I need a place to stay for the night. I’m commuting two hours to school and can’t splurge on gas to make two trips in two days. I make a call to a friend. It’s been a while since we’ve talked. He answers in two rings. Before I can ask a favor, he tells me come over. My phone is dying. I scrawl the directions in my notebook.
I make the drive to Alameda, wondering how long it’s been since I’ve seen him. Just over a year. We were the last of six to move out. It’s dusk when I pull up to his house. His roommate lets me in and tells me he isn’t home. I call him.
He answers: “I just got home.”
I tell him I’m here.
“Are you telling me the call is coming from inside the house?”
I open the door, welcoming him into his own home. A good, long hug follows.
Sometimes it’s awkward seeing a friend after an extended absence. There are the people we used to be and the people we are now, and it can be hard to tell how much is left of the person we remember. Sometimes the middle section in the friendship Venn diagram gets too small to hold. Those people take up ninety percent of my Facebook feed.
That’s not what this is. This is an instance where two friends part ways for a while and pick up right where they left off. We crack jokes, talk at annoying volumes, and laugh about our failures du jour. Before long, we’re sharing books, quotes from authors who inspire us, and little snippets of our own creations.
We mack some burgs and reminisce about how we used to buy a pack of cigarettes after lectures and hate ourselves for it. It’s a reminder that we’ve grown up—in some ways.
We watch Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, and he rewinds the movie every time we start talking even though we’ve both seen it before. He says that if he doesn’t, we’ll miss critical character development.
It’s after one o’clock when the movie ends. We watch an episode of The Simpsons. We play a card game until 3:30. I tell him we should have blown up the air mattress earlier, but turns out he has a great air mattress. It’s got a built-in pump that’s real quiet. Before long, we’re talking about our relationships. I’m no longer crashing at a friend’s house—this is a full-blown sleepover.
Why is it that a sleepover demands that all members of the party be in pajamas and tucked in bed before talking about feelings? Maybe this is a guy thing, meaning it’s likely that emotional repression brought on by toxic masculinity has caused us to only speak truthfully about love only under a literal blanket of protection. We’re older now; we’ve seen therapists! We can talk openly about our feelings, sure, but it’s just easier when we’re cozy. The moment is not unlike when, after a long day, my dog lays on his back and lets me scratch his belly. We call it a night at 5:30, but the sun is almost up. We’re well into morning.
At 9:15, my alarm reminds me of an impending phone interview. It’s for food stamps. I scramble around the room gathering necessities. My eyelids weigh heavy, but I’m awake. I walk outside and the morning air whispers you can do anything and I believe it because I’m twenty-five and I don’t know any better. The rest of the world is worried about when a boy becomes a man. Growing up in California, I’ve only ever been a dude. But after a night of friendship, I feel like a kid again.
Even though my trailer park butted against the stilted drive-in screen, the fence made it so I couldn’t see the movies for free. But I could still hear them.
The drive-in used speakers you hooked on your car window. They got ripped from the stands when the cars took off and the owner got tired of fixing them. So he put the movie sound on 89.9 FM so you could hear the movie on your car’s radio.
If you drove down 144 late at night, and listened to 90.1 FM, which was WTTX OUTLAW KOUNTRY, and you passed the drive-in, the movie sound would cut-in for a mile or so before it would fade back into David Allan Coe.
I tuned my Barbie clock radio and waited for it to get dark. I listened to the movies with my dad. If the drive-in played a movie we’d both seen a hundred times, we acted-out the scenes and lip synced the talking. We had our little adaptations right there in the living room. The drunker dad was the better actor he was. When there were new movies we hadn’t ever seen, Dad left because he was only ever interested in things he’d already seen, and I’d lay in bed listening and I’d cast my actors and paint my scenery and cut away and fade and dissolve.
In the winter when the drive-in was closed I watched my Unsolved Mystery tapes. I watched them alone and it got dark early. Some of the stories scared me so bad that I wore several pairs of panties to bed. In my mind it helped with two things: a raper would have a hard time and if I had nightmares and wet the bed all of the layers of underwear would keep my bed dry.
I tried to peek over the drive-in’s sheet metal fence but it was too high and too sharp to climb. I couldn’t sneak in either because somebody sat in the ticketbooth all night. But it wasn’t a total waste of time because I liked to investigate the sweet smell that came from somewhere along the fence. It smelled like Teddy Grahams. I sniffed the leaves and the clusters of showy flowers but I couldn’t locate it. The hot air really made it smell.
The movie sounds with no pictures and the Teddy Graham smell were what kept me from running away. They were my own unsolved mysteries.
But then I started riding around with boys and sneaking into the drive-in was easy when two or three of us girls hid in the truck bed under a tarp or in the backseat covered with a sleeping bag. Four or five of us got into a double feature for four bucks that way as long as we stopped giggling and were still. The smell of the Teddy Grahams was masked by our boozy breath and the boys’ stink of creosote and cum. We never stayed for both movies or we forgot what we saw. It turned out we made our own movies and I wasn’t missing anything I hadn’t already seen. Ours were better. I didn’t like watching beautiful people on screen try to make me feel things that weren’t really there. I liked making my own scenes.
Once I was taken out to the pastures, somehow alone with somebody. The boy said he was taking me out to podunk with him so we’d get abducted by aliens. He told me the story of Barney & Betty and I told him I’d seen them on Unsolved Mysteries and he got me all witless. We parked by some substation and he flashed his headlights over the sleeping cattle to attract the mothership. All that did was scare away the bats and attract the lightning bugs. He tried to touch me and I tried to stop him. The back of his neck smelled like raw pie dough. I smelled like the hot metal handles of a merry-go-round.
We sped through clouds of lightning bugs until their phosphorescent ooze was smashed out and covered every inch of the car. Until the car was glow-in-the-dark. Until we looked like the mothership we wanted to be taken up in.
“You ever seen Repo Man?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Well that’s what our car looks like right now. The car in Repo Man. I hope we start flying away.”
We went faster and he turned the radio up louder. This was our adaptation.
He brought me back to the trailer park. I walked along the fence drive-in fence and found that Teddy Graham smell because the booze evaporated and the boys were gone. I could tell finally that the source of the smell wasn’t from one thing. The smell was an amalgamation. The smell was all the flowers and weeds and roadkill and trash and exhaust. I picked the smell apart into its pieces. I didn’t sense a whole anymore.
With both mysteries solved, I felt untethered but not free. I saw where I had been tied and what was used to tie me there. I thought I’d drift. But all I wanted was to find another mystery that I wouldn’t be able to solve. I didn’t want a bigger world. I didn’t want to know anything anymore. All I could do was be a mystery myself so I got wild until I didn’t know who I was. Until I was like a merry-go-round. Sort of spinning until there were many transparent copies of me. So many of me nobody knew which one to grab a hold of. I drifted and I couldn’t see what I’d been tied to anymore, at least. I knew it was still there. And here I am now trying to cut that piece away that’s still dragging behind me.
Adam is a writer and lives with his wife in Franklin, Indiana.
The plan was to drive down from the city to my mom’s place to cut the lawn, maybe do some aerating, play with the dog. She called me that morning and said her friend Smokey’s basement had flooded. Everything was wet and fucked: the carpet, the couches, the treadmill piled with rollerblades.
Smokey was crying in the garage when I showed up. Mom hugged her and she cried and cried. She put her head on Mom’s shoulder, cigarette dangling out the side of her mouth, and kept on crying. I found out later that Smokey had to put her mom in hospice two days earlier. I felt bad before and more after that. Bad things happen to good people sometimes, but lately they happen a lot.
Smokey’s real name is Cheryl, but everyone at the hospital calls her Smokey because she smokes a lot. Nicknames don’t need to be clever.
I went down to the basement and Smokey’s husband, Bob, was taking pictures for the insurance. He pointed his phone at the carpet, the couches, the treadmill piled with rollerblades. Everything smelled musty and damp. Click click click his thumb went on the phone. The shelves of books lining the walls, the soggy brown boxes of Christmas decorations.
“I needa get it all,” Bob said, “needa get every dollar.”
“You got valuables down here, Bob?”
“Nah this is all junk.”
I started grabbing whatever was close and carrying it up the stairs. I moved stuff from the basement to the living room. I carried one box up the stairs. And I carried another box. I carried random stuff not in boxes up the stairs. I did this for like an hour.
This is some stuff I carried: tubs of winter coats and fake Christmas trees, bathroom rugs, shower rods, folding chairs, folding tables, family photos, photo albums, metal signs, stacks of wood, fishing poles, baseball bats, the treadmill, the rollerblades, candles, clocks, boots, gloves, a soccer ball in a milkcrate, some more candles, a mini whiteboard, and a shit ton more of candles.
I thought about what I’d be doing if it hadn’t rained: mowing grass, just doin’ lines back and forth, back and forth.
I’d do the front yard first because it was more complicated with trees and landscaping. Plus the driveway. You always want your east–to–west lines to match up on either side of the driveway. Not matching up your east–to–west lines is the sign of an amateur. My mom doesn’t care, but I do. That’s me looking out for her: my dear mother who tells me to get whatever beer I want and put it on her card, and tries to give me her credit card, even though all I drink is High Life from the bottle and have for years, and it’s like seven bucks for a twelve-pack, Mom.
That’s what I’d be doing if not for the rain. But it rained, so here I was. Here I am. Here we were.
Doin’ lines back and forth.
Sweat popped on my forehead and under my arms. My boots sloshed in the rain water that had invaded their basement. I plopped a soggy box down in the living room. It was getting crowded with junk already and there was still a lot left downstairs. This wasn’t going to work.
“Smokey,” I said. “We needa get a storage unit. Like a POD.”
She looked at the stacks of crap in her living room. She considered the boxes of the crap and unboxed crap downstairs. Then she said, “You’re right.”
So I called the storage unit places. The first place was closed. The second place’s phone just kept ringing. When I called the third place, they answered by the name of the second place. Eventually I got one to be delivered in a couple hours. In the meantime, I started moving the junk from the living room to the garage. The soggy boxes started falling apart, disintegrating into sloppy nothings.
“Smokey,” I said. “We need bins.”
She looked at the soggy boxes disintegrating into nothing. She considered the loose junk still downstairs. Then she said, “You’re right.”
“I needa go to Menards.”
I love Menards. I always save big money when I shop there. They always have what I’m looking for, and the aisles are wide and well-marked. I happened to find myself down the one with the air compressors.
They were on sale. I’d been price-checking compressors for weeks. You have no idea. An air compressor is useful for a lot of things: inflating stuff, powering a nail gun. I imagined placing the hose between my lips and filling myself with air, filling myself more and more until I was crunchy like Rice Krispies. I wanted to be inflated. I wanted to feel full.
Then a little voice in my head said Hey, you’re here for storage bins. So I went to look at the bins. I found some good sturdy ones and bought fifteen on sale for the price of ten.
I always save big money there. Always.
I came back from Menards and Bob was in the garage, moving boxes around. I watched him from the edge of the driveway for a bit. He took a box from a stack and carried it to the other side of the garage. Then he moved it a few feet over. Then he muttered something to himself and moved the box again. Then he muttered some more, this time with his hands involved. Oh shit, the little voice said, Bob’s starting to lose it. Not you too, Bob. You’re my rock. I need you to be strong, Bob. There’s so much war left to fight. Look, I just picked up some bins.
Bob saw me standing there and kind of shook his head. We both knew I’d saw what I’d saw and there was no use saying anything about it.
“I’m no good at this,” Bob said.
I set down a stack of bins and started dumping loose candles into one.
“Me either,” I said. “No one is. No one should want to be.”
I could hear Smokey yelling from inside.
Bob said, “Smokey’s starting to lose it in there. Probably good to stay out here.”
It probably was, but I went inside anyway.
Inside Smokey and my Mom stood at opposite ends of the kitchen table. My mom gave me a look like You should probably go back outside. But it was too late.
“Kevin,” Smokey said. “Do you think I should get ridda dis table?”
“Why would you get rid of your kitchen table?”
“I hate it,” Smokey said.
“But you needa kitchen table. Where you gonna eat?”
“On da floor.”
“I think you should wait,” my mom said. “Maybe sleep on it.”
“I’m not sleeping on my kitchen table.” Smokey lit a cigarette. “I’m not supposta smoke inside, but fuck it. My whole house is fucking upside down.”
I looked at the floor. I looked at the table. I looked at my mom.
“I don’t do disorder, Kevin,” Smokey yelled. “I’m organized.”
She opened the cabinet by the stove. It was full of Tupperware.
“Look at dis!” she yelled. “I keep da lids here and da bowls here.”
She took a long inhale of her cigarette.
“Everything has a home. I have AD… OCD!”
“We all have our quirks,” I said.
Smokey is really religious, so I thought about adding in something about us being God’s children, but everyone in the room would know I was bullshitting. Smokey was still showing me her cabinets. This wasn’t a time for bullshitting.
“I’m not getting enough oxygen to my brain,” she said, tipping her cigarette ash into the sink. “Don’t tell Bob I’m smoking inside.”
She collapsed into a chair. Mom rubbed her neck.
“Bob,” Smokey yelled at the ceiling.
The garage door opened and Bob poked his head in the kitchen. “What?”
“I needa pop.”
Back in the basement, I took photo albums from the shelves and stacked them in the bins. The basement walls were lined with shelves piled floor to ceiling with photo albums. You’ve never seen so many photo albums, trust me.
Smokey came down stairs, saw me putting all these photo albums in bins. “Now we’re cooking with business.”
A photo album slipped from my hand and fell open on the floor.
“Who even are these people?” I said.
Smokey looked at it.“Dat’s da neighbor kids from ’04 to ’05.”
And then she started telling me about the other ones, even though I hadn’t ask.
“Dat one dere is my niece’s volleyball games. Dis one’s of the old house. Dis one’s baby pictures from ’92.”
But then she started taking albums out of the bins.
“Aw. Dis is Jim and Nancy at one of da block parties,” Smokey said. “Dey’re divorced.”
“Who?” Bob said, coming down the stairs.
“Little Jimmy.” Smokey handed the photo to Bob.
“Little Jimmy? Nah, you mean Big Jimmy.”
“Well, the son’s taller than the dad,” I said.
“Big Jimmy is getting a divorce.”
“Been divorced,” Smokey said. “Now he’s buying da house back from her.”
“Where’s she moving?”
“I think she’s staying.”
“Dey share custody of da dogs.”
I stopped listening and slammed the lid on one of the bins and started for the stairs.
I imagined dumping a bag of cut grass into a yard bin. Breathing in that grass clipping air, getting all full on cut lawn air—that’s all I wanted.
“Here’s one of you,” Smokey said.
I turned around. She had a picture of my little sister sitting on tile floor with a vacuum.
“That’s not me, that’s Liz.”
“Well here’s a picture of your sister den.”
There was my sister. A head of big brown curls. She couldn’t’ve be older than three.
“I useta run the vacuum when you kids wouldn’t stop crying.”
“That’d make us stop crying?”
“Not really, it just kinda drowned you out.”
I carried more bins up the stairs. Turn right into the kitchen, then walk sideways around the kitchen table I convinced Smokey to keep. Wedge the bin against the wall to open the garage screen door. Then out the garage to the POD. I did this for hours.
Just doin’ lines back and forth.
At some point I wandered into the utility room to find Bob fighting with the sump pump. He had his arm elbow-deep in it, a towel around his neck because he was sweating so much. He turned it over and dumped out a bunch of brown water.
“You’re not gonna to believe this,” he said, picking something off the cement floor.
“Believe what?” I said.
He showed me what was in his hand.
A soggy cigarette butt.
That’s all it took. To do all this. To do this all.
Just the ass end of a cigarette.
“Don’t tell Smokey,” Bob said. The fluorescent shop lights gleamed off his shiny forehead. “It’d break her.”
I tossed the cigarette end back in the sump pump and carried it up the stairs and outside to the trash.
I found Smokey standing under the basketball hoop smoking.
We gave each other a nod. Then she let out a long sigh and said “Yep.”
“Sorry about your mom.”
“Me too. But thank you.”
She smacked her pack of cigarettes into her palm and handed me one. I borrowed her lighter. “Don’t tell me my mom.”
We smoked and looked out at the front yard. Down the street, a car returned to a driveway. A flag flapped on a pole. The sun was setting and the maples were making big shadows on the grass. Big lines stretching. Oh my, look at all that beautiful grass.
“Smokey, let me ask you something,” I said finally. “Who cuts your grass?”
“Bob or the neighbor kid, usually.” She squashed here cigarette out on the cement. “Why, you wanna do it?”
Some stuff I should mention:
My mom never offers to buy me alcohol. She discourages drinking while operating machinery.
She has a friend named Smokey, but this happened to a different friend.
Bob is a real person.
It wasn’t a cigarette that flooded the basement. It was a Band-Aid.
Everyone was milling around the lab waiting for the meeting to start when Hailey told me we were going to the amateur adult film festival.
‘You’re going to this with me and Brian,’ she said. ‘No significant others.’
Brian came up beside me. ‘Did she tell you we’re going to that porn thing?’
‘I already bought you a ticket,’ Hailey said. ‘You need to pay me back.’
We met at a bar on the north side of town. My girlfriend was working. Hailey left her boyfriend at home. Brian didn’t have to worry about it—he had just gotten out of a five-year relationship. They’d owned a house together, a Jeep, two pugs. He’d joked about finding a ring and she’d told him straight up that she would never marry him. He found a room in a house three blocks from the lab and had been living there for a couple weeks when I first met him. The ex had already bought him out of the car and the house, but they still shared custody of the dogs then. It would take an entire year to break him on that. By the time we were at the bar on the north side of town, he was drinking every day and too much, juggling three girls, and hooking up with his ex every time he went over to walk the dogs just as a fuck-you to her new boyfriend. One of the girls I never met, much less learned her name. Val was nice but all I remember about her was that she had dark hair and all of her friends were lesbians. I think Brian kept her around because she let him borrow her car. Stacy, the last girl, was about ten years younger than Brian, a few years younger than either Hailey or I. She was pleasant in a dumb way and, according to Brian, loved cocaine and sex in the bathtub.
Hailey could barely sit still, giddily leading us in a round of sexual confessions. ‘Dude, okay,’ she was saying, ‘I absolutely love it when a guy licks my asshole. Obviously I’ve never had Greg do it—’ Greg was her boyfriend, ‘—but back in college or if I knew it was going to be a one-night stand, I was always like get back there and make it happen, I don’t care if you get a disease.’
It was my turn. ‘Well, Megan is on birth control but last week she got super horny during one of those stretches where she’s on the placebos. We were out of condoms so she flopped over on the bed and shouted, Fuck it! Just put it in my ass!’
Hailey snort-laughed, sending bits of her vegan meatball sub crumbling across the table. ‘That’s so Catholic! I love it.’
Brian was making a face, a half scowl hidden in his pint glass. ‘That’s gross. I don’t do butt stuff. It’s a one-way street.’
‘I mean, yeah, with that attitude,’ I said.
‘I’ll bet you’d love getting your asshole eaten,’ Hailey said. ‘Anyway, good luck dealing with this fucking porn festival then.’
Brian’s phone buzzed. ‘Oh nice. Stacy’s here. She’s right out front.’
Hailey looked like he’d just slapped her. ‘What? Fuckin—what happened to no boyfriends or girlfriends?’
‘She wanted to go and it’s not like she’s my girlfriend.’ He used air quotes here.
Stacy arrived at the table with an oblivious smile. ‘I’m so excited! A movie fest! Wow.’ It was pretty clear Brian had not specified the style of films that would be shown. In her defense, its name was relatively benign. It could’ve been anything. ‘So, like, what’s the plan? Are we going straight there? I’ve already got my tickets.’
Hailey looked to me as if I could somehow disappear this girl. ‘We’re gonna take a cab to a whiskey bar down the street from the theater, have a drink or two, then go in.’
‘Oh cool,’ Stacy said. ‘I hope they have tequila. I don’t like whiskey at all. But I love tequila.’
Hailey puckered her lips. I hadn’t known her that long—I’d only been at the lab four months—but this was by far the angriest I’d ever seen her.
As we were paying up, Stacy got a text. ‘Holy shit, my friend is in town. I haven’t seen him since high school. Should I tell him to meet us at the whiskey bar?’
Before Hailey could protest, Brian cut in, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s add another one.’
I don’t remember who was at fault, but we all ordered the special—a habanero bourbon that tasted like someone had simply mixed ground up pepper seeds and ribs into Maker’s Mark. The shots had us all choking. We sipped our little glasses to the bottom, complaining the entire time.
I was buzzed enough to be sociable towards Stacy. ‘So, who’s this friend we’re meeting?’
‘Oh, he’s like my best friend from back home. I haven’t seen him in years. He was like super Christian back then, basically a Mormon. I’m surprised he even wanted to come to a bar.’
When he did show up, he shook all of our hands and introduced himself as Chet, surveyed our empty shot glasses and asked the server for one of what we were drinking. He looked exactly the type of golden retriever I expected.
His shot arrived and I said, ‘Watch out, it’s pretty—’
He tossed it back. Immediately, he let out a trio of bronchial coughs. It sounded like someone had stabbed him through the lung with a screwdriver. ‘Oh my goodness,’ he said through an embarrassed smile, blinking tears out of his eyes. ‘Whew! You all did that?’
He asked what our plans were for the night and Stacy told him about the film festival. He ordered tickets on his phone.
The fest itself was fine—short films about pegging, nipple clamps, orgies, graphic blowjobs, gimp masks, a couple of narrative pieces—none of it was particularly sexy, which I think was mostly the point. Very little of it was compelling, which seemed less purposeful. Still, as each new title card flickered across the screen, Hailey would slap my thigh and stage whisper, ‘Ooh, watch this!’ as if I could do anything else.
Afterward, back on the street, Hailey was buzzing, in possession of too much blood moving too quickly, and asked if she could buy me a drink. She led our group to a crowded dive. Everyone split between trying to squeeze their way up to the bar or stake out a place in line for the bathroom. I didn’t want part in either so I stepped out front. Chet was standing next to the entrance, staring off into the middle distance.
‘Hey, man,’ I said. ‘What’d you think of the fest?’
He kept his eyes on some unknown point in space. He looked like someone had beaten the shit out of him spiritually. ‘I saw things that I will never be able to un-see. I just—I don’t know what to do with that.’
‘Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad.’
‘Yes. Yes, it was,’ he said, getting angry. ‘It was that bad. I don’t think things can be the same anymore. I’ve seen stuff now. I don’t think I can even be the same person. I’m, I don’t know, different.’
‘Hey, take this.’ Hailey stood in the doorway sloshing the head of a beer all over her hands. ‘You need to come inside to drink it.’
I turned back to try and bring Chet inside, but he was gone, just completely vanished. I never saw him again, never heard what became of him. When I think of Chet, like I’m thinking of him now, I always imagine him happy, freed of unnecessary shame and fulfilled by his fall from grace. I know it could easily be the opposite.
Aaron Block is a graduate student at Oregon State University.
In this video (the kid says) he walks us through the foolproof steps to killing yourself. One: put
on a tune! (He puts on a tune.) The tune should not be melodramatic, but should (he stresses) stand up to postmortem analysis. (The tune builds. Synth, muted percussion. I walk around with a handglove, / shrugging my shoulders, / fucking up everything.) Two: video! Even though, well. Maybe this should be the first step? (He sighs.) Never mind! (At this a rehearsed smirk.) Three: text the ones you love. Ideally something simple. (He shows us his phone. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.) Four: turn off your phone! (He turns off his phone.) Five: attempt to kill yourself. Do your best to make it appear real! (Cross-legged on a baby-blue carpet, his back against a spackled wall. The light belongs to either an early morning or a late afternoon. The T-shirt he wears is ambiguously stained and bears C-3PO’s beaten-gold face. Now hold open the door so I can fall in. Hold open the door so I can fall in. Elsewhere, muted, someone laughs. The kid laughs, too. Then he lifts a knife from the floor at his side and horizontally slashes across both wrists.) Six (he manages): wait to be found. Do not cut too deep, if you choose to go this route. Perpendicular to the veins. Permit the blood to clot, the wound to heal. Or perhaps take pills. Less dramatic. Also less risky. (There’s no more sun, / and no more light shines through. The blood does not clot. And still the blood does not clot. He wipes his wrists upon his shirt, staining it further. Panicking, he attempts to rise, and sways, and falls upon the floor, face-first. Off-screen, muted, someone laughs. The video cuts out.)
A familiar disorientation, this. One deriving from either the original Blair Witch or any of its sequels or copycats. A human face steals the scene from leaf-littered earth. Baby face. Flushed cheeks. Watercolored eyes the same color as the eggshell fragments we glimpse above and beyond him through warm-colored leaves. His breath smokes. It is cold. “I’m sorry—” he says, breathes. “But—it’s been a minute since I’ve gotten out. So if we don’t bag anything. Sorry. Anyway.” He breathes.
But he does. He bags many and without mercy. It is a crisp fall day and couples and families are out. They fall with hardly a sound. In another sort of film, one more traditionally shot, we hear a high whistle as the man’s missiles search out their marks, a satisfying thwack as they find them and sink. In another story, the hunter’s victims scream. A group of his would-be victims forms. They fight back. A couple (either old or young, old or new) survives, thereby asserting the importance and indomitability of love. But in this film we hear only the man’s heavy breathing, the steady progress of his heavy boots crushing fallen leaves.
Colin Lubner writes (in English) and teaches (math) in southern New Jersey. His work has either appeared or will appear, temporally speaking. Recent pieces can be found through his He is keeping on keeping on.
I blew my nose this morning. I know it’s gross to say but it was a big honking load of snot. I opened the tissue afterwards, to examine my harvest. What had I reaped?
I mean, was that the locket I gave my high school girlfriend? Was that a ticket stub from the baseball game where I got drunk and fell down the stairs? Was that a ragged piece of my own body, snipped away by an arrogant surgeon?
There was this green army man I stuck in my pocket when I was eight, who went through the wash and lost a hand. I promoted him to the grizzled captaincy of my ragtag force (from Navarone). He punched a whole crapload of Nazis with those binoculars in his left hand!
A crumpled can of Natty Light, too. I bet it was from that liquor store. You know? The one you and Billy and I’d hit on the way to the “ugly” bar? We’d grab a six-pack and drink some but always donate one to the old guy slumped on the sidewalk outside. Joe. That’s what we called him, even if it wasn’t his name. Do you think he minded? Probably not.
There was a lot of sand.
Was that the sand from the beach where Jules and I made out behind the palms? Or the one where the waves slammed me down and, I think looking back, I came away with a concussion? Was it the sand from all the beaches ever, all mixed up?
Or was it just the sand from every empty lot I ever crawled through and every worksite I ever sweated over? That gray-brown sand, not the good white stuff.
There was a rusty chunk of my honor, a jagged piece of my dignity, and plenty of tarnished copper hopes.
And there was so much more. I wanted to save some of it but, in the end, I just folded the tissue and tucked it into the garbage can, pushing it deep down under other, bloodier tissues and lengths of rancid floss. Easier that way.
Still the questions linger, though. Am I the hero of this play? Or its villain?
Levi Krain rose from a clear, cold northern lake and enveloped a small midwestern city. Since then, he has moved on to greater things and now resides in the heart of Lovecraft country where he spins tales and refuses to drink the water from the well. His fiction has twice placed in The Molotov Cocktail flash contests.
There’s a hole in my eye. I don’t think people notice it but that’s probably good. It might freak them out, especially if they got close enough to look through the hole to the other side.
My good eye sees the people talking to me, clear as day, like you see me now. But through that peephole in my other eye, I can see the coming darkness. The creeping doom and crawling chaos set to engulf us all.
Yeah, all of us.
It’s not pretty. And it’s not a fun power, or whatever, to have.
“Goodbye,” I think to myself, as people talk about new cars, new homes, old girlfriends, rich husbands, medications, and jobs.
Do they notice the sad set of my mouth when they talk about their children? I hope not. I don’t want to bum anyone out. You know?
“That’s so sad,” I say to myself when they talk about the future, about dreams and aspirations. I have to concentrate on not shaking my head and pursing my lips.
Does that sound fun to you?
Plus, it’s hard knowing what to say to people. I don’t want to lie, of course, but I don’t think they’re ready to hear about the end, either. I’ve opted to be polite, like when someone asks you if their new haircut looks good or when someone shows off a new car. You say something polite, right? Even if you hate it.
So, like, when my brother told me he and his wife had decided to have children, I said, “Won’t that be wonderful.” It’s not going to be anything, of course. But I can let them enjoy the thought of it. I even smiled to add to the moment. He’s my brother.
Or, when a colleague said she was pursuing her dream of starting her own business, I told her, “That’s going to be great.” Didn’t do me or her any harm, pretending like that.
One day, my friend Frank told me how bad things have gotten with his wife. She kicked him out. He never saw his kids anymore. In a dark moment, half-drunk, he said, “Maybe I should end it all. No one would miss me.”
“No. Don’t bother, Frank,” I said. I patted him on the back, tried to be reassuring. “It’ll all be over soon.”
He didn’t seem reassured. But he took my advice, so maybe I was helpful without saying too much.
I have looked into the mirror, you know. To satisfy my curiosity. I looked closely. Right down into that hole in my eye.
I wasn’t going to tell you this but I think I figured something out. Remember when I told you I can see what’s coming, the end that’s coming? Now I think I know where it’s coming from.
I’m not proud of it. It’s just a fact. Like when you’re the fastest runner in your class. Or you did really well in the stock market. I looked inside there and now I know it’s getting bigger and there’s no stopping it, so don’t bother trying.
Well, this isn’t something I feel the need to brag about, that’s all I’m saying.
No, I’m not winking at you! Ha-ha! I’m just trying to get one last good look at you, that’s all.
With the good eye.
Levi Krain rose from a clear, cold northern lake and enveloped a small midwestern city. Since then, he has moved on to greater things and now resides in the heart of Lovecraft country where he spins tales and refuses to drink the water from the well. His fiction has twice placed in The Molotov Cocktail flash contests.
We don’t carry baggage, we carry lassos and the time has come to move on, rope someone else with our feelings, drag their nights behind our galloping will and hope they survive the long, painful cut through the mud. It’s not that I mind the gesture. It’s hard to sever ties, so we might as well start by trimming the fat before we remove the heart entirely. It’s just a picture. Two people smiling about something, with a filter that made us look like sepia gods, soaked in the sun of a beautiful, infinite day. But I can’t stop thinking about the morning of. We stopped for breakfast and you told me, in between bites of your McGriddle, that thing I promised I’d never repeat, I reciprocated and we cried, guiding our horses for another round of circling the barrels long-since filled with poison from our respective upbringings. But we drove and eventually, we parked. We found the sun and shed the greater weight for the smaller moment. For company so perfect we had to save it. Smile into your camera and preserve the day. Celebrate. Not because we found happiness, but because we’d found each other.
But fuck me, I guess.
Timothy Tarkelly is a poet from Southeast Kansas. He’s had two books published by Spartan Press. When he’s not writing he teaches English to Ninth Graders. One of them recently described his ponytail as “immaculate.”
Save for the few movie nights in my room or hers next door, or that awkward fight we had about how I wasn’t any fun because I didn’t go anywhere with her or Sarah — which made me cry for feeling inadequate as a friend, even though they lived life in a much faster lane, while I was preoccupied with depression and the kind of anxiety that makes you want to rip your skin off, even just walking across campus during broad daylight, and as a result of our different lifestyles, no one chose me as a roommate for the following year — Mindy didn’t know me all that well or the childhood experiences I had that forced me to become a shell of myself, never opening up in an unabashed, raw way, or share what I really felt or what I was really going through, or keep a journal because, deep down, I knew that my well-being depended on no one finding it, to know that shoving one of her leftover condoms (thank G.O.D. unopened) from her Spring break trip with Bill (the poor schmuck she strung along for months on end), into the plastic case holding my bed-in-a-bag, facing it upwards so my mother could see it when she helped me move out of my freshman-year dorm room for the summer, was not humorous. Mindy’s malicious “Oh, don’t forget your condoms!” as she stood in her doorway, while I made my way past her to the elevator, disgusted my mother and mortified me. Red-faced, I ripped it from the bag and threw it back at Mindy’s feet, insisting that the condom wasn’t mine, knowing the idea would be lost on Mindy that her move was a low-blow. And as convincing as I tried to sound that Mindy was playing a dirty trick on me, it mattered not. My mother’s scorn, coupled with my immeasurable embarrassment and guilt, hung over me during our short ride home, thick as clinging, overgrown ivy that never seems to die no matter how much you keep cutting and ripping.
Christine M. Estel lives and writes in the Philadelphia area. She tweets from @EstellingAStory.
On the sacred recommendation of the head chef in my kitchen, my best friend John and I traversed the breadth of Kansas state to the hum of Pink Floyd over the radio. Being immigrants, we were unfamiliar folk to the corn-sodden great midwestern expanse. For the satisfaction of our coastal curiosities, there seemed no method more appropriate to rectify this modern problem than the all-American road-trip, though in part too carefully curated with the technological luxuries of the 21st century. We bought a paper atlas, but even the desolate Black Hills are wired.
When we left the better half of Kansas City, my phone guided us to the long west. His was plugged umbilically into the aux. There was a sort of alchemic equivalency to this that seemed only fair and natural, like Newtonian physics, or well-established inheritance law. We needed direction, so we needed a soundtrack. My chef recommended the 1973 album, so we were obliged to abide.
I’m sure you’ve heard of it already, but don’t stop me. Let me have this moment. There’s the old rumor of non-causality that if you begin The Dark Side of the Moon at the same moment as the beloved Judy Garland film classic of 1939, a synergistic effect will present itself. Tornadoes tamed by screaming and brain damage resolved with basslines. Witnessing this act of alignment is something I have never done, fully intend to do someday, and lie about constantly that I already have. It’s a hyperactively celebrated rite of passage for era-hopping tab-eaters, the point of no return down the long-melting reality screen. What a load, right? Alan Parsons would agree with me. People microdose now anyhow and over-analyze these things. It’s not lost on me that we’re in Kansas. You can imagine it, if you squint.
That’s how it goes, yeah? You’ve listened to it once, at least. It always starts with a double-take. Speak to Me came in so quiet that we had to check the cable, pulling it out a couple times and blowing in the hole like bad porn or an old Sega cart. Don’t bullshit, we all do it. The only person on this Earth who never does is my chef, and I can assure you that’s only because he spends eight hours of each six days of work hitting dislike on the shop Pandora if it queues anything out of the Peter Gabriel—Neil Diamond musical range. This man is my spiritual father. Mine did alright, but I like this one’s taste in music better. He agrees that The Chain should have been the first song on Rumors. My father does not. No contest.
Rising with the track, the low morning clouds began to leak. A storm had followed us hot from the church-crack Sturgis lightning to the sweltering and sudden outpour of Chicago that soaked our socks and pruned our toes with warm, wet moisture as we hiked down Michigan Avenue. The first screams of the album welcomed in the rain and shook it like a sieve above us.
John rose from his slouch in the half-reclined shotgun seat and stiffened upright with messy angular contractions, the opening notes of a recognizable bit. Everything is a bit. His hands scrambled for purchase, slapping the center console, the right-hand handle, the child-safety lock, the glove compartment. His eyes widened, his lips tightened, he whipped his head from left to right, methodical and out of synch with the frantic ministrations of his palms against plastic. We have known each other enough, and I have yet to determine if this is social exaggeration or if this is as genuine as his anything. The adolescent textures of Roger Waters had his full attention.
The volume of falling water increased as the last chords of Breathe faded out and the driving beat of On the Run faded in. At the two-minute swell of distortion, my mouth began to creep along the edges of my face, rising up at the corners but never breaking its concealment of my teeth. The gentle drizzle had aggregated into a perpendicular firehose. The excitement in our carpeted Corolla was palpable in expletives. The death-portent of the Synthi AKS made us feel dangerous.
Around the third minute, we exited the thundercloud with the deep force bass of an airplane impact, suddenly crashing through the wall of rain and into the open sky. We were running now along the Kansas highway with the pattering fallout footfalls of the bomb behind us. With no hope of recovery from our synchronistic amazement, the cacophonous arrival of Time sealed us into a suggestible hallucinogenic state. It could only have been psychosomatic, but does that really matter? Just listen.
Sound never really dies. It exists in the aether, all around us, and under specific circumstances, it finds itself tapped and summoned. The same could be said of decades of collective hallucination, or that thing about if you crack your spine, all the acid you’ve ever taken will bubble right back up again. Nick Mason was guiding us down like Virgil through the rings, surrounded by the laughing ghosts of long-dead psychonauts and burners, all the way through to the frozen circle, where David Gilmour’s wrinkled fist punched upwards from the depths and loomed until it burst before us like a mortar.
Of a giddy shock, John pealed. I could see the little black pockmarks of his face expanding and reddening like an acidic vision. Certainly it was only the heat and our skin opened up like beggars’ hands to the atmospheric moisture, but the fantasy was fun to indulge. We spend more time dreaming about drugs than actually doing them.
Serenaded by overlapping reverb, the highway skipped us up and down, like the steady pulses of a waveform generator, bobbing us along the amps through to the sixth minute, where each respective lambda lengthened and trough shallowed until we were deposited again on level road. The grey canvas of the sky melted behind us, and Clare Torry began to scream, welcoming the reborn sun and splitting the west before us. I could catch in John’s eyes the frightened awe of God presented in the form of endless corn. She kept us tense for perceptive hours, brandishing a vocal knife and not quite sheathing it until we touched down at the bottom of the greatest gig there ever was: four seconds of silence.
Startled by the slamming registers of Money, snipping my nerves at their split ends enough for the hair to grow again, I was bumped back into the confines of my skull. I hadn’t noticed it until I pressed a finger into each eyelid that we were slick, sweating like pigs. We had finally hit the clarity threshold of the trip non-trip. If I had learned anything of the many kitchens I have fried in, there’s always a moment like this. We’d get back shortly to the shitshow, after our milk-crate smoke break. John dabbed his tee up to his blistering forehead and carded back loose hair. He was smiling with his teeth, grimacing, bopping his chin to the wicked baseline. This was the booth at the nightclub at the bottom of Judecca. John laughs. Fucking Gilmore, what a prick.
I should say here that John isn’t the shitbag that I am. He’s a good guy. Honest. His parents built their lives to take him home from school. I was emancipated for tax purposes. There’s a particular kind of insufferable that comes of prolonged close contact, and his I could love as fondness. Likewise, he chose me on the expectation that I’d offer a measure of wisdom to his developing deadhead sensibilities. I am not nearly the chaos wizard he presumes me to be, but he doesn’t need to know that.
What he did need to know is what I’d said the day before, responding to his orgasm in the dining room of Joe’s Barbeque about two hundred and thirty-six miles behind the state line. I wish I enjoyed anything in life as much as he enjoyed everything. Good food, better music. Chair cushions, air conditioning. The honest happy relish of no exaggeration. Is it the depression or is it too many lysergic daydreams and ketamine bathrooms? Am I doomed to a Charonic fate, psychopomping all my friendships through amping crests that I will never know again myself? Fuck these contemplations of a lifetime addict: ultimately futile, all the same result. I shouldn’t care so much. We’re ordering our last shots at five minutes fifteen. We’ve got to prepare ourselves for this shit, because we’re getting back into the heat any minute now. Henry McCullough tells us he was drunk at the time.
Our thoughts dissolved in the drone of the Hammond organ and were sucked by the circulating car fans. My skull vibrated in F minor by the time the saxophone appears ahead of us on the highway, notes rising out of the distant spots of steaming asphalt, like tiny pools of water, ever out of reach. We had fallen again into a perfect silence. I was nauseous and without fear. This was a late-stage familiarity so truthful to me that I almost forgot that this was only music and that was only Kansas. In God’s country, I marveled at the power of belief.
John surrendered himself to faith. Never in his life had I seen him lose that fine and anxious edge of an arm so ramrod straight against his side that the armpit ceases to exist. He relaxed in that moment, shoulders flush and curved against the cushion of the seat, slipping down until he was playing footsie with the gum wrappers and beef jerky in the abyss. I was pleased to be ferrying this Styx, but something nagged me as I watched him melt. We coasted all the way through Any Colour You Like, soothed by solos. It was long past the peak and we’d be alright.
I didn’t put it together then, but hindsight is a bitter mistress, making an education of me always, and I know now what it was. I hope John never does drugs. I fear I’ll lose him if I put him into the business, one way or another. I’d sooner bear the burden of guilty paternal control than the exponential guilt of squandering a young man’s potential. I was just out of it enough that I kept hearing Crazy Diamond on the track and expecting a rise, but it never came. That’s the wrong album, and there was only the brilliant mirage ahead. The nearest ocean was six thousand miles away and I couldn’t say I wasn’t nervous with the thought.
John didn’t notice me grip the wheel as we rolled into minute one second sixteen, Brain Damage exploding in our ears like the bewilderment at the end of the 8 hour ride. He looked like he should be gripping the wheel instead. Chill out, man, we’re almost at the bottom. We can go to bed soon, I promise. This, I can impart without remorse. We’re the only lunatics for miles around.
We were a little more prepared for minute two second thirty. John took the drum line in, gently slapping the console to the toms, and we dove in for a last little high as we entered Eclipse, rubbing our gums with what remained on the plate. He’d gained a little experience. By the end, you always feel professional.
The last word of the name is the last word of the album. It’s poetic, and we felt smart in our silly, momentary analysis of the thing. There’s just so much more to it, probably. The Hammond coasted to a smooth finish, an extended note, and, just like that, it was done. It was over. We were silent through the last heartbeats of the album, listening to our own, looking at the corn, the sea of the fucking thing. It looked so lovely, after the rain. The American dream of what heaven must be, the sprawling sun in the wide open, golden west.
That was pretty good, wasn’t it?
We put on Rumors. There were still thousands of miles to no place like home.
Adrian Belmes is a reasonably depressed Jewish-Ukrainian poet and book artist residing currently in San Diego. He is editor in chief of Badlung Press. You can find him at adrianbelmes.com or @adrian_belmes.