january 1k

january 1K

Birds is all my brain thinks, but that’s just the beginning.

When my brain thinks something, it’s like striking a match that lights the fuse of my mind, and I watch the birds and wait for the explosion no one but me can hear.

Pow.

It’s January, and I’m at my in-laws.  I watch the birds, and it’s a new year, which is a beginning, but also an ending – of the thousand word project, and the words I’m thinking right now, which presumably will become the words you’re reading, are making up the final eleven to twelve thousand words.

The first week of a new year is for reflection and projection – looking back and looking forward – like standing on a bridge suspended over a deep chasm of the present.  You can see both where you’ve been and where you’re going but not far enough in either direction to provide any measurable level of comfort.

The birds chow that seed – unabashed at taking handouts.  How great would that be to just swoop in and gorge yourself on food you didn’t raise a finger to get, I think, as my father-in-law slides a plate of grilled sirloin and baked potato in front of me.  It tastes very good.  A melodious pile of guacamole perches on the sirloin.  It’s the best I’ve had.  No joke.

Pow.

When life tosses you handouts, don’t use it all up at once, and when life holds everything above your head like a cruel big brother, splurge.

I savor the exemplary guacamole and realize in this new year I’m resolute about three things.  I call them “The Three Fs.”

Life is:

Fucking short,

Fucking hard, and

Fucking great.

And so is this guacamole, so I get more.  Me and the birds binge a bit.  That woodpecker’s flame is so orange against the snow it blows my mind.

Pow.

The cardinals are so damn stark red it makes me want to pray.  I pray for the best for myself and everyone I know.  And what the hell, for everyone I don’t know too.

Usually what we guess is the “best” for ourselves and our friends is not actually the best for us, and that’s why I pray.

God, whatever the best is, lay it on us.

That flaming woodpecker looks at me and says, “Be careful what you ask for,” and I scan the room for a pellet gun.  Instead, I find the bowl of guacamole and help myself.

There’s a flurry of action going on around me, and as usual I’m missing the majority of it, but that’s okay, I think.

Pow.

I turn thirty-three this year.  I look at myself in the mirror and see a young man, but my life feels old.  People around me are succeeding in their own way – failing, marrying, divorcing, making babies, losing babies, moving, staying, rising to the top, sliding to the bottom, working too hard for nothing and doing nothing because it’s too hard to work.

I’m right there too.  I’m content but hungry.  Working hard and playing hard.  Head in the clouds and feet stuck in the mud.  Kind to others, hard on myself, and altogether too judgmental of pretty much everything.  I’m terrible at small talk and get a little too competitive at board games.

This isn’t a story.  Not of me or you or anyone I’ve made up.  I watch the birds, and I don’t know that my wife will give me a picture of them, but dammit if I can’t stop staring.

*

Fast forward two weeks.

I walk through twenty inches of snow, in a white out, with a best friend I happen to share a studio with.  It’s dark, and we’re trudging toward Mexican food that we don’t know is locked behind closed doors.  Everyone in their right minds are at home, under down blankets, huddled around fires with this “Winter Blast” locked outside – I’d say, “Where it belongs,” but I don’t think this kind of weather belongs anywhere.

As we walk I think about when we were eight-year-olds, making tracks in the snow around the church and in the woods.  Then when we were sixteen and skiing in a white out just like this one.  Then being snowed-out of summitting a mountain in Arizona and driving a Volkswagon Bus with a broken heater the hell out of there and through Utah and Colorado and talking for hours about whether or not he should propose to his girlfriend.  And now here we are, thirty-two and thirty-three.  He married that girl we talked about, and just last week told me they’re expecting their second child, and just like that the world grows a little bit.  And so do I.

We’re snowed out of dinner, and our laughs push back into our faces with icy wind and snow covering our deserted city.

Pow.

It’s January 2010.  Many of us are at a turning point in our lives, on the edge of success or maybe a cliff, and we have a new decade in front of us.  We can either lay down in the snow and drift off to a peaceful slumber or we can keep on trudging.

I see lights in the distance, and I’m hungry for a margarita and some chips and queso, and nothing can stop me.

We push into the deserted restaurant and stomp the snow from our bodies.  There’s one couple finishing up their meal, a manager who doesn’t speak English, and a waitress halfway through her first night on the job.

We order food.  The margaritas are mostly ice, and the food is fine, but my queso never shows.  I have to chase it down, and when it finally hits the table it’s the wrong cheese, so I give it another shot.

We polish off our tacos and correct queso, and I think about my father-in-law’s guacamole and that woodpecker and “The Three Fs” and –

Pow.

This year’s blowing up, and I don’t think I’m the only one who can hear it.

december 1k

dec 1k
Levi is a young man who just sat down next to me on the park bench and shook my hand and said, “Levi.”

I said, “Nice to meet you.”

I go to the park in the dead of winter to think.  The cold makes my thoughts feel crisp and clear.  It’s my favorite way of getting privacy while being out in the open.  I watch the ducks paddle around the half-frozen pond and wonder how they stand the cold.

I can tell Levi wants to say something to me.  I don’t talk much in general, so people in general gravitate toward me when they have something to say.  He turns to me but only sighs, and the frosty white cloud of his breath crosses my lap.  In summer you’re asking for it, but generally, in winter, parks are safe from these sorts of encounters.

“Alright Levi, just lay it on me before we freeze to death,” I say, almost involuntarily.  He looks me in the eye in this crazy way that makes me think, Run!

Before I can make that decision, he stands and takes off his suit coat and casts it to the ground. “I make over half a million dollars a year, and I’m not even thirty,” he says.  Then he takes off his black leather gloves and throws them into the pond.

It scares the ducks and me, and the ducks and me watch to see what will happen next.

“I’m an executive at the largest bank in the region and was just made an offer I can’t refuse by one of the largest banks in the world.”  He unbuttons his cuffs.

“So what’s your problem,” I ask – freaking out.

“When I was seventeen, I lived in a small town and got my girlfriend pregnant, and we got married within a couple months, and then she lost the baby, and then I told her I wanted a divorce…” he trails off, shivering now.  “I left town.  She crawled into the bed of her dad’s big old farm truck with the engine running and the garage sealed up, and made a bed there and went to sleep forever.”  He’s really shivering now.  “I vowed to never again get involved with another woman.  I devoted my life to work.  I fill my head with numbers and try to push out the guilt and sadness.  I send money to her parents once a month – like I’ve put their forgiveness on layaway.  I can’t turn back time, but I can throw money around, and everyone can use some extra cash, right?”

“Most people,” I say.  “Yes.”

He sits back down.  We watch his gloves bob in the pond.

“So what’s the matter today?”

He looks at me, and I look at him, and his eyes make me suspect he doesn’t sleep much.

“I’m in love,” he says and even almost cries about it.

“That’s probably healthy,” I say.  “You still have a life to live.”

“You’re married?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Kids?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re happy – a good man who’s faithful and loves his wife and kids, right?”

“Yet we still find ourselves escaping to the same park bench you and me,” I point out.  “You should explore this relationship and see what happens.”

He rolls up his sleeves and puts his fists together face-up, thumbs out.  On his left wrist is tattooed NEVER and on his right AGAIN.

This guy is hard core.

Then he unbuttons his shirt and drops it on the suit coat, and then he pulls off his t-shirt too, and I’m frozen by what I see:

There must be two hundred NEVER AGAINs wrapped around and around his torso and down both arms.  Across his lower back is a big pick up truck and I’M SORRY BRITTANY.

I’m speechless.

He holds his arms out from his sides – hands still in fists – and faces skyward with closed eyes.  His whole body is pink now.  I’m not sure what to do.  I have nothing to say, and I’m not a hugger.

Then I find myself taking off my own coat, then my dress shirt, then my t-shirt.  “Come on!” I yell, and the next thing I know I’m hovering, suspended in the air over the duck pond, and in that split second I wonder how this is going to help.

And that’s when I look back to the park bench, and no one is there – just a really expensive suit coat and dress shirt.

I crash into the water, and it feels like broken glass.  A metallic taste I can only compare to batteries comes into my mouth.  My limbs lock into place.  I open my eyes, and a million needles push into them.

My wrists say NEVER AGAIN.

My body says I’M SORRY.

But all I can think about is my wife and kids and leaving my past down here.  My wife has forgiven me of my mistakes.  She knows me more deeply than tattoos.  The extreme cold makes these thoughts more crisp and clear in my mind than any have ever been.  I force my fists open and my hands to paddle.

I collapse in the dead grass on the shore, and I think the ducks are laughing at me.  I don’t want to die here with the ducks, so I keep moving.

I sit, dripping all over my expensive car with the heat blasting, and I suspect that I’m dying.  If I live, I’ll refuse the world bank deal and be a husband and father instead of an empty shell.

I look at the NEVER AGAIN in my lap, and I think, “That’s right.”  I’ll never again make others pay for my mistakes.

I close my eyes and sit back.  The heater roars.  The pain in my joints is excruciating, and my chest is on fire.  My mind fades.  I blame the heat.  It always makes me sleepy.  I hope I wake up in time for dinner, and I wonder why I can’t move my fingers.

november 1k

nov 1k

Lewis was thirty-seven and stormed into the Waffle House late one quiet, Thursday night.  He stormed across the dining area and stormed up to the kitchen door marked, “EMPLOYEES ONLY,” except the “LY” was broken off, so it said, “EMPLOYEES ON.” 

“Rita!” he yelled.  “Rita!” 

A short, sixty-year-old with bleached hair, apple red lipstick lips and penciled eyebrows stormed past the “EMPLOYEES ON” sign and slugged Lewis in the guts. 

“Hush,” she hissed. 

Lewis looked at her nametag: RITTA.  The two Ts had a hypnotic affect he didn’t understand. 

“You’re in your jams,” Ritta said, waving her hand over his basketball shorts and #13 high school football jersey. 

“Sorry,” he said, still staring at her nametag. 

“Okay.” 

Lewis moved his eyes to hers and opened his mouth – 

“Wait,” Ritta raised a finger.  “Before all that, may I remind you that I told you not to marry my daughter.  I begged you.  I delivered sermons on her particulars and peculiarities, her principals and preferentials, and what did you say?  Put it in my ear what you said every time.” 

Lewis looked at his big toe peeking through a hole in his moccasin slippers.  He mumbled, “Ritta I’m in love.” 

“Huh?”  She dramatically leaned forward. 

“Ritta I’m in love.” 

She leaned back, satisfied, “Ritta I’m in love…” 

“Can I just unload what’s on my mind?” 

“Are you?”  She pointed that raised finger between his eyes.  “Are you still?” 

“Of course,” he bleated, “Until the day she dies.” 

“You will die first.  She’ll outlive us all, Lewis.”  She handed him a cup of coffee. 

He set it on the counter and wrung his hands.  “Now, I’m a nobody and generally have no right to complain…” 

“Stop it with that ‘nobody.’” 

“…but she’s awfully demanding, Ritta.  Especially at night.” 

“Oh?”  Ritta’s eyes widened and her neat, brown eyebrows arched high on her forehead.  “Is it cunnilingus?” 

“No!”  Lewis scanned the Waffle House.  “Sheesh, Ritta…no, Ritta not that.” 

“You don’t have to turn red over it.  Drink your coffee.  Want a Coke instead?” 

Lewis ran a hand through his oil black hair.  “I think I’m going nuts.  My head…my brains are twisted up in knots.  Nuts and knots and nuts and I pull the covers up to my chin and try to make out the ceiling fan blades in the dark but they might as well not be there because I can’t see a damn one of them and then I wonder if I’m going blind or if the moon just isn’t out and the shutters are closed extra tight and I know what she’s going to ask me and I know I could do it on my own without her having to ask but I can’t bring myself to do it and then I start to nod off…I just begin to drift off when I hear her say, ‘Lewis…’ and then my eyes open and I still can’t see even one of those ceiling fan blades but I know there’s five up there and then she says – real quiet she says this – even though it’s as loud in my head as ten thousand lions roaring – she says, ‘Tickle my back,’ and those three words fill the room with funk as thick as melted butter because – and I mean this with all due respect Ritta because you know I’m in love with your daughter – but every damned and goddamned night she asks me to tickle her back and I love her to death but I hate tickling backs.  I hate it, Ritta.  I do.  I really do.  It makes my arm tired.  I’m nobody, but this I cannot handle.” 

“Stop it with that ‘nobody,’” she said, then took his shoulders and led him to a booth.  “Drink your coffee or do you want an ice water or hot chocolate?” 

“She takes offense,” he mutters.  “Like me not tickling her back is the equivalence to me saying I don’t love her.” 

Ritta sandwiched his hand between hers. 

“It makes my arm tired real fast,” he said.  “Like freakishly fast.  Two minutes tops.  All day I’m wrenching and tinkering and banging those furnaces and water heaters, and that’s gravy compared to tickling a back.” 

Ritta pensively sipped some of his coffee. 

He ran his hand through his hair.  “Tell me what to do because it means an awful lot to her.” 

Ritta sighed out the heat from another sip of coffee and said, “Lewis…don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 

“Awe go to Hell, Ritta,” he said.  “You Nestor girls can eat crow and tickle each others’ backs to Armageddon.” 

Ritta leaned over the table, kissed Lewis on the cheek and then pinched the spot she kissed.  “Lewis, you’re a somebody to us Nestor girls.  If it weren’t for you, the two of us and little Russ’d still be living out of my dead daddy’s Buick on ninth and Prospect.  You taught my daughter how to be treated right by a man and how to be loved, and if that means she wants you to tickle her back then you have to be a man and tickle the lady’s back.  Even if it’s only two minutes before your arm gets freaky tired then that’s two minutes more every day than she’s been shown love by a man in her whole life.” 

He stared at her nametag.  She polished off his coffee.  

“Ritta, why do you have two Ts in your name?” 

“My name’s Loritta.” 

“Why’d you –” 

“Loritta lived out of her dead daddy’s Buick.  When her daughter introduced her to Lewis, she became Ritta, and Lewis became somebody.” 

“Stop it with that ‘somebody,’” he said. 

Ritta slapped the table.  “I have work to do.  You want some waffles or ice cream?” 

“Ritta I love you also,” he said. 

Ritta wiped surprise tears with her apron.  “Don’t keep her waiting or she’ll send out the Coast Guard.” 

She disappeared past the “EMPOYEES ON” sign, and Lewis headed home to tickle his wife’s back like a man in love.

october 1k

october1k

Jim was thirty-six and sat at the Salt Lake City airport and waited for his flight home.  Four months ago, his wife left him, “Because you’re a space cadet,” she said.  He knew it.  He’ll return to the office tomorrow, and Tim will fire him, “Because you’re a space cadet,” he’ll say.

This morning, the lecture hall was stuffed with the two hundred bodies of software developers, which created a four thousand pound magnifying glass positioned perfectly over the space cadet in him.  He spilled his coffee onto his laptop and ended the presentation only seven minutes in.

Maybe he should’ve been an astronaut.

Jim looked at his hand.  He bent his fingers and wondered how that really worked.  He could add four plus four and snap at the same time, and it wasn’t even hard.  That amazed him.  He held his hand up, toward the big picture window overlooking the runway, and his hand was bigger than the 747 taxiing for take-off.  His hand was bigger than the mountain range in the distance.

He swung his hand down to his side, and it was smaller than the chair next to him.  Smaller than his thigh and shorter than his boarding pass.  It was the same size, however, as his other hand.  Almost exactly.

Jim checked the time.  There was plenty of it.  He checked the flight status.  “On Time,” it said.  If there was someone waiting for him at home, he would call and reassure her his flight was on schedule.  Without even thinking about it, he touched his pocket to make sure his cell phone was in there.

He scanned the people already crowded around the gate, as if they might get a better seat, even though their seats were printed on their boarding passes, which were longer than their hands too.  To them, the next nineteen minutes will feel like an hour.  But for the two women behind him, talking about the quilting expo they attended yesterday, the nineteen minutes will fly.

Either way, it’s eighteen minutes, and he wondered how all that really worked.  For instance, the first hour Jim ever spent with his wife passed in a blink, and the last hour he spent, before she became his ex-wife, feels like it’s still happening even today, four months later.

Jim checked the time.  Some of it had passed.

Then someone sat down next to him, but he didn’t look right away because he didn’t want her to feel put under a magnifying glass.  His plane arrived, and soon those bodies from a different time and place would waddle out and new bodies, like his, from this time and place, would waddle on.

He felt it was safe now to look over at the body sitting next to him, so he did, and she was looking at him too.  He smiled.  She smiled back in a cute, open way.

He got nervous, so he said, “Sometimes I think my feet are too big, and that’s why the women I like won’t have dinner with me.  But this is the body that belongs to me, so…”

“Okay,” she said and kept smiling in a cute way that didn’t feel anything like, Go away.

Jim couldn’t help but realize that, from his perspective, everything in the world looked smaller than his eyes – even watermelon.  But there was a part of this woman that he couldn’t see, that felt bigger than anything he’d ever felt before.

So he said, “I’m just a space cadet.”

“I see,” she said.

He sat there feeling her wonderful, and delightful, intangibility, and it warmed him like pulling the down comforter back up over his shoulders on a very cold morning.

“Maybe you should’ve been an astronaut,” she said.

He felt his cheeks get hot, and he knew the splotches on his neck were on their way, but that was the body he was given, so he held his hand up toward the big picture window and said, “If you go like this, your hand is bigger than that mountain.”

She mimicked him.  “You’re right.”

“But even if I could lift that mountain up, I don’t think I could fit this feeling you’re making me feel inside of it.”

“Oh my,” she said, and then her face turned red, and then a voice came over the intercom.

“Last call for flight one-seventy to Kansas City.”

Jim was shocked.  “The last eighteen minutes just flew by.  I don’t know how that really works.”

“When you’re not watching it,” she said, “Time plays tricks on you.  It’s sneaky.”

“Final boarding for flight one-seventy to Kansas City,” the voice said.

Jim stood.  “This is our flight.”  He hoped their seats were next to each other.

“Oh,” she said, “I’m on the next one at this gate.”

“Oh,” he said, thinking fast.  “Well I don’t think I belong in Kansas City.”

“Really,” she asked.  “Where do you belong?”

“Where do you live?”

“Hartford, Connecticut.”

“Hartford, Connecticut,” he said.

“Passenger James Wilson, please report to gate 16.  Your flight is departing.”

“Your gate is closing,” she said.

“That’s okay.  My feeling is bigger than making that flight.”

“But Hartford is no place for an astronaut,” she said, and this time she smiled in a way that pretty much said, Go away.

“Oh,” he said.  “Oh.”  His face got hot.  He grabbed his bag and ran to his gate, but the door was closed.

“I’m sorry,” said the gate lady.

“That’s okay,” he said.

He turned back to where that girl should’ve been, but she was gone.  His nose tingled, like he’d just been punched, and his eyes watered.  He thought about Salt Lake City and spilled coffee, and he could feel the Earth rotating under his big feet.  He closed his eyes and saw stars and galaxies and milky ways.  It was the perfect place for a space cadet, or an astronaut, and he thought that if he never opened his eyes again, he could call this place home.

september 1k

sept 1k

Brook is thirty-three, and everything in her world looks upside down – the opposite of what it used to be.  Door handles are on the left now instead of right.  The doors open in instead of out.  Stairs give her vertigo.  The steering wheel feels square and slippery under her fingers.  Water falls dry into her mouth and is hard to swallow.  Words catch like bones in her throat.

Brook seldom leaves the house, because people tend to ask if she needs help.

Brook helps her daughter into bed and turns out the light.  As Brook closes the door, her daughter says, “I hate you.”  She’s five-years-old and doesn’t completely mean it, but Brook understands why she said it.

Brook slides into her own bed, and just like every night, her husband rolls over and faces the wall.  She stares at his back and imagines him thinking that he hates her too.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and she wonders if he’ll ever kiss her again.  Labor Day will make twenty-seven days since she decided to stop kissing him because it doesn’t mean anything and wait for him to kiss her, because then it might.

Summer is over, and it’s time for a new season – the season of falling.  The leaves falling.  The spirits falling.  The darkness.  The colors of summer.

Brook sits on the couch and watches television with her husband, and she feels like her legs are dangling off the edge of a thousand-foot cliff.  She only sees static on the screen, and the sound is so loud in her ears it makes her dizzy.

Brook is a poor communicator.  A basket case.  The loneliest soul amongst a thousand friends.  She cries in the shower and afterwards laughs at her image in the mirror.  Sometimes she stares in the mirror so long she doesn’t recognize her face anymore.  Her body could be someone else’s or one that doesn’t really exist, except inside her imagination.

One of a thousand friends from her old life calls, but she can’t bear to answer.  She watches the machine, wishing it would pick up on the third ring instead of the fifth.  It picks up.  The message is the click of a connection severing.  The dial tone drones a few seconds, and Brook’s head spins.  She fantasizes about taking her thousand friends out to dinner and picking up the tab before it reaches the table.

*

Six months ago, something unspeakable happened to Brook that she can never, and will never, talk about with anyone.  It happened, and everything became the opposite.

Shortly after, Brook was asked to resign from her job for buying everyone in her department lunch, with petty cash.  Twice.

*

Brook stays at home and takes care of her daughter who plays alone and asks questions somewhere in the background with the static blowing from the television.  Brook fantasizes about spending the afternoon cutting out paper dolls and dressing them with her daughter, but when she gets out the scissors, she finds herself fringing her husband’s ties.  He never brings it up.

Brook works miracles in the kitchen.  The only words her husband says to her most days is, “This tastes wonderful, darling.”  She fantasizes about taking that word “darling” and making a new version of herself who spends afternoons cutting out paper dolls with her daughter, and who sees the world right-side-up.

*

Brook saw a professional for eight weeks and had to stop because she could only see words and gestures that stand for Love and Trust, but she couldn’t use those words or feel those things anymore.

*

Today is Labor Day, the beginning of the season of change.

Brook puts the final touches on a whole chicken in a bed of coined potatoes  and slides it into the oven for roasting.  It is hot in the kitchen, so she steps onto the deck, into the back yard.

Summer is over.  The color from the grass is falling into the sky.  The only green left is the clover under the big tree.  Brook goes back into the house and gets a blue notepad her husband gave her to write down her feelings.  It has been blank for almost six months.  There is a yellow pencil pushed inside that is still sharp.  The lead smells like her old life.

Brook passes through the hot, garlicky kitchen and out the back door.  She eases down the steps from the deck, crosses the yard to the tree, and lays down in the clover.  It’s cool under the tree, and the yellowing leaves remind her that her napping daughter has blonde hair.

Brook is not sad but feels like she’s going to cry.  Her chest swells, and she fantasizes about her heart opening up and swallowing the world.  She takes the word “darling” into her mind and lays it like a heavy quilt over that unspeakable thing that happened.  Brook opens the notebook and writes the word and closes it.  She lays it in the clover above her head and falls asleep.

Brook sits at dinner and is glad her daughter inherited her husband’s blonde hair.  She listens to them discuss their day.  Everyone eats.

“This tastes wonderful, darling,” Brook’s husband says.

Brook turns to him.  “I’m glad. I thought I smelled too much garlic,” she replies, and the affect it has on her husband is evident in the tears welling. He eats, and she can tell he’s trying not to overreact.

Brook’s daughter rounds the table and hugs Brook around the waist and playfully says, “You’re wonderful, darling,” and laughs.  Brook’s husband laughs too and wipes his eyes with a napkin.

Brook slides into bed next to her husband.  He doesn’t roll over.  He looks into her eyes.

“You haven’t kissed me in 27 days,” he says.

She shifts over and kisses him, and she knows it means something, because when it’s done, and the room is dark, she wears a smile that feels like a new shirt you love even though it doesn’t fit.

august 1k

august 1K
Sean was thirty-something and fishing – old enough to know what to do with his life – young enough to still not know what to do with his life.  His wife was amazing.  His children beautiful.  He didn’t deserve to have this need for escape, this confused, childlike wonderment, and destiny, and all that.

He should be happier.

Last weekend he saw a movie about two people in love, and he spent all his down time at work thinking about it.

There was nothing wrong with his life.  But when was the last time he felt everything was right?  And should he even expect it to be?

Sean fished the same way he lived.  He dropped a line, propped up the pole, and cracked a book.  He drifted from spot to spot, and cubicle to cubicle.  His jobs were just like the ones on TV nowadays with obtuse managers and sad birthday parties.  It had become dizzying to go to work every day, then come home and watch people act like him on TV.  Sometimes even a cubicle was waiting for him on screen at the movies.

His life was cubed.

Sean3.

Drifting, staring at the pages of his book, he thought about going back to school.  Art History.  Sign Language.  Computer Programming.  Video Game Design…

Suddenly the boat crunched against a shoreline, and he sat up, startled, his book sliding off his lap.  This shore came out of nowhere.  Or maybe he’d fallen asleep.  He quickly stood up, and he rubbed the black stars from his eyes.  His vision returned to reveal a community of round grass huts, circle fire pits, and odd, primitive-looking people, frozen in their work, staring at him.

Sean felt acutely square.

“Hello?” he said.  Then a shadow fell over his face.  He looked up to see what looked like, but surely couldn’t be, an arrow with a round rubber tip, flying directly toward him.  It thumped him square in the forehead, and a black curtain of darkness fell over him.

*

It felt, keenly, as though a thin, sharp knife had been plunged through his head, from temple to temple, and as though someone was drawing the knife out, and slowly plunging it back through.  Repeat.

“Rise and shine,” said a deep voice, female, and nostalgic.  Those three words made him feel young.

He scraped his eyes open to see a thin, very tall, black woman sitting on the edge of his cot, smiling.  “I’ve got a helluva shot, huh?”

Sean nodded and got up on his elbows.  “How long was I out?”

“Not ten minutes,” she said, handing him two white tablets.  “Take these for your head,” she said, now handing him a round, tin cup of water.

He took the pills and lowered the cup from his face and realized his ankles were bound together.

“I have lots of questions,” Sean said.

“Good,” she said, “because I have lots of answers.”

She untied his ankles.

*

The tall woman, she had to have been six-one, led him through the community.  It at first brought to mind the sort of Indian village as depicted by museums, but there didn’t appear to be any Indian people.  There were black people, Hispanic people, Asian people, and Indian people from India.  There were those sorts of children as well but also children that he couldn’t classify.

Finally, he asked, “Where am I?”  But the tall black woman was gone.

A small Mexican/Asian looking boy with great posture walked up to Sean.  “Where are you?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s what I said,” Sean replied.

Pointing, the boy said,  “You’re right there.”

“Yes, but where’s here?”  Sean wanted to thump his head.

“Well, this is where we live,” he said and swept a hand across the landscape like a model from an infomercial.

Sean chuckled, now actually starting to like the kid.  Then he looked up and retraced the arc the boy had made across his quaint, mysterious, exotic, neighborhood/town type thing.

He couldn’t make much sense of the arrangement of the huts, but the arrangement felt right.  The trees stood tall on the Western side, so the sun could wake the people at dawn, and they could be cool in the shade in the afternoon.  There came to him a smell of fish cooking over a fire, and corn, and fresh bread, and something sweet like syrup.  The water from the lake lapped against the stones on the beach behind him, followed by a soft breeze.

He couldn’t find any distinguishing landmark.  His phone had GPS, he thought, but he’d left it in the car, for too many phones had been lost to the lake.

“How did I get here,” he asked, and there was no reply because the boy had wandered off.  “I wonder where the lady with all the answers went?”

A swishing sound came from his left, and when he turned, another arrow with a rubber tip clobbered him to the ground.  As the black curtain fell over him, his last thought was that this would be a lovely place to vacation with the family.

*

The knife was drawing in and out of his temples again.  He scraped his eyes open and rubbed the black stars away to find himself lying in his boat.  The fishing pole was gone – dragged away by the only catch of the day.

“Of course,” he said out loud, with sarcastic emphasis.  “It was a dream.”  He scanned all 360 degrees of the horizon and saw the old dock where he launches his boat, and Gene, an old guy who he sees here occasionally with his son.  Gene rowed the canoe he built up next to Sean and squinted toward him.

“What,” Sean said.

“You have an accident?” Gene asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“…’cause you’ve got two round, purple, bruises on your forehead.  You should have those looked at,” he stressed and rowed on.

Sean ran his fingers over the welts and smiled because everything just then felt right.

july 1K

july1k

When I was twelve, Justin was my best friend, and his new step brother Mark was the scariest thing in our lives.  He was seventeen and had a different dad from Justin, but it was the dad he lived with now.  A creek cut through the subdivision behind our houses, and we’d catch frogs and stow them in an old aquarium we’d filled with sticks and rocks.  Mark would take the frogs.  He’d have a plastic toy bat with him and toss a frog in the air and hit it as hard as he could and yell, “Hoooomeruuuuun!”  Or he’d light a cherry bomb and stuff it down the frog’s throat and make us watch.

About a mile away, where the land wasn’t developed, stood an abandoned asylum that was home to bums and, depending on who was talking, ghosts of crazy people.  The city never knocked it down, but they stuck a big razor-wired fence around it.  Justin and I crawled under a dug-out spot under the fence and whispered behind our flashlights through the first two floors of the asylum but didn’t see anything besides rusted gurneys and beer cans and condoms.

We also sneaked out one night and hiked up Ricky Road, where people claimed to see Ricky himself hanging from one of the trees that cover the road like a tunnel.  The street was one lane wide with no lights and lots of hairpin turns.  No place to be walking or driving.  Sometimes decapitated heads rolled out of the trees and onto the road and made people swerve and crash their cars.  Other times, cars stopped working at all.  We weren’t old enough to drive, so we walked.  There were lots of noises in the trees, and I had a sickeningly strong feeling that something was following us, but we still didn’t actually see anything.  Not even a dead dog.

I was more curious about that stuff than scared, but Mark really scared me.  I never knew what he might do next.  Because we didn’t know anyone else to ask, we asked Mark to take us to Stoll, Kansas, where there was a gateway to Hell.  He said no way, but he would take us to Kill Creek.

We hadn’t heard of Kill Creek.

At eleven o’clock the next night I snuck out and met Justin and Mark in their hatchback on the corner and hopped in.  “Hey, Pecker,” Mark said.  “I didn’t think you had the balls.”  I didn’t say anything back because I figured Mark wanted me to, and I never wanted to give him that satisfaction.

We drove for half an hour then pulled off K-10 and into some trees.

“In like the 1860s like a thousand Indians were massacred and thrown into this creek.  Thought we could go down and blow up some frogs!”  He laughed and slammed the car door and disappeared into the trees.  We followed his wake of chuckling and rustling.

It was sticky hot like sitting on the tongue of a dragon.  And silent.  The water was so low that it just sat there in puddles at the lowest points of the creek.

“Sorry Peckers,” Mark laughed.  “No frogs tonight.”

“Shut up, Mark,” Justin said, and Mark laughed more.  I wished Justin hadn’t said anything.

I poked a stick in the mud to see if I might rouse a sleeping frog and didn’t expect to see any ghosts.  Then, from a little ways down the creek, Mark said, “Hold it!”

Justin jumped.  “What?”  And he trotted toward Mark.

I caught up to find the circle of Mark’s flashlight illuminating a wet box of abandoned pornos.  Mark snatched one up and looked down at us.

“You guys probably don’t even know what to do with this,” he said, waving a spread in front of us.

Justin grabbed another one.  “Yes we do,” he said in as grown-up a voice he could manage.  I knew he just wanted to feel a part of his new family.

I walked back up the creek.  The clucks and gasps of the guys faded.  I found my stick standing in the mud and squatted down and poked around some more.  Mark was right.  I didn’t know what to do with a box of pornos.

I heard Justin run up behind me.

“Are we going,” I asked, and there was no response.  I turned around.  No one was there.  I could see the faint beams circling Mark and Justin’s feet in the distance.

And then I couldn’t see them.  I couldn’t see anything but trees and Kill Creek, but it felt like there were people standing all around me, and the trees closed in.  And now it felt like there were hundreds of people and more were crowding toward the center, which was me.  It got harder to breath, and I felt crushed.  I couldn’t speak, and I was so crushed that it was even hard to swallow.  I tried to turn my head, and I couldn’t because there were so many invisible bodies pressed up against me, and that’s when Justin’s flashlight cut through everything.  I fell to my knees in the mud and caught my breath.

“You okay?” Justin knelt beside me.

“C’mon, Peckers,” Mark said, his arms wrapped around the collapsing cardboard box.

Justin helped me up, then ran to catch up with Mark.  They disappeared quickly.  I followed.  It felt like my feet weighed a thousand pounds.  Like I was dragging the dead weight of a thousand spirits holding onto my ankles, hoping for escape from whatever hell they were stuck in.

Mark made fun of me when I got into the car, but I couldn’t hear him because my lungs were in my ears.  I wasn’t scared of Mark anymore.  He was all mouth.

As I rode home in the back seat next to a box of wet, muddy pornos I thought about how heavy I felt and how I probably wouldn’t be able to fall asleep tonight.  If ever.



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