Duple (Story A Day May)

Having missed Story-A-Day-May yesterday, I give you a double story today:

1. Crawling through the underbelly of a city was not something I envisioned doing in my lifetime, which amounted to all of thirty-seven years and eleven months. Yet here I was, hands and knees, sparse clothing covering what needed covering, a helmet made of a cut-in-half soccer ball resting on my shaggy once-shaved head. Palms dirty, knees beyond, nose unable to smell anything anymore. It was a new low. Literally.

2. They say that cities have character. That Rome feels different than London feels different than Istanbul different from Tokyo from Paris from Cairo New Delhi Amman Tel Aviv Moscow Bridgetown Cape Town… It’s true. Each of us is different, created from the underbellies of human filth and the topsoil of human kindness, the biblical animals of the sea and sky and beasts of the earth covering us and the scientific spellbinding microscopic germs and plain-to-see beetles spreading themselves widely across us. Years and months and hands and knees don’t mean a thing to us. We’re larger than that and smaller too. We are multitude and each singular.

1. I wish I could say I was looking for an engagement ring, one hidden in a roll or at the bottom of a glass of champagne, but I hadn’t tasted either bread or bubbly for some years. I subsisted mostly on leftover chips at McDonald’s and the soup made of too many things without proper names served in kitchens when I was lucky. I wish I could say I was looking for anything at all down there, in the sewer pipe between two larger tunnels but the truth was I wasn’t looking. I hadn’t gotten to that point yet. When you’re running away from something, you tend to only start looking for a hiding or resting place when you’re sure you’re not being pursued anymore, or at least that you have a decent advantage on the other person. Persons. Beings. Whatever it is that’s chasing you. Or, in this case, me.

2. We spawn. Cities do. We create things imagined by too many people to ignore, things that we listen to intently in nightmares and daydreams, things described and things hidden behind walls of consciousness. We give birth not only to the biologically sound but to the criminally insane visions of murderers and CEOs alike. Sometimes we allow our creations to escape the place where only we can see them – what do you think we create them for if not for our own amusement? We know human patterns, and they become dull after a generation or two. Watching your reactions to visions and impossibilities, to things that go bump in the night or Tinkerbell in the day is almost as amusing as natural disasters on our outskirts. As a general rule, we don’t love those disasters happening inside us. It tends to be painful in all sorts of ways that we couldn’t explain to beings like you with sensory underload. Five senses and you think maybe a sixth and that’s a lot? If only you know how limited you are.

1. I’d always thought of the seventh sense as something that few people had. I’d discovered it when I lost everything. Them’s big words: “lost everything.” An exaggeration, maybe, but when my hands and knees were dirty and disgusting and yet only a little worse than they’d been for the last few years, being dramatic didn’t seem like altogether blowing things out of proportion. Especially when something was pursuing me. It skittled and scuttled and my helmet-soccer-ball made the noise reverberate in my ears even more so I wasn’t sure if I was getting any farther away or what. I was certain, though, that I wouldn’t be able to run forever. When I realized that, I stopped. I was in another tunnel between two hallway-sized areas, on my hands and knees again, but I maneuvered so I was leaning my minimally clad back against the clammy wall. The reason I had so few clothes on was because I’d left most of them in my hiding spot and let myself walk around in the July heat with the sun on my skin, which felt nice, and rare. Until I started being chased. Now, when I turned my head to see the thing with the tick-tick-tick feet that was chasing me, I saw that it had stopped too. It looked at me, cocking its body or head or whatever the glowing bit with the eyes was, and then turned and scampered off in the other direction. My heart pounded and I thought I’d have a heart attack, but I’d survived worse, and I probably would again.

2. When we get tired of entertainment we let them go, our prey, our bait, our playing-with-our-food-toys. We’re all different, cities, but we all agree that if there’s something we share, something vital, it’s a nasty streak a stratosphere wide and a galaxy high. Think we’re bad? Try living in the suburbs.

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No, I Won’t Have a Heart Attack

When I know that they… And I know that I… There is a space in between where something happens and… But what if the shoe was on the other hand, tied tight with a sock puppet buried inside, casketed? Some things are best left unexplained, unexamined, unreliable, unrefined, underwater, undefined.

So when they… And I… And we together… And if only they wouldn’t… If only I couldn’t… There is a space in between where nothing needs to happen but… And what if the sock was in the laundry hamper, with a pair of jeans with tissue inside a pocket, and the washer/dryer at the laundromat covered all your shirts with white puffballs? Nothing would be clean, holy, sanctified, refined, defined, examined, but it would be explained: tissue in your jeans’ pocket.

And where do you… and they… How do we all… Doing things isn’t as hard as the space between where nothing happens and nothing proceeds and movement is restricted to peripheral limbs only, creating a vacuum of the face, an inability to speak or hear or see the evil, if it is evil, or the good, if it is good, or the grey, the in between, which most things are.

When you know that I… And that they… Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t I be working on things other than midnight lyrics and fortune cookie lines running through my head at a speed too fast to keep track of? So when my coffee gets… And I want to… Because there’s more but not enough… What then? What do I do then?

In the morning afterlight, the spaces in between come close together, the light drains out the Dark Matter, and a face as light as air and heavy as a stone is yours or theirs and… But maybe… Because… And after all… You understand me, don’t you?

Don’t word things at me, hurl them if you must but don’t be delicate. Remember I am not a poet. I am a straightforward mess of a manchild and my expressions are few and far between. So if… And I know that if also… Am I here with you or am I alone? Where are the spaces in between where I found you?

Because… And here I’m being serious, take my words for it, because what if… And that actually… And you aren’t… And I’m not… But what about them? And my jeans? And where is my coffee and my running shoes and sock puppet? Where are my underwear and where is my jersey, where are my shorts and where are my headphones. I’m going out to… I’ll be back when…

No, I won’t have a heart attack. Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be home for dinner.

Mindfulness

It’s a hard sell. Mind minus body. The lumbering meaty thing is still there, with all its joints and hemoglobin and heart conditions. It doesn’t leave you just because you decide to value that tangled web of firing neurons and chemical imbalances called a brain.

You do value it. Of course you do. It’s what makes your body tick, it’s what allows you to run on the treadmill and eat falafelĀ from a food truck at 3am with your date,

No, that’s not right. That’s your brain.

Is your brain the same thing as your mind?

It’s that kind of night. The kind where you’re asking stupid philosophical questions and waving a white flag of defeat in front of your responsibilities. You’re done. You’re through. No more tonight. You need a rest.

So how do you convince people to see your mind over your body? It’s hovering there, your mind, above and around and in between all of your bodily functions and orifices and fortunate features. But it doesn’t overlay them. It just sort of shimmers. Sometimes it gets noticed. But not usually.

No, when you walk down the street to the post office to send the birthday present you’ve owed your mother for three months now and the rent check you’ve owed for slightly longer, you are not a mind above a body. You are a theoretical person, with a theoretical mind, but mostly you are simply a collection of limbs and features that are recognized as human.

Are you?

Is anyone?

It really is that kind of night. Shut your mind off. Let your brain wander. Watch some TV. Stop thinking about that girl you saw on the train and wanted to talk to. She’s long gone. She doesn’t exist in your world anymore.

Does she exist at all then?

Does it matter?

Shut up.

Unexpected Royalty

“It was not cute,” my roommate said. “I’m not a screamer or anything, but eugh.”

That was the day the large rat made its entrance into our lives. It was an innocuous enough beginning. Nobody, not even my sturdy, stalwart roommate, likes to be faced with a rat as big as a tennis racket is long when going to the garbage room of the apartment building. Seeing them in the subway, running across the tracks and somehow always avoiding the third rail – that’s cute. But having one sit there and stare at you is an entirely different story.

I’m not the kind of guy who thinks of girls as wusses, but I was pretty surprised when my roommate wouldn’t let the subject of the rat go.

“Seriously, Mal, I’m telling you, it was so big, and it was just staring at me. You don’t understand. It had this look…”

“Yeah, okay, but you wipe the asses of old men all day for a living. How is a rat worse?”

She glared. “That’s not all I do and you know it. Look, I know that it’s not exactly sexy, going into geriatrics, but it’s important, okay, like how would you like it if you were eighty and in the hospital and all the nurses kept talking to you like you were four and–”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re too easy to get, you know.”

She swatted me with the kitchen towel and threatened she wouldn’t share her food. The rat was forgotten at least then.

It was my turn to take the garbage out the next week. I pushed the responsibility off by shoving the yuck in the can down again and again with bits of cardboard from the recycling bin (which also needed clearing). When I couldn’t avoid it anymore, I made myself mouth-breathe, tied the bag, and took it down to the absolutely disgusting garbage room.

There are always flies hovering around it, a dark cloud of them buzzing and flying in geometric shapes, over and over again. One night, when I was really high, I speculated that maybe the shapes they made were runes, spells, and that it was flies that kept the earth twirling and going round the sun. The idea stuck with me, unlike most of my stoned babble, and it made me wary of swatting them.

I pushed the garbage room door open and swung the bag back in an arc so I could toss it all the way in without setting foot inside the room. Before I let the bag loose, though, a fat brown rat caught my eye. The bag swung back down and pendulumed a little in my upraised hand. I didn’t really notice. I suppose I kept my hold on it by sheer instinct.

I was mesmerized. This rat – it was positively majestic. It was the Cleopatra of rats. The Henry VIII of rats. The freaking Freddie Mercury of rats. It had a scar across its left eye and one of its protruding front teeth was chipped. Its grey fur was matted but it looked like a coat bought from the Salvation Army, like a vintage delicacy scrounged from the bargain bin. There should have been a soundtrack of a guitar solo going.

It – I have no idea how you tell rat gender – was also slouched sideways, kind of leaning towards one hip. If it had eyebrows, it would only have been raising one. This rat, this cool as a mofo rat, was basically asking me what the hell did I think I was doing, barging into its domain.

There was squeak, the only squeak I’ve ever heard that had a smoker’s rasp to it, and I could swear the intonation was the same as “get the hell out of here,” as spoken by any impatient bartender getting rid of a shoeless customer.

I took the garbage next door and tossed it in their garbage room.

When I got back upstairs, I asked my roommate if she’d thrown the garbage in there with the rat last week.

“What rat?”

“Oh come on. You know which rat.”

“…you’ve seen it?”

“Have I. Have I!”

“So you know,” she breathed.

“Why did you pretend to be disgusted by it?”

“What else could I do? Tell you that the King of All Rats is presiding over our very garbage room? You’d have told me I was insane.”

“I guess. But now I understand. I get it. We have royalty here.”

“Yes. And you know what makes us. Courtiers.”

That- that was just the beginning of our involvement with the rat.

X [Sci-Fi Flash Fiction]

Month: May.
Year: 2212.
Location: Undisclosed.
Subject: X.

Regarding X. It is hard to know where to begin. Discussing X has always been, in my line of work, a sensitive issue. They’ll hit you when you’re down, they told me in training. They’ll find your most vulnerable spot, and they’ll hit it, over and over again. I was trained to lock my mind – the only part of my body that is still entirely my own – away from them if I were ever caught. Each of my memories went into its own box, it’s own safe, where even I wouldn’t be able to access it until my own people injected me with the chemical that lowered my adrenaline levels enough to take me out of the state of fight-or-flight that would be induced by capture.

This is all a matter of public record now – I have no fear of this method being employed by the enemy, since the enemy has already discovered and made full and horrifying use of some of my fellows. There is rioting in the streets of the major cities. Husbands, wives and children stamp themselves with slogans, protesting the administration turning the nation’s finest fighters into different people, bereft of the memories they hold dearest, exactly when they might make use of those memories to hold on. Too many of our people have simply died in captivity – the layperson theory being that they had nothing beloved to think of and thus no hopeful thoughts of getting out.

The layperson understands nothing. First, there is always the camaraderie. Not one of us, if trained correctly, would have simply given up for lack of love or care, because we cared for one another. Like wolf-pups, we lost our milk teeth together, fought together, fed together.

Second, there is always X. X is the one person that is left to you and is accessible. The protesters, so willing to get angry at someone for the loss of their loved ones, forget that each of us chose to join this noblest of professions, noblest of causes. It’s easier for them, no doubt. That is why they hardly ever remember to mention X in their long-winded rants. The concept of X has probably ripped some families apart – since the files were turned over to the people, they have found out who each of the dead-in-action troop’s X was. They think it’s like picking favorites.

It’s not. It’s not picking favorites. If it were, there would be a whole lot of little kids in those rosters of Xes, the sons and daughters we leave at home when we go on active duty, those angelic faces we barely get to know and whose lives we miss so much of. We don’t get to see their first implants, their first plug-ins, their first time info-drinking at school. For people like me, still living in secret facilities, we can’t even signal them because we’re cut off for all intents and purposes from the main grid.

So why aren’t there many kids on those X rosters? Because Xes are supposed to be the most vivid, incredible, memorable people you’ve ever met. They’re supposed to be a person you knew enough to know well, but who hasn’t been in your life for at least two years, and who you wish you knew more about. Why? Think about it. You can access your memories of X in the worst situation of your life – but you don’t know where they are, so you can’t put them in danger; you can keep your mind busy fantasizing about them since you didn’t get as much time with them as you wanted to; and they’re interesting enough to keep your mind busy when the rest of your pre-troop life has slipped away from you.

My X – I don’t know where she is now. But when I knew her, for the four months we dated, she had bubble-gum pink hair. I never knew anyone else who went for something so old-fashioned as dyeing their hair like she did, with this vintage bottled stuff. She had mostly her own skin and it was the softest I’d ever touched. It glowed in the moonlight. She never danced and she got angry a hell of a lot. Whenever we went out, she would check to make sure no one was looking at us and then she would hold me tighter than anyone else ever had and would tell me “You’re so smart.” And then she went away to some commune where skin-people live and I never saw her again. And I hope I never will, cause I don’t know anyone else who could be as good an X as she is.

Forgotten Ground

There is nowhere in the city where people don’t put their feet inside of their shoes, their sticky, stinking shoes, with gum and grime and dog waste and spit of a thousand disgusting young men on the bottoms of their souls. No, that is not a mistake, in case you were wondering. I never make mistakes. I am deliberate a fault, each and every one of my fault lines is purposeful and is there to make you trip and fall and break your necks, the same necks you take such pains to make smooth with operations and suctions of various sorts and different kinds of nips and tucks and pulls and lifts, as if you can climb into an elevator and make time go back if you take it from the seventieth floor to the twentieth floor fast enough but what you forget is that the hand that you use to press the buttons will always look the same no matter what happens to the rest of you on the way.
The only places that are forgotten are misnamed thus because things that are forgotten are done so by accident, but these, these places are as purposeful and deliberate as each of the cracks I put in the sidewalks for you to slip and trip and pool your blood and life and your lifeblood in. The forgotten grounds are always remembered by those who live in them and wish they could forget about them and return to the places they came from, the places they used to live and that they fled from because they thought that they could come here, where everything is oh so much better because that’s what you tell them on your black boxes with people smiling so brightly with little white pearls replacing their teeth.
There are no forgotten grounds. There are only those neglected by the shoes of those who think that their souls are so much cleaner and that their behinds never let out a single spray of brown waste and that there is nothing but smooth plastic between their legs and that the pits between their arms smell of the sweetest perfume at all times. Those people don’t even really think that this is the truth but they wish it was so deeply that they try to make everyone else in the world believe that it is and it is there, in their minds and hearts, that the real forgotten wastelands of kindness and feeling and truth lie.

Remembrance

Contrary to popular opinion, James E. Jones was not rich. He had a rich name, this is true, and he wore beautiful clothing to school every day. But what nobody knew was that the clothes were all his father’s and that he wore them because the family couldn’t afford to buy new clothing for him. It was lucky for James E. Jones that he grew up very quickly and that by seventh grade he was as tall as his father, because it meant that when he started junior high, all the other kids thought he was rich. At his old school, everyone had laughed at him for his strange, grownup clothing.
Now James E. Jones was in high school, and he was going to graduate soon. He had never been to a party and had never kissed a girl. He had friends, though. They were two boys who were interested in math and science just like him, didn’t go to parties just like him and had never kissed girls – again, just like him. They were the outcasts, this group of three overgrown boys. As seniors, they were all lucky enough to have passed the weedy phase, and they looked like they were approaching manhood, but their minds and hearts were still too young for their overgrown limbs and their chest hair.
It was on a day in March that James E. Jones decided to do something. He’d been thinking for a long time that he hadn’t really, truly, done anything in his life. Sure, he’d kept the secret of his family’s intense poverty, just like his parents had always asked him to, but that wasn’t anything special, that was second nature by now. It was true also that he’d won first prize at the science fair for two years running – the first time for building a small machine that could put broken eggshells back together and the second time for managing to breed blue rabbits – but he didn’t consider that to be an achievement either. He was smart, but it wasn’t like he’d done anything in order to become so. He was just lucky that his parents were smart and had passed on their genes to him. His little sister, for instance, he considered to be dumb as a doorpost, but he loved her just as he would have loved someone intelligent, because it wasn’t her fault that she found infinitely more interest in playing dress-up with her friends than in reading James E. Jones’ kids’ science magazines that he’d stolen from the school library years ago.
He wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted it to be his own, something personal that nobody else could join in on. He wanted to do something that would make a mark, give him one day that he would remember forever, and hopefully also allow others to remember him, too.
There were a few brief moments when he thought about finding a gun and shooting up his classmates. He knew that would allow him to be remembered in the school forever, but it would be in infamy. He wanted attention – he admitted this freely – but he didn’t want to be hated or abused. He knew that some people who shot up their schools were given sympathy by the media and even, occasionally, by other classmates, but he didn’t think that anyone at his school knew him well enough to award him with some kind of sad and shocked understanding.
He thought about committing suicide, too. He didn’t really see much point in life, and when he thought about it, lying on his bed and looking at the marks on the low ceiling where he’d squashed mosquitoes over the years, he realized that he’d never found much reason for living. He was rarely actively happy. At most, he was engaged. He wondered whether there was something wrong with him, but he figured that if there was, someone would have noticed it by now and done something about it. Committing suicide was too risky, though. What if he lived? Then he would just feel pathetic for the rest of his life, and his attempt would be remembered as just another failed and misguided plea for help.
The days and weeks slipped by and James E. Jones still hadn’t made up his mind. He had almost reached a decision and a plan had half formed in his mind on the last day of classes. His thoughts were buried deep within his mind that morning as he walked towards school. He didn’t notice the truck that was zooming up the highway that he had to cross over to get to school. When the memorial service was over, and the school library was renamed after him even though his parents couldn’t donate any money for it, James E. Jones got what he wanted.