Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Now Playing: a letter from the government
Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
December 1, 2015
Re: form N-400
Dear Mr. Jesus, USCIS, upon a careful review of all documents pertaining to your application for immigration, must inform you that you have not provided sufficient evidence that you are a proven Christian and that your application has been denied on that basis. Furthermore, your activities on behalf of people who have expressed hostility toward Roman occupation make it imperative that we exercise extreme caution in regard to your case. Crucifixion, though condemned by international law, does not warrant our government to allow those threatened by it to enter the U.S. at this time.
Posted by james-hazard
at 2:51 PM PST
Updated: Tuesday, 1 December 2015 2:53 PM PST
Monday, 30 November 2015
Now Playing: Conversations with Zoon
“I was watching the Rebarbarian debates the other day,” my friend Zoon said. “And I heard Mister Duck say that worker bees make too much money. Is that so?”
“If Mister Duck thinks something is true then it is true,” I said.
“But you are always worried about money,” Zoon countered. “ Are you worried that you have too much of it?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve earned too much money. You see, Zoon, it’s like this. If I had made less money then I wouldn’t have bought so much stuff; and if I hadn’t bought so much stuff I wouldn’t have gotten into so much debt. If I owed less then I would have more money to pay what I owe to The Super One Percent.”
“But if you and almost everyone else bought less,” Zoon said. “Wouldn’t that cause Big Brother Economy to crash?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “See, all the stuff that’s made in China can be bought by The Super One Percent. They won’t need it, of course, so they’ll ship it to Mexico where it can all be recycled.”
I heard Zoon’s tentacles twitch. He is from the planet Goonleopopfar and is, to humans, invisible; but I think that if I could see him he would look like a giant lobster.
“I do not understand the function of Big Brother Economy,” he said. “On our planet, if we need something we just get together and make it.”
“That’s insane!” I roared. “Worker bees can’t just get together and make stuff on their own. They have to be told what to do by Big Brother Economy.”
“I don’t think I get it,” Zoon sighed.
“Tell me,” I said.
Posted by james-hazard
at 12:10 PM PST
Updated: Monday, 30 November 2015 12:13 PM PST
Wednesday, 25 November 2015
My friend Zoon, who is from the planet Goonleopopfar and is visiting Earth, asked me the other day if Americans are a tolerant people.
“Oh yes, indeed,” I said.
He wanted to know how so.
“Well,” I said. “We tolerate sitting two, three hours in our cars to go to and from work because most of us don’t have a modern mass transportation system. We tolerate sending our kids off to expensive colleges so that they’ll have to work half their life to pay off student debt.
“We tolerate being gouged by drug companies because we won’t let the government negotiate prices. We tolerate mass shootings that are a regular feature of American life now. We tolerate sending people to prison for smoking a weed.
“We tolerate a government that spies on everyone, software companies that spy on their own users, a military industrial complex that kills innocent men, women and children with drones in foreign countries.
“We tolerate the fact that there are a million school children who are homeless. We tolerate corporations that send jobs overseas so that they can pay pennies instead of dollars for an hour’s work.
“We tolerate a political party that is more interested in inventing scandal than protecting a citizen’s right to vote. We tolerate an economic system that is sending us off in our SUVs to the biggest ecological catastrophe in human history; that forces people to work two or three jobs because the minimum wage can’t support them.
“And we tolerate politicians who blame all of this on poor brown people who come here so that they can pick lettuce.”
“You’re a bit more tolerant than we are,” Zoon said.
“Tell me,” I said.
Posted by james-hazard
at 10:38 AM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 25 November 2015 10:44 AM PST
Monday, 19 January 2015
Now Playing: Idea Man
The first time I met Mary L I was in The Food Box Café eating an egg salad sandwich. We had seen each other around town several times so we nodded, said hello and then introduced ourselves. She had a pile of brown, frizzy hair on her head, unnaturally bright grey eyes that didn’t look as if they worked well together, thin lips that usually curved down and the shallow cheeks of one who doesn’t eat enough. She wore clothes that looked as if they had been made from the covers of old brown sofas. Her feet were in sandals even though the weather was cold and damp. I placed her in her 40s but gave myself a margin of error of ten years either way.
Looking at me with unblinking eyes she wasted no time telling me the dramatic circumstances of her life.
“The flying saucers come to my house every night, James. They really do. I wake up and there they are. They must use some kind of electromagnetic pulse because my electricity goes out and I can’t call the police. They take me to Vietnam, James. They really do. And I’m tortured there. Every night. They use electrodes on me. I have to watch sex movies. The government won’t do anything. All they do is spy on me. They really do.”
This increasingly one-sided conversation went on for several more minutes before she shambled out with a large Styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand. Two years after getting married my wife and I ran into her one day on the street.
“I finally know what to do, James,” she said.
“What’s that, Mary?” I said.
“I have to defeat the Devil.”
That night, after dinner, I put dishes and cups into the dishwasher and thought about defeating the Devil. Could the world exist without evil? To me it seemed like trying to bake a cookie with only one side. And freed from suffering, what would we do with all the free time? Maybe, I thought, a few disasters here and there build character. At the very least they give us a chance to act heroically. I called out to my wife that I was going out to check on Lewis.
Lewis lives in a tiny one bedroom house on our property. In exchange for rent he helps with mowing the lawn, weeding and other routine chores. He calls himself an idea man, a once influential consultant and advisor to politicians, celebrities and Fortune 500 executives; but for the past several years he has fallen on hard times and lives nearly penniless, with only the clothes on his back and pictures clipped from newspapers and magazines of him next to Bernie Madoff, Jack Abramoff, Bill Cosby and other luminaries.
“You want something to eat?” I said as I knocked.
He told me to come in, saying that he had Chinese. That’s his euphemism for dumpster diving.
We talked for a few minutes and then I asked him if he had any plans for the next day. He sat hunched over on a wooden chair wearing nothing but an old tattered cape that looked as if it had come from the stock room of a community theater. His pale, slack face was unshaven and he looked emaciated. Dirty grey hair hung down nearly to his shoulders. I could hear tired, congested lungs work as he smoked an unfiltered cigarette from a red, crumpled pack.
“Yeah,” he said, staring down at the whirring electric heater I let him use. “Guy in Oregon. Got something seriously wrong upstairs I figure. Gonna do the ‘ole instant shotgun divorce thing with his family-nothing much new or exciting there-only gets interesting when he decides to chew ‘em to bits with a chainsaw. I guess movies help if you don’t have much of an imagination. And a woman in Sidney gonna leave her husband and three kids to run off with a feller who sells tropical fish so she can swindle him out of his money and leave his body in the trunk of his car. I know, small potatoes but I’ve slid down the ladder and landed on my butt enough times to know that when you’ve hit bottom you gotta start somewhere.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds good. Think you’re up to it?”
“Oh,” he said, lighting another cigarette with a snap of his long, knobby fingers.
“Don’t you worry about me, Sonny Jim.”
Posted by james-hazard
at 12:46 PM PST
Updated: Monday, 19 January 2015 1:00 PM PST
Saturday, 18 October 2014
One for the Road
The Ebola Cola Cafe
take the last road at the end of the earth
sodden rags full of bones piled at the counter
click, clack and cackle with mirth
The infection sticks like confection
latex hands snap like rubber bands
but the spread of microbial insurrection
has already crossed that intersection
Remember, back in the day,
we packed the churches like flies on meat. "You're all dead so good luck with that," the priest would say and off we'd go to babble, fart and sweat,
turn to carrion where we lay
Now I'm all mixed up with clocks and the price of stocks
as the dying writhe under the heat of their own blood-red sun
blue skies are drawn with charcoal, the planet has its own
as the seas rise to the occassion there'll be no place to run
There's a solution to this, of course, there always is
fever itself is an untapped source of energy
we use it at the cafe to give our drink its fizz
what's real is only empty imagery
after all, even the misery
Posted by james-hazard
at 5:36 PM PDT
Updated: Saturday, 18 October 2014 6:11 PM PDT
Tuesday, 16 September 2014
Now Playing: The One that Got Away
Author’s note: this is a very short story written in a style called stream of consciousness. It may call for some increased attention but I do think the reader will find it very amusing nonetheless.
Rated: mature for content and some strong language.
The One that Got Away
Of course the first one tottering in on heels you could use for a shish kabob is Janice Ritmore-always called her Rigor Mortis -under a pile of hair I wouldn’t put on a poodle-wearing an old hanging skin of a dress-the flowers look like faded tattoos-smiles puffy eyed and has to hug me to her bag of bones-I’m half afraid I’ll stick to her-Oh Sharon the service was beautiful she has to tell me and then Peter comes in stomach first-the man is so red he’s a walking advertisement for a stroke-Sharon Sharon Sharon as if I’d forgotten my name but I’m seventy for Christ’s sake not a hundred and seven-can’t believe he’s gone she has to go on-hell he’d better be gone he’s dead isn’t he? One day she says he’s right here working one of his puzzles and the next day-he’s gone I finish for her-godallmighty is that perfume she has on or sugar water and bug spray? Oh I can see Herb my deceased embalmed buried dead as a doornail hubby working one of his puzzles or wrapping his face with newspaper so he won’t hear a peep out of me the bastard was as useless as condoms on a dildo-and now the whole mob with their canes and walkers their scooters and wheelchairs all of them gray and clammy god it looks like one of those zombie movies Herb used to like while he wasn’t gawking at teenagers in bikinis on the soft porn channel-the smell of cemetery sod and aftershave wafts in-Jackie and then Frankie with her grandson pad out of the kitchen wiping their hands-we’ve been cooking all goddamn night and day is what I bet they want to say-you want coffee tea a soda beer or bourbon-why not drink the whole house dry while you’re at it? Get something to eat make yourself a sandwich-fine with me I didn’t buy or cook any of that crap-and my son comes jiggling downstairs smelling food no doubt-hey Mom-peck on the cheek for all to see-you okay? Oh fine fine I say-here for three days and my brain is about to boil over him with his Italian inner tube for a wife who could for god’s sake wax her lip just once in her life-oh yes that’s my boy my forty three year old son two kids of his own but he floats and bobs around young girls like a poisonous jellyfish I mean I swear the kid was born with a hardon it’s the only thing about him that ever made me laugh-to think it took twenty three years before he finally oozed out of the house-quit school why don’t you it’s time to fail in the real world-sells cars and actually makes a living at it would you believe it? Probably been in his old room jerking off-I can just see him and his wife Sofia scarfing down lasagna while the kids upstairs watch slasher movies-food? Oh not for me not now-truth is I’m too sick with hunger to eat which is weird because last night I was too tired to sleep-my son waddles away and I know why we women call our kids little shits it’s because both have to be pushed out-hi Mary I force myself to say how’s Jerry and Terry and Barry-the family is a nursery rhyme-oh I know it was such a weird and stupid accident but then how many of us get up in the middle of the night and fall down the stairs in the dark? Happens all the time but you never think it’ll happen to your own husband-and now I gotta daub my dry eyes-I told him a million times to be careful going down those stairs-what I want to say to scream is that the pig asshole was creeping downstairs to piss the last of our money away on online poker-no officers I was in bed when I heard him fall and then I ran out to turn on the light and there he was his legs and arms all twisted wrong and I knew he was dead can we can we talk later I think I think I’m in a state of shock-only one twenty five in the afternoon the end of the universe seems closer but I have to be comforted by these clowns-give me a drink I just want to celebrate and then take a nap the clinking of glasses shivers along my teeth and a headache fattens in my temples-oh sweetie I say it is such a terrible thing but he isn’t suffering and I know he’s looking down at us and he’s happy-roasting in hell I hope-when I think of how many women he screwed for the first twenty years of our marriage before I finally lost it and sliced a nice thin line above both his nipples with a paring knife and said next time it’ll be your nuts you scumbag-but for now I’m the queen of grief which is like getting married but better everyone brings food instead of useless crap for presents-Bob that was so nice what you said at the service and so funny you and Herb out in the sticks getting lost and a moose almost runs you over-they’re all looking at me poor poor Sharon hubby go fall down boom broked his neck well shit happens-wait what the wait what’s that gring gring gring sound what is that kid Jason playing with on the floor it isn’t a toy car or marble oh hell no it’s but it can’t be but it is the kid found it damn-spent hours on hands and knees looking for the one that got away and the kid that kid who could have found anything finds it-excuse me I say slithering around everyone as I slowly make my way to the other end of the room-the kid is on the floor rolling it back and forth gring gring gring it makes my head pound but have to stay calm-close closer closer have to time it just right-turn around make it look like an accident I’m good at that-then I wait and glance around then one teeny step back and the kid’s hand feels like soft chicken bones underfoot then the screaming and gram scoops him up and I go scooping too-oh Frankie I’m so sorry I didn’t see him there-then I slip the ball bearing into my pocket-I hope I didn’t hurt him I say-but then getting hurt is not always such a bad thing if one has insurance
Posted by james-hazard
at 7:14 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 16 September 2014 7:16 PM PDT
Thursday, 29 May 2014
Now Playing: As Long as I live
My mother, a teetotaler who smoked and drank coffee in moderation, took no interest in modern art, wore sensible shoes and lived by rules such as not running while holding scissors, kept a sharp lookout every single day of her life for the sudden and dramatic fall of Western Civilization in general and the collapse and ruin of the United States in particular.
“One day,” she warned anyone who would listen. “We’ll be fighting in the streets for a crust of bread!”
I was, like most kids my age, literal minded and so tried to imagine actually fighting with fists and clubs over a single dirty piece of bread birds hadn’t picked off the pavement. What would happen if you won? I wondered. You could eat a crust of bread and still be hungry.
My father, a teetotaler who smoked and drank coffee excessively, took an interest in modern art and lived by rules such as always eating hamburger steak no matter what restaurant you’re in, had a more subdued sense of the apocalyptic and would only say, while watching gladiator movies on a Saturday morning in the living room, that one day Americans will wake up and see that they’ve been taken over by Commies.
Not thinking for a moment that my parents were crazy, I took it for granted that, for whatever reason, one day we would beat each other’s brains out for a crust of bread while being simultaneously struck with the appalling realization that were now living under Communism.
But I also had a hard time understanding their ever present sense of impending doom. Life was good. We lived in a single family house that had no previous occupant, rode around in big cars, had plenty of food and lived in a quiet, safe neighborhood. There was always money for fabulous Christmas presents like toy robots, air guns and talking dolls; and the nation was still flush with its sense of triumph after World War Two. We hadn’t been corrupted yet by diet sodas, phony cigarettes, internet porn, identity theft, malls, cable TV, torture movies, a million new self-help books every month and pharmaceutical drugs for every ailment from “low T” to erectile dysfunction.
Life was good but my parents had come to maturity in a big Eastern city infamous for its political corruption during The Great Depression; and felt deep down that life in sunny Southern California was simply too good to be true. We were living in a fool’s paradise. The working class was meant to struggle and live in bleak circumstances because life is war, a constant contest for survival.
In a sense they were right to think that we were sleep walking in a fool’s paradise, for the 50s was the calm before the storm. Smoldering outrage over racism, poverty, political and economic inequalities and war would soon ignite fiery outbursts of protest that would forever alter the American landscape.
The 60s was a time of trial for my parents. For them the Civil Rights Movement was a threat to the natural order of things. As long as everyone knew their place the sun would keep rising in the east and setting in the west. They had been born in the South and had migrated as teenagers to Chicago, a city racially segregated by a system of unrelenting brutality.
“You can’t legislate morality,” my mother once told me. Actually, I think she told me that almost every day for years.
She was right. Morality cannot be imposed by new rules and regulations; and yet her criticism missed a bigger and more important point. We don’t make rules and regulations to become better; we make rules and regulations because we are better-because we came to understand that it’s better for children to be in school instead of in factories or mines; because we came to understand that we should all be treated fairly regardless of our skin color, ethnicity, income or sex. I think that this way of thinking about our moral progress has given me a bit more optimism about the human race than my parents had. Depression is as much a problem for me as it was for them but I remind myself that what I feel at any particular moment is not necessarily a reflection of what the world is.
For all their faults and moral blind spots, though, they were good parents. They taught me and my sister to be polite, considerate and to have a sense of humor about ourselves. They taught us the value of hard work and responsibility.
But they instilled in us more than that. My father taught me how to listen to classical music, play games with nothing but a pen and piece of paper, tell a joke and to appreciate the value of books. My mother taught me how to type by touch; and she encouraged me to write.
However prejudiced my father was, he often told us that he could never stand to see anyone, no matter who they were, treated unfairly. He also told me that everyone in a time of war believes that God is on their side. That left a deep and lasting impression on me.
Some years after my father passed away I was in my mother’s car as she drove into town. On a residential street she saw an elderly Latino man limping along the side of the road. She slowed to a stop, got out of the car, opened the door for him and then drove the old man to where he was going.
They were far better than I often realized; but isn’t that true of many parents? Born into a rough world of us against them, they nevertheless possessed a huge capacity for empathy and love.
They won’t die as long as I live.
Posted by james-hazard
at 3:09 PM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 18 September 2014 12:03 PM PDT
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
Cassie’s arms were numb from the elbows down. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been gripping the steering wheel on the drive to the dull orange medical building that seemed to sprout like a branch from the trunks of gray financial towers. Sitting stiffly on the thinly padded bench, staring between her knees at her red sneakers, she heard her children, Josh and Mattie, as if they were in another room and not beside her. Everything seemed empty and unreal. She imagined taking off her shoes and not finding any feet there. The room’s acoustics, formed by bright, metallic surfaces, made her eardrums ring as if afflicted by tendinitis. Bernard sat slumped over and nearly motionless in his low black power chair. Dressed in dark blue slacks, white shirt and tie, he squinted down at the crossword puzzle on the screen in his lap as if waiting for a plane at the airport. He looked, as he always did, utterly composed and placid, a scarecrow of an elderly man unaware or unconcerned about his surroundings, the time of day and why he had to be anywhere. She looked at Buster, their ailing, nine year old Golden Retriever, and let air seep out of dry lips that felt scorched. Today is the day, she had told herself as she crawled out of bed; and she thought it now. Today is the day. It was like the phrase, “this is it”: words used when we’d rather not speak our mind honestly least hysteria take over.
A writer she had read as a child called who they were about to meet “Old Man Death.” Maybe it had been better in the past, she thought, when the end came of its own accord, without the assistance (or insistence) of modern medical science. But that had been a long, long time ago, and she knew that there was no going back to some remote, idyllic past that had probably not been all that idyllic to begin with. Yes, she thought, we’ve sanitized death but is that really so terrible? Did our ancestors derive some kind of authentic spiritual being from watching so much slow suffering and agony without benefit of pain killers? Or did it just spawn cruel gods that brutalized them?
One of the workers, a thin blonde girl wearing the clinic’s loose fitting, powder blue outfit that reminded Cassie of pajamas, whose mouth was set as if hiding bad teeth, looked in their direction from the receptionist’s desk to say that Dr. Dean would be with them shortly. Josh and Mattie were now on the floor, petting and hugging Buster, chatting to him as if the dog understood them in some deep down part of his canine consciousness.
Cassie rubbed her arms and looked bleakly down at the old yellow dog. The red and blue colors of the floor’s tiles seemed to fade as she stared at them through hot, swollen eyes. The back of her head ached as if her hair had been grabbed by a machine and then spun into a knot. She wanted to say something but the right word to get anything started wouldn’t come. The kids shouldn’t be here, she told herself reproachfully. But they had pleaded with her and Grandfather, cradling Mattie in his lap, said that what children imagine is always worse than the reality of whatever they must sooner or later face.
Last night, after the children had gone to bed, she and the old man talked in the kitchen until well past midnight. Two widowed insomniacs, she thought ruefully. What a pair we make.
“Been up since four and can’t sleep,” he said in his thin, wavering voice, sipping a large mug of coffee mixed with cream, sugar and Irish whiskey. “At exactly three fifty five in the morning it occurred to me that my father was born one hundred and twenty years ago. Before two world wars, before half the state had electricity, before women could vote. And you know, the damndest thing, but I can sometimes hear him as clearly as if I had heard his voice yesterday. Kind of auditory hallucination because I can’t hear the two women I married no matter how hard I try, damnit to hell.”
Cassie nodded, averting his perpetually mournful eyes. She was well aware of how fickle the memory of voices could be, and found it frustrating that she had to rely on telephone messages she had saved to keep Tom’s voice intact in her head. The fact that she could always hear the voice of Mr.Warner, her deep throated, toad-faced high school biology teacher, made her suspect that memory has its own deep set of rules and is not the passive, mechanical recorder we like to imagine.
“He was, my old man, short, pudgy, a second-generation German,” he said. “A Church of the Brethren pacifist who hung pictures of Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs instead of Jesus on the walls, a look of loneliness and disdain stamped on his face, a woodworker who lived half his life in the garage mainly, I think, to get away from my mother, the parent I took after physically but not in temperament. Always something wrong with the house, a broken heater, a leak in the roof, knobs coming off the cabinets in the kitchen and my poor mother nagging him night and day only to hear him mutter, yes dear, I’m getting to that. I had to learn how to be the handyman of the family. By seven I was up on top of the house fixing rain gutters and by eight I was driving my mother, who had bad eyesight, to the store every Saturday morning.
“Didn’t resent it. Loved the old man. I would sit with him all day in the garage, surrounded by art books, his table saw, antique radios he restored, the smell of wood and varnish. He lived to tell stories, for some reason the sadder the better. Most of them urban legends, I think, but they left their mark. They came back to me not as stories but as events I witnessed in a previous life. Funny how over time we transform memory that way.
“The one I remember the most vividly may have happened, it was passed down in the neighborhood, a real Shakespearean tragedy. Gunderson, a painter by trade, married late in life to a woman named Ruth or Helga – I’ve heard variations of the story but I’ll stick to Ruth. Has a nice, biblical ring to it, Ruth does.”
“An artist?” Cassie said.
“Gunderson? No, a house painter when that was a viable trade. A big man, powerfully built, broad shoulders, thick muscular arms. German but I always see him as Italian, with dark curly hair, square jaw, large fleshy nose and booming voice. Met Ruth one night at a dance but was too shy to say much of anything. But he met her again a week later. A summer night, the moon was full, they had a few drinks and talked. A rough, good-natured man and a girl still living at home with her parents. Not much in common but they fell in love and a year later married in the Catholic Church.”
“Is this Beauty and the Beast?” Cassie said, looking at Buster. The dog was dreaming, twitching and woofing. It had always amused her to see dogs dream. There was a time when he could run for hours in the park or on the beach. Now he only ran in his sleep. Old man, old dog and, in the not too distant future, old woman. It made her think of a line from another book. Why are we born to suffer and die? Answer: to make us feel that much better when it’s over.
“Why so it is”, he said, nodding and folding his arms across his flat, thin chest. “A Beauty and the Beast story but not fit for the little ones. Only so many stories to go around. Our lives are just variations of them. That he was madly in love with her and madly possessive is the basic motif of a very old tale.”
“And I think I see where it’s heading,” Cassie said, feeling as if she were frowning deeply inside herself. She wondered if her children were dreaming and, if they were, what of. After Tom died Josh had nightmares. For several weeks they all slept together. She awoke every morning to find herself wedged between them, Josh curled up on her right side and Mattie, thumb in mouth, curled up on her left. It helped them and it help her, too; and she wasn’t reluctant to acknowledge that there were times in the middle of the night when she wished they would climb in with her again.
“So we’ve all heard it,” he said, glancing at Buster, a look of anguish passing over his thin, deeply wrinkled face. Thoughts like lost souls seemed to hang over his head. Well, what could one do? Isn’t grief the ultimate price of love? And yet, whenever it comes to the real and bitterly painful experience of separation, nothing about it is in the least fair or right. Suckers and gluttons for punishment, we get taken every time.
“A philosophical interjection,” he said, clearing his throat. The stubble on his face was as silvery as salt. “Plato believed that learning is in reality remembering. And it’s stories like this that seem to cling to the walls of our DNA, that make us feel we’ve always known them since before we were born.
“They are a good, happy couple. He works, brags about his wife, lifts furniture, carries ladders, stirs the paint, applies layers of blue, orange and yellow colors, sometimes singing in Italian but that’s just what I hear in my head. A man happier, he feels deep down, than he should be but unconcerned nonetheless. Until one day a thin, nervous looking man with protruding eyes that never stop shifting from one side of his head to the other, a man everyone called Slick, an unknown variety of weed blown in by a diseased wind, who looked as if he had grown up eating soap, paused to look at his brush and say, ‘your brother, he visits you and Ruth?’”
“No,” Gunderson said, laughing, a fish heading straight for the bait. “Ain’t got no brother.”
“Oh”, Slick said, shrugging. “I thought I saw her with a man the other day and I thought he looked like you, only younger, wearing nice clothes. Thought maybe he is your brother.”
“Slick playing games with the big, lovable ape?” Cassie said. She liked urban legends. The first one she had fallen for had been about psychotic teenagers who drove at dusk with their lights off, following and then killing the first good Samaritans who blinked their headlights at them.
“Slick has crawled out of the pit,” Bernard said, gripping his cup in both hands to warm them. “The father of lies. A rope of dried, bloodless flesh and feverish, fetid brain in stained overalls smelling of sweat and paint thinner. The kind of kid without spirit, imagination or intellect, who tortures insects and small animals, who grows up to bully his wife and children, who assumes political power and sends men to their muddy death for glory and profit.”
“Well, there must be a lot of them,” Cassie sighed.
“Oh, they are legion,” he said softly. “Charming and utterly believable. We may resist the bait at first but sooner or later most of us bite because, deep down, we want to believe. A lie told skillfully and at just the right time goes to work like a virus, taking over its host. Most of us don’t know just how infected we are.”
The refrigerator hummed to life. Somewhere in the wall behind her wood, sawed, treated, nailed in place and plastered over, made a faint snap like a tap tapping ghost, a spirit protesting its violent removal from the forest and the green world of the living. She liked to listen to the creaks, groans and pops of the house. They made her feel as if she were surrounded by some living force. Electricity circulated through plastic coated veins like fiery blood, giving her children their television programs and video games. Were they viruses of the mind, too, telling them that violence is harmless fun; that clothes, gadgets and goopy, invented food make us happy?
“He believed the worst without a thought,” she said. “Am I right?”
“Most of us do, to be honest, and as for him, he was jealous already,” he said. “Like a walking stick of dynamite, all he needed was a spark. My father, I remember, sanded a table by hand as he told me the story. He would stop, glide his fingers over the surface, and then sand some more, careful to follow the grain. It was always cold and dark in the garage and I never liked being in there because I was afraid of spiders. So I sat there with my hands in my pockets and listened, keeping a sharp look-out for eight-legged monsters.
“Gunderson waited till his wife was out of the house and then looked through everything- drawers, closets, her old, empty purses, cigar boxes full of receipts, old gray photo albums overflowing with old, gray photos and even her collection of cheap paperback books. One day he found a frightened looking scrap of paper beneath a stack of neatly folded clothes. Ah ha, a phone number. He dialed it the next day at a drugstore, and when he heard a man’s voice hung up.”
Cassie closed her eyes and listened to the story’s climax that was no less horrific because of its predictability, seeing in her mind’s eye not the heavy, barrel chested ox Gunderson but the slim, shy boy her grandfather had been. Behind them, as if on a vast movie screen, Gunderson stalks his wife. Like Bigfoot, he is hairy, strange and terrifying, and like the mythical beast just as invisible. One day, as he pretends to be away on a job, a big black Buick parks in front of his house. A man wearing a brown suit steps out. Hatless and carrying a briefcase, the young man turns his head to the right and almost sees the lurking lug. Gunderson is dumbfounded by the man’s brazen audacity. Parked in front of the house, he seems to announce his self to the whole neighborhood. Here I am in my brown suit, spats, trim figure, strong jaw, small blue eyes and wavy hair parted in the middle to spend an afternoon of lovemaking to another man’s wife in the sad bastard’s own house.
Ruth opens the door before lover boy knocks. She has been expecting him. Of course they are formal with each other. We do as we please but we’re not putting on a show.
Still, she has on her one pair of high heel shoes and red dress. Gunderson, like a bull, wants to charge but somehow manages to keep himself under control. There are different versions about what happened next. Some say that Gunderson stormed into the house but the version passed down to Cassie’s granddad has a more natural and believable feel to it. Ruth steps out of the house to get the mail. There, on the porch, the cuckold, murderous meatball confronts her. He doesn’t take into consideration that she is completely dressed, that her hair has not been mussed, that her lipstick has not been smudged, that she looks as cool as a cucumber. He sees what his shriveled ounce and a half paint bucket of brains tells him to see.
“Frankie and Johnny were lovers”, Cassie sang flatly under her breath.
“They thought, perhaps, that they were in love,” Bernard said, leaning back in his chair. His wispy silvery hair looked wilted, like tired slivers of paper about to disintegrate. The hand not clamped to the mug trembled. “Maybe most of us only think we’re in love. The real McCoy might be a pretty rare commodity. Love could very well be the illusion most of us cling to and I suppose, if looked at scientifically, it’s only an emotion created during the evolutionary process to help us pass along genetic material. William James believed that if we are to be free we must start by accepting the possibility of freedom. Perhaps the same is true for love. They thought they were in love, and if we accept the possibility of love then they were no matter what.”
She wasn’t sure that either freedom or love can exist simply because we believe they are possible. The story of Ruth and Gunderson had long ago run out of possibilities; and the old, she thought, totter down the short road that gets narrower every day until, at the end, all the choices we’ve made lead to the same result. When she was in college her roommate never tired of the same joke. Whenever Cassie asked her what she was going to do the plump redhead, a chemistry major, replied, “Get old, get sick and die.” Tom wasn’t old when he died and now she has bouts of worry that she won’t last a long time either. All I need, she has gotten into the habit of telling herself, is twenty years to see the kids through. And then? You buy a flashy car, drive too fast, drink too much, laugh at your own jokes or get on your knees and beg God, your “higher power”, The Force or dumb luck for a second chance.
“I know what you’ve been doing,” Gunderson says.
“You do?” she peeps, paling beneath her makeup.
Gunderson takes Ruth by the shoulders, actually lifts her off her feet as if she’s a child and then smashes her against the house, crushing the back of her head, breaking her neck and killing her instantly.
For a few seconds of silence Cassie feels in her gut the full moral horror of the worst crime a person can commit. Stolen money has been known to come back. The confession of truth can restore trust and repair a damaged friendship. One may apologize, make amends; but the delicate wheels, springs and gears of life cannot be reassembled by even the master watchmaker Himself.
“A woman is murdered every minute,” Cassie says, her mouth and throat dry. “And most of the time by the idiot she married.”
The old man seemed to loom above her like an avenging judge as he said, “and now the dénouement. Mister Brown suit creeps out of the house, stares in shock at the lifeless body, feels the blood drain from his head and in an instant of understanding so terrible he knows his mind will never be the same, wails, “Oh for Christ’s sake she wanted life insurance!”
“A salesman,” Cassie says.
“The archetype of every sexual joke in America,” he replies. “And Gunderson, broken like dropped porcelain, knows the truth, perhaps knew it all along. He falls to his knees, cradles the dead body of Ruth in his arms, and says the last words he will ever utter.”
“Now I know why you turn him into an Italian,” Cassie says. “He’s a tragic figure in an opera. So what does the oaf say?”
“My father, I remember, spread his arms, threw back his head and, in his most theatrical voice, cried, “Why was I born to destroy the only one who ever loved me?”
Cassie rubs her eyes. The words are thrust at her like the dark point of a sharp knife, making her flinch. She hunches her shoulders, preparing to shrug it off, but feels herself redden anyway.
“And so what’s the moral of the story?” She says, looking him in the eyes.
“Oh I don’t know if there’s a moral to any story,” Grandfather says, drawing himself back with a face that, for the first time, looks sleepy and slack. “I thought, when I was young, that the story had to do with a particular kind of man, that it had to do with circumstances beyond anyone’s control, a tragedy decreed by fate that had nothing to do with the wider human condition. I thought most of us-at least I thought I did- lived on a higher plane of existence. And yet I destroyed my first marriage by committing acts of infidelity. After two years of therapy I married Marta. I thought we were happy but I could not stop her slow descent into depression and when she was ill I treated her as if I had turned to stone, sitting by her bed, reading books to manage my own anxiety and feelings of helplessness.”
“Grandfather” Cassie said, aware that she had seldom called him by that title.
“And the truth is,” he said, holding up a hand as if to ward off a blow. “I wanted her to die. At the end I did.”
Cassie felt her blood sugar drop. She felt weak and light headed. Was the man incapable of love? Had she taken in a stranger who was all brains and no heart?
“Why?” She said. Her lips felt numb. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t want her to suffer anymore,” he said, letting a careless tear wind this way and that down the folds of his face. “She was withering away right in front of me. There is nothing lovely or romantic in that kind of death or, for that matter, any kind of death. I felt guilty because I didn’t have the courage to take her life. It bothers me to this day that I didn’t.”
“I need some sugar,” Cassie said, getting unsteadily to her feet. “You want a donut?”
“No,” he said. “Maybe more whiskey.”
Cassie sat back down, chewing a glazed old-fashioned donut she had plucked out of a long box. She felt like an actor having a nightmare about being in a play she hadn’t read. It was the kind of feeling she often had in moments like these. We make up life, she thought, as we go. Scripts are for the blockheads who cherish simple, stupid rules.
“Your story,” she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “That you didn’t kill the only woman who loved you…”
“A hell of a thing to feel,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said, wishing she hadn’t heard a word of what he had just said. It was the kind of unasked for honesty that always felt like a rock to the head. Wanting her not to suffer wasn’t the same as wanting her to die. Why do men, she thought, have to turn grief into a confession? Since we can’t control the world we’re to blame for every bad thing that happens? And the bad world always makes us do bad things that we’ll regret even if we don’t do them?
“We don’t want to see anyone we love in pain,” she said. “You were good for each other. I always thought the two of you should have been famous.”
The first time they met she had nearly been a teenager, visiting the famous ivy league university with her slightly awkward parents, feeling a bit like Dorothy in the land of Oz. She had found Grandfather, a tall lanky man with waxy skin and a hook nose, intimidating and somewhat repulsive. His second wife, Marta, was short and stocky with closely cropped, coal black hair and cold, sharp flinty eyes. She thought her stupid at the time but was astonished to learn, years later, that she had been in the presence of one of the greatest minds on the planet. Without using a computer or even a pad of paper, this brooding looking woman had solved, in her head, some of the greatest mathematical riddles belonging to a branch of physics known as string theory, a feat many scientists said should have earned her the Nobel Prize.
“I didn’t write enough books,” he said. “And anyway, I paled like everyone else next to Marta. Neither of us wanted fame. We liked our quiet life.”
“Did you know,” Cassie said, leaning over on her elbows. “That in high school I wanted to become a mathematician? I had, I suppose they were, romantic notions of being like Marta.”
“Why didn’t you?” he said, smiling just enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes.
“I majored in math for two years,” she said. “But then I got more interested in business. Practical side of me I suppose.”
“The practical side of human nature has its own romance,” he said, reaching out to pat the top of her hand.
Buster lay curled up on his kitchen bed, peacefully snoring. Can’t animals, even without language, sense the approach of death? she wondered. Do they feel its presence with a sense we don’t have? She had no premonition of Tom’s death. They had spent the last few hours of their life together in their store, talking to Rick Schofield about wine and beer for the annual Chamber of Commerce Oktoberfest. Tom complained of a headache behind his eyes, went home and died in bed from an undiagnosed astrocytoma tumor.
It was only late at night or early in the morning, when her mind refused to shut down, that she sat cross legged on the couch in the living room and let the past, a beggar always patiently tapping on the back door, in. This gave her the kind of comfort she knew she would regret later on. It was like the high she got from eating too much ice cream. Feelings of saturation gave way to feelings of emptiness, hunger and weakness. But she cannot revise the terms of this emotional contract. The beggar must be fed, and then allowed to fill his pockets before stealing away.
But for a few moments, while she imagines the sounds of her children breathing in their sleep, restless longings, like throbbing nerves, quiet. A color, or a scent, begins the process of reconstruction. If it is scent, it is of semi-sweet grass. On a summer day they are all in the backyard blissfully wearing nothing at all. She strokes his chest, brushes her lips against his, watching the children run, squealing and pink as fish, through the sprinkler.
The sun makes her drowsy, she is nearly asleep, and her thoughts, as close as they can come to forming herself physically, are of stopping the gears of time that are in everything, of staying in this perfectly happy and peaceful moment forever.
She gets off the couch to get a glass of ice water. Once, in only her night dress, she stood barefoot on the porch and let rain pelt her skin and hair. In bed she lets her hand slip between her legs but stops herself. If she is going to do that it will be while she is asleep, when Tom makes one of his rare nocturnal visits.
The store and the kids keep her busy night and day. She doesn’t think of herself as a lonely person and yet there are times during even the most hectic moments of stress and strain when an acute awareness of loss hollows her out, when she feels utterly drained, a burned out wreck going through the motions in order to prove to the world and to herself that she can go through the motions.
Two years after Tom’s death, while video chatting with Bernard, she opened up to him about how it felt to raise two small children on her own. He talked about his own loneliness after Marta’s death, and before long he had moved in.
Perhaps it had been a faulty assumption all along that bringing the old man in to live with her would forge bonds, useful in their different ways, to both of them. Everyone warned her that he was too old, too fragile and that she would end up taking care of an invalid. True, the retired professor wasn’t usually a fountain of good cheer. He was often bleak and grumpy, sometimes silent and aloof for days. Her own father, a gentle, soft spoken man who worked all day managing the legal affairs of a small city and who tended to shy away from ideas, looked at her with near horror in his big brown eyes when she told him of her plans. But Bernard, for a man who ate bacon every morning, drank coffee all day and had sucked on a pipe half his life, proved remarkably strong despite a growing list of health problems.
They were strangers who sometimes became good friends. If he hadn’t quite become a second father she hadn’t quite become a second daughter; but neither of them expected such transformations to occur anyway. They were content to see what would happen, like gamblers who had made a modest bet.
Now, as she sat in the clinic looking down at Buster, she felt the shame of giving into pressures she should have had the strength to resist. But the old man had persuaded her, using what the doctor had said to crumble what few defenses she had left. There was no hope of a miracle cure; and what was the point of needless suffering? Better to be Buster, she thought. The only one who didn’t know what was about to happen. She reached into her purse, took out one of her blue “happy pills”, and then swallowed it while no one was looking.
“Good bye, Buster,” Grandfather said, reaching down to pat the dog’s head. “You’re a good old dog you are.”
Forty-five minutes later it was over. She embraced her children, dried their wet, swollen eyes and then lifted the limp body of Buster onto the front seat, where he immediately fell asleep and began to snore.
“Granddaddy’s going to heaven,” Josh said, so softly that she didn’t know if he was talking to his sister or to himself.
Cassie climbed in, closed the door and then turned around to look at her children.
“Hey,” she said, “We’ll get to see Granddad in his new home. Now who wants ice cream?”
Posted by james-hazard
at 8:01 PM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 6 March 2013 8:06 PM PST
Wednesday, 29 August 2012
Now Playing: Reprieve
Haven’t you awakened one morning
Close to sobs or a scream,
Heaving a sigh of relief
Oh! It was just a dream.
But then you remember your doctor
Said to expect the worst
Your job may soon be history
And rent is due on the first.
The State is on the verge of collapse
And even the weather’s not right
And why can’t you talk to your mother
Without getting into a fight?
At the end of the day you’re exhausted
Worn out by desperate scheming
Let it go as you crawl into bedFor soon you will be dreaming.
Posted by james-hazard
at 11:36 AM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2012 11:39 AM PDT
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Now Playing: Going Once, Going Twice
Sid Holloway went to bed before the evening news came on, something he almost never did. It was only Wednesday but the week felt as if it had dragged on for a year. He couldn’t remember feeling so rotten. His head throbbed and his lungs worked as if they had been wrapped in cellophane. He felt like a man floating in sick, stagnant sea water.
I’m only sixty-two, he thought as he gingerly climbed into bed wearing a faded set of striped pajamas. What’s it going to be like when I’m seventy-two?
He rolled onto his right side and then tucked his knees up to his chest even though it pained his knees; but it was the position he automatically assumed when ill. Lights flashed like the after glow of fireworks in his head and he felt as if he were spinning. He hugged himself and took small breaths. Stars burst with more energy than he possessed and then disappeared. Every muscle, begging unmercifully for attention, ached. After what seemed like hours he grew tired, relaxed and then fell asleep.
At a quarter past midnight, as the moon peeped through his kitchen windows, as Australians sat down for lunch, as the air played faint melodies on the hollow sticks of a neighbor’s bamboo wind chime, the heart that had worked without complaint for 62 years, 4 months and 10 days stopped beating faster than a broken drum, and Sid Holloway died almost immediately.
In the morning he heard the coffee machine, which he kept set to start brewing at 6:15, but could not smell the familiar aroma of his morning cup. His headache was gone and his joints didn’t hurt but that was because, he realized with alarm amounting to panic, he didn’t feel anything at all. Everything had gone numb-so numb that he couldn’t even feel the pins and needles of arms and legs gone asleep.
He padded unsteadily to the bathroom, fumbled for the light, and then stared aghast at himself in the mirror. When he failed to find a pulse or feel the beating of his heart, he walked back to bed, sat down and then realized what was even worse. He had stopped breathing.
I should be dead, he thought. Oh hell, what am I saying? I am dead.
This was a dilemma. What should he do now? He considered calling 911 but what could he say to the operator? I’m dead, can you please send someone to pick me up? And what would his friends and the neighbors say? It was hard enough getting anyone to come over on Christmas.
As crazy as it seemed even to him, he found himself getting dressed for work. He shaved-more out of habit than for appearance-and then trudged into the kitchen for his usual coffee and toast. But he didn’t eat or drink. What was the point? He didn’t feel hungry or thirsty anyway. He had to get on the road before traffic got heavy. After filling his lungs with air he sighed, grabbed his keys and then headed for the door.
Inside his black Audi Sedan Sid paused before turning the key in the ignition. Was there a law against driving while dead? He thought about this for so long that the garage light went out. Instead of opening the door with the remote control he sat in total darkness.
This is what it should be like to be dead, he thought. No light, no sound.
It is one thing to think that one is dead; quite another thing to really believe it. Sid had the thought that he was dead, but down deep he really believed that something had come over him and that eventually he would shake it off. Feeling would return and he would become aware once more of his own respiration and heart beat. Like most people, he thought of himself as a kind of mysterious being inhabiting a body-the world peeking at itself through a lens of flesh. Now he felt absolutely buried in flesh, as if he had been wrapped in layer after layer of moist toilet paper. But surely it would wear off. The dead, after all, don’t get up and walk around. Only crazy Hollywood directors come up with those ideas.
Telling himself that he would go to the doctor if he didn’t return to normal after a few hours, he opened the garage door with the remote, turned the engine on and then backed the car out. He drove without turning on the radio, wanting quiet so that he could think.
It could be a brain tumor, he thought. Or a stroke. No, one side wouldn’t work and I’d be confused. Maybe a virus. Call the doctor at nine as soon as the office is open. Should have stayed home. What if I pass out while driving? Feel funny, pull over and stop the car. At least I don’t have to take the freeway. Hold on, Sid. Almost there. Steady, old boy. Steady, steady.
The car seemed to float above the road. A trash truck, flashing red lights, slowed down ahead of him but he gracefully maneuvered around it. The streets were dark, just as they always were this time of year in the morning. There were only a few other, less expensive cars on the road, and that was usual, too.
But I’m dead and driving to work, Sid thought, chuckling soundlessly since his lungs were empty. I wonder what the garbage men would think about that. Hey Ed, you see a corpse just drive by?
He parked the Audi in the small lot behind the office, shut the engine off and congratulated himself for handling the car so well in such a weird state. Well, it was a great car, and he had often thought that it nearly drove itself. As he had often said, it pays to buy the best.
For a few minutes he stood in front of the door to Sea Cliff Property Management, staring thoughtfully at the white lettering on clean, clear glass. Fifty miles or so from the ocean, but his wife Sheila had the idea of calling the company Sea Cliff because it conjured up pleasant images of exotic landscapes, warm, salty breezes and happy, suntanned people living in luxury. It had seemed silly to him then and even sillier now, but he had always been eager to make her happy. And who knows? The business had done well for the last 32 years and maybe the name had helped.
Sid stood in front of the door feeling neither warm nor cold. He felt the weight of his clothes, the pressure of gravity and the way his shoes and wedding ring felt tighter than usual; but that wasn’t enough to physically convince him that he was really there, key in hand, a man occupying real space and not a phantom about to fade away like an idea in someone else’s mind. Because he didn’t feel real nothing around him seemed real; and he wondered if he was at the right place. Could he make it vanish by making a wish? Was he something only held together by thoughts? No one had seen him so far. Would they?
He looked again at the window, at the words Payroll and Mortgage, and wondered if all the numbers he had added up for so many years really represented anything. Decade after decade he had relished working on the kind of forms other people dreaded. At parties, when he spoke to strangers about what he did for a living, he could always tell, by the look in their eyes, that what they wanted to say was, “I’d be bored to death.” A woman once told him that if she had to work with numbers all day she would throw herself off a bridge.
But he had always enjoyed the work, knowing how much he helped those who placed their trust and confidence in him. The business had always been enjoyable if for no other reason than it gave him a sense of order, and the office was always warm and inviting. Now, as he looked through the glass, it seemed cold and empty, a place far removed from the hum and deep complexity of life outside of glass, screens, charts and reports.
He went to his office, closed the door and then sat down at his desk without turning on the lights or his computer. It was only then that he became aware that he had forgotten to put on his watch. A day had never gone by without the presence of a watch. Mechanical time keepers, it seemed to him, had always regulated every aspect of his life, from when he got up, ate, worked and went to bed. Perhaps time had ceased to exist. Life can be broken down into discrete, measurable parts moving through cycles of duration. Death, on the other hand, is an empty stillness so final and complete that no time can measure where it begins or ends. He had once heard death described as the infinitely small point of nothingness at the center of everything.
But I can’t be really dead, he thought as he sat without his watch in his dark office. It’s, it’s, it’s too, too ridiculous.
A minute or an hour passed. He sat quietly, looking with unblinking eyes at the blank screen of the computer. He was aware of no physical sensation other than a weight and pressure that made him feel huge, as if he had grown the size of the Hindenburg. Outside cars chugged wearily uphill, and a group of noisy children walking to school passed the office sounding like a flock of birds. He clapped his hands and then slapped his face but didn’t feel the slightest sting or tingle.
He heard Mary Aaron clatter into the office on her stiletto high heels, heard her as she snapped on the lights and then set her paper cup of coffee down. Her swivel chair squeaked, a drawer opened, papers rustled uneasily and her desktop computer hummed to life. She still had the light, trim body of an athletic teenager but in the last few years her face had grown worn and lined. He pictured her scanning the screen to see where the market was heading and the price of everything, from corn to a barrel of oil. He could almost see numbers, arranged in columns and plotted in graphs, flashing on the screen and then flowing through the thick bundle of nerves behind her eyes.
Her swivel chair squeaked, creaked and then, like an animal sensing danger, grew quiet. Something wasn’t right. Stiletto high heels tapped and a bracelet jangled toward his door. He debated hiding under his desk but decided to stay where he was. His only small hope, tiny as a speck of dust orbiting Jupiter, was that she would see his condition differently and thus turn everything around; but just like a speck of dust, it was too small to grasp.
When his door swung open the light from the front office did not hurt his eyes. He saw her shape, then her face when she switched the lights in his office on. Her mouth formed an O, she clutched her chest and then clattered and jangled backward.
“Sid,” she said. “I didn’t know you were here. Are you all right?”
He drew in a breath but said nothing. Her short hair was the color of wheat and honey. She had on a tan skirt with flecks of green in it that reminded him of a hunting jacket his father once wore. Her white blouse was open at the neck, revealing a thin gold chain on pale skin that had started to loosen and sag. Her faint blue eyes, which he always thought gave her an icy look, bore into him with wide, unblinking alarm.
Before he could say anything she came up to him with tiny, quick steps that made him think of a pigeon going after a crust of bread. She put her hand on his forehead and then drew back. Her pale skin turned paler.
“You’re cold as ice,” she said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Sid said. He looked at the little gold coins on her bracelet. They twitched and trembled, animated by the first burst of adrenaline starting to flow into her veins.
“What?” she said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Sid repeated. “I’m numb all over.”
“Sid,” she said, starting to turn around. “Stay there. Don’t move. I’m calling an ambulance.”
He had no intention of leaving but wanted to see if he could still stand up, and so he did. Rising into the air like the doomed German airship, he hovered over the floor and then moved toward the window. There was only one window in his office. In all the years he had worked there he had never stood where he stood now to look through it. He saw the parking lot, his car, a wooden fence and a strip of blue sky. But there was more to look at, he realized. The parking lot was paved with asphalt, a mixture of black and gray, bumpy, rocky and cracked. A few weeds grew in the cracks in stubborn, naked defiance. The fence was splintery and as gap-toothed as a kid’s mouth. A strand of ivy dipped over the upper right corner of the window. He wondered if it liked the glass, or if it wanted to see in as much as he wanted to see out. It seemed that everything he saw was the expression of one thing he could not name or see. The whole world, he thought, right there and right here.
The paramedics showed up in less than a minute. Both men, young, lean and in their twenties, they walked briskly toward Sid with the open, friendly expression of salesmen or hotel clerks.
“Mister Holloway,” one of the paramedics, the slightly taller of the two who had a crew cut, said. “How are you, sir?”
Sid drew in a breath.
“Don’t feel anything,” he said.
Greg and Tyler, as he learned by their name tags, put their equipment down and set to work. Within minutes their open, cheery expression changed; and by the time they had finished they looked like men who had found themselves in the middle of a horror film.
Sid had seen that expression before. As Greg paced back and forth in the front office talking into his two-way radio to a doctor, he found himself thinking about the last camping trip he had taken with Sheila.
They had driven up to Angeles National Forest in the middle of July. The heat below had been suffocating but the forest was cool, the air bone dry. Sheila put up the tent while he unloaded the car. They sat across from each other at the heavily knife marked table, sipped beer from bottles and munched on trail mix, cheese, pita bread and hummus. Kids at another campsite played rock music but they always expected that sort of thing. It didn’t spoil the feel of the sun through the trees, the smell of smoke and food cooking on camp stoves, the song of doves and flycatchers. They held hands and looked at each other without talking. She wore hiking boots, shorts that came down to her knees and a yellow t-shirt small enough, he thought, to fit an adolescent. At fifty she didn’t have an ache, pain, wrinkle or one grey hair on her head. Her face was rose tinted, heart shaped and graced by a perpetual smile. He had never known her to be petty, mean, unforgiving or ill-tempered even under the most trying circumstances; and all at once it struck him that the woman sitting across from him was perfect. Later, he often wished that he had told her that.
After dinner he took the flashlight and went to the latrine. He had the feeling, on walking back, that he had set off in the wrong direction, and blamed his confusion on too many beers. Should he have turned right or left at the door? Every direction looked the same. He decided to return to the latrine but then, moving perhaps too quickly in the dark, stumbled over a rock, lost his balance and fell. A small black and white cat ambled over to him.
Allergic to cats, he told the animal to “shoo,” but then discovered to his horror that the cat before him wasn’t a cat; and before he had time to react the vilest smelling liquid he had ever smelled in his life arced over him.
The odor almost blinded him. He wondered if this is how people feel when their clothes catch fire. For what seemed like hours he stumbled along, trying to breathe through his mouth without gagging. He lurched into the campsite but it wasn’t their campsite. A man with a fuzzy red beard, a woman holding firewood and two little girls looked at him as if he were Bigfoot. It was the same look as the paramedics.
The next day they drove home. He sat in the backseat wearing nothing but a towel. Sheila held the wheel in one hand while pressing a washcloth soaked in orange soda over her mouth. She complained of feeling sick but couldn’t stop laughing.
Two years later their son, Eric, drove home one night with his girlfriend. Stopping the car and then getting out to help an injured animal, he was struck by another car and died on the way to the hospital. The wounded animal, it turned out, had been part of a cardboard box. A star football player in high school who was never injured, he went on to serve six years in the Marine Corps without so much as a scratch. He was so gracefully built and good looking that Sid used to joke with Sheila that she must have slept one night with someone else. Everyone adored him, everything came so easily to him and yet he was the kindest boy and the gentlest man Sid had ever known. He could never answer the question of how that was possible. In two years his son would have earned his PhD. Then marriage, a good job, children. And all of it thrown away like the tattered remains of a cardboard box.
Not long after the death of their son-it seemed like months rather than years-a routine visit to the doctor gave their marriage its final blow. A lump under the right arm was found. He tried all he could to reassure her, to persuade her that the disease could be faced, fought against and defeated. But she had no fight within her. Grief, like a stone, carried her down. In less than a year, gray and as withered as a woman twice her age, she died. He held her hands and watched her go. The pain of losing her gripped him from the inside like fingers of knives, and he could only think, “Now I’m alone.”
The last surprise of his life, or existence, was the arrival of the astronauts. At least, in their protective suits, they looked like astronauts. Two of them entered his office but only one spoke.
Sid took a breath and then said, “That would be me.”
“My name is Doctor Swinson,” the astronaut said. “We need to examine you.”
“Yes,” Sid said. “Of course.”
Twenty minutes later Sid sat in the back of a large white van. Men in protective suits who acted with solemn military precision sat with him. No one spoke. The drive was so long that Sid began to wonder if they were still in California. The windows were coated with a plastic film that made it difficult to see where they were. He began to think that maybe they weren’t really going anywhere, that they were in fact just going in circles.
Sid closed his eyes once. He didn’t fall asleep and yet he had what felt like a dream. He stood in the living room of a house that didn’t seem familiar. Sheila was next to him although he couldn’t see her. The van stopped and he opened his eyes. Footsteps approached the van as the doors slid open. Wherever they were, they had arrived.
The astronauts put him in a wheelchair and then rolled him into an elevator large enough to park a car in. Then they rolled him into a room that looked like an orange plastic cube, cut off his pants, shirt and underwear, removed his shoes and socks and then gave him paper blue clothes to wear.
“Wait here, Mister Holloway,” one of them said.
Sid shrugged. What else was he going to do, go out for a dinner and a show?
For the next several hours astronauts came in and out, poking him here, poking him there, snipping his hair, drawing blood from his legs, scraping his skin and swabbing his mouth.
There was no clock in the room and Sid began to wonder if it was still the same day. Finally Dr. Swinson came in to talk to him.
Dr. Swinson, Sid realized, was a woman. He peered into her face mask and saw a young face, green eyes and short red hair.
“Mister Holloway,” she said.
“Call me Sid,” Sid said.
“Sid,” she said after a long pause. “I’m afraid the news isn’t good.”
“News never is,” Sid said.
“What I mean,” she said. “Is that your condition…”
“Am I dead?” Sid said.
“I,” Dr. Swinson said. “I don’t know quite how to answer that. All we know is that you are not the only one in your, in your condition. Cases have been found in other countries but, fortunately, not many. We don’t know yet what it is exactly. You may be alive but alive in a way we don’t understand. All we know is the trajectory of the condition or disease. Decomposition sets in and while not painful all I can say from what I’ve learned is that it is, it’s unpleasant. There is no cure but there is something we can do to put a quick end to it. It’s up to you, of course.”
Sid lay on his back, head turned to one side so that he could look at the machines they had hooked him up to. No activity showed on any of the monitors. He had difficulty focusing his eyes and didn’t know if he could control his movements any longer. Out of body, he thought. I’m the faint signal of brain waves in space. Driving a car now would have been impossible, he knew. His only anxiety was that he was evacuating his bowels or urinating in front of Dr. Swinson. Other than that, he was amazed at how calm he felt.
“Well,” he said after struggling to draw a breath. “I think we should end it, don’t you?”
Dr. Swinson only nodded.
“Can I,” Sid said, trying to prop himself up on his elbows and then giving up. “Ask you something?”
“Of course,” she said, moving closer.
“What,” he said. “Is your first name?”
“Grace,” she said.
“And are you,” Sid said. “Are you married, Grace?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “To another doctor.”
“Two boys,” she said. “Two and three and a half.”
“I had a boy,” Sid said. He couldn’t tell if he was moving his lips and wondered how much longer she could understand him.
To his relief she nodded and then said, “I know.”
“Wonderful to have kids,” Sid said. “We would have had more but couldn’t.”
“Sid,” Grace said, stepping closer and putting her hand on his arm. “There are a lot of papers to sign. We should get it done now.”
“Will you stay with me, Grace?” he said.
“I will, Sid,” she said. “I’ll be right here.”
He thought he signed, with Grace’s help, more papers than most people have to wade through to buy a house. When it was all done astronauts came in to roll him on his side. At that precise moment Sid knew that it was all a dream. It had to be. He was not in a state of terror and everything was moving too fast. In real life he wouldn’t be destroyed like a rabid dog. No, it had to be a dream, the weirdest, most terrible dream of his life; and this sudden realization filled him with the hope, bright and pure as starlight, that the death of his son and wife was part of the dream, too, and that he would see them again when he awakened.
And so as he felt the pressure of the needle on the back of his head he smiled, wanting to look serene and happy, for he was neither sad now nor in the least afraid.
Copyright 2012 James Hazard
La Verne, California
Posted by james-hazard
at 6:32 PM PST
Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2012 6:42 PM PST
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