a serious joke: chapter 12

“My uncle got arrested for sodomy. Fortunately, his lawyer was able to get the charge reduced to ‘walking too close’”

                                                            -american lawyer joke

 

 

“Benjamin S. Zion, attorney at law,” he said, extending his hand. Jim Spleen shook it, tentatively. “What brings you here today, Mr. Spleen? Walk me through it.”

 

Jim took a seat in the leather chair opposite Zion, who was dressed rather casually in khaki pants and a polo shirt—tufts of matted chest hair protruding from the collar loosened to the first button. Jim made as if to speak, paused, then ventured sheepishly, “this is free, right?”

 

“The consultation is free,” Zion answered reassuringly, taking a sip of his morning coffee and puckering. His demeanor was in some indefinable way not particularly ‘lawyer-like’. Perhaps it was the cut of his hair; swept behind both ears and hanging near shoulder-length in back, while the front marked a slightly receding line along his forehead—slicked back, a thin wisp of a stray curl hanging over the ridges in the skin of his face. He came across casually, no doubt well-off but decidedly lacking the air of the rich. His old Lincoln Navigator sat rusted out along the edges of the bumper outside in the parking lot, a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, magazines and empty CD jewel cases scattered about the passenger seat. Jim had noted it as he’d entered the business suite earlier. Not a typical rich man car. Likewise, things were scattered lightly about in the small windowless office room they sat in now. Personal articles of mail, crumpled up pieces of paper, a bottle of Windex, a half-dismantled Xerox machine positioned at an odd angle adjacent the door. Zion reclined in his seat, elbows up, fingers interlocked behind his head. “I remember just the bare bones of your story.” He snapped back, ducked into a desk drawer and rummaged through some things for a moment. “Wrote just the cliff’s notes down here somewhere…” He couldn’t find them.

 

“Well, basically,” Jim assisted, “I think I’m being stalked.” A cat jumped up onto the desk, cutting Jim short and producing a startled jolt in his torso, arms halfway raised almost as if to shield his face from a projectile. The cat sat up, purring. Staring a hole in Jim.

 

“Never mind him,” Zion said, grinning halfway. “Office cat,” he said, reaching down into his desk drawer and taking a small saucer out. Placed in front of him, the cat stooped down and began lapping up some warm milk.

 

Jim strained to concentrate, the cat’s sandpapery tongue lapping up warm milk, intermittently glancing up at him…knowingly. Jim did his best to gather his thoughts and explain the situation halfway as succinctly as he’d already explained it to the cat. And to do so in a way that wouldn’t make him look like a complete lunatic. Fortunately, in questioning his agent about the booking that night in Richmond, Jim had come up with a somewhat grounded lead. Something that both seemed right and might at once lend a bit of verisimilitude to his story. The show that’d ended up in Jim fleeing in a mad dash through the avenues and alleyways of downtown had in fact been booked for John Lewis that particular night by what had been relayed to Jim as a new agent. Someone he hadn’t heard of in the nightclub circuit before. A ‘Sam Vest’. Vest Booking and PR. Jim had known Lewis’s agent for years. He’d talked to him only days prior. There had been no mention of Lewis jumping ship. As a matter of fact, when asked offhand how that insufferable bastard John Lewis was performing, the man had said ‘fine. Just fine.’ And that he’d even renewed his contract little more than six months beforehand. “The problem is,” Jim explained—now well into his story and doing not too badly at appearing sane—“I looked this…this Sam Vest up. No such guy. He doesn’t exist.”

 

The lawyer looked uninterested. “Doesn’t exist.”

 

“No.” Jim fished around in his pants pocket and pulled out a dog-eared piece of paper, folded in quarters. Unfolding it, pressing it flat against the desk and rotating it 180 degrees to face Zion, he continued, “here. It’s a flyer.”

 

“Vest Munitions,” Zion read outloud.

 

“I dug deeper. My agent called around. She used to do that sort of work.”

 

“What sort?” Zion asked, sliding the flyer back in Jim’s direction.

 

“Investigating. Private. Not like Sam Spade or anything, but more of a desk job. Like a…what’s the word…researcher. But conducting background checks, skip-tracing, things like that. She found this ‘Vest’ name comes back to a shuttered gun and ammo shop in the mountains. Roanoke. The place has been closed for just inside of a year. But the phone number’s still in service. She called. Machine answered. Place closed nearly a year ago…I called then…same thing, a machine. The voice on it. It’s hollow…” Jim trailed off, caught off guard by a sideways glare from the cat. Its emerald eyes glinting briefly, catching the light off the banker’s lamp positioned haphazardly on the corner of the desk.

 

“You mentioned something about loss of wages,” the lawyer said flatly. “Is this related? So far, what you have is a criminal matter. Now, stalking is a hard crime to prove, I know. I’ve had civil cases that included stalking among other causes of action, sure, but you may want to be sure you’ve exhausted your criminal prosecution options before going down that road. Have you visited a magistrate?”

 

“I’m not looking to press charges. Not yet. First I need to find out who this ‘Vest’ guy really is. That flyer appeared in my mailbox the other day. Just the day after I called that closed up gun shop.”

 

“You think you’re being tracked. Why?” Zion asked the question despite having the sense not to. So far, this was not a case. “More importantly,” he added, leaning forward, “what exactly is it I can do for you, keeping in mind a detective does a detective’s work, an attorney does an attorney’s work.”

 

After a pregnant pause, Jim answered. “…Did you ever have a really, really vivid dream, Mr. Zion?” Zion hesitated. Unsure what territory he was headed into. Professionally, the consultation was now well over and done with. On another level, however, something goaded him, begging him follow. He did. Furtively.

 

“I did.”

 

“Well,” Jim Spleen said, leaning in close, “so did I. A dream so vivid that it wasn’t a dream at all. It was something…” he paused, staring off into the diplomas hung at slight angles on the wall behind Zion. “…it was something else.”

 

“Go on…” Zion said, slowly.

 

The Cat had finished its saucer of milk. Licking its chops, Zion reclined in his leather chair, fingers tented. Jim continued. Both men were now venturing into a foreign land…

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a serious joke: chapter 11

“Ask your doctor if Zyprexa is right for you …”

                        -traditional

 

 

 

It took Jon all he had to not crack a smile when told by the detective…an unusually large man dressed in leather, name by ‘Stone’…that his wife and two boys of differing ages had been found dead long before he’d come out of his coma. By long before, Jon wasn’t quite sure then—going over the flurry of questions and answers that had just been thrown before him—how long before, exactly? Stone had said a lot of things. And Jon had been enjoying the 3,6,9 or so different heavy-duty pain meds flowing through his bloodstream at the time. …Regardless of that, however, he hadn’t remembered in the entire litany of police things that had just been said to him the slightest bit of caring, on his part. Stone seemed perhaps only a bit less unconcerned, ‘uncaring’. But not a police’s job to ‘care’ about a victim in a triple homicide (or all three victims) for that matter. Jon supposed, if there were ‘jobs’ to be assigned here, he’d been caught sleeping on his…(for the moment, thanks to a healthy IV of dilaudid flowing through his veins, that fact failed to worry him).

 

Back to the not caring, however…Jon, even in his fuzzy, cozy, nuzzling up close and snug with Jesus God himself up on a cloud, feeling of well-being and joy…even in the midst of that cuddle session with God Christ, surrounded by angels and fuzzy warm kittens and synthesized chemicals banging on all flippers and switches of the stoned pinball game in his mind—even through the indescribably orgasmic pleasure of all that, not once had he felt as if a single word this Detective what’s-is-name…Stone…said, had been the least bit for real. Not particularly that Stone was lying. More like…the things he was saying to Jon were true—as far as the good detective was concerned, and even maybe as far as the facts supported it all—but that the things being said (it follows, logically, assumed now to be “true”)—simply had not happened. And that presented a good, stoned, philosophical quandary for Jon. If one’s to assume that something is factually truthfully (as he—it seemed—had surrendered himself to subscribing to)…then is it possible for that truthful, realistic, empirically fact-based something to ‘also’… ‘not have happened at all’…to also and at the same time simply, ‘not be’? Something beyond a gut feeling. Or a delusion. Or a hallucination. Or schizophrenia. Even something beyond being stoned into a past life on a million different painkillers. Call it something like… “an existential…metaphysical…incursion…”. Without realizing it, Jon had spoken the remainder. A thing where—for instance—one planet, in one of many possible parallel universes, for one split second, for only the billionth of a moment in time—out of forces unknown and unknowable to man, just happens to appear, blink into existence in our universe, and to ‘coincide’ with the exact spatial placement of our own planet. What theoretical physicists, he concluded (with no basis whatsoever in knowledge or fact), might call an ‘incursion’. The question then becomes, if such a metaphysical, inter-dimensional conflict of space-time is indeed possible—then what happens to the world we live on? “The bed I’m lying in”. “The dope in my veins…” Jon completed his stoned, internal soliloquy. What happens to all that…physically…and in any other sense…and what happens to me?….and to the bed I’m lying in, and the linoleum tile squares that bed is rested on…and the hospital that linoleum tile lines…square by square…foot by foot?

 

Does it all just blink out of existence?

 

And beyond the drugs, still, the reason for the helpless metaphysical probing presented with new symptoms, it seemed, by the second. “After all…” it shouldn’t bother me at all, none of this, “Jon posited,” if it were all just an effect of heavy drugs. “Not just the probing…” but the fact, beneath all the spacey, out-there what-ifs, it STILL didn’t feel one bit like the thing he knew pretty well not to question (a triple homicide of a family—supposedly his), bothered him. That is, if it didn’t actually—truly—feel like some sort of metaphysical cock and bull story, he would naturally be beside himself with grief for the death of his supposed family. But…it didn’t feel like it. It didn’t seem to be a thing that had happened. Even though Jon knew well enough it had. How terrible a person does that make me, he wondered. The Cat, snuggled between his legs, purring on all cylinders, seemed unconcerned at the moment. Something had happened. But it didn’t feel like it did. Good enough reason to not shed a tear? In present company, and more concerning, good enough reason to crack a doped-up grin? If this is true (I know it is, he thought to himself), then it surely is no laughing matter, and my heart ought to be laid bare on the pillow beside me…but it didn’t seem it.

 

Not in the slightest. “Does this make me a bad person,” he wondered, again. This time to himself. In his head. And the easy answer, of course, was ‘yes’. But only assuming the sense of ‘knowing’ this thing that had in reality occurred had—as per the ‘incursion’ theory—also ‘not occurred’. Holding to the sense this was entirely possible, and likely…then, perhaps, ‘no’. Perhaps then there would be nothing to feel guilty about. A poor man also named Jon—living on another earth—a carbon copy but nonetheless, a ‘different’ Jon, had according to the theory been the victim of some as-yet unnamed crime, and the massacre of his family. For one billionth of a second, that Jon had blinked into existence in the same precise space-time of the Jon presently confined to a hospital bed…and whatever grisly thing that had happened to that Jon and his wife and sons of differing ages had (perhaps?) seemed to have also happened to the Jon of the here and present. And then all the calamity and bloodshed and horror of that cosmic singularity had just as mysteriously blinked out of existence. Maybe.

 

One thing made no sense, then… If Stone had indeed found dead, bloody things resembling a wife and two offspring ostensibly related to Jon—himself—here—now…then what could possibly account for it? He’d overlooked the fact he had no wife, no children. No dead wife and no dead children for a Detective Stone to find. The same grisly thing that had happened to the ‘other’ Jon couldn’t have happened to Jon. The bloody things, the wife and children, ought to have vanished along with everything else temporarily taking up the same space-time. ‘Jon’, his ersatz ‘family’…all of it. The bloody things had been left behind. And that carbon-copy yet ‘different’ Jon had (luckily, it seemed), been whisked away to his ‘home planet’, in another reality, another dimension…or…something. As it stood, Jon…for lack of a better word, the ‘real’ Jon…had been left to clean up the mess of an inter-dimensional doppleganger. A dead wife and two children. Left to rot, here in the world he’d occupied for 46 years. Without causing a single major incident in all that time. Without even having earned more than a single speeding ticket in all those years. Now…a dead, bloody mess of things had been laid at his feet. Rotting. Or, to be fair, freezing. Stuffed into iceboxes. Like old meat—use or freeze by this date. And then…with the somewhat decent looking nurse coming by to top up his dilaudid, Jon had a pang of disquiet.
Well. “What if I’m wrong?”

 

And those simple four words happened to strike a chord every bit as utterly displeasing and confounding as those occupying the entire line of his thoughts to this point.

 

“Jell-O?” the pudgy yet attractive nurse asked.

 

Jon brushed her away, wordlessly…like gnats. The Cat between his legs gave a nice long stretch and squeaked on yawning, razor teeth glinting in the fluorescent din of the hospital room. The Detective had apparently left. Wordlessly. “It’s you,” he said.

 

“Me what.” Jon asked, wrestling his tangled IV away from the cat’s paws.

 

“Not some other you.”

 

“How do you know?” Jon asked.

 

“We hear things.” The Cat rose to its tippy toes and arched its back—a perfect crescent. “Remember when we were hanging out at your place, and I asked if you had bitches?”

 

“Watch your mouth,” Jon snapped, reflexively.

 

“You do remember.”

 

“No. I don’t. Just…watch the mouth…”

 

“…aaanyway, you couldn’t for the life of you remember where your bitches went. Or. Whatever you want to call ‘em. But just knew that something (something like a bitch) had been taken from you.” The Cat began gnawing in the spaces between his claws. Nibbling little flecks of cat dandruff from between his toes.

 

“No. Wasn’t that…”

 

“Don’t say it,” the Cat interrupted. “Seems like after all this happened,” he mewed, finishing the thought for Jon.

 

“How’s that possible..?” Jon was now officially not enjoying his drugs nearly as much as he had been to this point.

 

“An unfinished square?” The Cat guessed, sincerely. “Who knows. But think of it this way,” the Cat nodded toward the soap opera playing out on the black and white television set in the corner of the hospital room, “…every scene in this…whatever it is…has already been filmed. Photographed. You know. Then they play the photographs, in order, like a flip-book, real fast like, and you get…what?,” the Cat asked somewhat rhetorically.

 

Jon shrugged. Now scratching his nuts.

 

“…you get…the motion picture. The picture, in motion. That’s why they call it a motion picture. You get movement. Forward. Movement.” The Cat spoke haltingly, a specious authority in his voice. “But look.” The Cat hit ‘pause’ on the remote. “Now it ain’t moving no more. And look how the broad has her eyes halfway open. Lookit that dumb expression on her face!”

 

“What’s the point of this?”

 

“Who would pose looking that dumb in the face,” the Cat answered.

 

“No one?” Jon guessed, drowsy now from the fuzz of chemicals warming his brain.

 

“Exactly. No one would. So why did she?”

 

“Why?”

 

“She didn’t.” Pawing at the faux nurse in the faux hospital room, setting down a faux hospital tray in front of a faux hospital patient. The actors seemed to mirror the precise movements of the real nurse, emerging from behind the green curtain now and again to fiddle with this or that, and even that of Jon himself, scratching his balls and sipping on a juice box. “Know why?”

 

“Why what?”

 

“Why she looked so stupid in that freeze-frame”. The Cat hit had hit ‘un-pause’. The ersatz nurse and the ersatz Jon went about doing nothing in particular, on the vacuum-tube 50’s era television set. Is this even a show? “Because,” the Cat continued, sitting up, chest puffed out, “that little freeze-frame was just one of a million-billion pictures chosen at random—by me—to stand apart for a moment or two. There are so many pictures shuffling by us right now, there’s millions—billions—of things we’d never even notice going on around us this and every other split-second of every day. Same as that show. It’s already been filmed. All the pictures exist, in order. Or, alone. Or, in reverse. Or, out of order. But they all exist. And it’s only cause we’re so used to the grand illusion of the ‘motion picture’, that we always assume the show is going from Point A to Point Z, from beginning to end, start to finish…AND, that we don’t all look like maroons, like that chick on the TV did in that freeze-frame, when we take it out of context.” The cat squeaked out another yawn, then sharpened his claws, treading on the thick bedspread covering Jon’s lap. “So what I’m saying is…”

 

“You’ve seen this movie before.” The nurse—the real nurse—had just come by to top up Jon’s dilaudid. Again. The faux soap opera nurse exited the room as she did.

 

“Or, somebody has,” the cat added. “If not me…or you. Clearly, you haven’t seen shit. Hell, don’t you watch TV?” the Cat snapped.

 

The nurse poked in and out of the little green hospital room, doing nothing in particular. Jon’s nuts still itched. The cat yawned. Not particularly captivated by his own mini-lecture. The antique television set sat in the corner of the little green room, by two or three seconds lagging behind the decidedly inelegant movements of the real nurse. Her arm flab flapping as she aired out some soiled linens. Her graceless shuffling captured in the delay of the fuzzy black and white TV screen. The ersatz TV nurse a hypnotic, fuzzy, perfect homunculus…three seconds behind.

 

“Somehow, still. It’s just so much more interesting,” Jon excreted, lazily and out of nowhere; high and fuzzy on chemicals bounding to and from warm little receptors, bouncing like ping-pong balls in the playroom of the pleasure center of his brain… “…it’s just so much more interesting than real life…”

 

The faux nurse folded a sheet, leaving it over Jon’s legs. The nurse had wandered off, pulling the green curtain to the green room closed behind her.

A Serious Joke: Chapter 10

misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”

  • The Tempest, Scene II, Act ii

 

 Mikhail Josef Batrachian strapped on his Kevlar vest, fastening the buckles and pulling it tight, then took his trusty Mossberg and racked it; ready now for whatever calamity might befall him on the four or five yard walk outside to his mailbox and back. Several other firearms adorned his hip; a glock, a magnum, a .45 hidden in his boot. Knives strapped across his chest, over the vest. Serrated hunting knives, switchblades, various kinds of daggers. Finally, an SKS rifle fastened by buckles hung rather loosely across his other hip. Ready to go, ready to fire. Ready to blow the head off whatever menace he might encounter in the four or five yards to and from his mailbox. And there were sure to be plenty in the way of menaces. This he was sure of. He knew a menace was always ready, always out there, ready to attack. With his Mossberg and SKS and glocks and daggers, he knew he would always be ready.

 

Josef would always be one step ahead of the faceless menace out to get him. And he knew there was always something out to get him. Josef had the right to bear arms. The right to conceal carry. He no longer bothered to conceal, however. Wherever he went, he was strapped and ready; like a paramilitary trooper on the hunt…shopping for new underwear at the Super Wal-Mart, or buying Hungry Man dinners at the Safeway. No matter what the occasion—buying new underwear or stocking up on frozen entrees…indulging in a scrumptious breakfast at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House…no matter the location or the mission—it was imperative, needed, completely and totally necessary. Strapped. Armed to the gills. Shopping for new undies at Wal-Mart. Josef would be ready to kill his enemy before his enemy killed him. He would aim his Mossberg straight and kill his enemy before his enemy killed him; without his Mossberg he was nothing; without him his Mossberg was nothing; this was his Mossberg; on his honor, he would kill his enemy with his Mossberg before his enemy killed him; on this he swore…he would. …While shopping for new underwear. At the new Super Wal-Mart. He would…

 

No mail. A sedan drove down the cul-de-sac, slowly. Mikhail gripped his Glock, finger probing the trigger eagerly, with anticipation. The sedan passed by and was gone. Mikhail’s finger went flaccid. No mail. Not today, anyway.

 

He was strapped enough this day, a walk down to the pub seemed in order. No clouds in the sky. Crisp, late Autumn warmth. Nothing could sneak up on him in these conditions. The notion of underwear shopping passed through his mind, even. But one thing at a time. The one-story shacks, run-down abandoned houses with boarded up windows lined his walk down to the bar. Utility poles, closed-down chicken joints, crack dealers and panhandlers loitering on every other corner. Mikhail had no qualms with the crack dealers. Strapped too, they shared a mutual respect for the gun. An equalizer. A “Hello…my name is ____” tag.

 

The gun speaks.

 

Bums. College students and college dropouts. Burnouts. Hipsters. Trash. Perusing second-hand shops and consignment boutiques. Record shops. Barber shops. Hookah lounges. Trash. Trash everywhere, rings through their lips and noses, ridiculous hair…ridiculous pants. Mikhail moseyed on by the trash, gripping his gun belt tight and proud…moseying like John Wayne, past the trash and the panhandlers and the crack addicts. None of these types would be a threat. Mikhail was confident of that. But he was strapped nonetheless.

 

The gun speaks.

 

The sun beat down on his bare shoulders…his wife-beater now soaked and his muscles sore from the weight of the Mossberg hanging about his torso. The bar—no signage of course—was nearly pitch black inside. Mikhail pulled out a stool, for a moment having trouble locating the seat, and took a load off. Placed his Glock gingerly down on the bar and snapped his fingers at Patrick, the bartender. “Pat,” Mikhail said, now whistling, “Pat! Water!” Patrick, left ear cauliflowered and near deaf, turned his head slightly, left eye drifting to Mikhail’s position. “Pat, Water.”

 

“Water.” Pat, ambling reluctantly down the length of the bar, threw a dirty old towel around his shoulders, picked a booger from his nose and wiped it on his jeans. “You come in here you want water.”

 

“Water. Pat.” Mikhail’s eyes were flickering bright white. Fixed on Patrick’s face.

 

“Water. Pat.” Pat poured some tepid tap water into an unclean mug. Particles floating to the surface. Greyish. “I got you, Mike.” Pat slid the mug down the length of the bar, spilling and splashing along the way. Mikhail grasped it by the handle and gulped it all down, particles and all. “Good?”

 

“It’s a hot one, Pat,” Mikhail said, tepid water dripping from his chin.

 

“You’re strapped to the gills today, Mike. Special occasion?” Mikhail shrugged, eyes flickering white and hot, still. “All that hardware…no wonder you’re hot.” Patrick went about wiping down the bar, cleaning out mugs. “So…what’s good? Any new trannies you wanna report on?” Pat smirked sharply. “Chicks with dicks? Give it to me, Mike, I ain’t bashful.” Pat smirked; wiped another booger onto his jeans.

 

“No, Pat,” Mikhail said, eyes undeterred, still flickering white hot light, intently staring right through anything in their path. “No trannies lately. Nothing like that.” Mikhail’s eyes flared just then, the white light dancing violently. “I had a dream, Pat. I had a dream I was pouring some water into a glass…” Mikhail put the mug back up to his lips…only a drop or two of water left, meeting his tongue slowly, uneventfully.

 

Mikhail set the mug down. Still parched. Tongue fuzzy. Like cotton. “…a lot of water into a glass. And the glass was on a table. And at some point I guess, Pat, I took a look under the table for some reason and I saw the water—all the water—just pouring—gushing out the bottom of the table. Out the bottom of the glass, I suppose. And I kept pouring more water in. Just kept draining out. Out the bottom of the glass. The bottom of the table.” Mikhail caressed the muzzle of his Glock, eyes glassy. Translucent. White light still dancing… Somewhere else. “What do you think it means, Pat?” He whipped his pistol out from a shoulder holster, jamming it in Pat’s face. Joking, maybe. Maybe not.

 

“Fuck, don’t do that, Mike!”

 

“Sorry…” Mikhail holstered the pistol. Still waiting for the answer to his water question. The eternal water question. Filling a glass that doesn’t want to be full. That question. Pat, the slovenly bartender with 11 or 12 felonies and half as many kids under his belt—all from different women—a lifetime’s worth of alimony and child support to answer to… Pat was not quite qualified to answer the water question…

 

“Don’t know, Mike,” he said shortly, slapping the damp towel over his shoulder, wife-beater damp also with the sweat and grease of the day… “How should I know? I pour beer—booze—into cups and glasses and steins all damn day…some gets on the bar. I mop it up I move along. Why so hung up on spilt water? Just a dream, right? Nothin’ even happened.” Pat cupped his hands around a cigarette, protecting it from the nonexistent breeze and stagnant damp air of the empty bar; lit it. “You know what I hate, Mike?” …expelling a plume of noxious smoke from his nostrils…

 

“You can’t smoke in here, Pat.”

 

“I hate it when people talk about their dreams. It’s only interesting to the mope who dreamt it. Nobody else. I ain’t interested. Don’t care. Didn’t happen to me. Everyone dreams about the same shit, anyway. Teeth crumbling…losing control of a car…can’t reach the brakes, right? You had that one…” Pat smirked, knowing he was right. Everyone has the same dreams. Drifting off for a moment, then coming back to the point, tethered by the persistence of Mikhail’s intent, white hot gaze.

 

“So, okay,” he went on, looking away from Mikhail, “Sex dreams…fucking Cindy Crawford…then you wake up, and you’re not fucking her anymore. That sucks. Now that’s a dream I’ll talk about…” Pat’s eye’s flickered a hint of life. The flicker died down quickly. His eyes dead and umber colored again. The usual, dead umber color of a bartender’s eyes… “That’s a dream I’ll talk to you about. No pouring water into a glass. What’s the point in that?” Patrick’s eyes were dead, umber, set deep in his head and fixed straight ahead…away from Mikhail’s intent, vacant stare. He pretended to do something, wringing the excess moisture from his bar towel. None came out. Pretending. “You’re just pouring more and more water down a bottomless glass…what’s the point? No point in it, Mike. Is that what you want me to say?”

 

“That’s the point!” Mikhail loosened the strap around his shoulders and set the unnecessary weight of his Mossberg down on the bar. Swiveling his neck and shoulders, feeling the weight and the relief of the weight off of himself… “You’re pouring water down a bottomless glass. Or the glass has no bottom…maybe. It’s not like a bottomless pit. More like…it just has no bottom…the water’s going down and it doesn’t fill the glass…just keeps going down the bottom, down to who knows where. And I keep trying to fill it. You do get it, Pat. You’re not stupid.” Mikhail’s eyes were vibrant…flaring bright white with each word…nostrils flaring too, breathing heavy sighs in and out with every syllable.

 

“Yeah, sure I guess,” Pat said after a time…proceeding to mop down the bar, puffing noxious smoke. “It’s like…a metaphor.” Pat flicked his cigarette butt in no particular direction. “Isn’t it?”

 

“Like a metaphor,” Mikhail said, eyes fixed, burning white hot light direct at Pat…unflinching. Calm, white hot light. “Like a metaphor with no bottom. Like that, Pat.”

 

Mikhail gathered his arms, fastening them to his person, tight and snug. Nobody coming for him this day. Not strapped like this, he thought. Strapped well enough, he thought, that a trip to the grocery store might not be out of the question. He was running low on milk.

 

Walking like John Wayne out of the bar, a bit bow-legged, ready for a fracas or a scrap or two. “Hey Mikhail,” Pat shouted as he was halfway out the door… “Shit’s like a metaphor, ain’t it?” Patrick smiled. His lips curled insincerely. Eyebrows arched. “Forget that water shit, Mike. Pour away. There’s more than enough water. Why worry?”

 

 

Mikhail shrugged, and gripped his gun belt proudly. Strapped. On the way to the supermarket. Ready to blow the brains out of anything that looked at him sideways.

the strangerhood (out of order)

peach. gun. overweight.

I realized my numbers of travel by way of distance measured in miles against hours had far exceeded the law. I was speeding in my car, my bucket of bolts. With a thought, I eased up on the gas, and noticed a road sign fast approaching at the end of the road. Detour. Though I could not make sense of the media in which this word had been applied to the canvas, I understood its meaning. As non-English speaking drivers know a red octagon means ‘STOP’, I knew I had made a horribly wrong turn, and had no choice but to divert my course. I had been driving down the wrong road for over nine hours. One might wonder what the ‘right’ road would have looked like. In any case, I was somewhere unfamiliar. Like I said, foreign.

The road sign with the meaning painted in meaningless black against reflective yellow told me to turn around. I thought I should just try to get back on a main road, or lane, or thoroughfare. There were little gray houses built in the natural style of city construction along the horizon—winding, organic-like. I turned my machine around and drove back to the horizon, to meet the houses, and made my way onto a residential drive. It twisted left, then right, and so-on. I didn’t know what I was looking for.

Perhaps a nice, friendly looking one-family house to park in front of, go up to the door and ask directions. All the houses were identical, though, so it stood to reason one would be good as another, as another would be just as good as the other, and the other, and on and on.

I began to think, then. I had never actually asked directions before. In my life. For anything. I certainly didn’t want to start now. But by the time that thought had spawned, I was already at the door, knocking. A woman about my age or older answered. “Hello,” she said. The door now wide open. “May I help you?” The tone of her voice was off-center in some way. In some beautiful way, I mused some time later. But for the moment, what stood before me was no more than the sum total of every single middle-aged woman I’d ever seen; nothing so spectacular to look at, to be sure. More than anything, an assemblage of all the various body parts and gestures and clothing choices culled from every strip mall, country club tennis court and bridal shower known to man (or woman, for that matter). This Frankenstein creature of not at all unpleasing physical traits in no way spoke for the substance of her voice. Instead, it hid something. Obscured something. Behind the domestic exterior, I supposed, something very disagreeable could very well be lurking. Frozen in time, I linger on her words. I discard her physical appearance and linger only on her words.

So lovely. What I heard in her voice, however, surely were not the words that had sprouted from her tongue. I could taste an inappropriate glimpse of intimacy not usually afforded the common stranger. In my head, I could almost hear a double of her—of her voice—speaking unspeakable things from one stranger to another. Not obscene, but unspeakable still. The plasticity of her smile, the fold of the yellow linen frock, meeting the lace at the pit of her soft, gentle neck. It bespoke of something not found anywhere within those mundane few words. And I could hear the overlapping of some sweet mental nothing with every syllable to pass her lips.

I nodded. She seemed nice. But she was more than nice. I had never heard a stranger speak as she had. In her manner. I began to realize that what she said was utterly impossible; it could not have passed her lips, at least not cloaked in the same words that had fallen into my ear. The mundane clothing of those words only excited my senses all the more, as I imagined—puerile in nature, for I am but a man—the nakedness of the meaning beneath the folds. If she’d said what I heard, it was the first real thing to hit me in some time. If she’d said what I heard whispered in my mind, then I would have a whole lot more to think about than how to find a road back to civilization. I had trouble, then. Without knowing for sure if the words I thought I heard were real, or if I was hallucinating, or if I had simply misunderstood what she said, I could not be sure of her meaning either. Had she in fact said those things and with the subtext with which they were spoken, a possibility existed I may have bungled the reception. Having gathered so much in so short a time from someone I had never met, I may have assumed too much. My head began to hurt. Immensely.

“I wonder if you might be so kind.” I said. “That you would give me some directions.” I suddenly became aware that I was dead tired. I could barely keep my eyes open. “I think I’m lost, ma’am. To be perfectly honest. I seem to have gotten myself lost.” The focus in my retina was decaying before my cones; I only remember looking into her eye. I seemed to take her meaning, then, by looking in her eye. But it wasn’t the one I required.

“Would you like to rest awhile, sir?” I nodded, almost collapsing in on myself, and she took my hand, her eye still in mine though mine was already asleep. She took off my hard dress shoes, and I felt a fuzzy quilt drape over my chest. She took my meaning. I fell asleep, then. With my eye still open.

BEACH

I woke up. That was something, at least—the waking up. At the very least, the bare minimum, I could take solace in that. For all I knew, I could be dead or comatose, hunched over and bloody and with my ribcage mashed to paste against the steering wheel. But I wasn’t. I was awake. Being awake being the only virtue by which I would even know my pulse still functioned and my brain still worked. That was something, anyway.

But then I remembered where I was, tenuously as I even knew to begin with. Some gray house in some neighborhood or town I had never known even existed. And then I remembered how I got there. My words were still lost—illegible and meaningless in my right breast pocket. The woman had been so kind as to take my meaning, thinly veiled as I may have presented it. She was smart, that one. She must have been. It showed on her part an ability to understand and accommodate feelings I myself was not even consciously aware of. I needed to rest, that much was certain. I felt I had been running for days, weeks, years, to no destination in particular and with no compelling or logical reason. I had been running, asleep, but drained and exhausted still. Where was I.

I had been at work that day. The day I lost my words, got in my car, and found myself petrified and fossilized in this strange place. I leaned over on my side, peeked through the blinds, and saw that it was still light out. Was it light out before? Maybe it had been dark. I couldn’t remember, but still I had the feeling that the moon and sun had swapped shifts. I saw my arms. Bare, pale, mottled with tiny blackheads along the bicep. I realized I was shirtless. Not only that. Pantsless. I was clothed in nothing but my underwear and socks.

For a moment, a vulgar guilt flashed in my brain. But I knew there was no way anything inappropriate, per se, had happened. I flung the fuzzy quilt over my shoulder, stood up, and began to search for my clothes. The room was tiny. Not much bigger than a men’s room stall or a portable john, like you find at a construction site.

“I hoped you wouldn’t mind, Mr. Sutter.” The woman’s voice peered around the half-closed door. She followed it, stepping gently in my view, dressed in plain black. “I thought you might like your clothes washed.” She looked as if expressing something. Levity, maybe. I was beyond caring. “They were a little stale, actually.” I understood that. I smelled. Great.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, strategically draping the too-small quilt over my chest, not sure of which part of me I should try to cover. I had nothing else to say. She stood, and unable to take her meaning as I was, it seemed she had likewise either forgotten or decided not to take mine. “Well, then.” I might as well have punched her right between the eyes.

“Coffee,” she said. “After you shower, of course. Your clothes should be dry by then.” She began to back away, in a manner I couldn’t identify. “I’ll let you make yourself presentable, Mr. Sutter.” She closed the door in front of her. A bit too late, perhaps. I was still wondering. Wonder took me only so far as to speculate, blandly, on the motive for her hospitality. Perhaps she thought I was homeless. A drifter. Some down on his luck type guy, just looking for a place to lay his head and maybe a reasonably warm meal. A vagrant, in short. But what would a nice middle-aged suburban woman find to sympathize with in that, and more importantly, how unlikely must it be for such a person as I was possibly perceived to be taken in in a place like this, or to even be found anywhere in its general proximity. There’s a reason they’re called street urchins.

Either way, I knew what I wasn’t, and to a lesser extent, what I really was. The latter counted for more, anyway. No point in waxing philosophical when the door to anything such a practice would yield is already bolted shut, or even nonexistent. I was a man. That I knew. A businessman, I had come to suppose. And I had simply undergone a bit of difficulty. I had trouble. It’s what caused my brain to crust over, to lose words, and ultimately to drive in the resulting stupor into wherever I had arrived. Where was I.

The more immediate question. The one that begged my anxiety and affections, wrapped and bound as they were in red surgical tape and gauze. Who was she. More importantly, perhaps, what was her motive? But I’d been over this. And over this again. I concluded that standing in that porta-john bedroom ninety-five percent naked would accomplish nothing, towards the end I sought, or any yet to be seen. I did smell. My hair was oily, thin. I made my way to the shower, unsure of how I eventually got there—not quite caring anymore why. I felt I had washed the odor away. The dirt, and body soil. She came gently rapping against the green vinyl shower curtain. “Your clothes, Mr. Sutter. I’ll place them right here on the commode for you.” I meant to say something. But it wasn’t necessary. I had no intention of making myself alive and naked behind that curtain, even though I obviously was just that. Like pee shyness. I always turn the faucet on when I urinate, just to mask the sound with something more appropriate.

I was dressed in time. I dressed in the bathroom, with the door closed. The steam from the shower had dampened my entire outfit by the time I stepped outside. “Coffee, Mr. Sutter.” She was calling me from the kitchen. Strangely, I found no obstacle or disorientation in navigating my way from point A to point B. She had a breakfast tray laid out on the table. Nothing but coffee. How did she even know I liked coffee? More pressing, rather, how did I know that I liked coffee? I couldn’t remember the taste for some reason, inasmuch as a taste can be remembered. I’ve never tasted brisket. I felt I hadn’t tasted coffee either. But I was a man, with a desk job. Inconceivable to think it hadn’t ever passed my lips before. Enough of that, though.

“Thank you.” My language was plain. I’d left words in the care of whatever part of my brain now housed, restrained, them. I didn’t like coffee. It tasted bad. Like sewer water, only warmed over in a kettle. Though, to be fair, I probably hadn’t ever tasted sewer water either. “Thank you.” I was repeating myself.

“Welcome.” She left out a key word.

I reflexively snapped up my wrist, looked at my watch like I was late for a meeting or something. Really, I had no other plan of action. I’d always found, I felt, that the best way to divert awkwardness was to appear busy or stressed. I recognized my meaning for a brief flash. She, however, seemed oblivious. How was it, I wonder, that she’d taken my meaning so graciously and intuitively the cycle before, but now appeared as aloof and thoughtless as I was. I thought of something to say. “How do you know my name, by the way?”

“Wallet.” She’d left out another key word.

“Hmm.” I’d been shut up pretty good, I guessed. Stupid question, stupid answer. In any case, we were left sitting in each other’s company yet again—silent—and I began to get the feeling my feeling was not mutual. She seemed rather content. Just to sit. And say nothing. I had a grampa was given to that. Difference was, me and my grampa took each other’s meaning without need of a word between us, or an excuse to break the silence. I needed this silence broken. But words, logically the only solution, seemed just as awkward an alternative. We sat for some time.

I can’t recall exactly, but I know that our sitting had come to an end, I had moved for the door, and she followed attentively behind. She stepped in front, opened it for me, then stepped aside. I still didn’t know how we’d gotten to this point. “Thank you, ma’am.” That’s all I said. She nodded without sparing a word. Apparently, she held the cards. Not apparently. Of course. She would be perfectly content to let me wander out that front door not knowing how or why I had come to the place I had just moments before departed. I certainly did not know. But I didn’t particularly care, either. She could hold the cards. She could play go fish, for all I cared.

But I did care. Uncertain how, exactly, but once I stepped out onto the cobblestone walkway leading to the sidewalk, I felt a bit ashamed of myself. The woman, whoever she was, had shown me kindness. Never mind her peculiarity. I myself am no doubt any less peculiar. It had been an even exchange, then. I would leave her with an unshared gratitude, to do with as she wished, provided she had perceived it at all. That was fine with me. That was good enough.

The thought hadn’t dispersed completely as I proceeded down the winding sidewalk. It was still there. But more important—more immediate—was the resulting question: just where in the hell was I walking to? I supposed I wasn’t walking to anyplace, at that precise moment; I was only walking to increase the measurable distance between her and me. That’s what you do, generally, when you leave someplace. You start walking. Away. From that place. But then again, most people generally leave someplace with another in mind—hence the motive—the meaning—of the walk. I felt drunk.

I was still walking. Then I remembered I had a car. I stopped walking. Turning back around, I had become instantly and illogically unable to judge the distance I had covered. I hadn’t kept time. But that was no excuse. My panorama looked to be an exact duplicate, no matter which direction I faced. Back. Forward. Side, then to the other side, and not even taking into account diagonals or tangents or any variation thereof. I had lost direction. I had lost my car.

But the houses remained in diligent regularity. Everywhere I turned, another door to knock on—a new stranger to burden. I didn’t want to go wandering into another stranger’s house—have things end up like last time—or even have to explain my situation, or pawn my meaning in hopes of a profitable return. No. What I needed was a phone. What I wanted was a payphone.

SUPERCILIOUS

“Hey, Jack.” A gravelly voice from the bushes. I turned my head, stepped in closer to the gray picket fence dividing two identical properties, and saw a 50-something man stooped over—hunched over—positioned as if he were about to pounce on something. He hadn’t pounced on me. Yet. But he maintained his posture nonetheless. “Hey, Jack.” He kind of tilted his head in an upward motion. It might have been an involuntary tick. In any case, I realized he was speaking to me.

“Yes.” I stood plain, with my arms to my sides and with good posture.

“New?”

“Yes.” I said.

“How new?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m lost.” He seemed to be waiting for something. “A day, maybe. Overnight. Fifteen hours, max.” I didn’t know why I felt the need to be so precise to such an imprecise question.

“Like it?”

“Alright, I guess.”

“Wanna buy a wallet?” He opened his black trench coat, which I had only just noticed was black, or a trench coat. Stitched along the right hand inner lining of the coat was a varied selection. Mostly leather. Some crocodile. All quality stuff, regardless.

“I already have a wallet.” The moment I said that I realized I was wrong. Without bothering to reach in my pants pocket, I knew my wallet was missing. I reached in my pants pocket anyway. I patted myself down like a schizophrenic beat cop busting himself for possession. Nothing. The logical thought hadn’t crossed my mind until awhile later. For now, forgetfulness was logical enough an explanation. In any case, I wasn’t lingering on an explanation to endorse. I was thinking about buying a new wallet. From the guy calling me Jack.

“How ‘bout it, Jack?” He began to wave and brush his left hand up and down the columns of wallets on display, like a model on one of those game shows. “The price is right, Jack. No kiddin’. I wouldn’t hoodwink a fine-lookin’ gentleman like yourself. No.” His eyes were puffy. They seemed to have gotten puffier. It might have been an allergic reaction.

“I’ll buy a wallet,” I said, quite unaware I had even said it till I heard the words melt into air. I did something stupid, then. I reflexively reached in my back pocket for my wallet, so I could extract the money inside to pay for my new wallet. I had no wallet. And needless to say, I had no money. I don’t know how that could work any other way; unless you carry a money clip or a billfold like some dego guinea wop, you probably aren’t going to have money on you in absence of a proper container. A wallet. “I would like to buy a wallet,” I said, “but I can’t. I left all my money in my wallet. The other one,” I said, “…the one I lost.” It seemed unfair. I knew I had money. I wasn’t a wealthy man, Lord knows, but I knew I had at least a little money. It was the goddamn wallet’s fault.

“Well, that’s a sticky one, then,” the Merchant said. “You got money. Just not on ‘ya. I know how that fucking goes.” His language seemed inappropriate. “But what you’re fixing to buy isn’t just no regular thing, like…toilet paper…or gum. What you’re fixing to buy is a wallet.” He began to rip one of the crocodile skins from his coat lining. “A man needs a wallet.” I nodded. I think it was a question. “Gives a man a place to put his money. And a man needs money.” I nodded again. I think it was a question. “Furthermore, a man—‘specially a man such as yourself, sir—needs a place to put his driver’s license. A man needs a driver’s license. Gives him something says he’s capable of drivin’ a car.” I nodded. “A man needs to drive a car.” I wasn’t sure where he was going. “Fifty bucks.”

He thrust the wallet in my face and held out his hand. I almost reached back into my empty pocket. “I don’t have fifty dollars.” We looked at each other.

“You got yourself in a fix. But I’ll help you out, because I kind of like you. What do you say…I give you this here fine croc skin wallet and in exchange—as collateral, you see—you give me something else of value. Whatever it is.” I supposed it was a reasonable suggestion. Though I somehow knew a brand new wallet would be of no use to me empty. I wasn’t thinking about that. I wanted a wallet. “Look,” he said, flipping the croc skin wallet open, “it even got some stuff you might need inside. What I’m sellin’. It ain’t the wallet.”

The Merchant had already sold me. “I’ll take it,” I said.

“Beans. You can’t just take it. What you and me are about to take part in is old as the world’s oldest profession, friend. This is a barter.”

I took that to mean he was intent on trading his ware for something of a particular interest. I had almost forgotten the trading part. “I’m not sure I have anything you’ll want.” I reached in my pockets. I knew they were empty.

“Maybe not, then.” He began to pack up shop, looking as if to walk away from the transaction. He stopped. “You can do me a favor in return. That’s it. What man, after all, is worth so little he can’t even be of use as a surrogate hand?” He curled his lips, like he was smiling. More levity, perhaps.

“What can I do for you?” My mind was locked and aimed on that damn wallet.

“Nothing I can’t do, now mind you. It’s just a favor, you see. Just something you can do for me I’d rather not do myself. You’ll be my hand. That’s all.” He reached in the left side of his trench coat and groped around. “This,” he said, handing me a crumpled up wad of lined paper. “Take this.” I took the wad of paper and began to uncrumple it. “Don’t do that here,” he whispered. “Just take that. And your wallet.” He handed me the croc skin wallet. “And don’t think I don’t know my business practices don’t make no sense. I know. Just take what I give you. I’ll have my profit.” He packed up shop and began to scuttle away. “I trust you, Jack, even if I don’t have to.”

The first thing I did was fold the paper up nice and neat, then tuck it safely in my wallet.