Being normal is hard after an ashtray has gone through the wall. The hole was small and square, looking planned it was so neat and predictable. She told me to clean up the plaster which was insulting as the fight had been between them. Max laughed quietly, his eyes slipping over my parents’ faces, as he appraised the two of them anew with this revelation. He asked what led to the fight, and she went still while he muttered something.
We didn’t have the money to fix the hole, so normality was restored by hanging a family photo over it.
You were wearing several dozen unfinished floppy felt hats on your head. You were generous, and handed them out to everyone, asking if we all had enough. You said it would be some time before you could break into the hat factory again, but were happy to take orders. When you left, you ran over John’s trash can in your unlicensed car. You stuck your head out the window, looked down at the murdered trash can, and said, “BEEP!” (The car’s horn did not work). The last thing John saw as you drove off were hundreds of felt hats stuffed into the back of the car.
After an hour we’d run out of booze. The performance was so bad it was lucky we didn’t kill someone. During interval a couple of us did an emergency run to a bottle shop and bought kid booze – cola with bourbon and so on. We pounded it down during the third act, and the sugar made us crazy. People glared their best glares, but we didn’t care. We figured if these snobs were determined to treat this play like it was worth shit that was their problem – we were going to get drunk. When it finished closed died whatever we crashed the after performance party and told the actors how great they were. It didn’t work – not one of us got laid.
We fit 12 people into my station wagon and drove to the pub. The drummer was in the back beating a happy tattoo on my speakers. When we got there Arthur and I went to the nearest door we saw and staggered inside, more happy than high. Every aboriginal in the place turned and looked at us, two lost skinny white boys. We backed out while a few of them nodded slowly. Later, when the band took the stage, Freddie did the one thing he’d been asked by management not to do: on the first bass chord he shoved the mic head in his mouth and began screaming. Sometime during the evening we sang happy birthday to Sara; she was too busy puking to notice, but we didn’t care.
We were watching a sex show in Bangkok one night and I was talking to an Australian guy sitting beside me. He was a nice guy who slipped into the conversation that he was a pilot “with a major airline”. As he talked I tuned him out and mulled over the fact that an extraordinarily high number of guys in strip joints were pilots “with a major airline”. Anyway, we settled into watching the action. Later I told Jo about the show and she asked, “How big was the guy in the main act?” I told her, mainly using my hands, and she nodded and said, “Oh yeah, him. I slept with him.” I laughed. Her boyfriend, Marc, acted like he hadn’t heard but we both knew he had.
I was talking to Chris when he reached into a pocket and pulled out some old scissors. He slid the blades into his mohawk and snapped them shut. Pieces of green-and-red dyed hair fell to the ground. “There’s something about street fighting, always proving yourself,” he said. “You constantly see how you measure up. ” More hair fell to the ground. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. “I’m going to Luke’s salon later.” I nodded. Luke was a friend, putting things together after cheating the wrong cocaine dealer. “I like to make it a challenge,” he added. I nodded again. His eyes settled on the middle distance, and I could tell how much he missed feeling alive.
I first met Chris while waiting on line to photocopy some research papers. He was attenuated and edgy, coming down off a couple of days speeding. He was also holding some papers to copy, but told me he wasn’t sure if they were the ones he needed for his class. I took from him the ones he didn’t need and shoved them in a trash can. We joked that the trash collectors were the best read trash collectors in the country. He wanted to know if I had a car and when I told him yes, we gave up photocopying, made our way to my car, and drove into the city to buy drugs. Halfway there he asked if I had any cash on me and I figured I’d found me a pretty lousy sort of friend.
I have pictured him, all these years later, running with short powerful strides. His face open and shocked, unblinking, rushing after me. It’s not possible I saw him like this, his cardigan open and flapping, his hat missing. But regardless, his broad gnarled hands swallow my tiny maimed hand and I am yelping and he is whispering, “It’ll be alright.” I am shaking shaking. “It’ll be alright.”
Of course, the finger doesn’t matter. All these years later the pain is only of the heart, for causing him anguish; but also for knowing that at that moment, on that day, he held me.
He sits in his labyrinth, colossal muscles still in the half light. His broad head turns. He gazes down a stone hallway and wonders if someone will come to visit. He crosses his hooves on the table before him, stares at powerful forearms, watches light glint on gold bracers. Eyes drop to stone floor. He sighs. Hours pass and shadows lengthen and he waits, quietly.
In the night there is the surprise of fire and bright metal, shouts then screams, he is bellowing and blood spills. He stares at the dead and wonders which could have been a friend.
Sometimes we would speak to one another. As he cast his line into the dark water beneath the trees, I would ask him about the river. “Why aren’t there any redfins to catch?” He’d stare at the line like it had done something wrong, and wait patiently for the red and white float to drift closer to the far rocks. “Because the pollutants upriver killed them off. Or drove them away. Just carp and eels are left.” “Will they come back? The redfin, I mean. Will they come back?” He stared at the float, assessed its movement, shook his head.
She was a young woman who danced solo in a rundown cafe situated at the end of an unmade road, just before the jungle started. All her young years she had dreamed normal dreams, enjoyed school, shared giggles and emotions with her friends. But then, at her parents command, every night she donned the traditional garb and danced the traditional dance, to entertain the bored tourists. One night two men came and watched, applauded. The second night they were back, eating nothing, drawing their chairs closer, raising their hands. The third night there was no entertainment.
Death of a parent is a funny thing. Everything changes and stays the same. Subjects never before broached are suddenly acceptable. A freedom is granted, and the thin veneer of – What precisely? Love? Civility? – can be peeled back to reveal the truth beneath.
My older brother and I found ourselves discussing the points at which we suspected our father was having an affair. “What about the time… Remember that fight… Who was…”
Our mother pronounced the Big Truth (years after the secret had been guessed) that she fell pregnant while unmarried.
Loving vultures picking the thin bones of dead men.
In 1975, when Bart and I were in fifth grade, we decided to skip class, visit the forbidden garden that abutted the schoolyard, and hang our friend, Mickey, from a tree. We took care choosing the tree: it had to be able to support 55 pounds, have strong low horizontal branches, and be by Main Road so passing motorists would see his small frame swinging in the breeze. Our knots were poorly tied and more poorly placed: we almost cut his testicles off. A motorist stopped and frowned. We slinked away, later getting detentions for being in the garden.
“This is the new student children. Let’s make her feel welcome.” I finished tying the straps around her bony wrists and stood. “Say hello, class.” Their voices rang out in chorus: “Welcome to our class. We are sure you’ll like it here.” I walked to the blackboard and turned, surveyed the ranks of eager faces. The new girl was not sitting correctly. “Please wait class, while I make an adjustment.” I went to her desk, grabbed her skull, and jerked it quickly to the side. I saw and heard the bones in her neck snap into an acceptable configuration. Perfect.
Dusty flakes fall and land on arm, cheeks, hair. I breathe them in, brush them away, narrow my eyes so they don’t get past my ashes. They fill the air, twisting out of the fire in a column of grey smoke, then spread randomly over the onlookers. Continue to rise continue to fall continue to breathe them in.
I dream: School. Abuse. Washing. Working. I’m owned. I own. I birth. I raise. After a fashion I love.
And when she died her ashes set her free; tokens of her life caressing those who watch the pyre burn.
We put them on the galley and pushed it out to sea. After the sun set we saw no sign of the ship and thought the deed done.
In the morning the galley sat offshore against the wind, becalmed in the shallows. We rowed out, attached, and pulled her into deep water. Small hands waved over the gunwales. We set her adrift, returned to shore, and by midnight she was gone.
In the morning the galley sat offshore, gentled in the rise and fall. We rowed out and bored holes below water line. We didn’t wait and we never returned.
Come on home, said Control, a warm electronic hand reaching out across the miles, close and familial. I look out the viewport back across darkness I can see nothing for its long gone but that’s okay you can always go back home click your heels together it’s just now they’re 30-foot wide Atlas rockets and the transmission is breaking up suddenly the call home is a series of staccato zeroes and ones and the darkness is deeper further blacker more limitless and all I can feel is the cold and god dammit. I almost had it but it’s gone
So what did he whisper in the night, sodden with alcohol, distracted by lust? Sweet nothings? A declaration of love? Or was it a statement of intent: grasping panting blood penetration? With you demure and pale beside the vein-ribbed muscles of his thighs. No chance.
But one. One moment to smile, be the coquette, pour more wine. Lips eyes promise passion submission. Finally, ragged breathing as sleep enters the pavilion. And you with your slender blade so skilful. A slit here, a drawing there. Then the maid carries your virtue (and the city) away, a weight in a wicker basket.
I asked my question. It stared at me, two horizontal black bands in yellow orbs. I stood, waiting. After a minute it coughed politely, and replied.
When it finished we stood staring at one another. I found my voice, and asked, “How can you know this?”
It was surprised. It shook its wooly head and replied to my question at length.
I shook my head. “I still don’t understand. How did you come by this knowledge?”
Its tail twitched impatiently. “It’s simple. I whisper with the goat head. It whispers back. It tells me wonderful things.”
She climbs into the car, wasps struggling in her hair. The door closes and she stares ahead at the glovebox. I start the engine. She smells of urine and sweat and I can see the cuts on her hands and wrists. I roll the car forward and soon we are on the highway passing broken rocks and dead trees.
“What is your name?”
She half opens her mouth and a new wasp appears, crawls to the edge of her mouth, and shimmers on her ruby lower lip. The wasp is black and perfect. Blood sings.
He dialed 911, skeleton bones clacking. Waited. Someone answered. He explained where he was and what he needed. The person listened, bored, distracted. They weren’t impressed by his emergency, said a few words, hung up. He tapped at the phone like it were faulty, threw it on the sand. He looked about. Desert and a blue-white sky were the world. Overhead a black speck circled. It was joined. After some minutes they wheeled away. He lay his bones down on the hot ground and exhaled tiredly. Some sand spilled into his empty eye sockets. He considered calling again.
What we planted at the bottom of the garden will rise. And it will not live like living men. It may seem and move and breathe, but inside it will be hollow, an empty vessel filled only with loneliness regret and failed dreams. Having fed dark life into it we will have created a monster, and it will play its part well. Brother friend mentor lover. It will engage anger succor and breathe loamy cold into all it encounters. And at the end of its life we shall mourn, tip it back into earth, and wait for the next Spring.
A thunderhead, she looms. Round cupped breasts. A soft half shadow below the belly. Hints of shadow on the inner thighs. A handsome still face without recognizable emotion. Wide destructive wings spread out from narrow shoulders. And she draws the dead from the ground. They rise about her, tiny things beside her unknowable colossus. Jubilant lost despairing relieved. Slowly she lifts her face skyward in crushing silence. She raises her hands and everyone begins their ascent. Screaming laughing trembling calling. She shows no human emotion as she leaves, drawing the dead after in her wake.
In a parallel universe the car would not crash and the bodies would not be ruined; the father would not drink and the children would be unhurt. In a parallel universe the glass would not be thrown and the cheek would be uncut; the punch would not be thrown and the nose would be unbroken. In a parallel universe the shot would not be fired and the girl would not be dead; the boy would look both ways and the party would go on. In a parallel universe you would smile and I would kiss you.
I called the hostess and asked for fresh water. She said everyone was asking and she didn’t think there was any. She left. I squirmed. Tried to loosen the seatbelt, but it was useless. I smiled without humor: the rust wasn’t going anywhere. I looked across at my nearest seat mate. Long blond hair drifted and a pretty nose came into view. She turned and looked at me; eyeless sockets. I slipped a bright octopus from my pocket and offered it. Hair drifted and fish swam through her breast. I sighed, squirmed, and waited for relief which would never come.