Sunday, September 14, 2014
I lay on the floor and gasped for breath. The pain was incredible, intense, and it was getting worse. I rolled over and there was a woman and she was holding a knife. “You won’t believe where we are,” she said, “this is for the better, you have to trust me.” And I felt my life ebbing away. There was a bright white stabbing light that eclipsed everything in the world, even the pain of dying, and I died.
“Do you know where we were last time?” I asked. She was sitting beside me in a dark room. I had no idea where we were or what was happening.
“I don’t know where we are now” she replied.
“I think we’re in America.” I said. “Listen.” There was the sound of voices. Men were shouting. I wanted to get up and walk but I didn’t know where to walk to or where I was walking from, either. But the voices were not getting closer and they did sound American.
“Does it matter?” She asked. “Does anything matter anymore?”
“How many times can you remember?” I asked in the darkness. I groped for her hand, found it, and she clutched my hand as if it were the only thing she knew.
“This is the third time, I think.” She said.
“I remember you killing me.” And I hoped I didn’t sound bitter.
“It was a terrible place, there were people dying everywhere, like there was a plague.” She began to sob as quietly as anyone could. “You were already sick. I had to know if killing you would end it. You were already dying.”
There was a spot of light high above us and for a moment or two I feared it was The Light but it turned into a somewhat larger light and I realized we were in a giant building, a stadium maybe, and there was a hole in the roof. Time passed, an hour, maybe two, and I knew we would have to move. Thirst, hunger, our bodily functions, or something else would propel us to movement to somewhere else.
“Let’s go” I said.
“Okay, okay” she replied and allowed me to help her stand.
We walked slowly, feeling our way along, and we discovered we were on a playing field, and we found the steps up. We counted them, in case we had to go back down we would know how any there were, and we had to retreat when we found our way blocked by some sort of steel gate. We could see light, as if there was some other gate beyond that one, but it filled the concrete tunnel and we could not climb it or go around it. We went back to the field and found another tunnel at ground level and finally, we heard the sound of someone talking on a phone. We followed the voice and found a door. We hammered on it and yelled and a man came to the door. He was as surprised to see us as we were that he actually spoke English, and didn’t seem out of the ordinary. We made up a story about wanting to have sex on the field and he led us out of the stadium. The sun was just going down.
“When’s the next game” she suddenly asked the man.
“Next Thursday night,” he replied, “the Eagles.”
“Who’s their quarterback?” She asked.
“Foles” the man answered.
“Thanks” she said and we went out into the night.
“It’s America, and it’s 2014.” She told me, “Foles is the Eagles quarterback.
“Okay.” I said because I had no idea what else to say.
We walked along the sidewalk and discovered I had a wallet, and she was carrying a purse. “This purse sucks” she joked and for the first time since it began we both laughed, a little. There were bars and restaurants but neither of us was hungry yet. I was tired and asked if she was but no, we both seemed physically fit. We stopped at a bar, just to get off the street and as the bartender made out drinks we looked at one another in the mirror behind the bar. It wasn’t me and I wondered how she looked to herself. I wondered if someone would walk in and recognize one of us. Neither of us wore a ring. We drank and didn’t talk and waited but nothing happened.
“Let’s kill ourselves,” she suggested and I thought that was as good an idea as any.
There was a river near the bar and a huge bridge spanned it. “Jumper?” she asked.
“Yeah, if the fall doesn’t get us outright then we’ll drown” I said.
“Good thinking…,” she stopped. “We should at least have names. Do you remember your name? My name? Anything?” At that moment we both looked up and realized we were stopped in front of the Hilton. It was a very tall building. Without a word we both walked in. It was odd using a credit card that I didn’t have to worry about paying off. We got a room very close to the top floor, twenty-seven stories and that would do it. We rode the elevator up to the room without speaking and she waited for me to open the door. “I want to shower.” She said and she started taking her clothes off. “Please don’t talk about it, okay.” She turned around and kissed me.
“I think this is what got us in trouble to begin with” I said in the half light of the room. The night had ebbed away without incident. Our lovemaking was frantic, passionate, with each of us knowing it could end instantly, painfully, at any second. There was a freedom in knowing the end was there, just a few seconds, or even hours away. We had nothing to lose, not even our own lives, and there was nothing left to do but live and then to die.
“Yeah, I think so too, but I wanted to feel human again.” She sat up. “Look through your wallet. Let’s find out who we are.”
I was a welder, a certified welder, named Walter Gross, aged 43, and I lived in Dallas. She was a woman named Wanda Warden and she lived here in Austin. She was 30. Her cellphone was filled with photos of children, people who all resembled one another, and tears began forming. “What if we kill her? Oh, god, what if we’ve already killed her?”
“I don’t know how to weld.” And that was all that really needed to be said. “There was no way we could slip into the lives we had invaded, was there?”
“I have to find my kids” she said and lay down again. “I wonder if he’s around, if we could find him, and find out what in the hell started all of this.”
We lay in silence and I wondered what would happen if we just waited it out. Would he kill himself? What if he found himself in a great life, rich and powerful, would he try to stay? What if he returned as an infant, unable to kill himself? I had no idea how old I was or how old she really was. “One more time and then we have to go.” She said.
We stood on the balcony and I helped her over the rail. We were both nude, she wanted to go like that and we held hands, my left in her right, with right hand and her left hanging onto the rail. Letting go was surprisingly easy and our timing was perfect, we fell into the night and I saw a man on the balcony three floors below our room, his eyes and mine met for a second, and then we sped downward. It takes a long time to fall and she turned to say, “I think wherever we were, I was in love with you.” And I started to tell her that I knew I loved her, but then the light, that terrible, terrible light.
I started walking towards the book store that one that’s in the strip mall and there she was, sitting with her back against the front of the store. They’ve made it look like stone but it’s just sheets of prefabricated concrete that goes up like a jigsaw puzzle without any challenge. For a second I thought she might be homeless or deranged but the closer I got to her the more I realized that I knew this woman. I was an odd sensation; literally, the closer I got to her the more I knew her. Finally I bent down on one knee and I was going to ask her if she was okay but I said, “Are you okay, baby?” And she looked at me and said, “How in the fuck could I be?”
I knew things had gone horribly, horribly, wrong but I had no idea, really, who she was, or what had happened.
There was an overweight woman in the parking lot that was standing beside her car, throwing up and gasping. She was making this weird noise as if she were coming apart inside and each time she heaved the noise got worse. The woman sitting with her back to the wall put her hand on my leg and said, “That’s him,” and she started crying. I sat down beside her and she moved away, not a foot but just enough to keep some space. “Don’t do this to him,” she said.
I watched as the women in the parking lot tried to catch her breath and I wondered if I should call 9-1-1, but something wasn’t right. The sky wasn’t the same color it should have been and the air felt different. “As long as we’re not touching I think we’re okay,” said the woman sitting next to me, “but that’s just a theory. He told me we had to keep from touching one another and things would sort themselves out. He doesn’t have any fucking idea what he’s talking about. He never does. I mean, come on, how in the hell would he know, look at him.” She pointed at the woman in the parking lot who had gone down to all four and was trying to hide her head in her hands.
“Who is that?” I asked and I didn’t even know who I was. My hands were the hands of a stranger and I stood up and walked over to the window of the book store and didn’t recognize myself. I was different, totally different. There wasn’t anything I recognized as me. I went back over to the woman and asked again, “Who is that?”
“That’s my husband,” she said and she started crying. “What happens if one of us died here? Will that stop this?”
“What’s happening to us? Who are you? Who am I?” I sat down again and watched the large woman coming apart in the parking lot. People were beginning to notice here. There was a man on a cell phone who was trying to help her.
“Who gives a shit who you are?” the woman’s voice rose through the tears and I wondered if she felt as insane as I did. “I have two kids. Where in the hell are they?”
“I…I…I don’t know who you are or who your kids are, do I?” This was all I could say. I felt a connection to her, I felt as if I cared about her and she cared about me, but I had no idea who she was or who I was or how we got here.
“Do you remember the last time we were together?” She asked and as soon as the words left her lips I had this vision of being with her, both of us nude, but it wasn’t this woman and it wasn’t who I was at this moment. It was me, as I remembered me, and it was…not her.
“Yeah, something happened.” I did remember things but it was like seeing cards tossed out of the window of a car ahead of me in the dark. I couldn’t see details or anything like that at all. I just knew something had happened. “We were running, we went into a building then, and then, and there was, a light, some sort of light, and we fell.” I stopped talking and felt very sick. This wasn’t my life. This was something entirely different. “How did this happen? Do you know?”
She was crying again and just shook her head. She took her hands and ran them through her hair, pulling it hard. I had no idea what to do. The sound of an ambulance siren cut through the air. I stood up and looked around. A small crowd was forming around the woman in the parking lot. A half dozen people or so was watching her lie on the ground and heave. Animal sounds were coming from her now, like a wounded creature that knew the end was near.
“Get up, let’s get away from here.” I told her and I didn’t really want her to come with me but to my surprise she stood up.
“And go where?” she asked.
“I have no idea.” I looked in my pockets and found the keys to a vehicle of some sort, maybe a truck. I checked and found I had a wallet. The driver’s license had a photo on it that looked like the person who looked back at me from the window. There was an address on it. “Let’s just start moving and maybe something will shift us back to where we were and who we were.” That sounded good. Motion was better than non-motion. Something was better than nothing. “Okay?”
“Okay” she allowed me to put my hand on her arm and I realized that I had no idea which direction to go.
“I came from this direction so let’s go where I came from.” We started walking back into the parking lot but this led us to where the paramedics were trying to load the woman onto a gurney. She thrashed and moaned and then started screaming as she saw us. “Don’t touch! Don’t touch! Don’t touch!” she screamed.
We walked past her and neither of us looked. I could hear her heavy rasping breath in the air and her palm smashing into the pavement. I knew this was not her. This wasn’t her body. I knew she was someone else but so was I. I took out the keys and hit the button on the fob and a red truck’s lights flashed and there were two beeps. I hit it again to open the passenger side door and the woman allowed me to guide her into the truck and she let me put the seat belt on her. I got in and looked at her.
“What do I call you?’ I asked. “Look,” I dug out my wallet, “I think my name is Steve, okay, what do I call you?”
Before she could answer there was a high keening noise as if the siren had gotten stuck and was overloading itself.
“Look!” she said and where the ambulance was there was a white spot of light, too bright to be seen easily and even when I shut my eyes they still hurt.
“I think I’m blind,” she said.
But it didn’t matter. The light got brighter and brighter until even with my eyes closed it hurt like hell. I screamed.
And then I woke up.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Sunday, September 7, 2014
There was a wreck near Exit Sixteen and I was trapped. I could see the blue lights ahead of me but behind me everyone had stacked up like cordwood for as far back as two traffic lights. People had pulled into the middle of the intersections trying to make the lights and had gotten stuck there, unable to go left or right, backwards or forwards. The intersections were blocked now and who knows how far from the scene of the wreck people were sitting and waiting, trying to change lanes if someone pulled forward five feet and every third person angrily blowing their horns because the person ahead of them did not move up five feet when given a chance.
So here’s this guy, who must have been pushing three hundred pounds or so, he gets out of his car, looking all the world like a turtle trying to right itself after being flipped over on its back, and he slams the door. They don’t make clothes to fit people like this. He couldn’t buy a shirt big enough to go over his belly without dressing in maternity wear. He waddles away from his car trying to pull his pants up, huffing and puffing, and odd thoughts began to form in my head as they are wont to do whenever my mind turns to writing.
Suppose that far away on some deserted island a woman found a bottle with a genie in it. No, that won’t do, this is the digital age, after all, suppose while out on a spacewalk, a female crew member was listening in as her all male colleges were discussing her bra size. Someone forgot to turn a microphone off or, as she suspects, one of them left it on with intent. So in space she discovers a tiny spacecraft lodged in the AE-35 Unit (I am impressed with myself for remembering that without Google’s help) and she frees the spacecraft. A tiny alien appears and tells her that because she help his race without any hope of being rewarded her fondest wish will be granted. ( yeah, they can change reality but get stuck on an antenna, I know, I know) Without saying a word she’s left alone and suddenly all hell breaks loose.
From one end of the earth to the other, from pole to pole and everywhere in between, men are as pregnant as they look. Our friend at Exit Sixteen, who is three months overdue, goes into labor immediately. Certain Presidential hopefuls drop in their tracks as the babies begin their migration. Oh, and lacking a birth canal, let’s also suppose that the path the newborns must take is directly through the urethras of the men. That’s right, short of a surgical procedure, the babies, some of them big enough to be twenty pounds, are going to have to exit through the penis.
Ah, roger that Houston, that’s one pissed off female astronaut, over.
All over America, fat men writhe in agony as their dead weight becomes living flesh. The abortion debate has suddenly become a moot point. Assembly line abortions open up overnight as millions of unwanted, unplanned, accidental and unexplained pregnancies threaten the health of men everywhere. So what happens next? Surely, as the looming deadlines approach, some men will choose life. What to do with millions of motherless babies? How will men deal with having infants, some of them quite large, all of them hungry, and very few men, regrettably not fewer, have the attributes that would help feed newborns? Public breastfeeding would be as common as urinating in public for men.
So the first thing someone would do is DNA test and lo! The babies aren’t human! So suddenly there are millions of truly illegal aliens in America. Public assistance to aliens would be illegal, right? I mean, we can’t have taxpayers’ money going to feed and take care of aliens, can we? Imagine the struggles of single fathers and their alien babies as they discover that society looks down upon them because it is their own fault they got in this condition.
What you would see is free gym memberships, free health clinics, and the death of fast food in America. The Big Mac would be as illegal as crack. Anything that might cause a man to put on a few extra pounds would be treated the same as a rattlesnake in a daycare center. Support groups for these overburdened men would pop up like mushrooms and there would be a national movement to change every law on the books to make sure that free babysitters came with every salary and no child would be left behind, really this time, we mean exactly that.
But short of some female astronaut freeing an alien spaceship and changing the way America views childbirth overnight, I wouldn’t bet on any of this happening for women anytime soon, or for their children. Mostly, when single parents are spoken about what’s really being discussed are single mothers. What we are really doing here is absolving men for their part in the reproductive process as if they are slaves to their penises and cannot be held libel for whatever that thing gets them into.
The fat guy gets back in his car and the traffic jam eases forward. As I pull out from under the overpass I glance skyward; somewhere up there, I hope there’s a pissed off female astronaut. I better hit the gym.
Holding the machine gun was one of the perks of the job if you could call it a perk and if you could call it a job. Billy Lee Williams had gotten himself fired for trying to take down the upstairs church annex with it so that’s how I got his job. The machine gun was really a museum piece without a museum for it to go to so it had been assigned to the Shepherd Police Department back when such things were legal. One of the guys in World War Two had brought it home with him somehow and it had sat in the police department’s store room collecting dust since.
Billy wasn’t really that right in the head which is why they hired him to begin with. Doctor Williams wanted his boy to have a job and even at forty-seven Billy was just an older kid. What to do about the upstairs church annex had been the topic of conversation since one of the struts had cracked. Long before it had been a church the building had housed a turpentine plant and they had a big tank set up on a steel frame right beside the railroad tracks. Why anyone would think to build a church in the turpentine factory was one thing but building an annex on that steel frame was another. It was quite an engineering feat to behold and Scott Adamson, who was a marvel at building, made it look quite sharp. But the annex was much higher than the church downstairs and the steps up to it were steep. Back when there were a lot of people in Shepherd, well, at least more than there is now, they needed the room. Folks drifted off, people moved away, and then Reverend Pierce built that nice prefab metal church just outside town, away from the railroad yet, and that sealed it.
And even the railroad was weird in Shepherd. The water tank once served as the location where the town’s fire truck filled up, when it had one, so the railroad let Shepherd build a road around the track. That mean when the railroad used the spur line they had to make sure there wasn’t a car or a truck on that road. They still use that spur line to shuffle the cars around coming out of Downing so they nixed the idea of just pulling the annex down because it would fall on the tracks.
Billy thought to bring the issue to an end by opening up on the steel struts with the machine gun. Another fifty rounds and he might have, too. He put a dozen holes in one of them, nicely placed, and another five or six in the other before the gun jammed and the police got there. Everyone was lucky none of the rounds hit anything or anybody out there, but one of them did hit the water tower. It made a dent but it didn’t break through. That’s how I got the job. I told them I’d go up and look if they’d give me Billy’s job and they did.
Comes a time in life when a man wants to just coast to the end. I knew I could put ten years in with Shepherd and then hit sixty-two. I had a check from the Army and I was going to get another for putting ten years in with the city government, so that would be enough to keep me alive and fishing until…, well, until I died. There wasn’t a whole lot else left for me to do.
I married one of the Colson twins, Cloris Colson and I wished it had been Doris. They had lived next door to us when we were all kids and I always thought Doris was nicer. When you grow up with somebody that’s a twin you can tell them apart easy but it was always a little spooky how close they were in what they did. They never talked about dressing alike but sometime more often than not they’d show up for work wearing the same outfit. They were devilish good partners at Spades which was the card game everyone in town played. But I wound up with Cloris after Doris got married first. I think we both settled for someone just not to be alone. We spent most of our time together staying out of each other’s way and playing husband and wife when company came over. I had been calling Cloris, “Roxy” since we were kids because I hated her name. She waited until we were married for five years before she told me she hated being called Roxy. I understood that. I got the nickname from calling her “Clorox” and then shortening it to Roxy. So for about thirty years I never really used her name at all or called her anything at all.
The end came just a couple of years ago. Doris was over and she was bent over getting something out of the refrigerator at our house and just reached over and grabbed her butt. I was going to claim it was dark and I thought it was Cloris but Doris surprised me by backing up into me and there for about ten seconds we stood there pressed close together. She had gotten divorced the second her youngest had walked across the stage at High School and our youngest was long gone, having gotten married and moved off twenty years ago. But there we were, standing so close my breath was moving her hair about and about the time it occurred to me I ought to do something about all this Doris walked out of the house without turning around or saying a word. Cloris came in after work and packed a few things and told me we could do it simple or hard, it was up to me. Three hundred dollars later a lawyer drew up the papers and that was that. Neither of them ever spoke to me again.
So I was standing there holding the machine gun when the Mayor walked in and he looked more than a little startled. No, it wasn’t loaded but everybody was paranoid about it now. He shooed me away from the police station and told me to go down to the upstairs annex and make sure the contractors knew what to do. I was a glorified go-fer without the glorification and I knew it. The contractors were from Downing and they wanted to hear how the annex got to be, or at least they pretended to want to hear the story, so I told them. I showed them the dumbwaiter no one used because it was spring loaded and a little dangerous, but I liked playing with it. It would hold about twenty pounds and when you released the level it shot up to the second floor and stuck there until the other lever got pulled. When it dropped that set the spring again. The Mayor showed up and told me to stop pillaging. I’m pretty sure he never knew what that word meant.
The railroad guy came up and told me they were going to back a couple flat cars in and I liked to ride on them when no one was looking. The sound of those heavy steel wheels rolling on the tracks made a sound that seemed ominous and unstoppable. I liked the way the wind felt on my face, too. There on the ground it was hot and humid but once the flat car started moving there was a breeze. I got on one and it occurred to me it was going a little too fast and I might get knocked down when it linked up with the next. If I jumped I knew my knees were going to get wrecked. But the car slowed just a bit and when the links mashed together there was a jolt but not as bad as I thought.
South Georgia is filled with building like where the upstairs church annex sits. There’s an open spot on Main Street where there was once a hardware store but now only the brick walls survive. It’s like a church in there, too, all quiet and peaceful even if Holly’s older daughter spray painted her name there, “Deena” in blue paint. I like to eat my lunch in there when the weather is nice and think about all the people and stuff that has passed through the store. I think about Deena and why she was here and what she was thinking, but that one is still in her teens. She won’t stick around Shepherd any longer than it takes her to find a ride out. Somebody will unwrap her one day, on a nice bed, or maybe on the floor, and maybe they’ll plan it or maybe they won’t, but deep inside Deena a baby will start and maybe that kid will grow up to see where mom grew up, if there is anything left here by then.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
It’s like seeing a ghost, or it’s how most people would react if they saw a ghost. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t react at all if someone from my past showed up as some ethereal hallucination and quite honestly I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. This is a little different because it’s the light of day and while ghosts are supposed to look like who they were this is a specter I have to watch carefully before I realize who she is. The eyes are the same, not in superficial color but intent, and if someone with a gun had sat down across from me and laid that gun on the table it would not have struck the same sense of fear as seeing those eyes fronting a mind that knew how to make them glitter like that again. This cannot me real, I tell myself, no. After all I have seen and felt and experienced in the dark world that has nothing to do with this one there sits in front of me someone I have never seen before but I know exactly for what she is, if she is at all.
“You’re Mike Firesmith,”she says and I can tell she already knows. As she sits down across from me everyone in the room looks at her, glances over to see who this woman might be, and if she looked totally different I would know, if for no other reason, this.
“Yeah” and it’s all I have. There aren’t any words anymore. If she were holding a gun I wouldn’t have much else to say. If this is the end or if this is the beginning of the end, then there are few words, fewer still, that ought to be spoken. Let there be some volume in the noise of life but let there be a sense of quietness when the transition of life switches from the living to something else, please, and this woman is a transition.
Her face is more rounded, smaller, and her ears are smallish, and her two front teeth are ever so slightly prominent but her lips make up for it, full and sensual. The hair is a rusty sort of brown, not really red but there is a tint there, maybe real and maybe not. There’s a smattering of freckles across her cheeks, below the eyes and for an instant I wonder if she’s had them tattooed there but she looks too real to have done that. Her eyes are a liquid brown bordering on the same color of the water of the Okenfeokee and I wonder if she knows. Is there some way that she would know, I mean, other than who she is? These are incidental and coincidental thoughts that will float and swirl like dark water around cypress stumps just below the water’s surface. Then there is the fear, the real and honest fear, that this is madness in its purest form, or worse, it is not. What if this is real or what if it is not? I cannot speak or act but sit and stare and this young woman who sits across from me and she grins. She knows who I am in a way that is deeply dangerous and I have no idea how she would know. But I realize that I have told her. I realize that she knows a life only through my words. Another thought occurs and she laughs out loud and again, this in and of itself would be enough, this laugh. I have heard it a million times, alone in the dark or across a crowded bar, or shouted across the ocean and for the last time, I truly believed, on my front steps well over a decade ago.
She keeps her eyes locked on me and I know that predatory gesture, too. Which is more dangerous, I wonder, for a woman to have eyes of the clearest green, that reflects light and sparkles even in the tiniest candle light, or the eyes the devour all light and seem endless, bottomless, as infinite as the deepest and most majestic cavern on earth? I cannot hold that gaze even though I know I must. The truth is going to be overwhelming no matter which way the pressure lies. And the truth? What of it? What could she tell me that might be believed? She is a ghost, a piece of my past that has taken form in front of me for reasons that I cannot begin to guess or evade. I know she waits for the question and that is why she sits there with that smile, oh if there is some god, gods, goddesses, or thoughtless creature whose whim spins this universe as a child would a toy, why do this to me with that smile? Is there not enough to occupy the minds of this earth or the mechanisms of the stars that this smile must be repeated to me, an echo of a life I know has ended?
But she cannot exist. I reach for the smallest straw of hope, I gather any reason I have left in my mind, and take a deep breath. This is the day I have awaited and feared. This is true madness when a dream might walk the earth and sit in front of me. My mind has conjured this creature out of the shattered remains of my past and even as I sit in wonder and horror, I realize that my insanity has broken free of its cage of darkness and now walks openly in the sun. That is my most wild and utterly futile hope; that I am insane and this is not real and this woman does not exist.
Even this hope is subverted by my own thoughts. She cannot be more than twenty-five, not likely younger than twenty, but she has a freshness about her that might carry a woman into her thirties without marring her and at fifteen she might still look a woman with those eyes. No, the calculator of age fails me as will any other device I employ to pin her down in any way.
“Who are you?” I ask. She has been waiting this question even though she knows that I have realized at once. I have my part to play and must play it. I have dealt these cards over a lifetime and now I gather them up to see nothing; no suits that I would recognize and no face cards but odd forms and odd shapes and nameless numbers.
“ My name is Lynn,” she tells me, “I’m Sara Poole’s daughter”
“Lynn?” I couldn’t speak other than to repeat something that I heard.
“Linn,” she repeated, “with an “i” instead of a “y”, it has something to do with mom’s last name, her made up last name. You two were made for each other, you know.”
“Linn,” I began, “you know…”
“I know she’s dead.” Linn snapped at me. “And I know you claimed the body. I know you took the ashes out there to that damn swamp where no one could find the spot and you might not be able to again. It took damn near a year to find you. You never use your real name anymore, do you? We have to get the test run. I need to know if you’re my biological father.”