, violating subject-verb agreement and Harry Hate's deadbolt at the same time, "now keep your god damned mouth shut, shut until we're in and I've laid at least one - oh, fuck it, just come on, quietly." I'd heard of him, all right, and I wanted to do this: I wanted to crush his face with something blunt and immortal, right in his own bed, and watch the post-everything amoral anesthetized arrogance come running out of every hole on his terrified face. But. We crept into the apartment, and, before the sick blue light of a bored monitor, we found Harry Hate, Sullivan, whatever, slumped dead in a chair, resting forever under the tender, radioactive caress of the hand that fed him. I lifted Harry Hate's arm up off of his chair and felt cold sticky nothing worm into my pores.

"Oh Jesus, Walter, he's dead. He's - put that down" I dropped Harry Hate's arm; it landed in his lap. "Don't touch anything, for fuck's sake. God. I'm going to be sick, this guy is dead -"

"Nice little stunt," I said, "forever relevant." My friend looked at me as though I'd just whipped out my cock, recited deadpan an old Doublemint ad, and started pissing on his shoes. Here we were, broken into some weird, wired apartment; we came in with the intention of doing great bodily harm to a sleeping stranger, and now that he's dead...

My friend started fucking around with the computer. I softly opened up a drawer and started going through Sullivan's old photographs. From back when he was Sullivan, and not a twisted, reactionary praise junkie. Most of the photos were of birthday parties, Sullivan's - most of them starred a girl - cute, but not beautiful - with her arms around Sullivan's neck or shoulders or waist or legs, her hands over his eyes, guess who, that sort of thing. He was smiling, always, in all of them, an easy grin, an accident, caught smiling in spite of his image. Or whatever, I couldn't know. I paged through them twice, then brought one to the front, slowly, with drunken hands in dim light: Sullivan in the foreground, wearing a cardboard Burger King crown, and that girl of his, all teeth and hair, laughing, spontaneous. I pushed it under my friend's nose.

"Lookit this," I said, "he wasn't always so bad. He wouldn't have kept -"

"This cam," he said, grabbing my generous, peacemaking, empathic wrist, "is on. He killed himself live." He grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled me to the floor, one quick hard movement; I would have made a sound - pain, you know - but reacting would have killed, crumpled the photo. Exhibit A, Exhibit Everything. "We're here, now," he said, hissing everything, "this fucking Internet, we are the murderers." I watched his throat work for a while, at an angle; I pictured beads of blood at the root of every hair on my scalp. He didn't want to die.

"We did not kill him, this stupid fucking Harry Hate," I said, always always talking like an asshole when I'm panicked, "remember! We are concerned friends, we did, earlier, force our way in because we feared for his safety. And we were too late, and we were too shocked and horrified and drunk to do anything else, because we thought that it might be a trick, we hoped so - are you listening to me? - all we can do is go to sleep. Tomorrow we will call some medics or police. They will love us for caring. Now let the fuck go of my hair, right now, or you will lose the use of an eye." He let go of my hair and shot up, sober and muscular and terrifying, into an angry skulking crouch.

"I'm going home, to bed. You come crash when you're done fucking around here -" that last bit sprayed my face, here we were, close friends until some stupid death, the very stink of death, its proximity and reality, you know that drill, and then it's gone; the illegal door whisked against silence and thick conspiracy, and I was alone in the apartment. A lonely drunk and an angry corpse and a masturbating, idealistic audience of thousands? I put Sullivan's birthday photos in my jacket pocket, slick and sharp-edged against my keys and cigarettes, and fell asleep on my friend's sofa. The sleep of the just, all mine until the sun came up and I heard wet, muffled laughter from the courtyard, the swimming pool. It was morning, finally, and we were going to blast the rust and disease from our joints, and swim under the yellow sun.
Tuesday, March 12th, 2002
7:35 pm
She's not a girl who misses much
I sat there at the back of the bus, and I took the book out of my backpack, again. She'd bought me a bookmark, once, and I had it, only not in the book. It was in an envelope, being mangled at the bottom, underneath other essentials. I couldn't read - scratch that. I could and can read, obviously, but the book was being ruined; someone had bothered to write over four hundred pages of book, of single, thick book on a single theme, and had gone to all this trouble to establish character and setting, and still every fucking scene took place in her living room, and every woman looked like her, moved and spoke and paused like her. I was turning the paperback, four dollars and fifty cents' worth of one year of anotehr strange life, into my autobiography, and the edges of its pages were turning my fingertips into raw meat. The sodden, giving edges of its pages felt like little mouths against my thumbs; I would have sworn that it weighed fifty, sixty pounds. I put the book back into my bag, with both hands, fingertips probing for that envelope - I'm not really looking for it, I'm just putting away my book and making sure everything is, ah, there - and looked out the window, trying hard to appreciate the scenery. Maybe it's easier to appreciate in smaller pieces, more concentrated, not a noisy sick blast past eyes and ears, strictly function.

I used to work at the knife store in the mall. It was stupid - it was referred to as a "cutlery outlet" even though we only sold wicked and terrible knives to malcontents, veterans, and teenagers. That's where I met her, and I'm not joking - she was only the third, maybe fourth unaccompanied female that had come in during my run, on my shift. The other girls (girls? one was old enough to be my mom - it's how you carry yourself) were syphilitic renaissance chicks with unruly armpits, million-dollar vocabularies, and the permantent stink of weird treachery. I didn't see her read my name badge; I felt it.

"Walter? - Walter. Yeah. You know my baby brother."

"I do?"

"He came in, bought a nine inch Amazon from you, will not shut up about you. I was in the neighborhood -"

"It's a mall. And a uh shitty mall at that, but thanks."

"Yeah. Thought I'd check in and meet his hero." His hero? I remembered the kid, though. Always wanted to come in and talk knives and video games. Every now and then, he'd slip in a personal detail - something shocking and frightening, but I never got the full impact; it was always in the context of sane and sanitized reality, display cases and screaming pixel blurs. The two always ended up meeting, and for hours he'd describe some game or other, what he'd done, what he would have done, were it him, with such-and-such a knife, what he'd thought, what he'd read and how it did or did not match up - he hadn't done anything with that knife, yet, but he would. He ended up slitting some other kid's throat, stuffing the bleeding and sobbing body into a red plastic shopping cart, and pushing it down into a paved drainage gully. I saw the photos later, on the Net.

His sister, though, kept coming in to talk to me. It sounds vain, but she kept coming in, when I was working, and she never bought anything. How many times do you need to look at a knife? My boss started calling her "my girlfriend" - girlfriend! Seriously! - even though I wouldn't even find out her name for three weeks. I didn't touch her for another week and a half, I think. I remember: I gripped her shoulder, without even thinking about it, talking about something, trying to make that something sink in, and she'd just drifted in and lightly kissed me on the lips.

She was my girlfriend after that, though. After I felt her touch my mouth, I didn't want to be more than five feet away from her. I didn't care what she did, as long as I could watch. Count sheep or fold clothes or lace up an old pair of boots. I guess that she didn't mind; we ended up everywhere together. We were sitting in her living room and her housemate came in. Looked at me, looked at her - we were cuddled on the sofa, this tight little clump of contentment - and rolled her eyes.

"Nice catch," she said, lighting a candle, too fascinated by the match. "Should I drag the mattress in here, Wonder Girl, or is he it for the night?"

"Fuck off," said my girlfriend.

"Wonder Girl?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said, and stroked the back of my neck, watched some TV, left me out of it. I fell apart under her hands and the light of three old lamps. and agreed.

I found out the truth from one of her friends. This was a lot later. He was one of her friends, anyway, in the sense of "let's be friends," in the sense that her rejection had bounced neatly and permanently off of his ridiculous, inflated self-opinion.

"You love her?" he'd asked. This was at my little sister's birthday party, of course. I wouldn't have had a thing to do with him, otherwise. But - but! - he'd been watching us all night, drifting together in the same polite tight circle. She'd gone to refresh our drinks and he moved in, took my elbow, swerved his face in just right, drunken and familiar protocols in full effect. I thought that it was a nice thing to ask; my heart was full of her, overflowing, coming out of my mouth and blocking up my ears. The world should have known, right.

"Yeah," I said, "yeah, I think I do. I do." He looked like he was going to laugh, or throw up. I had to qualify myself. "She's amazing."

"Everyone loves Wonder Girl," he said. And then he told me exactly why, and I held onto it for a long time; I held onto it until I believed it, and until she seemed pure and wonderful enough to be unreal.

"Three guys, eh?" I let the words hang there long enough for her to turn her head, to look me in the eyes - I watched them sink into those two glowing holes, recognition and sickness and fury. "And in front of everyone," I added, casually, idly, just making conversation, folks, rubbing two fingernails together to hide the tremble. She just stared at me; she didn't say a god damned thing. "So how'd it feel?" I asked, finally. Everything had gone a bit tilted, everything was different, now, and I was sorry that I'd brought it up. I could have said anything, anything - something about food or TV or her green cardigan, which always made my heart crumble into a fine, adoring powder - but I brought up that night in her living room, her living room, and those three mystery cocks, ancient history, really, that had been boring three small and strategic holes into my heart.

She moved away, a couple of inches, enough, while sucking in a little air through her nose and mouth. "How dare you," she said, then, as if it took all the effort in the world, "how dare you even say, you don't know, not anything." She waited, but she wasn't done, "nothing about that."

"Why, why'd you do it? Why'd you ever do something like that?" Now she knew everything. She knew I'd been thinking about it forever, and that it hurt me; she knew that those invisible hands, caked in a second skin of dried sweat and boiling intentions, had reached up right out of the past and strangled me. I cared too much. I was choking on her history. It was the Wrong Thing.

"It was my eighteenth. I was drunk. I didn't care - it doesn't even matter, now. I love you," she said, she was trying to fix things. It, fuck it, I mean I, I meant that much to her, and still:

"Do you just not have any fucking self respect? Because I -"

"Fucking self respect," she spat, "that's nice." She started to stand up, so I grabbed her by the wrist. She looked down at that hand, the hand that had held that wrist for hours and hours, everywhere, like it had been heated to a thousand degrees. I felt skin move against skin, the wrong way; I brought her back onto the couch with a gentle jerk. ("A gentle jerk." Ha.)

"You talking about self respect, and how dare you, how the fuck fucking dare you, it's like - you know those blind men? Trying to describe an elephant, and one says -"

"I know it, I heard the story," I said. In less than two days, I'd be looking at her for the last time, and here we were, anyway, observing all the niceties of expository dialogue. If she'd just slapped me, or raised her voice, I'd probably be there right now, instead of at the back of a bus fingering an oily old paperback and feeling a hard, heavy pimple form against cold glass. Horrible confession: I almost added "a million times," there somewhere being a part of me that had decided the situation wasn't hurtful enough.

We waited.

"So you were drunk. Well, hey presto, problem solved, now I can go back to touching you, holding your fucking hand in public without seeing fifty pairs of laughing, squinting eyes: 'does he know where she's been?' 'well we certainly do, har har,' and so on. My girlfriend is an indiscriminate, drunken -" I'd been wondering how much she'd put up with before she exploded, and I found out, too.

"Why do you think I don't drink anymore, Walter? Do you think it's fucking easy for me -" I smirked at her turn of phrase, and she caught it, too, "yeah, okay, I'll tell you what. I did enjoy it, are you happy now? Think about it, Walter, really think about it: I did it, and I really enjoyed it, and are you ready? Sometimes I still think about it and, if I wasn't with you - for some stupid reason, though, I keep telling myself I'm in love with you - if I wasn't, then I might, hell, I probably would. I'd do it again." I couldn't believe that she'd said so much at once; I can't believe, now, that I didn't stop her. She was killing me, and I was strangled by everything at once, just watching the bullets spin and bore, "and do you think it's easy? - watching you drink all the goddamn time -"

"I don't drink that much," I said.

"Okay, Mister Restraint, I mean waiting for the sun to go down before you get wasted, that's not restraint, okay? So you're not comfortable enough in your own skin to -"

"Enough," I said, letting go of her wrist and making some show of wiping my palm on my pants. "Just call up the president of your little fan club, I'm sure they're a million strong, fuck me and get an autographed photo, and tell them all about it, because I, no. No." I stood up and walked into the kitchen. I poured myself a drink and listened to her leave: her bedroom door opened, then it closed, her keys clashed horribly, twice, and the front door opened and slammed. I stood there in her kitchen, and I felt like the house itself wanted to grab me with its walls and corners and frames and spit me into the street, unwelcome at last, like a solid tiny pellet of disease.

Later, I heard her come in. I pretended to be asleep; I wanted to see what she'd do. I heard clothes sliding against skin, off and back again, arranging themselves into angles and points and blobs on the floor, against her shoulders. She got into bed next to me and sighed. I didn't move, no, I even held my breath, clever like a fourth grader. The cold of outside, pavement and street lights and bus passes and chicken wire, was still coming off her body in a blue glow. She put her hand on my bare shoulder and tried to turn my body against itself, towards her, face-to-face; we'd done this dance one million times. She wanted to cup my cheek in one hand and just stare into my eyes, brushing away strands of hair, her lips twitching, just barely, with all the things she'd forgotten to say. I gripped the edge of the mattress, tight, immovable. I felt her let go and roll, away from me, in her own bed. I wanted to slide over, press our spines together, it's bad, I know, but not that bad, but I didn't. She wouldn't understand the difference.

We spent the next day in her bed. Staring at the ceiling, sighing in rounds, each of us trying to bait the other into saying "what?" and, of course, being obligated to spill several hours' worth of private thoughts out into the open air, stale and rich with sleep stink; the ceiling fan was off, and getting out of bed! unthinkable. Half-naked and moving, being watched, expressing a preference, a feeling - fuck it, it was just leaving that comfortable, awkward ostrich proximity that would have killed me. If we'd just been in that room long enough -

If her housemate hadn't come home and had noisy sex with her boyfriend. In that living room. I thought about eating the pillowcase, letting the light blue shreds of cotton fall through my throat and soak up all the vomit I felt on the threshold. I thought about everything but what had happened the night before. If she'd asked me what I'd been thinking about - and god help me, I so desperately wanted her to, in spite of myself - it would have been something stupid. Stupid and utilitarian, an endless stream of talking, rich in details and digression and just stupid, because I was thinking about getting my shit together and leaving.

"I'd better go," I said. She drove me to the bus station. Let me repeat that: she drove me to the bus station.

"Write to me," she said, and I said okay, sure. I haven't yet - what would I say? We had forgotten how to be casual, how to be normal human beings; we had been racing against the history of humanity and all its brutality to mean something to each other. I sit through every fucking day, narrating my movements and motivations to this girl, but I can't sit down for fifteen minutes and write her a letter, and put her address on an envelope, and drop it through a slot knowing very well that she's going to open it, and read it, and keep it somewhere. I mean, in a drawer. There's always a drawer, a special drawer, until the next one. Next to the charmingly useless and personal shit I bought for her, over all that time, a long time ago.
Thursday, March 7th, 2002
2:08 pm
Threshold decoded, exceeded
for thousand of yare astoronmery have been giving names to satars planed

newone ok

apir le 28 his in the thing to dsee the ufbvkghu one and the eniglish has

mark camcho you need to have to jgodhmg, b it vjigo jglgkeroti then

will have you to have the not you need hiabowkvjjyx, then they nnuuthey

they need you

***

(Typewritten note found March 5, 2002.)
Wednesday, March 6th, 2002
6:33 pm
A secret series of Tuesdays
She was the first thing that I saw when I woke up, and the fear was all over her face, for the littest, millionth instant, like the shadows cast by hair floating on water.

"Hey," she said, I guess that she saw me, too, and I thought oh no, not her again, but it wasn't her; the pieces had fallen and settled in different places, as if her face was suddenly, sheepishly admitting that it had forgotten the alphabet. That "hey" was the first word she'd ever said, to me, out loud, and I wanted to hear it again, now that I knew it was important.

I laughed once, but it just came out all bursting bubbles and bloody breath. "You know the funny thing? This guy" - I said the word like I couldn't believe it, either, just another ratblast of shared conspiracy - "this Swedish guy -"

"You're in a good mood. He threw you off the balcony," she said, looking at the insides of my elbows.

"The what?" I spat, trying to will her eyes up and over into contact, this is not a drill, that sort of hey come on, no, really? I tried to pull myself up, prop myself up on my arms so that I could look at her, and do it right, without sinking into my own skin and tripling my chin. I didn't make it. Something was off. Something, something, something. It didn't even sound like a word anymore, even in my head, located at ??? degrees north by, yeah. What?

"You landed smack in Johnny's recycling bin." A blur doubled itself moved somewhere and she said, "here," and was trying to offer me - I didn't know, couldn't see it, sure as hell didn't want to stand up now. The back of my shirt would be smeared with newsprint and she wouldn't be able to take her eyes off of it. There was a click in my throat; it might have been my heart.

"I'm serious."

"I'm serious."

"Sorry," I said, "my memory seems to be" and I laughed at myself, inside, for even thinking the word, and then I went ahead and said it anyway, "imperfect."

She smiled. Smiled? Whose side is she on? But: "He hit you, um, was hitting you really hard."

"I am," I had to clear my throat for this one, but otherwise I really believed it, "I am going to kill the fucker. Put him through a fucking wall."

"No you're not."

That blur doubled up again, got closer, hovered in a mess of wet color just at the edge of the picture. "He's gone now. We" (We? Who's we?) "wanted to call the cops, but Brad said no way." Yeah. Brad, the only one with any fucking sense, the only one who knew about the very stolen, very semiautomatic something in my backpack, still sleeping all greasy and black, an anti-coil, in the canvas wad at the foot of Anderson's bed. From the right angle, perfect -

I think it was all of a sudden, for both of us, that we realized we had nothing to say to each other. I reached across my guts and picked on a stiff prickly hangnail; she brushed that hair out of her eyes and looked up and away, at the sun, for the millionth time, this concerned astronomer our last defense against entropy. The sun? Who takes a beating when the sun is out? - apart from me, I mean, the evidence was stacked against me, but normally the sun didn't want a thing to do with the dead and dying, flared tempers and curbside recoveries. But the sun was out, all right, making me feel like an abandoned spaceship.

One of her shoulders moved. She'd found a sunspot, was starting to talk again: "I couldn't find your glasses."

I wanted to kiss her: you looked for my glasses! Not enough that you crouched here in this filthy angular wherever and waited for me to wake up, or not, whichever - no! You scuffed around all quiet and concentrated and fucking bothered to look for my glasses. I wanted her to eat me - I wanted her to sit down to a table full of me and cut the meat off of my bones and enjoy it. I didn't have anything else to give her and she'd tried, anyway, anyway meaning in spite of, in spite of what? I didn't have anything to reward her with and she hadn't found anything. I didn't kiss her, though. I pictured it eight ways a second and did nothing; I didn't want to bleed into her mouth. The only disease I don't have, probably, at this point, qualify the statement until you die, hero, is her name.

"Well, look, drink this," she said - the blur was a cup! full of ice water, clacking and humming, white-plastic pure.

"Where'd you get that cup?" I asked, pursing my lips; I could smell the water, no thanks, any more fluid loose in me and I'm gonna just die.

"The cabinet, in the kitchen," well, duh, you brain-dead fuck, drink your water before I decide to make new friends, ones that aren't loose-toothed and bruised in a goddamned alleyway.

I laughed again. They were coming out clearer now, more wind and sentiment than heat and damage. "You know, if anything - anything - happens to that cup, like if I'm drinking from it? And I just die all over it? - Anderson will kill you. I mean he will run you over with his car or something, you won't even be there, it won't even be a car to him-"

Shut up, you're starting to talk shit, said my brain. Oh, yeah, whoops.

"You gonna be OK?"

"I'm fine now. Take me to Wal-Mart. It's important."

"Shut up," she said, and then, about fucking time, but I thought she knew better, already, "Anderson?"

"Johnny. Whatever -- he got that at a gay pride parade and it's, seriously, it's his favorite thing. It's his, uh, little baby step out of the closet." She looked away while I sipped at the water. The cubes were electric blitted smooth slivers, been in there a while, awww. She looked away - why? I pulled myself up onto my arms, it worked this time, and took a long pull off the water, show you how right I am, now just look. She did; I guess she heard the last of the water break its meniscus in my neck. She was looking at me and so I started talking, because I was OK, would always be OK.

"The funny thing about - I mean, what I was talking about earlier. This guy's a fucking Swedish Nazi, fucking cheap little neo-Nazi. All the villains in this story suck."

"What?" she said, and I swear that she almost reached over to touch my face, almost pulled her hands out from under her armpits and felt my face.

"Never mind," I said. That remark hadn't been fair at all and I wanted her to forget it, now. "But just as soon as I start talking shit -"

"You were talking some shit," she agreed. Gee, thanks, never mind that I was right.

"Yeah, thanks, but ah he starts going on about how he's mastered seven styles of ninjitsu. You believe that shit? Punk little Nazi wants to be a fucking ninja. Yeah," I was on a roll here, feeling much better now, easier to beat up a ghost with hot air, "never mind the fact that - what the fuck is this?"

She started laughing. Great. "That's a, you've picked up a, wait a minute," and off she goes laughing again. When she opens her eyes it hits her twice as hard: "God, put it down, that's a fucking dead bird your hand's in." I dropped it, all right, and slid off of my arms, felt cool wet cement against the tender lumps blossoming on the back of my head. "I have to go," she said.

"I know." I didn't see her leave; I was watching that green stain on the drain pipe, waiting for it to creep down and cover me like a third skin. Third. Yeah. I twisted my torso against something right and solid, nudged it with my shoulder blades. Felt something, something paper, tightly folded (keep out the devil), snap in my shirt pocket: that thing, oh yeah. "Wait," I said to open skies and fire escapes and grieving siblings, fluttering like milk through mercury, "I wanted to show you something."
Tuesday, February 19th, 2002
7:16 pm
No Angels For The Unwell: Guilty as Hell 7
Guilty as Hell 7 is here.

This fucker happened, somewhere, last night, and I don't remember any of it. The evidence is as follows:

(a) user names, passwords, and authorization codes for a "guns of deimos" scribbled, almost fucking unreadable, on a sheet of paper that asks, earnestly, how are we doing?
(b) the pull-down address bar in my browser

So Rob's alive, somewhere. Good for him. If there's a better place to avoid what's coming to you, it's my battered skull.

Current Mood: bleeding
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