Tag: Short Story

It Was N, in the Closet, With Her Coping Mechanisms

BY: MARISA CRANE

N comes into school late, spinning like the Tasmanian Devil because J told her to and J knows best and honestly she thinks J could use a shave, but she won’t tell him that because he’s sensitive, plus last time J borrowed her weird uncle’s razor he didn’t put it back and she got a spanking for touching things that aren’t hers because of course she knew better than to blame it on the man no one else can see.

She learned that the hard way one summer afternoon while drawing J’s home planet on the sidewalk in front of her mom’s apartment with the chalk she’d stolen from the corner store where the man with the strange accent hums songs she’s never heard before and follows her around while pretending to rearrange the shelves. Anyway, J told her all about the place he was born and the bad ideas that grew from the ground like towering trees and N drew them all, every single one, because J said she was the most wonderful artist on both her planet and his and she believed him just like she believed her daddy when he said he’d Be Right Back. Her mother said  daddy ran up a tab he couldn’t pay at the Red Fox Motel and now N doesn’t know where he is but he certainly isn’t Back. J told her that on his planet back was a synonym for alive and she cried for four hours straight while her mother made Steak-umms and talked on the phone in a voice softer and silkier than her own.

 

The man on the phone was not her good-for-nothing husband, the man who, despite failing to commit to anything longer than a bar tab, repeatedly assured her he didn’t have the up-and-leaving gene, yeah right, as if any man had ever kissed a woman without also imagining how tired that very same kiss would become in just two years’ time. 

When N’s mother hung up she knelt down on the gray carpet next to N and hugged her but didn’t ask what was wrong—she could hardly manage her own shit. There was a reason the flight attendants always urged you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, even if that someone else was your daughter, even if that someone else looked sad and spooked around the eyes, and anyway, her oxygen mask must have been defective, ill-fitting, perhaps it had been designed to fail—her husband (or is he now an ex?) would call this victimization, he filed everything she did under victimization, it was the new hip term husbands passed around sacred husband spaces to justify their husband tempers. She, too, wanted a word for this thing, this fucked-up thing that happened to her and then kept on happening to her. She needed to lie down for a while.

 

The next day N was working on her intergalactic drawings when her mother found her and smacked her in the back of the head: Where did you learn these things? her mother asked. J told me about them, said N, cowering, still clutching a blue piece of chalk which had been reduced to a nub. Who the hell is J? her mother asked. N looked to her right, to the space where J sat pretzel style on the sidewalk, his straight black hair sticking out through the hole in his backwards hat, wearing a smile that looked nothing like her mom’s when she watched her grown-up shows or even her dad’s back when he still played airplane with her, balancing her body on his feet while she stuck her arms out to the side and pretended to fly. But she knew it was a smile nonetheless, just barely meeting the qualifications, because his teeth were showing and the corners of his mouth were turned upward, but don’t get it twisted, there was nothing pleasant about his expression.   

An imaginary friend taught you about dildos? her mother asked, trying to mask her own smile, one that absolutely meets the qualifications, failing to hide it, mixed signals for N who’s rubbing the back of her head. He’s not imaginary, said N. Look, he has dark brown eyes, black hair, ripped jeans, a black t-shirt. He’s a teenager. Teenagers can’t be imaginary, said N, convinced that her mom could see the boy-man with the bad ideas plopped down on the sidewalk with nowhere to go but wherever N goes. You’re a bit old for this, don’t you think? asked her mother, smearing one of the flying dildos with the toe of her sneaker. No, I’m not too old for a friend, said N, standing up and wiping off her pants but only succeeding in adding to the mess of chalk on her pants, a rookie move, she knew better but was frazzled and disturbed by what she could only interpret as her mom’s cruel and unoriginal prank.

It’s half-way through first period when N shows up, spinning spinning spinning while J laughs laughs laughs, and the teacher immediately calls her Therapeutic Support Staff, Z, to come deal with this child because Z knows how N gets, knows that if she comes into school like a tornado, she’ll leave having destroyed anything in her path. J tells her she can stop spinning and she collapses onto the carpet where the teacher reads stupid books almost none of the kids care about, except for maybe the asshole boy that’s always picking fights with N, according to N, but a lot of kids are always picking fights with N according to N. 

I don’t know why you make me do this silly stuff, she says laughing, high-fiving J, J who is now donning a black cloak and fangs, the real kind. Help, please come down and deal with her immediately, the teacher says into the phone. What’s that, J? N asks, recovered enough to stand up. Oh okay, okay, I will, she says, running to the back of the room where she crawls inside the coat closet. Look, N is crazy! yells someone who may or may not pick fights with N, we’ll never know. 

 

Shut up, a muffled yell comes from the closet, and some of the kids giggle, some cover their mouths with their hands, a few stomp their feet, and the teacher wants to leave, wants to know if she can call in sick when she’s already at school, wants to travel back to the exact moment she accepted this job and set her decision on fire, no, wants to travel back to the exact moment she decided she wanted to become a teacher and slap the word out of her mouth like the worst cuss word imaginable.

Ignore her, she just wants attention, the teacher says, and the kids seem temporarily satisfied by this assessment, they pull out their sloppy paper-stuffed folders, pass in their addition and subtraction homework, for the most part try to pretend a girl isn’t hiding in the closet talking to herself about about about about …. What is she saying now? Oh, that motels may or may not be separate planets inhabited by dreams that have died and floated out of children’s heads. Dream graveyards, she says. She keeps saying a person’s name. A man’s. She says it like he’s there, sitting in the closet, making it all make sense.

 

Z arrives and the teacher exhales so sharply Z’s worried the teacher may huff and puff and blow the whole room down, which she supposes wouldn’t be so bad, then she wouldn’t have to hike up her pants and crawl into the closet made for tiny coats and tiny backpacks and look absence in its carved-out eyes, then she wouldn’t have to pretend to know what to do with all that despair, how to spread it out so it doesn’t smother its owner, too smart for her age, observant, overexposed. 

What are you doing in here? Z asks once she manages to get down on the floor and peel through the hanging coats like layers of skin the little humans left behind. Hi, Miss Z! I don’t know. J told me to come in here so I did. I like it in here, says N, patting the ground and looking around as if she’s already decided the closet will make a nice home. Oh no, not J. He’s back? says Z. He never left, Miss. What else is he telling you to do? she asks, well aware of what N is capable of when she’s under the influence of J. Oh, all kinds of bad things, N grins, her eyes widening. Like what? Z presses. Today he says I should punch that asshole boy. He said some shit about my daddy the other day and J says we can’t let him get away with that, says N. You know what I’m gonna say to that, says Z, already tired, already depressed about N’s circumstances. I don’t wanna hear it, Miss. That boy needs to pay up, she says, punching her open palm with her fist in what Z assumes is supposed to be an intimidating gesture but looks more like she’s ready to flatten some Play Dough, and Z considers the idea that the body is smarter than the mind, that it knows when it’s being deceived and acts accordingly.

Oh what’s that, J? You think N should come out of the closet and go upstairs with Miss Z to talk about feelings and other crazyyyyyyyyyy things, says Z, holding her hand behind her ear and leaning toward the space to N’s right, hoping that she chose correctly so N won’t know she’s a fraud incapable of seeing J. What, he didn’t say that! No way, says N, shoving the space to her right, yes Z guessed correctly, yes Z does a mental fist pump, will take whatever success she can get, and then N stops, listens closely, and says, Oh my god, you did say that. You’re nuts! You know this lady’s a ghost right? she says as she begins to crawl out of the closet. I’m gonna let that one go, says Z, poking herself in the arm, reaffirming her reality or something like it. J says you look like a packing peanut, says N, laughing. Awesome, thank you, J, says Z, who gives the teacher a nod and points toward the ceiling to communicate that she’s taking N to her office and the teacher smiles like she just got the word that children were cancelled forever.

 

Upstairs N plops down in a chair and begins rolling backwards around the room and saying, Wheeeeeeeeeeeee, and asking J to speak up. J who still smiles that unsmiley smile, J who clears his throat and mutters, J who doesn’t actually have a home planet, J who until now hasn’t unleashed the worst of the worst, J who until now has been earning her trust, J who prepares to become a real boy by telling her a new truth, quickly pounces on Z, wrestling her to the floor, then ties her hands behind her back, gives her a quick kick, and sticks a gag in her mouth. J grabs N’s chair, spins her around so she’s facing him, and before she can say a thing, he tells her that the only way her daddy will love her again is if she jumps off the 5th Street bridge and learns to fly. 


Marisa Crane is a queer, non-binary writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, F(r)iction, Hobart, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Our Debatable Bodies (Animal Heart Press, 2019), and she serves as a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she currently lives in San Diego, California, with her wife.

Big in Japan

By: Billy Minshall

You should never tell a lie. Except when you should. 

“How could this have happened in the school parking lot? No one heard glass smashing?” my mother asked.

She surveyed my VW parked beneath our carport; the driver’s side window demolished. My mom, the spitting image of Sally Field in the film Norma Rae.

“I don’t know. I told you. I walked out to the car after school and there was glass everywhere. I left some loose change in the console so someone must have seen it and decided to break in. I mean, I don’t know what else to say.” 

Her brow buckled. “But why would someone smash the driver’s side window of the car in broad daylight? If they were going to break in, why didn’t they use a coat hanger or something?”

“I don’t know, Mother. I’ve never broken into a car before. Maybe it’s because Volkswagens are airtight, and you can’t jimmy the lock with a hanger or a slim jim” 

She considered me carefully, then the car, then me once more.

 “Well, I’ll report it to the insurance company.” 

My mom went inside to get ready for her part-time job at a local health food store. The door to our rented ramshackle house slammed behind her. We’d been through a lot in the past year and a half. My stepdad, Russ, was a truck driver who filed for divorce after meeting the “love of his life” in Tennessee. My mother picked up a second job to make ends meet, and now she was rarely home and hardly ever slept. She was exhausted.

 

Mrs. Seagull was my high school drama teacher. She smelled like incense and frequently reminded us that she and her husband, Bob, met at Woodstock. He was a theatre professor at the university. He also hosted Kaleidoscope, a local talk show that was televised live every weekday morning from the Towne East Shopping Mall.

One day Mrs. Seagull invited Bob to our class. He told us that a Japanese company was coming to town to film a commercial and they needed extras, all-American types. The producers were holding a “look-see” at the university on Wednesday at one o’clock. Since I believed myself to be the epitome of all-American, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. Mrs. Seagull said it would be excellent experience.

“You’ll need permission to get out of school for the audition. Do you think your mom will be okay with that? I’m happy to talk to her if she has any questions,” she said.

 “I’m sure my mom will say yes,” I said.  

Another giant lie. My mother couldn’t stand Mr. and Mrs. Seagull. When I told her that they met at Woodstock, she rolled her eyes. “So, what? Half a million people were at Woodstock. Who cares?”

Obviously, my mom had no clue how awesome this was. 

“Well, I think it’s amazing,” I said.

“Honey, do you even know what Woodstock was?”

“Um, yeah, I’ve seen the album cover. It was about peace and love.”

“It was about doing drugs in the mud. Mrs. Seagull’s probably still on drugs.”

My mom had other issues with Mrs. Seagull, like her East Coast dialect (“It sounds fake”) and her vegan lifestyle (“What does that mean?”). It didn’t help when my mom discovered that Seagull was not their real last name. 

Months earlier we’d studied Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Near the end of the play, the character Nina blurts out, “I’m a seagull.” While reading this aloud, my sandalwood-soaked drama teacher burst into tears. 

“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Seagull said in her faint, East Coast accent. “I think it’s best if I just share with you why I’m crying, rather than pretend I’m not upset.” 

She confessed that decades earlier while honeymooning in Cape Cod, she and her husband accidentally hit a seagull with their Dodge Dart. The bird got tangled beneath the car and was mutilated. The newlyweds were devastated, so shaken that they legally changed their last name to Seagull. It was their attempt at reparation for taking a life from the Universe. I thought this was the most beautiful gesture ever. When I shared the story with my mother, her irritation turned to rage. She spoke in tongues. She levitated. 

There was no way I would be allowed to leave school to attend an audition sanctioned by the Seagulls, so I decided to leave my mother out of it. I wrote a fake note with a forged signature and excused myself from class. 

 

My handsome friend, Hector, and I left school around lunchtime and went to the audition together. I drove my 1973 white Volkswagen beetle out of the school parking lot to the nearby university campus. We could see the road through the rusted floorboards of my dilapidated car, which had belonged to my mom before she bought her Buick. Since it was just the two of us after my stepdad left, it was a pretty big deal that my mom could afford both cars. In fact, she’d saved up for months to make that happen. And I couldn’t have been more grateful—I loved that car. The seat fabric in the VW was a product of its time, with brilliant psychedelic blue-green waves that appeared to be hand painted within the confines of their black leather borders. I didn’t care that the driver’s side seat was torn to bits and chunks of yellow foam puked from the seat’s guts, littering the floorboard, falling through the cracks

 Hector and I stopped for a hamburger across the street from the university. We sat in a sun-soaked booth that looked out at the university lawn, bathing in our freedom and talking about the audition, speculating if appearing in an international commercial might make us famous. When we returned to the car, I reached into my front right pocket for the keys, but they were not there. I searched my back pockets. Nothing. Through the shut driver’s side window, I saw my shiny keys glistening. They dangled from the ignition and smiled in the noontime sun shower.

No way.

Hector jerked at the passenger door, “What, dude? We’re gonna be late!”

“Look,” I said. 

Hector peered into the car. “You’re kidding.”

Tears flooded my eyes. I was embarrassed that I’d made this mistake in front of my handsome friend.

“Well call your mom. I think I have a quarter for the pay phone,” Hector said, digging into his front pockets for change.

“I can’t call her. I’m not even supposed to be here,” I said.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“I guess we have to break in. The thing is though, Volkswagen Bugs are airtight,” I said.

“Is that really true?”

“I think so.” I was flustered. “Don’t you remember The Love Bug? When Stefanie Powers drives Herbie into the Bay and they float? It’s because Bugs are airtight.”

“Why do you remember that? Plus, your floor is so rusted out there’s no way that thing is airtight anymore.” Hector laughed. I didn’t find any of this funny.

“Don’t you know how to break into a car?” I was desperate. 

“What, because I’m Mexican?”

“Because you work at a garage.”

“Let me go see if they have anything I can use to jimmy the door open.” Hector returned to the restaurant. 

I waited in the parking lot, pacing and plotting. I pressed my face against the smudged glass and saw Hector at the counter talking to the cashier. He looked at me from the other side of the glass, another dimension, and shrugged, defeated. This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t call my mom. What would I tell her? I wasn’t allowed to leave school for any reason without her permission, not even for lunch. The audition was in ten minutes and I was not about to forfeit my chances at international recognition. I scanned the parking lot and spotted a rugged-looking middle aged guy in flannel heading to nearby Bronco.

“Excuse me, sir? Do you have a hammer?”

 

We arrived on time and were instructed to have a seat in a very fancy waiting room. They called me in and the door opened. Three Japanese men sat behind a mahogany desk.

“You like Hard Rock Café in Orlando?” one of them asked. He had a Polaroid camera.

I glanced down at my T-shirt. I hadn’t known what to wear, what “all-American” looked like. Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts were all the rage at the time and made me seem well traveled. Orlando, though not New York City or Los Angeles, still revealed I’d been to Disney World. I bought the shirt when we had driven to Orlando on a whim the previous summer. Our drive was long and hot and my mom tried to make me laugh, singing along to Johnny Cash in her new used Buick, while I read a magazine article about ex-porn star Traci Lords. 

“Austin, what are you reading?” my mom asked. She was irritated that I wasn’t singing with her, so she snatched the magazine out of my hands.

“Mother! What are you doing?”

“Oh, whatever,” she looked down at the magazine and read the title of the article aloud: ‘Nobody Loved Me.’ Oh, brother. That’s why she became a porn star? Because nobody loved her? Give me a break.” My mother rolled her eyes, then laughed, then tossed the magazine out the window.

“Hey!”

“Honey, lighten up. We’re going to Florida.” 

“You’re going to get a ticket for littering.” 

I stared out of the passenger window for the rest of the drive.

 “I just have the shirt,” I told the man behind the table.

“Smile.” A Polaroid camera flashed. I said goodbye, left the room, and Hector went in. He emerged minutes later, his head held high. We got into the VW and went to a gas station, where the two of us tried desperately to vacuum the broken glass from the car seats before I took him home.

 

A week later, my mom received a phone call while I was at school. She told me that I had been selected as an extra in a commercial. Wiped out as usual, she scanned our freezer for something to eat. Finding nothing, she grabbed a Hostess apple pie off the top of the stove.

“When did you audition for a commercial?” She devoured the pie.

 Think fast

“They came to our drama class.” 

“Why did they choose your drama class?” 

“They wanted all-American types and Mr. Seagull is an acting teacher at the university” 

“Of course this involves your hippie-dippy drama teacher.” 

“You know what, never mind. Can’t you be excited for me that I was actually cast? This is a big deal.”

“All right, fine Austin. I don’t have time to argue with you. I will drive you there. They said they’re filming this weekend and they’re going to pay you seventy-five dollars for the day. I have to go now or I’m gonna be late for work.” 

My mom threw the pie wrapper in the garbage and put on a green and tan apron that read Health Nutz.

“You don’t have to come with me,” I said. 

“I’m going with you or you’re not going.”

“Why?” 

“Because I don’t know who these people are and because you are sixteen and I am your mother. And because I said so.”

“I hate you sometimes.”  

“Well I hate you too. What do you think about that? I guess we’ll just hate each other in the car.” 

 

That Saturday we drove to a nearby farm to film the commercial. Wardrobe provided an ill-fitted Wrangler shirt and a cowboy hat that was too small for my head, and the director paired me with a young woman in a pink gingham dress. We linked arms because we were told to and hung out by a picnic table, then spent the rest of the day walking back and forth behind the star of the commercial, take after take. We were told that this guy was a big star in Japan. He stood five feet from me, holding the product: a yellow snack that was shaped like a tornado. The star was handsome and he smiled a lot. The director encouraged him to make silly faces because, apparently, he was funny.

After walking behind the Japanese heartthrob for eight hours, I was sunburned. I lined up with the other extras to collect my pay for the day. Ten minutes later, I reached the front of the line where a man in the back of a U-Haul truck handed out the day’s wages. He gave me three twenties, a ten and a five, stapled together. I grabbed it from him and that was that. My sun-scorched face ached from a day of incessant smiling and nodding. I spotted my mother’s Buick in the parking lot nearby.

“Well, how was it?” my mother asked.

“You know it sucked.”

“Why would I know that? I’m just asking a question.” 

“It was fine, Mom. Okay?”

“Okay,” she looked at me and touched my cheek. “Wow, honey, you’re really burned. We’ll get you some aloe when we get home.” 

I jerked away from her. “I’m fine. That stuff doesn’t work anyway.”

“Ok. Would you like to drive?”

“Um, no.”

“Fine Austin. Just sit there and be miserable.”

We drove home in silence.

 

The summer before, after Russ left and before we went to Florida, my mother made time to give me driving lessons. Our house was adjacent to a swath of vacated warehouses that were surrounded by empty streets. With no traffic to disturb us, Mom repeatedly demonstrated how to drive a standard transmission.

“You have to release the clutch like this.” She raised her left foot.

I zoned out, stifled by the summer heat and annoyed by the sound of her voice.

“Are you watching, Austin? Come on, pay attention.”

“I am. God.”

“Look bud, this is no picnic for me either. You have to learn to drive. Now come on, you try it.”

I tried to drive that stupid car, but I couldn’t. It stalled every time I released the clutch. Laughter was my mother’s default response to stress. When she laughed at me that day, I jumped out of the car and stormed up to the passenger side.

“You know, I understand why Russ left you.” 

There it was.

Her eyes flickered. My mom stepped out of the car; a gust of wind cut through the suffocating morning.

“And why is that, Austin?” 

“Never mind.” I turned and walked away.

“No,” she grabbed my left shoulder and jerked me back toward her. “If you’re so smart then say what you need to say. Right now.”    

“You scoff at everything. You think you’re better than everyone.”

“Don’t talk like that to me. I am your mother.”

“Yes, and I am your son. That is my job isn’t it? You have two jobs to keep us fed and my job is to keep you entertained,” I said.

“Oh, give me a break. You know how many kids your age wish that they had a car? We can’t afford anything and you have your own car. Yeah, I’m just a horrible mother.”

“You can’t talk about anything without tearing it down.” I couldn’t stop. “Jesus, not everything in the world is stupid and not every person who is different from you is bad. You’re so judgmental.”   

She laughed again. “Go run around the block and get rid of your frustration. Blood-pressure head.”  

I stormed off. I could hear her calling after me. My ears were hot. I wanted to run, I wanted to leave, I wanted to burn everything to the ground, I wanted to leave my body. I wanted to die, but really, I wanted my mother dead. She got us into mess after mess. Three marriages and we always ended up broke and exhausted, searching for a way out, for a solution. The tears came, but there was no way I’d let her see me cry. I wiped my face and looked back toward the car. There she was—Sally Field smoking a Kool—standing next to the driver’s side of my car with the door open, blowing her cigarette smoke over the roof of the dilapidated VW. 

Not long after that, I finally learned to drive.

 

Monday in Mrs. Seagull’s class everyone wanted to know how the commercial shoot went.

 “What was it like filming the commercial?” Hector asked. He hadn’t been cast. 

“You didn’t miss anything. It was actually kind of boring,” I said. 

Mrs. Seagull nodded in agreement. “Yes, it’s true. Film work can be so tedious. Very different from the stage. Are they going to send you a tape of the commercial?”

“I didn’t ask.” It hadn’t occurred to me.

“Who knows? You could be big in Japan.” Hector laughed. 

 

My mom and I lived in an area known as Planeview, a so-called “instant city” that had been constructed during World War II. Planeview was meant to be temporary housing for workers at the aircraft plant. It was designed to be demolished. Now, half a century later, the sun descended on rows of blue-green shacks that were never meant to last.

I pulled the VW into our gravel driveway, got out, and shut my door. I looked at my driver’s side window, which my mom had repaired just two days after I had smashed it. Good as new, like it had never happened. I walked in and my mother was watching Designing Women. I sat down next to her on the couch. After a moment, Delta Burke delivered a zinger and we both laughed out loud.

“Hey, thanks for getting the car window fixed.” I meant it.

My mom was quiet. She reached for a Kool and lit it. “You’re welcome. Insurance paid for it so that’s good.”

Another silence. Dixie Carter ranted on the television.

“You know I can get a job too,” I said. 

Then she smiled. No one smiled the way my mother did, not ever in the history of time. Inextinguishable light. 

“It’s okay sweetheart. We’re gonna be all right. You focus on school. I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out. Okay?” She took hold of my hand.

“Okay.” I smiled back. Then I said, “I don’t hate you.”

 “I don’t hate you either.” 

My mom put out her cigarette, went into the kitchen, took a pair of scissors out of the junk drawer then snipped a leaf from the aloe plant on the windowsill. She knelt down in front of me and extracted the clear and cool salve from the leaf and onto the tip of her right index finger. 

“Look up sweetheart,” she said. 

My mother applied the elixir carefully, cradling my face with her left hand and dabbing my blistered ears and sunburnt cheeks. She coaxed the leaf once more.  

“Close your eyes.”

Cool relief beneath my eyes and gentle pressure on my eyelids. 

Now the healing could begin. 


Billy Minshall is a writer and actor whose weekly column “Hunt & Peck” appeared in Gay Chicago Magazine. His essay “Chrysalis” chronicled his work as a health educator in Chicago’s Cook County Jail and was published in Positively Aware Magazine. Billy earned his undergraduate degree in English from Northwestern University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR Palm Desert. He lives in Long Beach, California, and is working on a novel.

 

Angels Don’t Play This HAARP

BY: JON DOYLE

The drive’ll be seventy hours, north by northwest. From Coffee County, Georgia, through Tennessee and Kentucky and Illinois. Through Wisconsin and Minnesota and North Dakota and across the border into Saskatchewan. Across Alberta and British Columbia and the Yukon, through British Columbia again and the Yukon again and then finally Alaska, back in the old US of A, crossing the Alcan Border and looping around the Wrangell St. Elias National Park until Gakona pulls into view.

We’re going for The Machine.

Michael writes a list of the equipment. I call out the items and he scribbles on a page torn from the back of a book. Lists are important to us. They have been all along. A place to start, to help eke out a future from the banality of things. A future where this shit actually goes down.

I can see the mirror-written print of the book through the page as Michael writes. His mother reads novels, Russian stories where the characters all have like ten names and you’ve got to figure out who’s who. Michael’s handwriting is like baby-level bad and maybe it’s his hands shaking from the nerves or the drugs or a kind of staggered disbelief that we’ve actually got this stuff. Maybe he always writes like this.

I call out the items in a voice so serious you could cut yourself on the consonants.

Four AR-15 assault rifles, four Glock 40 handguns, two Glock 22 handguns, one Glock 27 handgun, a Remington model 700 .308 caliber rifle. We’ve got bullets, plenty of bullets, including three drum magazines and twenty-two loaded AR-15 mags. We’ve got maybe 5,000 rounds. We’ve got hunting knives and field glasses. We’ve got bulletproof vests. We’ve got satellite phones and cans of gas and food and water and tourniquets and sutures. We’ve got the Lord Jesus Christ and roughly $5,500 cash.

As Michael says, It’s not no spontaneous thing. The plan’s been stewing for some time. He got to watching videos online, deep stuff, exposés on the weapons program and the military-industrial complex. Turns out there’s this place, HAARP, right up there in Alaska, a joint thing between the Air Force and Navy and DARPA. It’s a research facility, 180 antennae in a forty-acre grid, beaming radio waves into the atmosphere.

They can control the weather, trigger earthquakes and tidal waves.

They can control the spin of the earth.

“They’re controlling our minds, man,” Michael explains. “They’re storing people’s souls.”

 

This didn’t all come from YouTube. God himself showed up in Coffee County. He appeared at the foot of Michael’s bed and He told him all about HAARP. God was pissed off, on all accounts. When you die your soul drifts upwards, he explained, and The Machine fucks with the atmosphere to block this passage then intercepts the spirits before they can go all the way. They’re kept in a big tank, was how God put it, writhing over one another like farmed fish. Someone needs to crack the glass, God said. Someone needs to sort this shit out.

Michael said he was awed and kind of nervous because his room was a fucking mess. Michael said God glowed like a low moon.

He said, Remember Michael, the mind has no firewalls. He said, Michael, I recommend the book, Angels Don’t Play this HAARP, by Dr. Nick Begich, Ph.D.

At some point in the conversation Jesus popped his head around the door, like he’d been waiting out there all along. The funny thing was, Michael said, was that he really did wear a white robe and shoulder length hair. He really did have a perfect beard and bright blue eyes. He introduced himself and shook Michael’s hand. The funny thing was, Michael told me, was that Jesus was a white guy after all.

 

There’s a can of Pepsi on the counter and Michael reaches for it. He shakes it up and sets it down then grabs the Bowie knife and stabs it. Michael holds the blade like a ninja and he stabs the Pepsi with one killer blow. The can spazzes out, spinning and falling and spraying gold foam up the wall. The house is fucked but Michael doesn’t care. He’s going to Jerusalem after this.

The Jerusalem thing is something else God suggested. He said, Michael, go to Jerusalem.

God hasn’t said fuck all to me but I’m focusing my energy on the present. The plan. We’ll drive through Tennessee and Kentucky and Illinois and in the trunk will be Glocks and Remmingtons and those dry army rations.

We’ll find a scientist and steal his car, steal his ID badge, cut off his hands if they have those finger-print scanners. We’ve got army issue backpacks and balaclavas and we’ve been in training for months. If they have those eye scanners, we’ll cut off his head.

The checklist complete, we start loading the car. Michael’s telling me about The Machine again, how it excites the particles of the ionosphere and changes it to the consistency of stainless steel. “Like someone’s put a lid on the world,” he says.

When I step from the house I look to the sky. There’s no cloud as such but still it’s grey, a bright metallic sheen as though the sky has lost its blue. I think about the weight dropping from my body and rising up toward the great leaden wall. I imagine bumping up against it like a pinball, drawn north by northwest.

I pop the trunk and swing in the bag and for a moment I feel incredibly small. I feel like calling it off.

Michael says The Machine can implant thoughts into your head. Negative thoughts, reckless thoughts. Thoughts of a self-defeating nature. It broadcasts waves that are really low frequency or really high frequency and it messes with your cerebral cortex. He says if you stop and listen closely, you might just be able to hear it.

“Hey, Mike,” I say as we go in for the next round of gear. “Did God say anything about me?”

Michael tilts his head and thinks a moment. He’s holding tubs of methamphetamine, Tupperware boxes filled to the lid that we’re going to bag and sell on the drive to fund the operation. Michael sets down the meth and wipes his face and gives me a big toothy grin.

“He said, Michael, get yourself a bullet magnet.”

I must look confused because Michael leans over and grabs a bunch of my skin between his thumb and forefinger.

“It’s a joke,” he says, waving me off. “A stupid joke.”

I grab a few of the backpacks and make for the car. Michael always lets me go out first. First out of the front door, first out of the car at the gun store. First to face the dealers and sellers. It’s the sort of shit Michael pulls but it’s cool because I’m careful. In school they called me Spidey because I had this tingle for trouble and I guess I still do. Maybe Michael understands that. Maybe he’s just utilizing my talents.

Outside there’s no one on the street but this one kid and I swear to God he’s holding a walkie-talkie. The tingle is going but I act casual and help Michael lift his case into the trunk and on the way back into the house I nudge him with my elbow. I indicate with my eyes. Check out the kid, my eyes say, swishing back and forth.

Inside, Michael hoists a gym bag onto his shoulder and picks up an AR-15 in each hand. He mouths words at me, afraid the kid is eavesdropping. He mouths that I should get some guns too, and I mouth, What about the kid? Michael nods as if to say, yeah, about the kid, and turns to the door. He’s going out first into a possible situation. I think about calling after him but I’m afraid the place is bugged.

The kid looks up and Michael’s coming, rifles raised like fucking Rambo. I’m just behind with a pair of Glocks and the kid just stands there. I mean, he doesn’t blink. He’s holding this thing to his ear but it’s not a walkie-talkie, it’s a rock. This kid is out on the street talking to a rock.

“Hey kid,” Michael says, lowering the guns into the trunk then swinging the bag in too. “Wanna see something cool?”

He’s already on his way over. Of course he wants to see something cool.

“Take a look at this,” Michael says, producing what looks like an oversized Go-Gurt. The packaging is white and booger green and reads Cyalume Safety Snaplight Lightstick. The first thing I think is, Why the fuck is he wasting a goddamn lightstick? And the second is that I have no idea why we’d need a lightstick in the first place. The kid is clearly interested, dropping his rock and getting closer. Michael tears the corner with his teeth and pulls out the green tube. The kid is standing on our toes now and I’m not sure about this but Michael’s right into it.

“See this?” he says, holding up the stick with the practised gravity of a magician. “Watch very closely.”

With a flick of the wrists the tube lights up, a ghostly green, and the kid’s eyes light up too.

“It’s that thing that bounces into Homer’s clothes,” he says, snatching for it.

“That’s right,” Michael agrees, getting down on his haunches to eyeball the kid.

And I want you to have it. Your very own uranium rod.”

It’s a nice scene and all but the trunk is wide open and full of guns. I’m still holding the pistols and it occurs to me that all I have to do is level them at the kid’s face and he’ll be off crying to his rock.

“Mike,” I say. “Can we get the rest of the shit?”

“The rest of the shit,” Michael says, standing up again. “Sure.” He heads toward the house but stops and faces the kid again. “Say, can you keep a secret?”

The kid holds the Snaplight in his cupped palms. “I guess?”

“We’re doing something very important,” Michael whispers. “It’s Top Secret.”

“Top Secret?” the kid asks, eyes snapping from the stick to Michael. “Like what?”

“Top Secret like we can’t tell nobody nothing,” I say, gesturing with the Glocks.

“Top Secret like if we told you we’d have to….” I raise the gun in my right hand and mimic shooting the kid square in the head.

The kid watches this and then slides his eyes across to Michael.

“We’re going to Alaska,” Michael smiles. “God came to me and said, Michael, you have to go to Gakona, Alaska and save the souls of the world. He said, Michael, you have to blow up The Machine.”

The kid listens and then slides his eyes back to me. “Are you gonna kill me now?”

 

There’s this sermon online, some pastor near Houston who’s a friendly-looking lady really gets into it. HAARP, weather control, weather warfare, she doesn’t take a breath. New World Order, Marshal law, all that stuff too. She’d watched videos, she says, ISIS beheading folk. She says that things would be more efficient when that started over here. There’d be orderly lines for the guillotines and if you didn’t accept the number of the Beast you’d better believe you’re in that line. She says something about Los Alamos and Anubis and the Denver International Airport. I found myself writing this shit down. She’s nice-seeming but she speaks about grey aliens and Dulce Base and she says, Aliens are demons, for the new folk here today. I guess God came to her too, had something to say. Soul scalping, soul removal, captured souls. I don’t know what any of this shit means but I write it down anyway.

At the beginning of the video, her daughter sings a hymn. This skinny white ginger kid in a multi-coloured pinafore, holding a plastic horse, singing “Thy Word Have I Hid in My Heart” like the entire world was watching. “Thy Word is a lamp to my feet,” she sings, “a light to my path always.” There’s another girl in the video, but she’s too shy to sing. The wall behind them is dappled and white. “To guide and to save me from sin, and show me the heavenly way.”

I gather another armful of equipment. We’ve got laser scopes and head torches and tactical gloves. We’ve got shooting rests and hours of practice. I think about the souls in the tank up there in Alaska. A glass structure, huge and square, fogged with the sheer amount of spirits bundled in.

“Mike,” I ask. “Who’s Nephilim?” 

“How the fuck should I know?” Michael says, stacking banana clips.

“God didn’t mention him? Or Jesus?”

He turns to face me. “Why’re you being weird all of a sudden?”

I think of the swirling soul mass, the faces within its weight. The eyes, the moaning mouths. The liquid spin of perpetual unease. The undying will to rise, to float above, to head skyward.

“Weird?” I say. “Me? What about the letter of intent you just gave that kid? Signed with your full fucking name?”

Michael walks straight past me and out the door so I pick up the Remington and follow but then movement is all around us.

Movement and shouts.

 —movement and shouts and—

—and I drop the gun and movement and yelling—

—and shouts and yelling and—

—and I take a step—

—and shouts and a shot and—

—shouts and yelling and a shot—

—and I take a step and another and Michael falls and the magazines scatter over the road and I think Jesus that was loud.

And then they are all around me.

They say Drop the Weapon and Hands Up and Don’t Move and I don’t have a weapon and I can’t move because even as they yell the men get closer, shuffling sidelong and crab-like and cautious with red dots swarming my chest.

Michael’s on the road face down and it looks like he’s trying to raise himself but his arms aren’t working. Michael’s bleeding and the blood’s pooling like molasses in the grit of the road and his arms aren’t working like some cable’s been cut.

There’s a fuck-off black truck on the road and men are pouring from it. Khaki fatigues and bulletproof vests. Kneepads and shin guards and thigh-strapped secondary weapons. Men wearing skateboarder helmets and polarised polycarbonate goggles. Men coming from the back of a truck sprayed black as hell itself. They just keep on coming.

Movement and shouts and yelling.

They say Drop the Weapon and Hands Up and Don’t Move but I don’t have a weapon and I can’t move.

Michael’s arms aren’t working.

They put my hands behind me and slam me onto the hood of the car and on the rebound, that inch of upward motion, I arch my back to get one last look, riding that small ascension to see the heavens above, the sky high and gunmetal and dented. 


Jon Doyle’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Barren Magazine, 3:AM Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Full Stop, and other places, and he runs the website Various Small Flames. He lives in the UK.

Desert Seas

by: Anca Segall

Lars’ baby blue VW bug, rusty and dented, came to a stop in the rutted parking lot at the trailhead into Dark Canyon. Covered in nearly as much dust as the car, we both tumbled out into the scrub desert, already parched in May. Fable Valley had enough flash floods to make leaving our names at the BLM box prudent, though it was still early in the season. Eager to stretch our legs, we shouldered our backpacks and started down the steep trail into the valley.

We had driven down from Logan and stopped in Provo for a Saturday fair in the city park, where Lars did a brisk business drawing portraits of fair-going kids. He’d kept them captivated with stories on a rickety stool as he rendered their character in strokes of charcoal and Conte crayon. At midday, while families lunched and the kids trickled in more slowly, Lars had me pose for him, to pass the time and entice paying customers.

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You May Now Enter

By: Kit Maude

Eckersley had a loopy artist in her guest room and a boy begging at her door. Both were proving to be troublesome. The artist was loopy in the sense that he was probably insane, but also because he was stuck in a loop. Like the beggar boy, he appeared one day at Eckersley’s door announcing that he had a new performance project that he hoped to rehearse in Eckersley’s guest room. Because he was an old friend of Eckersley’s he was allowed in. He refused to say much about the performance.

The beggar boy came to Eckersley’s door at least once a week asking for clothes, food, and anything he might be able to sell. Also money, of course. Sometimes, usually, Eckersley gave him something, but sometimes she didn’t happen to have anything on her, or was in a bad mood. Occasionally, she was simply irritated by this boy who came so regularly to demand things for nothing.

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Show, Film, Franchise

BY: Nicholas LaRocca

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

For my fifteen minutes, when I was the talk of the town, everyone was saying I was being anti-heroic, revolutionary, symbolic, that my tunnel was a metaphor: the underground, a shot across the bow to warn the powers-that-be of the tenuous control they have over a world full of chaos—filled to the brim with the raging proletariat. Part of this mythology is my own fault. I shouldn’t have gone on the Today Show with my high mind and artistic ideals, my shtick. When Katie Couric asked me to spell out the nature of my protest, my answer about “the surface and the underneath,” which has been viewed on YouTube over three million times (eat your heart out, Lisalette), was the please-stroke-my-cock rhetoric of a young man full of deceit, bravado, and seductive modulation, as in, Here’s what I think Lisalette, that gorgeous pre-med, would want me to say.

So let this be my confession.

 

I was working across the street from Chase Sub-Regional Headquarters, Boca Raton, at Oasis, one of the finer gas stations in all of America. Columns of rock face supported the spotless canopy. There was a service bay, where, for $199.99, your car could be made to look fresh off the factory floor. The whole works was backed up to a bucolic greenbelt that faded into Susan B. Anthony State Park.

I was on janitorial and maintenance duty. Sophia Russo, big and chesty and rough around the edges, managed me, and Lisalette, petite and darkly Colombian and facetious, was paid to flirt shamelessly at Register 2 and deride my baseness in a friendly enough way that I wasn’t able to take offense. I don’t blame her; who wants a nineteen-year-old non-stud hanging around? Razor bumps on his neck, thin shoulders, teenage moods still flashing, morphed as they are into pseudo-intellectual weirdness. Maybe my mother. Maybe.

I spent most of my time mopping the entrance; there were days when a Florida downpour meant the CAUTION—WET FLOOR sign was never put away. From the front doors, I had a view beyond the gas station pumps across the service street to the Chase building, four stories tall, with a branch on the first floor fronted by a blue sign like an opiate. Chase. It was a command. You’re driving by, and a sign tells you, “Chase.” But chase what? Since this was Boca Raton, the answer was easy: Chase the white boat on the crystalline water.

“Chase the white boat on the crystalline water,” I said to Lisalette.

She had a sideways, sarcastic mouth, as though she were always chewing on her cheek. She looked like a native princess. Her hair was in a halo braid that morning, and her lipstick was the color of a new bruise. She looked at me like I was losing my marbles.

I said, “The bank you were mentioning—”

She said, “What are you talking about, Car?”

Carmichael Moltobetti. Car.

“The sign across the way.” I had effected a lisp, a rasp, and a drawl all at once. I sounded as though I was on the wrong medication. “The Chase sign. What do you think they want us to chase?”

There were two customers in the store. One was browsing antacids. The other was making coffee. He grinned at her, she asked him which creamer he preferred, and I resented them both. In his grin, I saw my father: derisive, supercilious, superior. In her response, I saw my mother in her maiden years: seduced, ripe-to-be-abandoned.

“I was just making a joke, Lisa.”

“That’s not my name, Car. Is that all?” she asked the man with the coffee.

***

Later, in the break room—it was pouring outside, business was slow, and Reginald had taken over the register—I got nervous and started telling Lisalette about a fungus growing on my back. “It’s like athlete’s foot of the back.”

“Jesus. Go get some Lamisil.”

I didn’t think someone so pretty knew what Lamisil was.

“I can’t spray it on my back.”

I wanted her to spray it on my back. I’d have paid her all the money I had in my Chase account to spray it on my back. “I sprayed it in my face by accident. It tasted like tea tree oil.”

“Car, c’mon, mop. It’s wet up front. Someone’s gonna slip. Sophia will be here at two, and if she sees any water, she’ll throw a fit.”

“Are you sure you want me to mop?”

I really don’t care.”

She was trying to eat something that had green vegetables and brown rice in it. She was a fitness buff; her Instagram was all bikinis in the lowering sun until you wanted to stab yourself, and her captions were about inner beauty, finding it, accepting it, internalizing it, preaching it, dying for it.  

“I can be a tremendous conversationalist,” I said.

She looked up from her phone and made a face like you would at a pile of dirty dishes.

I said, “I need to confess something.”

Think of when you hit the gas pedal in a slow car just to see what little horsepower it has.

“Car, please—”

“I think you’re beautiful.”

“No, no, no. No, no. No, no.”

“I look at your page. I have your page in my search history. I pull it up.”

“Stop.”

“I just want your permission. I love you.”

She got up with her food and went away.

I knew that as she walked away, she was trying to obliterate me. Women had done this to me my whole life. She was using her mental powers, which contemplated Lamisil, to erase me from her consciousness.

But I had plans for us, and that night, I talked with her—meaning, as I paced my room, I went so far as to make believe she really was there. To my mind, convincing myself I was hallucinating rather than fantasizing made me a true artiste—troubled, dark, sick. She sat on my bed with her legs under her. She was fidgeting because she wanted to make love to me. But I wasn’t ready to grant her the privilege.  She first needed to hear about my genius.

“You need to be reeducated,” I told her. “Remade.”

“By the thoughts you think and the dreams you dream.”

“I’ll take mercy on you. I have a kind heart. There are thousands of beautiful girls, Lisa.”

“I know.”

“It’s pathetic to see anyone use beauty as though it was earned.”

“I know.”

“Flourishes. You’re only flourishes and retreats. You know, there’s a sort of writer—all style, no substance. Reading them is like having your colon scraped by a disenchanted Nazi.”

“You’re magnificent and strange. I know that now.”

“I’ve written a television-show-slash-film-slash-franchise, Lisa. Why do you seem so surprised? It’s going to rival Disney. I’m going to prove that I am that rarest of sensibilities who entertains, moves, touches, humors, and provokes all in a single episode.”

I hadn’t actually written anything more than notes in a cow-patterned composition book. I showed her the book, but I didn’t let her open it. I told her I used a composition book—rather than a computer—because I was symbiotically connected to language and needed to feel my words on paper. “Like braille,” I said, though I’d never felt braille. “Words are an extension of my aesthetic rather than a medium for it, like Hendrix’s dissonant tones. I have so much to teach you.”

We talked on, and our love was etched by our confessions. She lauded my brilliance and admitted to being intellectually submissive. I saw in her shining eyes how long she had yearned for a man of my capabilities. I told her—in poetic language, for this was the climax of the fantasy of the hallucination—that with her loyalty buttressing me from self-destruction, I would be able to endure the slings and arrows of lesser creatures though they be the gatekeepers of the castle. “With you by my side, I will find a true champion of my genius, Lisa. An editor, a producer. New York. Hollywood.” I was on the other side of the room. I was sticky with sweat—my armpits, my chest, my lower back. The room was musty. The fungus on my back itched so badly I had to use the right angle of the closet wall to scratch myself. “They’ll fly us out. We’ll go arm-in-arm. They’ll thank me for merely existing, for bestowing my genius upon humanity, my intellectual heft, my unrivaled talent. They’ll know you’re the wind beneath my wings. There will be cocktail parties, attendees present to glimpse The Me, to steal a moment with The Me. Threesomes, fivesomes, twelvesomes. Orgies. With you on my arm!”

She pouted because she wanted me all to herself, but I smiled in a patronizing way. “All experiences serve to enhance my creativity. It’s your duty to support them.”

“Yes.”

“My creation will be our empire, Lisa.”

“Mine, too?”

“Of course. I love you.”

“I love you.”

I made my way to the bed. I sat beside her.

“Greatness is your fate,” she told me. “A reeducation of everyone.”

“Of women,” I said.

She climbed on top of me. “As long as I’m yours.”

I slid into her. She leaned over me. I studied her face. I met her Mayan eyes, and there I saw the rain, the sunlight, the mountain range.

“Let’s be vast together,” I said. “I am your god, and you are my muse.”  

 

“This is your first and last warning. If you make one more comment to Lisalette, one more comment that is, to quote our handbook, ‘sexual or romantic in nature,’ because she has clearly expressed her discomfort with what you said yesterday, I’m going to fire you. Understand?”

This was Sophia, the next morning. The night before, I fell asleep in my clothes, a sweaty mess, and dreamed of eating Lisalette’s pubic hair, a bowl of it like squid-ink angel hair pasta—it’s mouthfeel attractive and slick.

It likely goes without saying that when you dream about eating someone’s pubic hair, it’s a little embarrassing to have your boss tell you to keep your mouth shut around the very person who would have supplied the hair in the first place. I walked out of Sophia’s office, hurried down the hall, and went right back to painting the men’s room door.

All morning, I had to tell men to use the women’s restroom. I felt uncomfortable doing so, as though my recommendation would be mistaken as harassment. But I wouldn’t leave my hallway. I couldn’t. Lisalette was on Register 2, and I was too ashamed to share the same space as her. I had this feeling she knew what my fantasies were—not just that I was in love with her but precisely what I thought about and had imagined talking to her about last night.

I applied several more coats of paint than I needed to. I painted the hell out of that door. Like the guys in the service bay, I made the door look new again.

Sophia found me around lunchtime. “Last coat, Car. Take your lunch, and then I want you back on the mop.”

“And so it shall be.”

“Excuse me?”

“I shall mop the store in a manner that befits Oasis, that brings to our little place of work disinfection, sanitation, and cosmetic restoration. Here in Boca, these are the three fundamental elements of life—like water, oxygen, and sunlight to the rest of the world.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she said.

 

All afternoon, Lisalette was on Register 2, and I was mopping, dusting, swapping, noting, inventorying, mopping, noting, and mopping. I carried out my menial tasks in a fugue-like state. Criminals talk about blacking out during the crime. They’re trying to argue that you’re not you when you’re stabbing someone. Turns out nobody buys it.

But does anybody think about it? Because the criminal is merely being imprecise, in this manner: when you give in to the primordial darkness of destruction and fury, you actually mean to say, “Pardon me.” Because there is something like a blackout happening, some turning up the dial until every synapse is firing and the most extreme action is the only action left.

You’re the Super-You. You’re The You.

But you’re not in a zone like some batter who keeps pounding it out of the park or some basketball hero sinking everything he shoots. Those people are in the “positive zone.” I’ve been there three times and only when writing—though never when writing my show/film/franchise. I’ve written three essays about my truest feelings: one about my mother’s preference for my brother, how close they are, how she still, a little perversely, cuddles him on the couch; one about my father, a pediatrician—rare, for a man—who lives in Miami and sends us checks and dates waitresses; and one about being a loser and pretending to embrace it when, in fact, it hurts like chemo. Writing all three essays, I was in the positive zone, feeling the hand of God.

But there’s a negative zone. The entire time I was digging my tunnel, I was in the negative zone. I was digging mindlessly; what I was doing in the present, the actions I was committing, were rarely part of my consciousness. I would come back to the here and now and think, Hey, look what I’ve done! Way to go, Car! But for the most part, I dug on and on thinking about all the heroes who have floated through my life, whose heroism hardly touched me, including my father, who takes care of everyone else’s children, and my mother, a destroyer of worlds, and Lisalette, who could have shown me kindness and affection. I had confessed in the break room, had told the truth, which is more than I can say about most young men, and had earned her derision. There’s a direct line from that to my lies on the Today Show, as obvious as the line of my tunnel from the woods behind Oasis to the Chase Sub-Regional Headquarters.

    

The night Sophia threatened to fire me, I returned to Oasis. I parked down the road, where it dead-ended just after the entrance to the Chase lot. I had stolen a yellow workman’s vest from the storage room at the gas station. It even had the name Oasis across the breast in glow-in-the-dark yellow lettering. I had bought a hard hat at Harbor Freight. And a Maglite. I looked official. Had you driven by me—and why would you, unless you were a member of the cleaning crew that took care of Chase—you would have thought me gainfully employed at the task. Not only would you not have disturbed or questioned me, you would have admired my grunty toil.

I was pretty brazen about it, you know. I was far enough from the gas station that in my hard hat, in a different uniform than I wore to work, even Lisalette and Sophia, T.J. and Reginald, and all the others at the gas station couldn’t recognize me. And though one or two people from Chase who came by the station for coffee eyed me a little askew, there was no way their cognition went beyond, “Why is someone working by the woods at this late hour?”

It should have been a risk. Except it wasn’t. So it turned out there was an upside to being Car the Conditional. The Nobody Man. The Human Embodiment of Purgatory. Half-Italian, half-Peruvian, but really a tenth of this, a fiftieth of that, until I was the melting pot, until I had assimilated all that our giant economic collaborative had to offer: an American in America being American, searching for a way where there is no way.

In I went and down I dug. I was surrounded by mud, by dirt, by the strange cake batter under Boca. Some nights I didn’t shower. I went home exhausted. My body was fine, but my mind, racked with thoughts of vengeance and destruction, was worn down to a thin filament, and I fell into bed managing only to kick off my boots. The first few nights inside the tunnel, I got a disoriented feeling. I was in a fixed place doing a fixed thing, but the spinning of the earth was suddenly unfixed, and I could count on nothing, not even Time.

I deeply resented Disney. All those tenuous lives, all those strategic villains, all those happy endings. A lie. I resented Steve Jobs, too. I not only resented these corporations and founding men, I wanted to see them fall to pieces. I wanted their dark secrets laid bare to the world. I wanted them to break down, to die of shame. In I’d swoop, all deus ex machina. But I would not go easy on the world. My franchise was going to black out the sun. My signature endings were going to be nihilistic dogma engineered to teach the world’s children the futility of effort in the grander scheme of a meaningless life.

Early on in my digging, I said to myself, “I can’t contemplate her. I don’t.”

But then something wonderful started to happen. A change came over me, a new way of looking at things. With every inch I gained, with every foot of progress I made, I was earning my confidence. Try as they might, the Sophias and Lisalettes, the T.J.s and Reginalds, had never done anything like I was doing, hadn’t the patience nor the drive nor the ambition nor the fortitude nor the stamina. My life had taken on a clear and present purpose. Like a fighter in training, every meal I ate, every moment of sleep I got was dedicated to improving my performance as I dug my tunnel.

The dirt got into my pores, my nose, my teeth. I thought about my meeting with Sophia—my shame, the sad terms and conditions of my meager employment. I thought about the bathroom doors at Oasis. I’d painted those doors nine times, yet I’d only been working there eight months. So every .88 months, I had to paint the doors, to both bathrooms, which destroyed the myth that women are gentler than men. Both genders subverted those doors. There was a steel plate on each door that customers were supposed to contact when pushing them open so that the paint didn’t get smudged with hand goop. And these were not small steel plates. They were a good two feet by eighteen inches. You had to try to miss them. But people did.

Early in the dig, I was sure people had pushed open those doors from the center and worn down the paint out of sheer ignorance as to what the steel plate was doing there. I figured they were just dumb shitbirds. A little further in, I decided they had opened the doors the way they had to subvert me. They had deduced that because I was the man with the mop, I was low-man-on-the-totem-pole, and the responsibility to paint would fall to me. Some customers had seen me painting. We had quite a few regulars, including many who stopped by just to visit Lisalette. I was convinced these regulars hated me. I had, at the time, the kind of face you wanted to punch. It was my eyes, mere slits, with which I confronted the world in a scornful way. I was Holden Caufield, though my confessional sensitivity had been subsumed by sexual fantasy, and I was nineteen, not sixteen. Punching me was all but acceptable in the eyes of man and God.  

I’d wanted to burn Oasis to the ground, to stand across the street in the Chase lot and watch the fire with everyone else, knowing I’d lit the match. But just beyond the median of the street above me, as though the median represented my coming of age—my crossing over from one place to another and, in that way, my graduation from one version of Car to a better, more precise and insightful version—my energy flipped. I came to understand that it doesn’t feel good to lay your hand on a steel plate; wood is a more sensual, tactile experience. That’s why the hand reaches instinctively for wood. You’re not doing it on purpose, but it is sensible. It’s sensual. It’s touch.

I felt the cool, moist earth on my hands. I could hear, when it was quiet enough—when it was very late, past midnight, and there was little noise coming into the tunnel—water rushing underground, the high water table of South Florida. If there were a cave-in, it would start below me, not above.

I would put my ear to the floor of the tunnel and listen to the water. I would think of being down there with Lisalette. No hostage. No lover. All of a sudden, a friend. We’re sitting in the dark and chatting about Lamisil. The water is running under us, the world is running over us, cars are moving along the service street above. We’re eating nachos from the gas station.

She says, “I’m sorry.”

I say, “No worries. I’ve dug on.”

She was the surface. Boca at street level. Send the Google car around and she’s what it captures. But I was the water underneath, the dangerous water moving on its own, a current no one sees and only a few get close to. To get to me, you’d need an ultrasound.

Then one night, I did no digging. I sat deep in my tunnel with my legs under me. My head was bowed because the tunnel was not tall. I thought of where I would have been if I’d been on the surface: almost across the street. A grand calm washed over me. I saw myself in the years to come, tunneling through life, excavating my way through the years. For the first time in a long time, I felt hope. I saw the faces of heroes and heroines who had denied me entrance to their castles. I gave them entrance to mine—Dad, you may enter my tunnel, and you, Mom, and you, my brother Charles, and you, Lisalette.

I scurried out of the tunnel. I’d never been so scared in my life. It was just my luck that I’d be smothered before I got to act on my new feelings. When I got to the surface, I breathed in Boca. I breathed in the Chase building, Oasis, the lights, the cars on Glades Road up ahead at the intersection. So many people, at this late hour, were hurrying home.

 

That morning, before my shift, I bought my mother, father, and brother cards and candy. Valentine’s Day was coming. But I couldn’t wait. I gave them the candies and the cards. And I gave them each a trowel!

When I’d written the cards, I was in the positive zone, even the card to my father, who hadn’t been a good father by any measure but money.

I went further. I drove to Miami. Down off the highway, the city was a tunnel, with skyscrapers like walls and no roof, just sky. There were Lisalettes everywhere—in sports bras and leggings, short shorts, sundresses. Everywhere I looked, every turn I made, hundreds of them, all looking ragged to me, as though if I were to get up close to them, I wouldn’t even smell the raw earth of my tunnel but the decay of decadence pitched against age and time, media against purpose like a duel until the very cells of the body are worn down to a malignant dust.

All that surface noise. All that surface beauty. I turned down the street of my father’s clinic. The blacktop was cracked and potholed. Everyone was going everywhere. I understood they couldn’t stop. But I could tell them, if they wanted to listen—it isn’t you: your class, your type, your phylum. Flowing below you are thousands of people like me. Most of us suffer in quiet desperation. We’re underground when the cave-in starts. I was one of the lucky ones. I made it out. Alive.


Nick LaRocca’s stories and essays have recently been featured or are forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Flint Hills Review, Blue Lake Review, Canyon Voices, Euphony, Crack the Spine, Valley Voices, The 3288 Review, The Flagler Review, Outside In Magazine, Steel Toe Review, South85, Per Contra, The Milo Review, and Mason’s Road. Work from his early twenties appears in Rush Hour: Bad Boys (Delacorte Press) and the Beloit Fiction Journal. His short story “Gestures” (Lowestoft Chronicle) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for Fiction. His short story “Understandings” was nominated for Best of the Net by Wraparound South. He has just finished the novel A Guinea Street Punk in Greenville Park. Interviews of Nick are available online in The 3288 Review and Wraparound South. He is Professor I of English at Palm Beach State College, where he teaches creative writing, essay writing, and literature.

 

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