The Peabody Museum (1965)
New Haven, CT
Finally come to that congested case
and the counterfeit specimens
pinned to air –
Wood Thrush and Meadow
Lark, the Scarlet and Blue-
Gray Tanager; pressed to view
the hummingbirds encased
in gilded throats of flowers,
then ushered to another exposition:
fossils from the Cambrian
Era. Poorly feigned
interest and worked clear
to songbirds in glass,
to a habitat of shadow
and flitted to a space where
all was tree-born hues
and wood notes hushed by glass;
there I came to know
how to listen and hear again.
Failed to fathom, though,
how feathers stirred in stagnant air;
or why nests of Blue-
Winged Warblers were placed
so close to ground; the House Wren
awkwardly perched upon a shoe;
the unsettling eye of the Vireo;
the pale green eggs of the Siskin
and the oval, flat-flared
face of a Snowy
Owl. Noted, too,
the raptors and how they
and sought to blend
with sun into air;
dissolving in kestrel-blue;
Kingfishers studying how light
bends and travels past
water. The soft architecture
of air and shadow.
Through time held dear
the buntings and orioles;
then a patch of sky and coal
that burned through glass
to eyes that never knew
trees harbored orange-gold
or drowsy blue; still wait to hear
their small, painted throats
displace the sad conjecture
of grackles and crows.
Travelogues at The Bushnell Memorial
- Hartford, CT
Ample hours each Sunday spent within
the nap-time air of the mezzanine where
proper ladies in pastels and pearls would come
and be afforded single seats by flashlight – no
doting companion to read aloud beside their
dying ear or idle layabout to relish the snag
of sound and crisp shush of stockings rubbing
thighs. Dearest acquaintances politely join in
the muffled applause of linen gloves as the
matinee began with a deeper-than-winter
turning down of lights – transporting them
towards long-intended destinations of blue-
green archipelagos, parks or fjords or, perhaps,
a cosmopolitan capitol filled with courtyards
of indulgent light -- always the warm, forgiving
faces of people awaiting their arrival when
lavish curtains slumped and lights lifted and
they, too, would rise, heel for balance and
bob their way towards the loge and outer
lobby to configure this week’s calendar for
collations and cards; others long ago drifted off
to sleep beneath the dim constellations dancing over-
head, elegantly weathering to a dusty gold and gray.
Christian Ward is a UK-based writer who can be recently found in Red Ogre Review, Discretionary Love and Stone Poetry Journal. Future poems will be appearing in Tipton Poetry Journal, BlueHouse Journal and elsewhere.
Wordsworth Tries Instagram
Streets turned to tundra
after a lunchtime argument:
A scattering of Snow Petrels
for pigeons. Red foxes for cats.
With not enough warmth between us
to make it thaw to grassland,
I suggested waiting until it passed.
You choose to disappear into
the incoming freeze like a Snow
Leopard, passing your coat of cold
to me when you came back.
I haven't been able to take it off since.
One, a miniature sea slug
encased in glass. Another,
a soft toy's beady eye. The last
displays the northern lights.
They retain their quality
even when violently flicked
across the playground tarmac.
How disappointed their creators
must be with us.
In the ancient forests
of central Mexico,
they shine brighter
than all the torches
lit by the local tribes.
Pity the dead
arguing like a pair
of jaguars over a kill.
A Minor Acquaintance
My mother's minor Italian
acquaintance, loud and voluminous
like a Rubenesque cloud,
is pestering her to knit something
for her great-granddaughter
due to arrive next month.
Browsing the children's clothing
in the supermarket, I tell her it's not
necessary since she's just a minor
acquaintance and can't drown anyone
out, no matter the request. My mother
shrinks like an overwashed garment
while remembering the distance
between herself and her daughters.
She longs to connect again, no matter
how minor the connection.
Brian Rihlmann lives in Reno, Nevada. His work has appeared in many magazines, including Chiron Review, The Main Street Rag, The American Journal Of Poetry, and New York Quarterly. He has authored three collections of poetry, most recently “A Screaming Place,” (2021) by Cajun Mutt Press.
as Tony departs for the evening
leaving me alone in the building
he says Make sure ya
lock this door....
it’s getting dark and
a lotta whack jobs
come through here at night
Ok, I say, Have a good one
I follow him out and stand there
a moment, peering into the twilight
he’s not wrong
about a lot of people
walking through here
though I see no one now
the road through the grounds
is a shortcut to the mental hospital
the veteran’s hospital
a direct path for day laborers and hobos
on their way to Fisherman’s Park
the river and the rails
I see them throughout the day
some hobble through on crutches
they carry their lives in duffle bags
or shopping carts
they shuffle through
usually with their heads down
and then disappear
as I go back in and lock the door
against the coming darkness
I wonder if they transform
into werewolves at night
like we obviously believe
Born (1952) and raised in tribal reserve of Jhabua, India, Dharmpal is a Toronto based Author. He writes in Hindi and has six published books- four collections of satirical essays and two collections of Poetry. He is a columnist for three prestigious journals Chankya Varta, Setu and Vishwagatha. His works have also appeared in prestigious Hindi journals across the world. He is currently working on a full-length collection in English. FB: https://www.facebook.com/djain2017 Web page – www.dharmtoronto.com
cut the tree and
separate it from the earth.
Motorized hands pick the stem
and remove the branches.
Motorized hands give a shape
to the wood – a standard
length, thickness, and height.
Motorized hands tear up
a jungle overnight
and wipe out the beauty of the earth.
Motorized hands, one day,
will grab the Man
and guide Him to its motorized mouth.
His Prayer Be answered
His heart beats faster while praying,
there is no bomb hidden,
no armored gunman,
no one masking with monkey cap.
May all leave fine from here.
May my prayers be answered.
I do not like
when bullets tear apart faith,
especially when life is at stake.
HE whom you trust most
doesn't seem to be around anywhere.
I don’t know if HE is scared of
his followers’ intentions.
There is tight security across,
people in queues are worried.
No one can catch
the miscreants who think ill,
not even God.
HE would be surprised
HE is unseen and so are his guys.
Stadiums, auditoriums, or trains:
never know when
these might turn
into sites of massacre like Jallianwala.
It takes no time for a person
to transform into General Dyer.
Airplanes in the sky,
trucks running on the roads,
cars parked on the streets, and
bicycles chained at stands:
Satan may love anything anytime.
Unable to restore a smile on my companion,
it seems he is thinking
about whether he will reach home safely.
May his prayers be answered.
about the crowd of
many suns like ours,
overlords of their respective solar systems
with endless prospects of life;
and, perhaps, with the enticement
of making one immortal in their gravity?
about the rainbow
across which live
many gods and goddesses,
enjoying endless opulence and pleasures
while creating the rules of Heaven?
Why think about
the wombs of the bottomless oceans
that carries Cows of Plenty,
desire Fulfilling Trees,
pearls, night jasmine,
best horses, beautiful women,
and a jar of nectar granting eternal life?
Why think about all that
when the earth, I know, is
the best fit of all?
you will touch me.
When I touch you
my mind comes to rest
as if a cyclone has stopped in the ocean.
A mild smile spreads across my face.
I keep looking at you
with this hope
you will see me.
When I touch you
I feel mutterings within my heart.
Listen to the vibrations of the beats
for there is a song in the making,
blooming with this hope
you will hear me.
you just do not tell me.
THE BRIDE'S PERFECT DAY
The old Hispanic church is sophisticatedly and ornately decorated with white roses and white tulips— her mother’s favorite. The place is like a garden heaving with greens and whites. Hanging on the windows are white shiny satin curtains with overlapping folds, ruffles, and twirls accentuated by fresh flowers. The bright red carpet that runs from the door to the altar is speckled with white rose petals forming small whirls as the soft wind blows from the door. This surreal ambiance is made more solemn by the bright orange light from the row of chandelier hanging low from the ceiling. Every detail and every decor in every corner is well thought by the bride and her groom. They know this special place by heart for this is where they first met. It was about five years ago; they were both young, fervent to their dreams, passionate in their craft, focused, independent, carrier- oriented, yet— when they met, they decided to give love a chance... and it was worthwhile. Since that day and until now, her love for him and his love for her has never wavered.
When the white curtains are drawn. She eagerly yet tensely takes her first step with a deep breath. She is so overwhelmed and so emotional that she has to hold back her tears so as not to ruin her makeup. She takes every step like a goddess in a grand stroll. As she walks, everyone beholds the most beautiful and stunning bride on her wedding day. The crowd seems blurry in her sight for her only thought is to reach the altar where her dashing groom awaits.
In every step, she reminisces the moments that led her to this day. She remembers her childhood with her loving mother and father by her side. Her parents who sacrificed their own happiness just to provide her with all her needs. Her mother who showed her the most genuine love in the world. Her father who selflessly cherished her and supported her and her dreams. She thinks of her younger sister and her brother... their sleepless nights playing tirelessly and their petty fights. Her siblings who gave her the best childhood memories. Her silly loving crazy companions— her best buddies for life.
In the next steps, she thinks of her closest friends. Her amazing friends whom she met along the way. The most jolly and high-spirited individuals who made her life even more wonderful. The best people she admires, she loves, and forever will cherish.
As she comes near the altar. She looks at her groom, her dashing groom in his gray suit. The ‘One’ in a billion who is made for her—her soulmate, her twin flame, her other half. The one who brightens her days and makes her feel more alive. A listening ear, her shoulder to cry on. Her source of strength whenever she feels tired and weak. The one who patiently and lovingly stayed by her side on days when she felt unsure of herself. Her motivation, her peace, her comfort— her home.
This glorious day, this beautiful wedding, is finally happening. The joy that this very moment brings in her heart is incomparable. She has never been more certain that this man, this love— to be by his side, to be the mother of their children will be her greatest dream in life.
As the ethereal music from the violin and cello resonates in the church, she slowly raises her eyes and through her bridal veil, she sees a faint narrow beam of light peeking through the shattered stained glass atop the altar.
She knows it is time.
The memories of this moment, her love, her family, her friends, her excitement, her pain... This perfect day, the best of all the days, shall forever stay with her as the long train of her white gown, her dress, her arms, all of her are slowly… gradually… fading in thin air. In the break of the day, she vanishes with much anticipation eager to walk again on this aisle and do this all over again in the night.
SIX DOG TAGS
On this day, despite the loneliness and emptiness that we still feel, I and my mom decided to go to Aunt Becky's to welcome the New Year with relatives and close friends. This has been a nonformal tradition for us. A joyous gathering in the neighborhood which concludes in the lighting of the grand fireworks display making the gathering extra special and memorable.
At the stroke of midnight, the bright and colorful lights ceaselessly illuminated the cloudless sky. While everyone cheered in amazement, I could see tears rolling down from my mother's eyes as she admired the beautiful vibrant colors dancing, gleaming up above. She missed my father so much that mine couldn't even compare. My mother has been silently mourning, trying to be strong to keep going. She lost not only her husband, but her best friend, dear companion, the love of her life- her protector, her shield. We both lost the only man who brought love, joy, and life to our family that no amount of colors could ever paint.
It was in 2018 when the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was ambushed by an apparent insider attack in a remote village in Afghanistan. Reports indicated that an individual in an Afghan uniform opened fire on the combined U.S. and Afghan force with a machine gun and improvised bombs. One was severely wounded and six soldiers were killed during combat operations. The 7th Special Forces Group Headquarters immediately notified the families of the fate of their loved ones. We were there waiting at the military base when the bodies of the six fallen heroes arrived on a C17 aircraft. Loud sobbing and wailing were heard as families mourned when the decorated coffins were carried out one by one. The only survivor, the captain of the troop, who was wheeled from the transport aircraft, could no longer serve in the military for he lost both of limbs in the attack.
As the fireworks kept roaring, I remembered our last New Year celebration with my dad at Aunt Becky's . Our relatives and family friends were all delighted when they learned that my dad would be joining us that night. He was the clown of the party- the man with a contagious laughter. When the grand fireworks display started, I noticed that my dad was not around so I hurriedly went inside the house to get him. As the sound of the fireworks started echoing even louder, I found my dad at the kitchen floor cowering in the corner, covering his ears—trembling. I was shaken with what I saw but I never told anyone, even my mom. I knew that my dad would never have wanted me to see him like that so I kept what I saw to myself. After the loud spectacular show, my dad casually stepped out of the house. I ran quickly to him and I gave him the warmest hug that I could give. I could still feel him trembling but he managed to smile and kissed me on the forehead. In the following month, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
It has been very difficult for me most especially for my mom. The pain of suddenly being left on our own was sometimes unbearable. Those who have experienced great loss couldn’t agree more. I despise war. I despise bloodshed. I despise cruelty. My heart mourns with families whose loved ones died under circumstances that could have been avoided. I weep for the precious lives taken away without remorse. ‘Combat fatality’, ‘civilian casualties’, ‘collateral damage’ -- nameless people who just fall under statistics. Six soldiers died, hundreds of people dead, seven students killed. Aren't their lives as important as anyone's? Dreams lost, future stolen in just a blink of an eye.
When the grand fireworks display was over, my mother and I started walking home. Neither of us had anything to say. From outside, anyone could feel the dull atmosphere of our lifeless house. Only the light from the lamp in the living room could be seen illuminating from the window. The loud laughter and hearty giggles were never heard echoing since the day we lost my dad.
My mother slowly opened the door and I followed her inside. I put my bag on the sofa and I looked at him as he sat by the window like how we left him—staring at the void, not moving, never disturbed. With the faint light from the lamp reflecting on his face, my dad's dull eyes were fixed on something only him could see. In his hands he held tight the six dilapidated dog tags of his men.
The One- Winged Angel
Fino was quite a pitiful sight to see from the sky as he was the only angel who roamed on the ground. Every morning, before I flew to the clouds for my daily duties, I would see him fetching water from a nearby stream using a bowl of leaves to water his garden of tulips that he planted around his tree. Yes, each angel has his own tree. From the time an angel comes into being, a tree is also born. Trees serve as a resting place for our tired wings, our place of comfort– our own haven. Mine stood nearest to his tree which he planted with his bare hands. It was about a hundred years or so when he came to this side of the realm tired, weary, dragging himself on his feet like a defeated warrior. With nowhere to stay, he grew and nurtured his own tree until it became as sturdy as ours.
Fino was the only angel with rough calloused hands scarred from the splinters and wounds from toiling. I saw how he cultivated his garden from the moment he first tilled the soil with his bare hands using small branches from his tree. He carried boulders of stone from the valley past the meadow to build a low wall around his garden— which gave me a clear impression that he wanted to be left alone. It was with a heavy heart seeing him walked on foot with an unsteady gait balancing the weight of big rocks and his only wing. It was a sight of persistence yet a futile endeavor— an unnecessary labor. Flowers of all kinds and of all colors bloom everywhere. They need not be planted here in paradise. Each kind of flower blooms in its own season and wilts to give way for other flowers to be adored. We have seen this cycle of blooming and wilting in Fino's garden but he seemed imperturbable—unabated. For me, he was a sight of an ardent angel still persevering to have a purpose to his existence.
One time while I was resting on my tree, I saw him standing at his garden looking up to the sky with an expression so full of wonder. I saw a bit of a smile painted on his weary face. Perhaps he was imagining himself flying through the clouds–the wind under his wings, hovering above mountains, soaring through the cold breeze to the majestic heights, and gliding over the wonderful regions in the sky. I couldn't imagine how Fino must have felt all these years wandering on the ground all by himself. Then I saw him looked down on his flowers—the smile disappeared and the expression of his face turned to its usual. He slightly flapped his wing, his one useless wing. It must have been really hard for him.
Then came the day that none of us would ever forget. There was a spectacle in the sky so rare that all of the angels resting on nearby trees hurriedly flew in midair just to have a closer look at the very odd sight that we have never seen even in a thousand years. A peculiar angel suddenly appeared hovering above Fino’s garden. Angels of hundreds in number watched as she gracefully flapped her wings. Hundreds and thousands of angels from the realms in the sky curiously descended and watched her as she circled above the tree.
Fino emerged from the shade when he heard the loud flapping of innumerable wings above him. His hands dropped on his side as he looked up with great disbelief. It was the sight that he could only see in his dreams. All of the angels watched in astonishment as the angel in black and white wings took a slow descent on Fino's garden. He stood astounded as he could not believe that this moment has finally come. The two peculiar angels seemed frozen in time as they looked at each other with eyes speaking a thousand of words. It was in this moment that we finally understood what Fino had gone through.
We watched him as he walked slowly towards the angel in black and white wings. Tears began to fall as he spoke to her.
"Have you seen the world?" asked Fino.
She embraced him tight, and with a shaky voice she replied,
"Yes I have..., " she paused as tears streamed from her eyes, "... I'm sorry it took me a while to find a tree surrounded by red tulips."
THE WITCH UNDER THE MOONBEAM
Despite the lad’s cheerful whistling, his heart was fast racing. It was throbbing so loud as the stories from the woodcutters kept running in his head. It was the story about the gruesome horrid witch who wanders in the woods at night. The ghoulish creature with her crooked teeth, long hawked-like nose, and pale skin roams around hunting beasts and killing them savagely. There were stories of woodcutters hearing creepy resonating laughter as they pass through the dark woods. Some travelers saw dead animals by the road with torn ligaments, broken bones, and most of these lay dead without hearts.
The lad was almost finished with his chore when he heard a sweet melody carried by the wind. A cold feeling ran through his veins. Was it the witch?— he thought. But the melody was so beautiful and so soothing that he willed to find where it was coming from so eagerly as if he was enchanted.
Through the thorny bushes and the undergrowth and over the barks of fallen trees, his feet led him to the meadow of daffodils deep in the dark woods. There he saw something from a distance— a maiden in white dress standing under the moonbeam amidst the crowd of wild daffodils. He stepped back in surprise as he thought he was seeing a ghost. But no ghost could have looked as lovely as this maiden, he thought. Then he remembered the story of the atrocious ugly witch that has been lurking in the dark woods. His mind discarded the thought. The angelic being in the meadow of daffodils could not possibly be that horrifying witch.
He watched her as she gathered flowers in her arms-- smelling them one by one.“ What a beauty," he said as the maiden’s face was revealed by the light from the moon. Her long black wavy hair was softly carried by the night breeze. He watched her as she carefully put the daffodils in her basket. Then after a while, she walked towards the oak tree, sat under its shade, and quietly read a book under the lamp that she brought with her.
He stood hiding in the distance mesmerized by the maiden that he didn’t notice the passing of hours. Then he remembered the saddles which he left by the stream! He must immediately return those before the day breaks. So, he hurriedly went back to the town while the sight of the maiden in the meadow lingered in his thoughts.
The next night, with much caution, he went back to the meadow of daffodils at same hour hoping to see the lovely maiden once more. His heart beat fast when he saw her again gathering flowers. He couldn’t help but adore her from a far. "If she were the witch, I was indeed charmed."
For three days he went to the same spot watching the maiden from a far. Then on the fourth night, she didn’t come. The next night, she was nowhere to be found. The lad kept coming to the meadow every night despite the danger hoping to see the maiden but he always went home crestfallen. A month passed, when he was about to lose hope, his heart was flushed with joy when he beheld the sight of the maiden under the moonbeam once more. By then he realized that the maiden only visits the meadow on full moon.
The latest terrifying rumor about the witch in the woods circled in the town. In the past days, men have seen dead animals— young animals with scratches all over, ripped tails and limbs, and hearts snatched out. The townspeople were warned never to pass through the woods most specially at night. When the lad heard of this, he thought of the maiden and he feared for her safety. He must protect her, or the least, warn her of the danger. So, on the full moon of the third month, he once again went to the meadow and decided to reveal himself.
From the bush and the undergrowth, he stood tall, brushed his clothes, and mustered all his courage to approach the maiden. The maiden was startled when she heard footsteps approaching and she was even more terrified when she saw a shadow slowly moving towards her.
"Don't be afraid, I won't harm you," said the lad as he walked closer.
The light from the moonbeam revealed the lad's face and for the first time their eyes met.
"Why are you here? Don't come close!" The girl said clutching the daffodils to herself.
"I've been coming near this meadow for some time now and I always see you gathering flowers... Don’t be afraid, I will not cause you harm. I just couldn't help admire your beauty under the moonbeam."
The maiden blushed a little.
"I am Lazdit. I live in the town. How about you? What is your name and where do you live?
"I live beyond the woods, in a village on the hills. My name is Myrrah."
" So you travel that far at night just to be here? There are rumors about the witch hunting beasts in the dark woods. Aren't you afraid?” He paused for a while, “Tell me, are you the witch?
The girl chuckled, "Do I look like a witch to you?"
" No, no, absolutely not!” he replied in haste.” Well, if you are...you don't have to snatch my heart, I will give it to you in an instant."
She laughed a little.
"In my village, we don't believe in those stories about the horrid witch in the dark woods. But I like that story. It makes people– wood cutters, flower merchants, hunters, avoid the woods. Do you see these flowers? These could have been sold by bundles in the market if not for those stories.”
“May I join you in picking flowers? I would love to gather some for my mother,” said the lad.
Under the bright moon, the lad and the maiden picked flowers while exchanging stories about anything and everything. Months after that, whenever the moon rose to its glory, the young lad would rush to the field of daffodils to meet the maiden.
"Why do you always go here at night when its full moon? It is so dangerous to be here at night.”
"I’ve been coming here for months. This is my favorite place. It's quiet here and I love the night breeze, " the maiden said in a serious tone.
"Why on full moon? I really think you are a witch. Witches love the moon," he chuckled.
"Silly. How would I see and admire the flowers here if it's pitch dark?" she replied and they both laughed.
The girl took her book and turned the pages with her delicate hand.
"What are you reading?"
"Just stories... This is the journal of my grandmother. She's a doctor in an infirmary when she was young. It’s the story of her life, her passion, her dreams, and her love for my grandfather. Someday, I want to be like her—passionate, brave, and unwavering.
"Do you stay with her?"
"No, she passed away. I live with my father. He is the village leader. He's passionate, wise, and prudent like my grandmother. He was very occupied and busy settling all the villagers' affairs that he sleeps very soundly at night, snoring loud most of the time– that’s when I creep out of the house to go here.”
“He would definitely not allow you to be here all by yourself.”
For several months, the young lad kept coming to the meadow whenever the moon floats beaming with all its radiance in the sky. He had never been so happy and so alive! His dearest acquaintance, the maiden in the meadow, had been the only thought in his mind. He enjoyed the nights they spent sharing stories and laughing until their bellies hurt. He loved spending time admiring his lovely amusing companion under the shadow of the bare branches of the lifeless oak tree.
"You are the loveliest and the kindest person I've known," the lad told her in a serious tone on the night of the ninth month while he sat beside her. "I want you to know that I began falling in love with you the first night I saw you here..."
"Love?” the girl replied with a slight disbelief.
"I couldn't help it," the boy replied, "I think I have fallen so deeply in love with you."
"Please… No. Not love,” she said with an intense tone as she stood and walked away from the boy. “I know love from the stories of my grandmother. Love is an obsession. Love makes a fool. Love is an illusion. Love makes you sacrifice anything whatever the consequences are. Love hurts you more than anything else in the world,” she said with much contention as she paced back and forth.
"No, that's not love... Love is beautiful! Love is the best feeling in the world! Accept my love and I am going to show you the love far different from what you know."
“I am afraid… I couldn’t... Your emotions are playing with you. You must be mistaken.”
“No, I am true to my words. It’s alright if you won’t accept my love right now. But I promise you, what I feel in my heart is true. And I know… somehow you felt the same too.”
As the dark clouds were fading, the lad must bid goodbye for it was almost dawn. He held her hands tenderly and declared his love once more with all sincerity. He asked her to promise him that she would be waiting for him under the oak tree on the next full moon. The lad left with his heart full of happiness and much excitement.
In the silence broken only by the soft howling of the breeze, the maiden’s tears started falling down on her cheeks.
“Did he say he loves you? said the voice from behind the oak tree.
“Yes…. Yes, grandmother, he did.” she replied as she wiped her tears inconspicuously.
“Very well… We shall all be looking forward to the next full moon,” scoffed her grandmother.
“ An innocent heart that loveth… shall fulfill thy yearning, “said the soft eerie ghostly voices from the oak tree as the lifeless tree shook and shivered. Its branches twisted and wiggled around as they transformed into ghastly old women wearing black velvet robes same as her grandmother’s.
The maiden stood pensively looking at horizon as the high-pitched laughter of many voices echoed in the meadow.
Saloni Kaul, author and poet, was published first at the age of ten and has stayed in print since on four continents, including seventeen states of the USA. As critic and columnist Saloni has enjoyed forty four years of being published. Saloni Kaul's first volume, a fifty poem collection was published in the USA in 2009. Subsequent volumes include Universal One and Essentials All.
As broadcaster Saloni had won considerable acclaim with innumerable features and documentaries to her credit as writer-producer-presenter.
Most recent Saloni Kaul poetic production has been published in The Horror Zine, Mad Swirl (contains ongoing Saloni Kaul poetry page), The Penwood Review,
The Imaginate, The Charleston Anvil, Treasure Chest, Poetry Leaves Anthology and Exhibition, Amulet Poetry Magazine, Arteidolia and Quail Bell magazine.
Upcoming publication acceptances include those of Scarlet Leaf Review, OVI and The Horror Zine (print), Amulet Poetry Magazine, Arteidolia and Quail Bell. An essay is to be published in Away Journal.
THOUGHTS ALL FORTHRIGHT
Their thoughts opinions on matters of our concern
As though age or position makes them much the wisest,
Able to take stands, magically matters discern.
From others we derive constructive counsel,
Deliberate, ruminate over, as we ought,
Keen as lover from charming damsel, Gretel from Hansel,
And oft reach tame consensus on that second thought.
In keeping with their status high they shape the state
Of mind; heedful advertent, us all they alert,
Inadvertently, they climb at accelerated rate
And many a guarded secret we readily blurt.
Involunt’ry voluntary through our mind they stream,
So Yamini we think forthright and so we dream.
TALK ALL TRANSFORMING
At each turn rise of newest plot contrive,
Bring in line, override tactics crude crass
And from the whole only pleasure derive.
Bend with your charm and subjugate with will drastic
Even hard fast rules from Sydney to Perth;
Stretch them like plastic, rubberbands elastic,
As skirts of dresses all do with their girth.
Then that toughness excruciatingly thriving,
Transformed, to your advantage most immediate,
Sees you enlivened, rejuvenated, jiving ,
Flaunting your newfound mirth at times sedate.
Sweet talk all your opponents till they all calm
And have them eating straight out of your palms.
The rarer the medium, the inroad’s denser;
Like near or far presence of tactical weaponry pacts
Only detectable by all-function radar’s staunchest sensor.
There’s little point in being all action and vigour,
Aggressive in attitude like some bumptious few,
Quite ignorant of facing strength of bulwark or bunker.
If only thought strategic would come to their rescue!
Slender looking webs so deceive like elections they rig,
Are downright coarse when it comes to the crunch.
They’re capable of holding captive creatures big.
If suspicious do not enter, rely on your old hunch!
Avoid all confrontations, then put up a fight
Only in the event your stand is right !
Like towering highs and touching rock bottom
That render complicated thriving in between
If we take them to heart, like birthdays, eggs rotten.
The heights of bliss can be attained unsuspected ,
Bliss comes within reach, those heights all respected,
By the one least dazzled by diadem ,
Like windfalls at your door, salt lake deposits unexpected
In joyous mounds when you least count on them.
Plumbing the depths sounds cruel, masochistic,
Occasioned for catharsis (if you care an ounce),
Like ball hurtling downwards rapidly realistic
Needs solid base terra firma off which it can up bounce.
So all along be totally true to yourself ,
Neither in awe of heaven, nor in fear of hell.
Indeed high public speaking in itself is quite an art!
How they in taking the part of others, feat or foible,
Wheedle, cajole, aim to convince heart or tilt cart!
Performers actors have so long identified most strong
With character they so endeavour to depict,
Empathising wholesome total in right or wrong,
Forgetting selves living parts like one mouthing edicts.
Bear that in mind when you evaluate that worth
Of spokesman that reels off virtues, icing the cake.
If he does so as though it’s all his job on earth,
Make it yours to tell true speech from false fake.
Too big for his boots, spearheading the deal,
A spokesman could be but a spoke in the large wheel.
That big spring cleaning when you simply tidy up,
Instant as that tidy sum that’s for you ready,
Or you make clean net gains sturdy as horse’s stirrup.
Garden substantial neat and tidy, well maintained,
Like picture-perfect towns, books trim as steaks crumbed,
Traditionally have always been to countries likened
Where system, order and beauty is rule of thumb.
As hedges trimmed, lawns weeded mowed, flowerbed
Etched, shaped, stretched out varied vast as your dreams allow,
So books on shelves, papers in desk stapled or clipped,
Clothes in cupboards/closets, shoes on shoe rack take a bow!
Heed this, if poet’s loud entreaties are to no avail,
In short, ‘Tidy Your Room’, let Mom’s word instantly prevail!
CLAIMS ALL ON
Is alright, like extracting treasures, mining gold from mine,
That adds to the occasion’s glamour, value prime,
Because of its prize rarity and qualities classed fine.
But to expect to reap procure everything we aim for,
All of the time for days on end all at a height
Is quite absurd, like milking cow lifelong at your back door,
Extending forever above correctness our birthright.
But to get nothing none of the time, like jinx plain,
Especially when you’re highly deserving of a win ,
Is out of the question, to be treated with sheer disdain,
Simply not going to be any longer on.
When told off once, bear with it, await turn for fame!
If pushed unfairly to that one extreme, then stake your claim.
And you would do well not to take it all to heart.
Compulsive talkers talk their heads off till they so strain fatigue you
But they themselves stay fresh lark-chirpy playing their part.
Beware the one that tries to win you over willynilly
Going on as though his honour’s at stake
And salesman’s suave polished tones far from wobbly wibbly
That without so much as a twinge sell as ready the halfbake.
While it is good to be open spontaneous, like at booth well-manned,
It being awkward to measure each uttered word;
For conversation sounds stilted when thought, preplanned,
Its beauty lies in the flow’s own twists and turns blurred.
Still, be always right, seldom hurt with careless blathering,
Thoughts clear thought out are preferable to blabbering.
Tiptoe through talk forthright, treat kind the wayside sprig.
Beating about the bush harshly only damages each twig.
WISELY ON EACH SEASON
Heed it only when you’ve assessed all inputs fed!
Balaam who was all out to hurl a curse
Soon changed his mind, issued a blessing kind instead;
Making sense of sparse wellbred words of wisdom
Spouting from none other than his donkey heehawing.
You, your concerns keen practical, sans animal kingdoms,
Would do well to spot betterdressed speechfounts less cowtowing.
Should gracious noble hands hand you on salvers gifts,
Method toughest, whereas roughmannered’s ways easy;
May you your options with subtle measured proportion sift,
Choose wisely what’s tailored to suit, dry wit or greasy.
When auspicious-suspect vie for hand of reason,
Season your temperament to best suit the season.
Soak in, mind drinks in potent emotion for two.
How these all knit themselves together in neat aggregates,
Where when and how, but penetrating somehow they all do!
With all the additives, accumulations,
These weigh one down, heavy on scale as a collection’s reach;
Message burdens aimed, meant oblique, like compilations,
Take on sense of their own, above intent of each.
Like wise man lets go of emotional residues
To then elaborate chart of man’s role, his fate,
Like lover and loved one pile up emotions’ cues
Till moment’s right their love explicitly to state.
Such is life’s rhythm, like love’s playful tease.
Each sole collection’s patterned so only to seek release.
“The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.”
The working day is done-
-and my mind is left empty save for the awaiting dreams.
Underneath flickering streetlights I walk to a Honda Civic. The blue paint is chipped and the coat is peeling. There are bright spots with white outlines, these are little floating clouds. I open the door. There are yellow foam patches in the seat, these are little tufts of grass. I pull down a torn seat belt and insert the clip into the red unlatch button. The stamped letters are faded and barely visible. They say: PUSH. I insert the key into the ignition. I begin to think it is possible that we have thought ourselves to the point where there is nothing left to think.
Vehicles back into reverse. A red glow swims across the rear-view mirror. The employees leave the lot and I am always the first. I do not consider myself to be shirking of any duties. This is routine. The clock strikes 11:00 and my working shift is done. I am out the door in exactly 2 minutes. This is expectation. I do not feel bound nor freed by my work, but instead recognize a simple reality. This is cause and effect. The management team says I do well; I continue with the exact same progression. I am now a training supervisor.
This is the evening commute. Driving home there is a radio that speaks with many voices to things I have no interest in. So I do not listen to it. I plug in the aux cable to my iPhone 11. I use a dual adapter so I can charge the phone and listen at the same time. I hit play.
This is the soundtrack to a video game, Lost Hero. The soundtrack is part of a larger Spotify playlist - which contains over 2 days of music. The playlist includes music from the long-awaited sequel, Lost Hero Saga, released only two weeks ago. It is composed by Joe Kondi.
Most I have met consider the compositions unsuitable for listening. They say that musical scores are best encountered within the scope of a game’s narrative; to experience their emotions at a precise moment within a story. It is a waste of time to listen to music created for a fantasy world. Joe Kondi stole from a movie score for an animated film to create his work. They have said all these things, but I do not believe them.
I don’t know if I want to believe them.
The worst listen. Listen and nod as I speak to the power of a score, of a memory, of a childhood. Of a yearning that grows old into dissatisfaction and disenchantment. They listen and repeat, that’s interesting.
Interesting. Music. Waves. Possibility. Islands. Dreams.
There is another world, in the particles of dust that dance in the soft rays of morning light through window shades. There is a stained window to view a refracted world in every mundane evening commute. There is a magic that can exist in every crowded retail parking lot, every decrepit stretch of suburban streets. And then it disappears. The music ends. The radio continues to talk and everyone repeats-
Arriving home I find my apartment is empty. This is usual.
It is a one room studio with a small divider between the kitchen and the rest. My bed is in the same unmade state that has defined it for the last couple years. I take off my working vest and throw it on a sizable pile of clothes sitting on the left half of the couch.
The right side is for me.
The smiley face button pinned to the vest watches me. I stare back. 15 minutes pass. Soon after I enter my kitchen to find something to eat. I have not eaten for the last 10 hours.
I open the fridge door.
It’s empty, save for a couple beers. I grab a pack of ramen from a half-open cabinet beside the fridge. The cabinet is half-open because the hinge is broken. I leave it for another day. There are other things to do. I pick up the phone and find the local Dominoes. It’s saved on the contact list. The phone rings and an automated voice answers. It is now 1130.
“Hello, thanks for calling Dominoes, all of our lines are busy at the moment. Your call is very important to us. We are pleased to introduce our new oven baked sandwiches! We have a range of flavors for you to try, including Buffalo Chicken, Philly Cheese Steak, Classic Italian, Chicken Bacon Ranch, and many more! Did you know that if you buy a large pizza you can get half off on an order of small bread sticks? Try ordering online with our automated checkout, it’s fast and easy for your convenience…”
I wait in silence, my eyes slowly sizing up a 72” Vizio flat screen TV. It dominates the rest of my small, shabby living room. It is connected via a HDMI cable to an Alienware G-Force Computer beside it. All in all, the set-up cost over $5000 – a year’s savings.
Others often make judgements on my purchases, but they do not understand it.
I am only interested in peering through the window, the grey rain curtain pulled back.
“Dominoes, what can I get you?”
A woman’s voice scarcely conceals a strong desire to just hang up the phone.
I answer knowingly, feeling the exact same.
“A large pizza, pepperoni and mushroom.”
“Will that be delivery or carry out tonight?”
“It’ll be 30 minutes.”
-the wind was calmest; the waves, gentle.
From atop here, life seemed easy, simple. Two shady cliffs, a winding shoal of sand. A small island missed by the common eye. It was alone, lost on a distant corner of a forgotten map. But it was home.
Behind me were the crowded trees of the Sorrows, a name my people gave for the forest grove atop our tallest cliff. The limbs of these tired trees hang low, and each contained an untold story of loss or regret. The eldest of the village once said each tree carries the soul of ancestors who left our home behind in pursuit of the unknown; each confronted with their greatest dreams and desires – and each left wanting.
A dusty trail beckoned to the shadowed ground underneath the branches, but it was forbidden. This passed down by the generations before- their word manifest through a warning sign nailed to a leaning post, and a wooden gate beyond it; now decrepit and half-rotten. Despite the warnings I arrived every morning at sunrise to watch light dance off the many trees. Warm rays scattered into splotches of light intermingled with darkness. Every morning I saw them.
Dancing silhouettes, eternal shadows which passed unrevealed through columns of light between crowded branches. Every sunrise they danced, then they would disappear – only to be seen again in the twilight hours of sunset. My people called them ghosts and spoke of them in hushed tones and fear. But I did not fear them. They fascinated me, for I wished to know their secrets, what music drove them in the dark. And even ignorant as I was of their movements, somehow I felt this; their melancholy joy, a movable sadness.
Below the cliff, my sight was distracted by the warming colors of an awakening village, the glowing hues of morning fires. I looked back to the trees, but the dancing figures were gone – for their moment had ended. It was now time to return home.
I followed the steep trail winding around the cliff’s rocky face, and I was greeted by a familiar sight below; the same sight for as long as I could recall.
Our eldest returned from his walks by the shore, always the first to leave his home.
He smiled. Behind him the sun was rising.
I am an ordinary man.
I have never considered myself extraordinary in any way. Each morning I watch myself in the mirror, feeling slight resentment that I remove for later.
I am 26 years old. Flabby. A few rolls crest over my stomach. My hair is unkempt and long, greasy as it falls down my shoulders. The color, dark brown. My blue eyes are pale. My beard has existed in the same slightly grown state for a year, and I have not bothered with it. It’s scraggly in some places, and more on my neck than on my chin. My arms are pale and thin, my face is gaunt. Every morning there is an idea of change; a desire to escape a marred image I have created for myself. But I push it away for later, as per my routine.
I was in bed at 3. I awoke at 9:30 in the morning with a splitting headache that only caffeine could subdue. My mind seeking an escape felt out of place and I am on edge with some gnawing hunger. Unable to eat I turn on the laptop to ease myself into a new day.
These are moments.
Reddit. Who is out there? Elon Musk, second car launched into space. This is a beautiful man with a big heart. EDIT: thanks for the gold. Child slavery and cobalt mines. A man is trying to save the world. For rich people. You resent success, stop this paranoia and false accusations. TL; DR: Fuck you. Bombs and civil wars in Syria. This is obsession. Marble powered music machine plays Hook by Blues Traveler. Emma Stone does a voice sync battle against Jimmy Fallon. Scientists warn that climate change is irreversible unless current action is taken. This is the oldest cat in the state of Illinois at 31 years old. Democracy now Hong Kong. Protestor loses an eye from Police rubber bullet. Flight attendant saves 14-year-old girl from human trafficker. I drew all the boys together for the internet. Articles of impeachment. Guardians of the front page. The most upvoted reddit post of all time. Judiciary Committee approves articles of impeachment, sends charges to house for vote. You see a gif, you like the gif, but it’s a repost. What do you do? Upvote. Florida shatters records with over 10,000 new cases of the infectious disease COVID-19 in a single day. Endless reposts. This is petty theft. This is the internet. It is the same banality at the end as it was at the beginning. 283k upvotes. I’m posting here just to make history.
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YouTube. A dream within a dream. Unreal cities (Dark Ambience). Best quotes from Charlie Sheen interviews. The end of legitimate elections? Ben Shapiro destroys SJW. Andrew Neil destroys Ben Shapiro. Don’t try, the philosophy of Charles Bukowski. My journey from Marine to actor. Sunset green flash at Taiwan. What’s wrong with Star Wars today. Smite me almighty smiter. China floods: hundreds killed and thousands displaced. You have stolen my dreams and childhood with your empty words. Bee movie but every time they say bee it gets faster. White Shores – The Lord of the Rings. Halo game night. The Last of Us, a video essay on narrative storytelling. Tensions escalate with Iran after missile attacks. Retaliation. 40 min space pads, beautiful sounds. Aphex Twin- stone in focus fully looped. Steve Rogers being a boomer for 3 minutes straight. Articles of impeachment announced. You are gonna be impeached motherfucker. President says they have all gone crazy. World says the President has gone crazy. YOU ARE ALL DISEASED – View Full Playlist. Understand your bitter and resentful attitude towards life – Dr. Oz.
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RESENTMENT. Wikipedia. A complex, multilayered emotion  that has been described as a mixture of disappointment, anger, and fear.  CAUSES. Resentment can be triggered by an emotionally disturbing experience felt again or relived in the mind. CAUSATION. Causality is an abstraction that indicates how the world progresses . There is a denial from those such as Hume that we can ever perceive cause and effect, except by developing a habit or custom of mind where we come to associate two types of object or event, always contiguous and occurring one after the other-
Gmail. Your AT&T Online bill is ready to be viewed. Benefits.Notifications- Important information regarding your TRICARE enrollment- DISRENROLLED. Unity Psychiatric: YOUR UPCOMING APPOINTMENT. Unity Psychiatric: BILLING NOTICE. Late payments due, interest charged. Black Friday specials coming soon! Bonds@VIPapplication: Hello, we are still awaiting your application, please reply by the following date or your application will be discarded. Mturkemail@example.com: Hello from your friends in Mechanical Turk- would you like to resume work? See new HITs that match your search criteria. See what other Turkers have to say: “Most of it is just filling in empty space in the day — time I’d probably be wasting otherwise. If you’re not doing anything anyway, it’s bonus money.”
-OBJECT ORIENTED ONTOLOGY (OOO) perceives art not as decoration, but as the fundamental operation of cause and effect. To make an artwork is to interfere directly with the realm of causes and effects. ART. Though the definition of what constitutes art is disputed  and has changed over time, general descriptions mention an idea of imaginative or technical skill stemming from human agency  and creation. Aesthetics have often been concerned with achieving the appropriate balance between different aspects of realism or truth to nature and the ideal.
NATURE. Nature, in the broadest sense, is the natural, physical, or material world or universe. "Nature" can refer to the phenomena of the physical world, and to life in general. THE IDEAL. An ideal is a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal, usually in the context of ethics, and one's prioritization of ideals can serve to indicate the extent of one's dedication to each. According to Plato, Socrates once postulated a world of ideal forms, which he admitted were impossible to know. Our world is modeled after the patterns of the Forms. See more. SEHNSUCHT. Some psychologists use the word Sehnsucht to represent thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. 
Afterwards I enter the shower. I turn on the faucet.
No sound escapes from the running water.
It is 9:45. Work begins at 10:00.
And I was in a dream-
as a constellation of eight stars was made into seven.
And wanderers sailed in search for that brightest star fallen beyond the edge of the world. They searched for an answer across the boundless seas but found nothing as they grew older and older. Still they were undeterred. Yet the passing of time and memory had its own weight. The image of a bright light was slowly forgotten amidst the dark. And they wondered if any of it was ever real. Was there ever a constellation of eight stars? They found neither direction nor bearing amidst the dark waves. And then they drifted aimlessly.
The passing islands vanished. The landscapes and all their discernible shapes faded into a blur of indistinct motion, and it seemed as if the grey rain-curtain was pulled over all of sight. The wanderer was left alone in their boat, amidst so many things they could no longer see nor touch nor hear. And their eyes were empty as the rest of the stars began to dwindle and fade.
Hello, my name is:
-that is what the child reads intently while I scan his mother’s groceries. 10 more hours. This is the beginning of my shift. Watching the child, I think to how some time ago I would watch certain doors and look for red EXIT signs. I would leave buildings in wonder and hope that upon opening these doors I would be somewhere else. I thought of people waiting for me there, of some unique purpose to fulfill. I wanted to discover a certain joy in a sense of belonging. I daydreamed hours away to imagine something, anything. There are memories in a far-off country that is unending; fond images of passing worlds in which I would never live.
“-hey, I’m talking to you bud.”
An older, obese man is glaring at me as I now put away scented candles on an aisle shelf. It is pristine and organized, clean. His hat says, Life is Good.
“Sorry, how may I assist you today Sir?”
“Jesus, about time. I’m looking for a Berghoff coffee table. The one on sale. The ad said they were half off…you should know… the 32 in. one?”
I ask to see the ad as he continues speaking. I scan the barcode of the ad with a “Fi-Device” scanner in my pocket. It responds with a location: Aisle D, section 3, row 2, subsection 4. I arrive at the location shortly after with the man in tow, only to find there are none left on the sales floor.
“Well… there any in the back?”
Checking the Fi-Device I find that there are four in the back from a recent shipment. I briefly consider lying so I can return to my thoughts, but I settle with the truth. The man would ask someone else immediately after. Then he would complain. Heavily.
“We have four, I’ll get one for you right away.”
In the backroom there’s a gaggle of employees laughing over a video on a phone. It has something to do with a falling cat set to a popular electronic song. The group consists of all teenagers, about 9-10 years younger than I am. This bothers me only slightly.
“What are you working on right now?”
One of them with long blonde hair looks at me first. A tattoo of an eagle is barely visible underneath the sleeve of his blue polo shirt. His name tag says: DANNY.
“Tim said the work is good for now, we’re waiting on the next truck.”
“Well I have something new for you to start on then,” I show them the inventory number. “There’s a guest on Aisle D who needs this. Two of them…”
A few groans interrupt my directions.
I continue. “Get one of the flats and take it down to him, quickly.” They depart slowly with glares and muttered curses. Do not think that I am particularly upset by such things. I move on, as per my routine. As I leave, one of the teenagers sings the chorus of the hit song “1-800-273-8255” by the rapper Logic:
I been taking my time…
I feel like I’m out of my mind…
It feel like my life ain’t mine…
Who can relate?
As I return to the sales floor the store manager, Tim, catches me at the swinging doors.
“Allen, I need you in the back.”
“What about the aisle zoning?”
“Ahh fuck it, it’ll do. That shit is gonna get torn apart anyways.”
His face is creased and worn like old leather; the skin pulled below by an invisible weight. There is a smiley face on his vest. A bright yellow tag-
PROUD TEAM MEMBER – 20 Years.
“Do you have the keys to the lift?”
“Good, there is a stack of pallets by the rear loading dock outside, I need you to move them out of the way for the next truck.”
“Where to?” I ask, but Tim is already out the door and on the sales floor. His silhouette vanishes into the quivering moments of Friday afternoon retail.
Moments later I am outside and it is raining. The recurrent pattern of falling water seems from another world, one much different from this reflection we’ve created.
“GSL TIM, GSL TIM! SUPER SALE UPDATE!!!”
“MS. JONES JUST SAVED OUR 8TH GUEST OF THE DAY 5% WITH A SUPER SHOPPER MEMBERSHIP CARD!!!”
I find the forklift outside near the loading dock and begin moving the stacks of pallets away from the loading dock. The stack is precariously high, but this does not bother me.
“REMEMBER TEAM, EVERY GUEST TODAY CAN SAVE 5% WITH THE SUPER SHOPPER MEMBERSHIP CARD! MAKE SURE YOU ARE INFORMING OUR LOVELY GUESTS ABOUT THE AMAZING BENEFITS THEY CAN RECEIVE WITH 5% SAVINGS, OUR GUESTS ARE COUNTING ON EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU OUT THERE TEAM, SO DON’T DISAPPOINT THEM! LET’S SEE WHO IS GOING TO HELP THAT NEXT GUEST!!!”
-the radio screeches and I lower the last stack of pallets too quickly. The column begins to wobble. A nearby door is opened. Danny walks out with headphones in, he is looking towards me scowling as the tower collapses.
“Allen, Tim needs you to-”
During this I say nothing.
There is no anger. No emotion to dictate my response. I feel no urge toward anything.
The pallets simply fall.
The falling stack crashes over him.
It is over in an instant as a pile of pallets and protruding nails are slung behind Danny. He groans and struggles to his feet. Something clicks then, and I move to action helping the teenager to his feet. Then I begin cleaning the mess.
“Jesus, thanks for the heads up.”
“Sorry I didn’t see-”
“Whatever man, its fine. I’m alright.”
Together we clear away the pallets. I hear Danny mutter something, quietly-
I wish they had fallen on me.
“Now you’re thinking just like the rest of us.”
-Tim appears behind Danny as though such a thing were natural. He has a frail, withered hand on his shoulder. “No trouble, right? You can still do your job?”
“That’s the spirit.”
Tim does not say anything to me, so I stay silent and continue to clean the mess.
That’s the spirit.
And this will be my confession
-I thought, as the frail, withered hand rested on my shoulder. His white robe carried sand at the bottom with each small step across the beach. The east wind carried the smell of salt and foam. There is victory even in the greatest defeat, do you remember these words?
I did not answer.
And still something troubles you. Is it contraries? The silence between each note of sound? And so it must be with life. Is this true?
I did not answer.
Perhaps it is hard at a young age to understand the blessing of the leaving. Of eternal rest. A strong desire grips the heart of all who walk in this world. But we must let go in time, or we become as empty as the twilight between darkened trees. As lost as every spirit within the Sorrows.
My thoughts returned to the dancing shades within the dark canopy of trees. In a memory I saw the slender forms of their movements, a great emotion to guide their endless pursuits, and something compelled speech within me. A memory.
They are so beautiful.
Ghosts guided by endless warmth, to live still, even within the dark.
-I don’t have any time for this bullshit.
“Tim, you are the store manager, act like it.”
Tim is silent. She glares, unmoving.
I listen behind an aisle, where the scented candles are still stacked in pretty little rows.
“There are plenty employees who just ignore every word you say, they jerk you around for an entire shift-”
“Well, hang on, I-”
“You have to make a decision. What if the other one had been hurt? Can you imagine the lawsuit? All of store management would have been on the line. We got lucky.” She speaks sharp and cuts precisely, a foreign accent from somewhere across the sea.
Tim is silent. She stares at him, unmoving.
“I am trying to save this store.”
“Then help me. File the incident report. Inaction accomplishes nothing.”
Tim left. Silent again. He is retiring in one month. It does not bother him much anymore. Sadie remained there alone – something burning within her still. She is 27, her hair cut short, slim and athletic with dark skin.
“Happen to overhear that?” She turns toward the aisle of stacked scented candles. I can see her eyes between the holes in the shelf.
“I was, just-”
“Do not bullshit me, if you want to bullshit do that when you are off the clock.”
I paused, uncertain. “I’m sorry.”
“Well then, what do you think?”
She walks past the aisle wall, now in full view of me. Then, closer.
“Do you think Tim should take some kind of action against that employee’s negligence? The one who almost dropped all those pallets on a new hire?”
“I’ll leave it to Tim…it’s none of my business.”
“None of your business? Really?”
“That’s management’s call, I mean.”
She pauses. “Fair enough. But surely you must have some kind of opinion? I would think this store’s most experienced sales floor worker would have something to say on his accident?”
Indefinable. A word which compels me forward day to day. I do not begin to think that there is something underneath the shell of old ideas, nor a rough recollection of long forgotten emotions. Maybe it’s just the reprogramming of dreams that have long vanished. She stares intently into my eyes, waiting. I struggle to keep contact with her own – hazel.
“Go ahead. Reprimand the employee. Revoke his use of the forklift, suspend him for a couple days if you like. You could fire him too; it won’t have much impact on store efficiency.”
She stares at me for a moment, her head tilted slightly.
“Tim’s management skills could also use some work.”
She is silent, a small furrowing of the eyebrows.
“… is there anything else you want to say?”
“Ok then… sorry to put you on the spot. Thanks… for the input. I’ll let you get back to the candles.”
She waits, watching me for half a second, before turning away.
I am home alone that night listening to the Lost Hero Saga video game soundtrack thinking back to how some memories are not actually memories. I think back to my room as a child again, imagining that the walls could vanish and white plaster might have been water--
waves lapping at the sides of a small red boat.
In the distance there is a lone island in the dark night; its shadowed form speckled with tiny beacons of light against the comatic recess of an unending gentle ocean. On this island a myriad of small buildings glow bright from within. Warm fires and candle-lit windows bid an unspoken welcome. They burn within stone structures compacted tightly amidst one another. Closer now. Various temples, homes, and shops cover a small expanse; these belonging to a people who I had not yet seen. The bright lights are a refuge amidst the cold dark.
In another moment I am there, stepping on solid land, a curious step away from the boat as it remains rocking in the waves tied to the pier. I am unburdened by all that had come before and would do so in the future. In the night sky there are only stars. The streets are of cobbled stone. The soft glow of the fires is comfortably silent and calm within the night. There are no people anywhere in sight-
no sound as I step through a gate left open and there is no gatekeeper so I enter and it strikes me so suddenly how I can breathe for the first time in gardens between stone houses in this small field where at the center the grass moves so softly in the wind as the air channels through narrow streets and it is neither cold or hot and I can remember why I am here now a meeting to find somewhere and someone at the land lost beyond the edge of the sea there is a cartographer and a map and a fallen star a long departed friend and it is clearer to me now, this recurrence-
There is a tavern at the end of this island. It is built beside a windmill that rests on a cliff overlooking the sea. The water beyond it is so vast and full of questions that lack foretold details or finality- the crescent moon covers all with soft light and certain autonomy in its obscurity. I have never known such freedom. There is a certain joy in each second, an eternity of its own accord in the anticipation of this meeting. It is the final key to a distant horizon and a long-awaited reunion. How to find it. I return my thoughts again to the Tavern, what awaits inside. A feeling growing, one of total assurance; grounded on nothing but the last lucid hours in an ephemeral dream. There is a sign post out front. Then there are empty tables and market stalls, somehow missing a name. Names do not matter. A small stairway within a scarcely visible alcove leads up to the entrance, the Tavern is above a deserted dining area below. I can see candle lights from within the windows above, some strange night crowd inside, a silent gathering. Up the stairs is an old oak door with light spilling from underneath, a soft clatter of glasses and hushed conversations. My heart beats from excitement, knowing that it is finally here. To return again and start anew. The door opens-
I am awake again.
Alone on the couch, my work uniform is still on, the smiley button resting on my chest. My head on the same pile of clothes. I close my eyes to think of it again but it is gone. Trying to recall lost wonder from that which is rapidly fading into obscurity. This is my confession. A blurred image created by hearsay and wild conjecture.
Do not forget this,
For the first time in all our conversations, he lost his smile. Those spirits are guided by endless desire, one that can never be fulfilled. They are forever reaching to a day which they will never see. Surely you have noticed their confinement to the twilight hours of sunrise and sunset?
Then you must know of what I speak, that their struggle, this desire, is ultimately futile? It keeps them bound to this world, prevents them from finding peace, their own blessed sleep.
But is not that same desire to embrace their passions- so fully, so completely, even without the promise of the day- is that not something beautiful? Do we not each live without fulfillment? We reach out grasping every day of our lives. We reach out for a dream.
An excited shout from the waves called out behind us.
-I remember in a whisper one simple request. But I pushed it aside and now I am hearing voices in another time from behind the television screen, the lights flickering. Their voices calling out from a hallway-
Can’t you see what is right in front of you?
“You cannot make me do anything.” I brush them off, always brushing them off.
I’m sick of him, sick of all this childish behavior. He missed his chance at greatness and now he sits there lounging and doing nothing all day… What does it take to have guts and recklessness to spit in the face of manufactured happiness? Why did you leave? Why did you ever abandon the bright future that was laid before you? All you had to do was work…. do you remember when you said this would not be the end that you were going somewhere else? That success meant another road, just another road. Is this it Allen? This fucking wastefulness? When you look back to your life in 10 years what would you have been said to accomplish? You don’t even have a job!
Why honey? Why did you do it? What pushed you into this comatose state? What causes your misery? Are you sick? I see it in your face, in what few words you give us…
Leave him. He’s become a basket case. There’s no helping him. It’s a shame, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Isn’t that how it goes?
I remember the third time I decide to return to school. He is at the table to hear my decision and smiling. How long this time Allen, how long?
She smiles too. That’s wonderful, just wonderful. I’m so excited for you. What classes are you taking? When do you start?
His smile is growing. How much are you at now? $70,000? No, it’s more isn’t it?
Then I’d try it again working each morning and at first it is easy and exciting and the world does not seem so hard. Then a week. A month. A year. A lifetime. An eternity. I wake up and see the mirror and do not believe this is me, that I am living a life. I cannot listen to lectures and theories from people who are long since dead. Dead. This is a state of mind. This a concept. Un idee. The professor speaks but no words escape and there is a dull buzzing in my ears, and my heart begins throbbing and I need to feel anything else but endless waiting and counting of seconds as time slips into nothing. Then out the windows I can see it. It exists between the passing seconds. That same falling star on the horizon. At the edge of sight.
Then it begins, slight at first. Eating out again. Coming home and watching videos on the phone because I cannot focus clearly to read tiny lines in huge textbooks. Then it is another computer bought with student loans after I sold my old one, because the first time I said: nevermore. Then nevermore is again. I am back to it. I am chasing that same star again and everything that seems wrong could be right and all the imperfections now make sense and have some meaning because the music is there again, the logic of hopeful creation.
Then it is a week and the phone rings but I don’t want to answer because it is the ending sign, the final hours of the lucid dream-
We are calling to inform you of a loan payment that is 30 days overdue, your new balance is-
We are calling to inform you that your low attendance rate is cause for delinquency, further negligence will result in disenrollment by-
We are calling to inform you the grace period of your Perkins loans are about to expire; payments will begin regularly on-
We are calling to inform you that this is the final notice for an overdue medical bill issued 90 days ago, further negligence on payments will result in debt collection by-
We are calling to inform you that it has been brought to our attention to collect the entire balance of debt you owe to UNITY PYSCHIATRIC CARE, the amount of the debt is-
We are calling to inform you that due to your failure to pay rent you are hereby given an eviction notice to vacate, on or before-
Does it matter?
I am disenrolled for a month and days away from homelessness it feels like it was all just yesterday. Where is the time. I am on the phone now, ready to tell him that now it is $90,000, but she will always answer first-
How’s school? I hope everything is ok and you are happy. I love you.
But the phone rings and no one answers.
In the end
-all must withdraw their own song and become one with mah, the silence to which we all return in time. Each has their own role to play. His smile returned, seeing a small figure in the waves. In time, we must all move aside for others to take their part in this song. There is always another day, another sunset. Each must find their own acceptance with this. This is the nature of loss. Perhaps I cannot tell you how it must be. He stared silently at the swaying trees of the Sorrows. They were alone on the cliff.
One cannot truly live until they have died.
I was quiet again. Desire burned against reality, the night stars glowing within an eternal dark. He left and I stood alone on the sand, the waves lapping gently at my feet. Words hung in my throat. I held the sand and let it sift through my fingers, feeling fear in it.
The excited shout from behind grew louder, a voice caught in the wind.
But it was not for me.
A little girl was running to her brother in the water. Her turquoise sundress was the same color as the waves drifting to the shore. Olive legs kicked up foam as she treaded through the water. He was standing in the waves, looking out to sea. She reached out and pulled his arm gently.
I watched them return to a wooden lodge near the shore, where the tufts of grass met golden sands at the edge of our village. As they returned inside, I could hear their mother yell at them for tracking sand and water over the floor. The shouts intermingled with the scent of prepared food and I thought to a memory. I felt a memory.
Let someone in
“-it’s ok Allen. It’s ok to say anything here. To be something.”
How does it begin then?
“You can start by telling me about it.”
She is watching from across carpeted floor as I sit in a chair. Her nametag says Dr. Delan but she asks me to call her Susan. She asks what I am looking for. I tell her I don’t know. I tell her I am just trying to peer into windows. She says there are no easy answers.
“Do you have trouble engaging with your work?”
I don’t give much mind to everything else when I’m at work. It’s all just distractions, a blur of indistinct motion. They pass. So it goes.
“Do you feel burdened, or in some kind of pain?”
The things people tend to complain about don’t really bother me. I want a better job, a better partner. Politics. Corporate greed. Wars. Pollution. The end of the world. What does it really matter to dwell on it? It is out of my hands.
“Do you often feel alone?”
I am 28 and live alone. But that’s perfectly normal for someone in these days. I keep myself busy most of the time. What’s it matter?
“Would you say that there is a problem you are currently dealing with?”
Problem? There is no problem.
“Now, would you say-”
“I thought about what you asked earlier, about pain. I remember one time slipping down a slide ladder at work. I broke my elbow, fractured it. But do you know what I remember? The entire store watching, and each of their faces in shock. But for me it was different. My mind never seemed there, in the moment, when it happened. I don’t think I ever processed the situation fully. Maybe that is just shock. Maybe something else. I suppose it’s pointless to consider the pain then and now, it was just another distraction. I don’t know why I thought of that.”
It’s funny thinking to how I stared at the little lights on the ceiling and they would buzz and glow brighter then fade and glow again, slowly. There were humming voices at the edge of my sense, the sound of a bygone religious chorus from times long past. Then there were the drones, the buzzing voices of people and questions amidst this experience: are you in pain?
How could I be in all this sight and sound?
Dr. Delan simply stares. Her dark hair glides across her face like a raven’s wing. She writes something down and smiles at me.
“If there was any change you could make in your life, what would it be?”
And then it all makes sense, so I start, quietly. “I don’t know, maybe I’d have some small control over my dreams. Maybe I’d like to know them better.”
In the twilight
-he spoke to a crowd gathered around fire. Tomorrow it will be time for my final departure into the sea, as we remember the courage passed down to us by a hero who sailed from distant lands. One life ends at the beginning of many others.
At the edge of the village bonfires, seven of age toiled at their labors. They finalized the construction of vessels. Small wooden hulls and a mast lashed together through cross beams; matted sails woven from dried, prepared leaves. They would sail out to sea the next day, the workmanship tested on a journey to a small island just beyond the edge of sight. This island had no name and held only the derelict ruins of a long-forgotten voyage. Every year the village sent those of age out to retrieve an artifact from the ruins as proof of a journey, of the courage in it. Those artifacts became part of their identity for as long as they lived.
But I was alone here. I felt this distinction always. Trapped. Others would perform, they would compete – but I was set apart. My entire life was enraptured by a certain idea which had never been allowed to take root. The others muttered quietly behind my back, and I saw the spite in their eyes. There was a special hate reserved for the one who would dare to challenge things.
As I ventured closer, they quickly returned to their work as if nothing were to be said. It was my voice that called out from the waves this time. I thought of how it would go from here. How I would smile to that same boy who was alone on the beach, one last time. How I would leave him, all of them, behind.
There is a look in her eyes
-her nametag says: JOSIE.
“Are you paying attention?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m right here.” I am stacking Fancy Feast cat food tins along the shelf.
“You missed one.”
She picks up a tin on top of the stack facing a different direction than all the others. “Sadie will throw a fit if she sees this…” She laughs quietly before returning to the other cat tins.
“Oh it’s just so obnoxious, you know. All these metal tins with images of clueless cats, perfectly aligned and stacked by workers who could lose their jobs should they do it any other way. Thousands of these clueless cats staring out in the same direction, waiting to be picked up by the same old suburban families looking to give their pet a premium taste of… Fancy Feast.”
She sighs, noting my silence. “When did you become such a goddamn space cadet?” She crosses her arms and waits for a reply, slightly glaring. Her green eyes are magnified behind cracked, full-rimmed glasses. She is underweight, her arms are thin little rods and her legs nearly the same size in black tight jeans. Her brown hair is frayed and unkempt at her shoulders, perhaps free. We had worked together for six years.
“It doesn’t really matter.”
“I guess.” She stacks another tin can. “You ever hear back from that other job?”
“I never applied.”
“So you’re still planning on staying here for a while then?”
“I suppose so.”
“No plans for the next couple of years?”
“That figures.” She turns away, then stops. “Really though, nothing? You’ve never stopped to think about where you might be in the next couple years? Maybe five or ten?”
“Try not to.”
“Ok, well what about all the different people coming in and out through these doors? Do you ever think about them? The seasonal temps? The new hires? The management teams? The customers?”
“What do you mean?”
She pauses. “You know it was all different people then, when we first started, I mean. Remember Daniel? The guy who used to work at the car wash? Remember when all his old coworkers showed up and they gave him a hard time. Then remember when he yelled back at them from across the store, ‘Don’t give me shit for my job when you all still work at a car wash!’ Funny guy. You remember Doug? Used to be a bouncer for Danzig concerts in the 80s? Worked as a brick layer in the mornings, came up here for evening shifts. Guy never took a day off.”
“I don’t think I remember them.”
“How about Kaleigh? She’s in Indiana now. Or Shavi? He used to collect the carts remember? With the dreads? Used to cosplay as characters from that video game Blitz-watch on weekends? Or how about Jon, that one kick ass manager? The only one we really had.”
I remember all of them. But they are now gone and somewhere else and I will likely not see any of them again. So what is the point in talking about them? Josie waits for some kind of answer, maybe it is this one, but she keeps waiting.
So she continues, “Well I guess that’s kind of the way it works here isn’t it? All these new people coming and going, same old me stacking tins. And you.”
“He’s retiring, what’s he got left? A couple months?
“Something like that.”
We finish the last row of cat food tins. This is aisle A13. Tonight we will “zone” (organize) all these aisles till we reach A56 at the end of the store. Then we will zone section B. But section B is short, I will finish it in an hour. I should not do it that way but I continue regardless. No one really cares much about section B. The clock will hit 10 pm, right as I finish. The doors will shut to all customers. Those assigned to sections C and D (furniture, rugs, and towels) will be helping in electronics and toys at this time. Josie and I will finalize sections A and B and restack cat food tins again. One more time. Sadie will arrive soon after and tell us we are doing a wonderful job then assign us to help zone the ‘Softlines’ apparel section. 30 minutes later all employees will arrive to help out. They will grumble and complain and not really do much of anything. The clock will read 10:55 pm as we head to the breakroom. We will prepare to leave at 11 PM. 2 minutes. I will be out the door. The red glow of swimming brake lights. I will return home. The Lost Hero soundtrack will be playing. I will order a pizza. Pepperoni and Mushroom. I will turn on the 72” Vizio flat screen TV. An Alienware G-force computer. I will sleep. Then I will be dreaming again. Dreaming.
“Allen?” Josie again.
“Are you ever going to leave this place?”
“I don’t know.”
“Give me a real answer.”
- and the waves were beside us, drifting in and away.
There is something here that leaves me empty and with such yearning. I have everything I need, yet the sight of something so far away can tell me this is not true. Every night I dream of the eighth star, and every night is a reminder of how this all seems lacking. And how it speaks to the promise of something else, another world that might exist amidst the stress and ruin of this existence. And it speaks so softly, and tenderly.
I remember those black robes I once wore, decorated with ornate white lines that flourished down from the shoulders to the middle. The hood overhead and purple linen wrapped around the face left only the eyes visible. The Witness had no known finality, no image that could be seen or pictured by man. That was the story passed to us then, her current embodiment was the will of divination and oracles beneath the moon. The ritual in embers of a dying fire. I did not want to be some idol, not some trapped representation of bygone history to be sought after. I want to be free, to be out there, sailing.
It’s considered a great honor. You were chosen before all the rest… some see you as the living embodiment of a goddess.
This ceremony, all of it, I do not want any part of it. Not like this. I just wish everything could be over and done with… but now it never will.
He watched, waiting for another thing that might be said.
I never said I was.
He was silent. I was not lying… but perhaps I did not know then if I was. Then he found his voice.
What if it is a lie? What if the story is all wrong and there is no eighth star, but only something we have created to fill some need? What if it is only the end of the map? What if there is no other world out there, and the only thing beyond the horizon is self-destruction?
My friend had never known that it is self-destruction that compelled me forward. In one way or another, it was the same for everyone. His question did not matter, nor did an answer.
Do you know what some say in the village about the Sorrows?
That all their burdens which tie them to this world have the same final resting place beyond the horizon. That the individual desires of each shade are all the same in the end; an addiction to a fabled star which calls to them from the end of the world. And that the fate of those dancing shadows is the only thing waiting for those foolish enough to lose everything in pursuit of it. Most have agreed with you of course; they believe that there is nothing else beyond the horizon save a false idol upon which we place our waking lives, our living dreams. We created a sanctuary with the tools of our own desire out of necessity, to be satisfied with what we call our life.
And what do you believe?
That there are some who may never know why, but must answer the call all the same.
What wonderful work
“-Allen and Josie. You have both done such an excellent job in this section that I need you to head to Softlines now.” Sadie does not smile as she says any of this. Josie groans. The cats on the metal tins watch all of us silently. They do not say anything.
“Where at?” Josie asks.
“Sure.” Josie glares at Sadie ever so slightly.
Sadie returns a slightly crooked smile that is not really a smile just the impression of one and she disappears amidst the aisles on the track, a rectangular walkway that leads people around the store. It is the yellow brick road made with vinyl tile and painted blue lines. Signs are posted above the aisles and hang off the ceiling to promote a special holiday sale, but I’ve forgotten which one it is. There are so many.
“She is befitting of an HR lead, isn’t she?” Josie adds as we pick up the items thrown around on the floor: four hoodies a dozen shirts two small pairs of pants a package of underwear countless socks toy packages race cars a microwave on sale a coloring book of cartoon princesses a copy of Lost Hero Saga a pack of ramen noodles and one pair of women’s lingerie.
“Well this works.” Josie picks up a hoody with “The Allegiance” Superheroes on it, depicted in full assemble with vibrant color.
“Look at it, it’s on clearance.”
I start folding pairs of jeans and return them to a display shelf. Josie goes around tucking a few items underneath the circular clothes rack. Most of these items are also on clearance.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to buy some of these…”
“Me of course.” She stares at me, noting my confusion. Josie grins and looks down at her body and waves her hands as if she were presenting the next item on a game show.
“Allen, these boy’s clothes fit me.”
I give her a small smile, but it slips away soon after. Josie perks up a bit and holds onto the hoody for a little longer, observing the bright image overlaid on front of it. Then her smile slowly recedes too. We are quiet for a while after.
“Do you ever feel like the life you are living doesn’t belong to you?”
“I don’t know Josie, maybe.”
“Never mind, forget I said anything.”
We return to
-the stretch of sand where he left his small vessel for the voyage tomorrow. The sail was ripped from the mast and torn; its pieces scattered to the sea. He already knew why. So many would never accept new dreams to what could be. His eyes followed the pieces in the waves. They were always searching. They were chasing after it within the dark, even when they never wanted to believe in it.
I’m sorry they did this to you.
It’s not your fault. This would have happened either way.
We waited without speaking. What else was there to say? His eyes never left the water, the fingers danced at his sides. I remembered only the sound of the waves, the wind guiding them gently.
They did this because they saw you with me.
In my quiet days I often return to this moment of the story. I wonder what his thoughts might have been that night. What he was thinking. How often are the quiet days now, and those memories that come with them…
Wait here, I’ll return in an hour.
I left and wandered into the dark of the night toward the village.
“-just something we do for around 85 years. This makes me think of what land might lie beyond…” -Sam Fairly
“Just woke up, this has been playing all night while I sleep.” -Tr3vZ
“This song reminds me of being a child without a care in the world, feeling cozy in front of the tv and getting lost in a world of adventure.” -Wardleyyyz
“This song... Dark, sobering, melancholy... Makes me think of a care free child suddenly forced to grow up into an adult before even getting to experience their childhood. Stolen innocence by a cruel and unforgiving world. Funny enough, that's what this game is really about, isn't it?” -NEON MULLET
“Shedding tears for a childhood I will never have again.” -17Watman
“Everything in life grows old and dies. 100 years from now no one will remember, a billion years from now it will be some insignificant moment among countless others in time. That’s what this song makes me think about…” -RobertBones
“And yet there will always be a sunrise, there will always be another day; regardless whether any of us live to see it or not. This is what I think of.” -TheLastTitan
“im gona buy this game from ebay should i or should i not :O” -shinji ikari
“I believe I can speak for many of us when I say that the hours spent playing this game are some of the best memories of my childhood. Now a days, life is different, it is just a little game for an old system and therein a dream of a world where good always conquered evil and you the hero could prevail. Now a days a few who horde power for their own greed have filled the land with darkness and we have forgotten that we are the Hero.” -Kai Lutz
“If only we could live forever, death sucks…” -J0ynal Uddin
“+J0ynal Uddin Death is the reason we appreciate life.” Andrew Williams
“I feel like crying. This brings back so many memories as a kid in the 90s. On the weekends I used to play this game until the sun came up. I missed these days if only I could turn back.” -Heka Goods
“I catch myself whistling this all the time.” -SkeletonBill
“What’s important is important in your time, but what makes it special is that it is special to you, nothing else matters.” -xxhacktrax0r
“The Nostalgia hurts man, goddamn. Thanks for everything Joe.” -Austen Steed
“Z-targeting FTW” -Boyce18
“This makes me sad. I remember when I was about 5 and I would play this with my two older brothers were about 8 and 12. We would spend hours playing this game but since I was a younger girl I would sit and watch the two have fun spending hours exploring and looking through a book that helped them, no internet for us then. And we would eat goldfish and drink Capri suns. Time goes by so fast although I can still remember these times clearly.” -Gabriella
“PRESS START - to change your life.” -ErikMünch
I am listening to the Lost Hero Saga soundtrack again on YouTube.
The video title: INTRO 10 HOURS – LOST HERO, PRELUDE.
These were the comments.
-before you is possibility, as endless as the paths one might take in a dream. That night he was alone by a fire on the beach. And there was a new sail in his hands by morning. A gift from a dear friend. There was some purpose when the fire died and it finally fell into dark.
There was a journey laid out for him.
The next morning it was unfurled in the wind, as seven stars formed a constellation painted in hues of blue. There was an eighth too, the guiding star patterned at the sail’s topmost corner. It was barely distinguished through a layer of lines which radiate away from it. Wind and stars.
And yet I was nowhere to be found in the morning at his departure.
-even in the mundane view of plastic bags blowing in the wind over cracked streets. There is some kind of possibility to its existence. This is the logic of a dream.
Now it is time for another shift. Now it is time for another commute. Now it is time for the radio to speak with many voices to things I have no interest in. I plug in the aux cable to my iPhone 11. I use a dual adapter so I can charge the phone and listen at the same time. I hit play.
This is the soundtrack to a video game, Lost Hero. It is composed by Joe Kondi.
Most I have met consider the compositions unsuitable for listening. They compare it to a time that left them behind in childhood. Some cannot leave this state behind. The soundtrack speaks to something special, some world we have yet to find for ourselves. Perhaps it is something we once knew but the passing of time has taken it away from us. Eden. That is what I told Dr. Delan as she listened and nodded and repeated,
We are aware of another world, one that is barely out of reach, dancing on the edge of our fingers. We see it every morning as the sun rises over the trees at the birth of the day, and when the sun melts into the horizon at its death. There is a netherworld hidden in the illusory transition between passing time. Every person has felt the call in some form, some voice; some song known only to their ears. That’s what this music makes me think of. That this world may not be such a dead place, that there may be some magic left behind in ineffable impressions amidst a waking life.
-the outrigger to his vessel was torn by coral and beyond repair. The craft sat idly in the waves, the single outrigger drifting, bobbing in and out of the water. He was waiting on that small island of no name, a collection of rocks and a small hill of scattered trees.
There was the skeleton of a wreck slowly torn apart through years of scavenging. The others were quick at work taking away a little more. The old vessel was huge, designed for many to craft it. It was once painted red, with etched designs and symbols that spoke to no place we knew. Somehow it did not require the use of the outrigger, as the design had achieved a balance ours could not. There was a remnant of the fine polish and residue coating that made the wood slightly sticky to the touch. And at its bow there was a strange design of some beast, its mouth opened below a trunk that curled upward towards the skies. The mouth was full of protruding sharp teeth and flanked by two elongated tusks. One tooth had been taken over the years, but none dared to touch the rest. Whispers spoke of a curse that followed the ancient ruin; the land it came from. They told of a people with hollow eyes, a place devoid of hope and desire.
He was haunted by these stories. He was caught between worlds, of one who spoke to a horizon and distant stars and of others who spoke to futility and false ambition. The elders then worshipped a formless mah and taught a dispassionate stoicism, the death of desire. He sat alone and thought to this reality. A Dream. A Curse.
He watched the others leave, knowing that asking for help would have been futile. They would return and send someone back for him, and then his shame would be complete. He who cannot sail was worthless. He turned to the hill side and waited.
How he found the other vessel is often debated, as is its own origin. Some stories say he swam leagues into the unknown sea and returned from the depths. Others say he made it himself. Another says there was a hidden world beneath the wreckage, undiscovered until his arrival. All that can be known with certainty is he returned from the isle alone the next day, and it was with a small craft of ancient design that none had ever seen. It shared a certain relationship to the larger wreck that had set alone for years on that small island. The same beast was depicted at its bow. Yet when others would speak in later times to his return, they never spoke of an old curse or fears, but of conviction. How one might be reconciled with the other is left to the imagination.
“-Allen, that I used to be a radio DJ?”
“I never did.”
“It was a good bit of fun, got paid to be a personality. It is nice to add a little something special to people’s day. I like to think there was someone out there, driving looking at the suburban stretch of morning cars. All the Hondas, Mustangs, Impalas, Nissans, Corollas, Toyotas, Volvos…” Tim paused, lost in a thought. “Sorry, anyways I liked to think that one bored driver somehow found a little warmth, maybe I’ll call it a little magic, in my morning programs. A little happiness.” Tim finishes with a chuckle that is cut short with a cough.
“Why’d you leave?”
“Oh simple; no pension, no health benefits, no life insurance, no paid leave. It was fun while it lasted, but you can’t raise a family and live off a few bucks above minimum wage. Look at me now, retiring and only one week to go…”
Something interesting happens then. Tim stops looking at me. His eyes seem to go somewhere else; he is looking behind me at something. The white walls, the single horizontal blue line which spans across them. The shelves are below. Tim looks as if he stumbled across something that causes a lapse in all other function. Perhaps he is in a memory. It lasts only a second. He lowers his head and releases a deep sigh. From wherever he went to he returns. It is only a second.
“Anyways, Allen. I called you over here because there is an issue I need to resolve before I leave this store… and I don’t think Sadie would be the best at handling it.”
“It’s about Josie.”
“You and Josie are the only employees that have worked here at Store 171 longer than I have, when I transferred in you both were already on your second year. What was that? Five years ago? Jesus how time flies… it almost disappears.” Tim looks down and pauses. “I guess where I am going with all this is that I imagine you two are at least friends right?”
“Uh, not particularly.”
“I see.” Tim pauses again, confused. Then carries on anyways. “Well Allen perhaps you can just help me with some information.”
“Have you seen Josie? Do you know where she has been lately? What’s been going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“She hasn’t been to work in two weeks.”
“She was just here yesterday; we were clearing out boy’s apparel…”
“What? Allen, I told you she hasn’t been to work in two weeks.”
“Maybe I got her confused with someone else.”
Tim’s eyes are observing mine. It doesn’t take long for the curiosity to fade. “Well anyways, first she called in all her saved time off, then she called in sick days till she started taking points. That’s when we started calling. Sadie wants to fire her, and I haven’t even mentioned it to my district manager yet... not that I care what he thinks anyways. I guess... it just feels wrong to cut her loose without trying to get hold of her first; she’s worked here for how many years now?”
“Six... just like me.”
“Look, I have her personal number from HR, maybe you can try to give her a call? See how she’s doing? She won’t pick up the store number, and if I call… well legally it’s not looking good for me as store manager. So could you do this? Just one call at least.”
My first thought does not surprise me. I think of all the time that will be lost tonight. Of the hour that might be spent away, wasted. An hour that could be so peaceful. I want to say no but my eyes drift to that same white wall. The one that is everywhere you look in this store. Something moves my lips-
For so many years
-I could recall a certain phenomenon at the end of the day. You know it well I imagine. The green flash at the edge of the horizon, right as the sun disappears. That day it was a little brighter. Too bright. I can remember the story better now as I tell you this.
He was sailing back home on that ancient vessel. How it glided through the waves now. The water parted gently at its approach, as if recognizing a kindred spirit. It felt familiar to him. There were etched symbols below the design of the beast. A triangle with half-arcs around three points was etched onto the red hull. The mast was made of some heavy dark material; strong, cold to the touch, and smooth. It could fold in on itself to conserve space. The work was beyond anything our village had ever seen. Elegant, graceful, and unknown. All it had lacked was a sail. It had seemed as if the craft was waiting for him, ordained from some other time and place now immemorial and forgotten.
His old craft was half under the water now, and there was nothing else but a farewell to so many hours of work. A passing glance to remember so much time spent building, and so much time alone. Something had changed now… the wind was different. He salvaged the sail from his old craft and attached it to the mast; the same sail I had spent so much time weaving, and so much time alone. How it fit so perfectly. Yes it had all been very strange. So very perfect.
“-as if I’ve lived an ordinary life. Or rather. That I am living one. But something keeps pushing me… nudging me in a certain direction. I’ve never asked why. I stay up till daylight watching the same shows, I lay in bed for days on my time off, I stare at the ceiling thinking that I should be thinking something else. And then, I feel very tried and I wish that I could drift so desperately to somewhere else. I never thought that anyone else might have lived different. Or that there was something wrong with the way I lived...”
For the first time I am in Josie’s apartment. It is lacking a sense of coherence. The strewn clothes are tossed around like an unfinished thought. An hour has passed since I finished my shift. I remember the rain on the windshield as the phone rang. She was surprised to hear my voice. Minutes later I knocked on the door, still in my work clothes. I’m still in them. Now she is sitting on her couch, and I am standing. She is waiting for me to say something. Anything.
-purpose was taken away from us and our voices were stifled by a desperate urge. This was the driving force since the start of the entire process. There’s an entire industry in it now. The pursuit of the most righteous cause they can imagine- to create a world in which we may not suffer. This is their answer to all the questions, this most precious place. A dream. What else is there to think? What if it could be real? What if it already is?
“What do you feel?” She is still waiting for my answer.
“I don’t know.”
“What is the problem?”
“Would it hurt you so much to be here? To say something? To just be here, now?” It comes out together in a burst. Tears and a small fist against the plaster wall. A small impression.
I do not see what bothers her so much in my response, why what I think could matter.
“I am here.”
“No you are not. You’ve just let it slip away. Every year passing you by like the one that precedes it. So much time spent to only be traded away again for something else. So much time spent alone. Movies, video games, dreams. It’s all the same. This is another idea of life we’ve been fed. And you are content to let them. Let the whole thing slip away quietly into the night.”
“There was never a guarantee it would be anything else.”
“What?” Surprise in her voice. All these years. And now I am speaking freely. There is a voice. I’ve created it from others. For others. She will not like what it has to say-
“Who told you otherwise?”
There is a pause before her reply. She stares into my eyes, suspicion in her own. They are green. Then there is a finger, pointed at me. “I knew life had to be more. It can’t be this fucking pointlessness, this repetitive charade of niceties and door greetings.”
“That is reality. The way it all works. What would you have me do?”
“Something, anything. Just look out your window for Christ’s sake. See something. Do something. Be somewhere.”
“And see what? Where could I go? Where would I go? With what little we have? You speak to an escape; but to where? What about the rest of us? The work that keeps this world spinning? Chasing after that escape, that dream; its recklessness. What’s in it anyways? Empty promises. You are just reaching to a day that you will never see.”
Who is speaking now? Another voice? Another narrative? Is this a story merely agreed upon as fact to make sense of something? Her eyes are cutting. There is quiet hatred in them. The pain is close.
“You’ve let it kill you.”
I am silent.
“And you’d let the rest of it fucking die, and for what? Another number on that six-year badge on your vest-” She jabs a finger into my chest as the name tag presses down against the skin. It doesn’t hurt. “You just gonna wait till that number hits seven? Then ten? Maybe you’ll wait till it hits twenty and you are retiring like Tim? Don’t you see his eyes?”
Now I am breathing heavy. This is abnormal.
“You’ve let this place kill a bright spark that used to live in you. I saw it once. You’ve let the weight of all of it pull you down and convince you as to what is possible. And what is not.”
She stops now, watching me. She is waiting for a reply, but I don’t say anything.
“I see it now. I tried so hard to blind myself to the whole thing. I thought maybe we were alike because we both believed in a dream, but I see just what that means. I’m talking to a shell of old ideas, a hollow man. Goodbye Allen.”
She doesn’t say anything else.
I leave shortly after.
Goodbye Josie. I hope you find it; whatever it is you are looking for.
In the Waves
-there is memory as one life ends and another begins. There is some magic there between what is possible and what cannot be. This is the nature of what lies on the horizon. I never understood this, not until that day.
No one said much at his arrival that, nor paid it any mind. There were other concerns. He waited at the beach, the new vessel at his side. There was so much to say, to do. Promises to keep. So he waited for me, but I knew I could never return.
His sister came to him first, wearing still that turquoise dress. Her legs kicked up the water, but the past excitement was replaced with fear. The Eldest had made his final departure into the sea, and all the village was gathered. It was pointless for them to wonder where he would go, beyond sight of their island was an endless ocean, indistinct and formless in its depths. I knew such a place was not the end, but a new beginning.
The entire village was all gathered that evening, save the girl who was bound to its most important role. The Witness. They searched for hours but found nothing. Then came the green flash, a blinding light from the trees atop the highest cliff. It was unlike anything they had seen before. And sometime after they found the tracks.
“-it has always been my dream to live a life like they do in the books, where they live everyday like it’s their last, enjoying and appreciating every minute. But as i grow older i keep spiraling in a never ending routine, i feel like im wasting my life, i feel as though i should be having picnics or sitting on my roof at 2 am with my crush or best friend staring at the stars and telling stories but nowadays no one is willing.” -xcdsa
“Admit it, we're all here because we just need a moment away from reality. I could be wrong though.” -Life of A HallBoy
"Sometimes I wish I could go back in life, not to change shit, just to feel some things twice. I think there’s a song that says that.” -Tactuel
“When I listen to this track I imagine a girl visiting a forest every summer to see a forest deity who is the only one who can play a broken abandoned piano in the forest. The deity sees her growing up each year until eventually the girl stops visiting, and she grows up to be an adult only to happen to visit the same forest again, when she hears a distant sorrowful piano playing. All the memories come back but she cannot see it as it once was. But she sings along to the piano until it no longer sounds sorrowful, but hopeful. Then the piano stops playing and all that’s left was the spirit’s voice in the wind, bidding farewell.” -Commits Oof
“Man, music like this takes me back to nights where I would be up all night with my brothers and cousins. Playing video games passed our bedtimes, laughing, eating food, and just bonding with one another over our shared interests. I miss those days, where you could just stay in that moment forever and ever and it would never get old. It feels like a lifetime ago, where we could be kids and stay out until dark and just have fun. But like all good things, it came to an end too quickly. Now here I am alone, while everyone i know has moved on to new things. All I have left of them is my memories and it doesn’t feel like enough anymore. I wish I had just one day where I could go back in time and relive those moments. Before everything got so complicated, before my friend passed, before my siblings grew up, before I grew up and was left to my own devices.” -vibe checked
“Every time the ending of this game comes and this song starts playing, I am hit with the overwhelming feeling that something important has just passed…” -I don’t know who I am
I am trying to forget. I am trying to find sympathy. I am trying to feel sympathetic. I am trying to find people who understand. I am listening again to the Lost Hero Soundtrack. There are others who feel too that Joe Kondi created a score to our lives. They think of stained-glass windows and the impossibility of their image. They think to all this sight of sound. To what impossible directions we are nudged to.
These were those comments.
He Never Stepped Outside
-of what was permissible. Not until that day. He had followed the steep trail winding around the cliff’s rocky face until he saw it. A light trail of blood lead into the depths beneath the twisting branches. And he could see them as they beckoned from beneath scattered dying light. They were dancing, gleeful even.
Every year the Witness made the pilgrimage alone to the Sorrows. She stood vigil by the trees on the week’s seventh day, waiting for the eighth which came only once that year. Her watch was for those shades underneath the trees who had given everything away for a dream. A dream she had come to know all too well. And sometimes she would visit more than once a year, to speak to them even though it was forbidden. It was there she might have learned about that dream of another world, from the whisper of shades underneath the twilight.
The Witness never returned from her vigil that day. And sometime after he would set out to the sea on his journey. He would tell them that he was going to find her again, to bring her back. But I suppose he never intended such a thing at all; he never did return. I wonder if they still remember him. Me. Us. Or have we been forgotten with time? These distant memories are like so many other things that come in from the sea, only to be swept away with the next.
On that day he climbed up to the sorrows with nothing. He did not know what he expected to find there. What might live amidst darkness to appear again somewhere else.
Then, the whispers began. Almost as if the trees themselves spoke…
For so many years you have all watched us. To wonder why some might still yearn to be alive… from so very far away.
I’ve walked through this life
“-and felt that it is not mine. Do you ever feel like it is just a little collection of internet posts and memes and assorted words that you’ve been told again and again is your world? What about when the feeling is lost? That you just can’t quite get what everyone else is picking up so easily, so effortlessly?”
These memories will not stop.
“Everyone is feeling that way Josie, they all have those thoughts.”
It was two years ago. We were speaking then.
“No they don’t. They get along. Or maybe you’re right, and it’s such a waste, a mess of busy streets and sweeping failures. Look at the news Allen. Do you watch that? Do you have time for it? Maybe you are right, maybe we all do have these thoughts… maybe that scares me more than anything else right now.”
“I’m tired Allen, so tired. I just want to rest for a bit.”
I never knew what to tell her then. I gave her all those same additives I could find online. The top 10 lists, the life hacks, the reboots, and the AMAs. None of it helped. We had worked together for six years. And to think that I had believed to know her; so neatly framed and categorized, then dismissed. But it is never true. Something is always unknown. Something is always changing. It was familiar. It stirred both of us. Something repressed for so many years. Silence. A dial tone. Something killing her. Something killing me.
Josie is an undergraduate with a physics degree who continues to sort out these aisles. To stack tins. I remember asking only once why she was not somewhere else. She just shrugged her shoulders. There was something about why. Something about better options. The lack thereof. There was something about the deep interpersonal connection of dreams, of moments that shaped who you were. A single chance, and something about stumbling through the world. Did anyone really make their way-
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing. Why I’ve been held here for five years now. I never imagined it would be this way after all. I imagined adventures, new discoveries, sailing. A world moved by me and my friends. But I’m just moving the tins.”
It’s not too late.
This thought comes to mind now, what I should say. What I should have said. But this is a memory, nothing can change anything here. And so the thoughts remain. There is what she deserves to know. Someone there, someone who said-
It’s not too late.
The corridors of the mind, a memory that weaves silently through a tattered brain. All the talks of hope and what it is supposed to mean. But what is hope to the six-year badge. To the hours. To minimum wage. To debt.
“I guess maybe that is just how it is Allen. Even though I never saw anything like this as a kid. I guess I never imagined such a world.”
I pick up the phone.
-fades so easily into one another. The voices spoke so incessantly, a dull roar of wind at the edge of sense. There was a clearing within the woods. A meadow of pale flowers. The blood trail had ended there, specks of it dried across luminescent petals.
Did your Elders persuade you to the virtues of silence as they always have? Did they convince you to that same eternal dispassionate stoicism?
They convinced me of nothing, he replied.
The voices dissipated and reformed after a collection of hushed growls.
We will see. Why are you here?
The moon’s light was captured in the glowing petals. A pale column passed through him. Then amidst the flowers he saw it; purple linen torn at its edge. Black robes left behind, empty.
We have thought to these emotions mortals play out in their time, unrequited. But even in her last visit, she was never assured, her mind never concluded. So she came to us, open to the belief of another existence, another world. But you are not the same, are you? Or have you come to us now because you too are-
What happened here?
The whispers then took their shape, standing shadows as tall as the trees. Some were indistinguishable from the winding branches, limitless as all the flora within.
Do not interrupt.
I do not care for these games.
And you would presume to know what is? What is not?
The Next Day
-a young girl reads a name tag as I stack scented candles in pretty little rows. It says: HELLO, MY NAME IS: ALLEN. She looks like she wants to ask something but thinks better of it and leaves. She never said anything.
There is a smiley face button pinned to the side of the name tag. I’ve had the same one since my start here. There is a badge below. It says: PROUD TEAM MEMBER – 7 YEARS.
It will be eight years tomorrow.
“Allen, can I talk to you for a second?”
Sadie joins me at the scented candle aisle. It will be cat food tins next. One more time. She is the store manager now. Tim left some time ago. I was not at work on his last day. I was at home. Dreaming. Sadie continues speaking.
“You know, a lot of people don’t understand it. All we could ask for now is to know… anything is better than this confusion.”
I keep stacking.
“I have often wondered about that part we all play in the lives of others since then. What impression do we have on who they become? What they choose to do?”
“What do you mean?”
She stares silently and there is that small furrowing of the eyebrows again. It vanishes quickly. She is struggling to say something, anything.
“I was thinking about it the other day. I can’t help but wonder if there was something I did, if I was too tough maybe, I never wanted-”
“None of us did.”
Sadie pauses, then continues silently.
“Do you remember my first conversation with you?”
“I believe it was about falling pallets and a new hire.”
“Yes, and he works at another store now. And you were so quick to let the whole thing fall right on top of you, to let it out of your hands. There was no defense, no self-preservation. It was as if you wanted Tim and I to fire you then, almost desperately. And a year later, here you are still. Even after everything that’s happened.”
I keep stacking.
“Just leave.” She pauses then, waiting for my reply.
I keep stacking.
“I’m almost begging you. No, I am begging. Get out of here, find a different job. Start over again. I’ll even give you a recommendation, write a reference letter. I want to help Allen; we’ve already-”
“I remember something else you told me back then, about bullshitting on the clock.”
She is looking down now. That fire does not burn the same twice. She is not angry now, not anymore. “I remember. Well, you should know I’m quitting in two weeks. I don’t know what will happen next. It seemed like the only thing I could think to do. I don’t understand it so much anymore.”
I say nothing. She waits, watching me for half a second, before turning away.
I’m there alone on the aisle. The stacking is all done. The scented candles haven’t moved. Neither have the white walls, or the cat food tins on Aisle A13. And I haven’t moved. I am still thinking. Perhaps we have thought ourselves to the point where there is nothing left to think.
I wonder where Josie is at these days.
-but brave. This is not his story. Perhaps he thinks it is.
He held the dark robes tightly in his fingers.
Tell me where she went, and I’ll pay your price. I’ll play this game.
There was a deep growl that shook the branches of the Sorrows, a sharp screech as the sleeping birds departed from their branches. Then a cackling laugh of thunder.
You’ve been playing one your entire life. Now listen carefully, there is not much time. Sail out towards the first rays of the new day, to an eighth star you never believed in. There you will find your last Witness to all this trial and suffering consequence. She left to find a truth out there, in a far-off country beyond the map. A truth you have long forgot. And when you have finally found what you have long sought, the price will be paid in full. The illusions of this dream will be cast away.
Then it all came to an end. The shades one-by-one faced the first rays of morning twilight. This was their final dance. Each looked out to the peeking sun and there was no fear in their movement but yearning. Arms and branches outstretched they reached to a day which had at last arrived, and freedom with it. Then they were gone. The breeze brushed past him with one final whisper.
Each morning we spoke to her, she understood. We are free now because of her works, such is the wonder of them, a beautiful telling. Do you understand this? Could you?
Then it was silent. The birds returned to the trees. There was soft rain from the violet sky. Below the cliff, he could see the warming colors of an awakening village for the first time. He looked back to the trees, but the dancing figures were gone – for their movement had ended. And today some still wonder if they might ever dance again.
He followed the steep trail winding around the cliff’s face, and there was an unfamiliar sight below. An empty shore, and beyond it the sun was rising.
It was the eighth day after the seventh, the only one of the year.
-of a woman alone in the darkness. No one is listening to her speaking. A soft glimmer of light from somewhere barely illuminates her face. She is yelling, reaching out in desperation to make her voice heard. She wants someone to answer the questions, all the impossible questions she has for all the world. Someone to look her in the eye. But there is never a reply. Just the silence. So she lowers her head, the little glow fades.
She rests now, her face lowered in the dark. She isn’t weeping, nor angry, nor relieved. Only confused. She shakes her head slightly, not understanding how anything like this might happen. She tried, but relents now, accepting that maybe this whole thing could never make any kind of sense. And then she remembers.
“They were here first,” she whispers as she disappears into the dark.
But now there is a singing. Is it the same voice? A golden illumination is glowing brightly. Her outline is silhouetted amidst the black, framed with the light. It is devoid of any substance, but there is a comfort and warmth to it. Something is out there, some possibility that I can only begin to understand. It is created from the old memories of a forgotten story; the frayed strands twist and gently fall away. These are the dreams of tomorrow.
It’s going to be alright.
I will no longer have to worry about it anymore. Everything is going to be alright. She reaches out to me, and the light grows brighter engulfing her entirely. The image fades into nothing but a feeling and the impression is vivid. It is like sunspots after staring for too long, the shape of that same silhouette in the darkness. Then there is a thought. A strange one. Is she still out there? Somewhere else. Is she really gone? I don’t think I can say. I don’t know where she is. Where we go. It is not impossible to believe.
The glow from the silhouette fades into a dull darkness and it is over. Then I am again staring at the slow rotation of the metallic blades from a ceiling fan-
Spinning. Spinning. Spinning.
-are fire in the wind, alive with the music that speaks to a new destination. That place of transience in the twilight hours. The leaves fall across the sail and into the cresting waves. He presses forward adjusting the mast to catch the wind. Outside that small inlet the open sea beckons to an unknown and wonderful world.
This tale had just been one of many; another of a collection belonging to a hero of legends and fame. A myth he walked away from for something else. The love of an invaluable old friend means so much more than the passing words of a story, of a look.
He never did say goodbye. A cruel thing I suppose. Sometimes the worst pain is that which is unspoken. Perhaps it can never be. Perhaps the words available to us are unsuitable to understand our innermost desires. To speak of them. To share them.
So it is with these autumn leaves, overcast skies. They are endless in pursuit of some final destination, one which they alone can tell. How we admire their grace and tell stories to their travels.
On the street outside the hospital, Jimmy waits. He scratches his head, watches the dead skin fall, tips a bag to his mouth. He knows he is there for a reason, but the beer is running strong, and in brief intervals of buzzed fogginess, he forgets. He forgets and then he sees, sees Leroy walking through the daylight, leaving hospital property, lighting his last cigarette--and what a feeling it is! To be relieved again of that large-scale loneliness…
“Leroy!” he shouts. The sound bangs off the hot concrete.
Leroy, hearing, approaches. “Hi Jim. Can we go home?”
“Nowhere to go. They found us out last month.”
Leroy sniffles. “I thought we had it settled.”
“Squatter laws, man. They make no goddamn sense. They’re changing by the hour.”
Without a plan, they stand there sweating on the concrete, saying nothing, the high of new chance already fading. “Well shit.” Jimmy finally says. “We better start by getting you some shoes.”
“I don’t need shoes,” Leroy says, slipping off a sock to reveal a base layer of nerveless tissue, of cracked and discolored skin. “I get around just fine.”
“You’ve been inside all this time, and your feet still look like that.”
“You need shoes, man. Everyone in the world needs shoes.”
As they walk down south, they determine that, between the two of them, they possess four dollars. Three of which--along with a collectable X-Men wristwatch and a pack of Camels--were returned to Leroy upon his dispatch from the hospital. The fourth was slipped into Jimmy’s boot as he slept the night before.
“How much you think a pair of shoes goes for these days?” Leroy asks.
“Around five. Can't be more than that. Not the kind we’d be seen in, anyway.”
“So, we need a dollar.”
“We need two dollars. You have to account for the tax.”
Leroy smiles. Jimmy was the smartest man he’d ever known, one of those whiz kids who could’ve graduated high school with colors had life been a little bit kinder. “How about it, Jim. Should we go to the subway?”
Jimmy makes a hateful sound. “We aren’t going to the damned subway.”
“Why not? We could dance. That’s easy money right there, Jim. Folks give money to people who dance.”
“Not welcome, man, don’t you remember the last time?
Leroy’s shoulders fall. “I remember.”
“Weren’t for the cops, you would’ve ended us all. And I don’t say that lightly. They had no choice, those cops. Had to drag your ass off. They were actually in the right. Cops, man. In the right. Think about that.”
“I remember, Jim. Hey.”
“And you know what? You were gonna do it, too. I could see it, was in your eyes, man. You remember that? You were about to take that nice young lady down with you onto the tracks. Said it had something to do with the way she looked at me. I’m saying. I’m saying the cops got it right.”
Leroy’s face goes tight, then wet. He wipes his eyes with purple-tipped fingers. “I said I remember. I said it twice. I agreed with you in advance.”
“Well alright then,” Jimmy says. He scans the area, sees faces that look away sharply, faces that surely won’t help, and softens. “You really think you can handle it? If we go to the train, I mean. You aren’t going to try anything funny?
“I swear, Jim. I’ll stand right beside you, just like you told me to. Wait right there till the train’s stopped and everything.”
“You have to promise me that’s what you’ll do.”
“I promise, Jim. I promised before you even asked me to.”
In the station, they vault a turnstile and catch a downtown A. Jimmy feels his twisted face tainting the air with unease. All those tired passengers around him--the nurses, the suits, the school kids huddled in uniforms. All are making eyes, passing glances.
Jimmy can feel it, but Leroy cannot.
“Hello everybody,” Leroy says out of nowhere, untouched by it all. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I just got out of the hospital, and, you see, I don’t have any shoes. If you could spare a dollar, a quarter, anything, really, I’d appreciate it a whole lot.”
The faces recede into their phones, their periodicals, their books and gadgets and laps. Jimmy stands two feet from Leroy, feigning detachment, staring into an inky-black window that recasts his image in shutters.
“Before I get started,” he continues, “can anyone please play some music? They took my boombox away from me the last time I was on here and I still have no way to play it.”
Silence. Naturally, silence.
“Well that’s okay,” he finally says. “I’m just going to perform without it.”
Leroy begins to shift his body in rigid motions that loosely align with the rhythm of the train’s dull murmur--little shrugs of the shoulders, taps of the feet. Tension swells all around him, but fuck if Leroy can feel it. He’s on fire, blazing, and as horrifying as it is for the people around him, Jimmy can’t help but smile. Everyone else could get fucked, could be stabbed through the heart with a million infected needles, but not Leroy. Jimmy sees the looks Leroy’s getting. He could slaughter them all, could do it without a shred of remorse. And his friend looks so alone up there, completely oblivious, and it’s sad, so sad, so the only thing left to do, Jimmy feels, is dance.
And then he, too, is up, dancing, his body moving less freely than Leroy’s, but he is doing nevertheless, living in spite of whatever shame is buried within him, and yes he feels in his heart a deep and unkillable guilt, a guilt for the life he’s lived, for the act he’s committing, for being the source of fear and discomfort for all the surrounding passengers--but by God, it feels right. For a moment it all feels right. To make ends meet, to do it all over again.
But then Leroy stumbles over himself and lands with a thud on the lap of a man who is not the sort of man you want to stumble over. This man is big, fat, tall, with hard eyes and a bulbous nose and unkempt eyebrows that say Do not fall on me.
The man pushes Leroy off of him in an abrupt and scary way, and Leroy, his big soft body, is thrown against the hard sheet metal of the opposite door, his lower back banging against the cold pole beside it. Jimmy blinks and steadies. Although he is a small man, Jimmy, thin and malnourished, he is a fighter. For eight years, before things really went sideways, he had worked for a butcher, carrying cargo into a freezer, and during this time he’d spent long hours punching the frozen carcasses of upside down cows, those that hung from the ceiling. He developed muscles, became strong, became the sort of man that a woman could see and smile at and think of the life they could have together. And though it had been some years since he’d punched those sorry dead cows, and though his muscles had lost their vigor, he feels again--as his sickly friend nurses himself back to health on the dirty floor, rubbing his back, moaning--the urge to inflict pain. He takes three steps toward the big ugly man and winds up, ready to cause real damage, ready to punch a hole through this fucker’s skull. The big ugly man then puts his arms over his face so as to shield himself from defacement, for he knows that the man he has insulted has nothing to lose, and on top of that is completely off of his rocker, and that his, the big ugly man’s, best course of action is to take cover, to wait for this crazy man to leave.
But then, at the apex of his windup, Jimmy’s thin toned fist is yanked back, and through the cracks in his arms, the big ugly man sees Leroy on his feet, almost surreal like, battling gravity and torque, pulling against the arm of his friend.
The car screeches, stops; the doors slide open. “We have to go, man,” Leroy says, panicked in a way he rarely is. “We got to get the fuck out of here.” He twists Jimmy’s arm and they slide out of the car.
Off and alone, surrounded by strangers, they stand for a moment on the platform. They say nothing and pant, looking ahead, once again, into nothing. “I didn’t like that, Jim,” Leroy says. “Could’ve handled that myself, is what I’m saying. And now we have no money to show for it.”
Jimmy yawns. “There’s always another train.”
“Fuck the next train, man. You were right. Train isn’t the place for people like us. Besides, I said from the beginning. I don’t need any shoes.”
Without another word, a robotic voice sounds from the car and the dual doors begin to shutter. But before they can close completely, they are stopped by a swollen stub, pink and scarred, which was probably an arm at one point.
A shrieking falls over the platform--it is rangy, hollowed out. It comes from the owner of the stump, a woman deep into her 50s.
The doors open. She walks out.
“Are you okay?” Jimmy asks.
The woman has gray hair and a thin pink nose and a waist whose size does not quite correspond to the shoulders above them, but in other ways, Jimmy thinks, she’s doing quite well for herself. She looks like the sort of person who has spent a lifetime on these trains, and yet the shine in her eyes remains hopeful.
“Wait!” she calls out.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Leroy says.
“I was waiting there with my money, didn’t you see me? I was waving it at the end of the car, ready to put it in your hand. I would’ve walked over, if you didn’t see me, that is. But I knew you would, except you didn’t. You didn’t see me. It was a funny thing, too, really caused me to consider, does anyone see me? But after concluding this consideration, I considered something else: I considered for many seconds whether I should get off of the car and hand it over to you. But then I decided, yes, as a matter of principle, I should. I thought it over very deeply, you see. And then I got off the subway. See--are you listening?--I have a great deal of money, a whole great deal, and now that I’m here, giving some of it to you.”
From the smell of her trench coat it is clear that she does not, in fact, have very much money at all, but nevertheless she pulls from her pocket a wrinkled, damp-ish five and hands it over to Leroy. “I think you’re a fantastic dancer.”
“Thanks, ma'am,” Leroy says, beaming.
The woman hacks up a cough--something guttural, hard, probably terminal--before limping off, up the stairs and out of the platform, receding back into the little, vast, unseen corner of the world behind which the rest of the city seems to operate.
Leroy’s eyes widen. “I told you folk like that give money to dancers.”
Jimmy snorts. “Folk like that, Leroy, they’ll do anything to catch a glance. How else would they get one, if not for paying a buck?”
“She paid five, Jim. Look at it.” Leroy holds up the bill, high in the air, as if it’s a championship trophy.
Jimmy rolls his eyes.
“Say, how about we hit that old Cowboy bar uptown? Buy the crowd a drink. I’ll walk in like they do in the movies, say, ‘round’s on me today, boys,’ and I’ll really do it. I’ll really buy the crowd a drink.”
“Place’s been closed for years, man. We’ve been over this. Went over it last year and the one before it.”
Again Leroy’s shoulders sag, his neck extends. He watches the next train screech to a stop in front of him. “Right. I remember.”
Jimmy drops a hand on Leroy’s shoulder. Leroy flinches. “Relax, man, Jesus. Don’t you remember why we came here in the first place?”
Leroy’s crazed eyes fix back on the train--the sliding doors, the ant-like motion of people moving in and out.
“There’s this discount shop down on 18th, right?” Jimmy says. “With the money we have, we’ll get you something real nice.”
“The nicest thing we’ve ever had.”
Outside they limp down side streets at a standard but precarious pace, fast enough that they fear at any moment the imminent collapse of their bodies--the sudden breaking of bones, the shouting for help and relief. But the old feelings are in them, and they can’t be bothered to slow down yet.
“It’s right here, man,” Leroy says, tilting his beer in the direction of the massive window before them. “You think they’ll let us in?”
“Don’t see why not. We have the money right here.”
Jimmy coughs into his arm, spots some blood on his sleeve, tries to suck it off, and leaves a yellow stain. It’s been years since they’ve been in an actual store, a store that takes actual money--a decade, maybe--so along with these feelings come nerves rolled back in their minds, nerves left to die long ago. “Fuck man,” Jimmy grumbles. “I can’t do it. You were right what you said before, let’s find a bar.”
Gently, Leroy rests his hand on the small of Jimmy’s back. “You said it yourself, Jim. I really need some shoes.”
Jimmy scowls. He sees the bodies in the store, silhouettes in a window, the entire world right there, judging him.
“Come on,” Jimmy says.
They walk into the store.
Fluorescents drown their skin in light from above, revealing their scars, their dirt-packed pores, all the nasty little qualities that make them who they are. It’s surgical, diagnostic. They look at each other and wince, seeing for the first time the condition they’re really in.
They look away very quickly.
“These aisles run on forever,” Leroy says, directing the conversation away from themselves.
“They don’t start or stop.”
“Have they always been so long?”
“Not a chance.”
“Where are the shoes? I see everything in the world but shoes.”
“The shoes are here.”
“Where are they? I see the purpose of the assembly line put in crystal terms. There’s everything that’s ever been made, but no shoes.”
“The shoes are here. They’ve got to be.”
Noticing their arms are brushed up against one another, Jimmy snorts and scoots to his right. He wants to appear sane and at ease.
A tall lanky man in a company uniform with bad posture and a dirty goatee slides into frame, dragging himself along as if his torso were a suitcase in an airport he didn’t wish to be in.
“Yo man,” Leroy shouts too loudly. “You know where I can find some shoes? Money isn’t a factor, just point us in the direction, please and thank you.”
The company man rolls his eyes over the two men, seemingly looking for assistance or divine intervention, and then points in a direction that may or may not be the direction in which the aisle of shoes is located. “Aisle, uhm, twenty,” he grumbles, before walking off absently, as if this wasn’t a terribly inconsiderate thing to do at all.
Unbothered, the two men stroll down a well-lit aisle that runs perpendicular to the rest, scanning in terse movements for signs of disturbance, of unrest.
“How do you feel?” Jimmy asks.
“Good. I feel good. Solid. Top-notch. You?”
“I feel like we’re coming up on something.
“Like this life is coming around.”
“Like our luck is running strong.”
“Like it’s finally on our side.”
“That’s it. That’s exactly what it is.”
“Like these shoes are going to change things.”
“Take us places.”
“Take us all over the world.”
“A stretch, don’t you think?”
“At least to the docks and back home.”
“They took our home away from us, remember?”
But then they’re beneath it: a dazzling hedgerow of vari-colored boxes, all of them new, shiny, fresh and unopened.
“Just look at it, Jim. It’s like Christmas. You remember Christmas? Like we’re back at the family home and it’s Christmas time and--and remember when I got that dog, Jim? You remember that dog. It was just sitting there under the tree with a bow on its head, sleeping like it owned the place, like the tree was its home and we were its family. Like it really belonged there, just there, with us.”
“You sat on that dog, man. Smothered it before it even grew up.”
Leroy’s eyes go cloudy as he wheels back against the fog of remembrance. “I loved that dog.”
“Well hey now.” Jimmy pulls a box from the rack and opens the lid. An aroma rises--leather and rubber and glue and all the components of a genuine piece of footwear: the four mechanically sewed on stripes, the tongue that sticks out just right, the little patterns on the sole that distinguish its steps from the rest. “How about these?”
Leroy removes one of the shoes from the box, brings it to his face, and smells the sole and the laces. He grabs from within the balled up bits of paper and stuffs his nose inside. His heart tightens. It is clear from a distance, to everyone who cares to look (which happens only to be Jimmy), that he’s been chasing this feeling all his life. “This is it, Jim. This is the one.” His voice is hushed, froggy.
The two men smile and limp to the counter, turning over in their heads the great future awaiting them.
They place the shoes on the belt by the register.
“Where should we go first? Leroy asks.
“I’d like to go to the park.”
“The park, man. It’s where you go to hear the world talk back to you. The people on benches, they’re watching: they sit around and judge by the clothes you’re wearing, the hair on your head, the kind of life you’ve lived.”
“Oh,” Leroy says.
“And I want to hear what they’ll say about us now.”
“Now that I’m wearing shoes?”
“Now that we’re just like them.”
The cashier picks up the box, examines with narrowed eyes the two men before her, and shoots the barcode with a strand of red light. “Eleven dollars and forty four cents,” she says.
For a second there’s silence, the sounds of fallen chests, nothing else. Then Leroy says: “But we only have nine dollars.”
The cashier exhales. “What do you want me to say?” she asks, curling her lips.
“Listen, lady,” Jimmy says, trying to make himself large. “We’ve gone to Hell and back to get this money, and I don’t know what your problem is, but we’re leaving with them today. And what do you think gives you the right to speak to two good men in such a harsh and cruel way? You think we don’t have feelings too?”
By the half-dead look in the cashier’s eyes, the two men know at once that Leroy would never, not for a heartbeat, wear the shoes on the belt.
Quick as they’d returned, the old feelings were gone.
But the cashier wasn’t done yet: “You want to talk about Hell? Everyday you people come in, wanting, buying out of your means. You know how many of you have the cash to buy what you put on this register? Exactly zero. Zip. Cero. Nil. That’s the truth. And it’s the same story every time. And you have the gall to ask what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me is I’ve built a life for myself, and that life entails dealing with sad little nobodys like yourselves.”
Leroy sniffles. “You didn’t need to say all of that. We were leaving. We weren’t even going to argue.”
The cashier snorts, visibly upset by the smell drifting off them. She inhales in terse snorts. “Can you leave, please just leave, before I call security.” She sounds tired, the sort of tired that no amount of sleep can fix.
The two men stare at the cashier for a few moments longer, perplexed, having everything to say, nothing to say, before turning and leaving forever, off solemnly down that long ugly aisle with the skid marks that seems to run into eternity, into nowhere, into the rest of their sorry lives.
Although the day is fading, the air is glassy, hot. Above an orange sky burns. It is a sky that defies the tone of the day, a sky that dips over the horizon of people and streets and sets the town on fire, a sky so infallible it seems an unlikely sky.
But here they are, beneath it.
“Man,” Jimmy says.
“What was she trying to do back there? Eat our hearts out?”
“It wasn't a nice thing to say.”
“I mean, she didn’t have to give us the shoes. I understand that. It was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, to refuse us those shoes. It was a thing I could accept. But that--”
“They never give us the shoes, Jim. They never have.”
“But to refer to us as ‘those people,’ man. Like we’re nothing at all. Like we’re just anyone else in our position.”
“We’ll save up some money to get those shoes, Jim. I mean, look what we did today. Spent, what, three hours looking for cash, and what’d we get ourselves? Five dollars, Jim. We got five bucks just today, our first day back together, really trying.”
Jimmy looks ahead into the buzzing plain of cabs and billboards, of movement and cyber capital. But mostly he’s looking at people: all of them poised, neurotic, thoroughly deadened to whatever pain was in their hearts at that moment. “It’ll take us a lifetime to make that money,” he says. And then he takes a long breath and picks up his pace.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Leroy asks.
“The 7/11. Get some beers. Been enough of a day, don’t you think? We can each have a twinkie for dinner, call it a night. Figure the rest out tomorrow.”
Down south, they hit Union Square. The air in the park is thicker than before, wavering lightly over the pathway like a mirage, throbbing, blurring the line between what is really happening and what is really not.
From their bench they see it all: the old trees dancing in the breeze calligraphically, the police reclining against a metal fence, the squirrels, the lonely roll of the sax. They have beers in their hands, and shared between them, 23 cents. They’re broke, yes, but drunk. Drunk at least.
“Days like these,” Leroy says, looking up into the clear sky where a crescent moon rests, stretching his long arms over the back of the bench and folding one leg over the other. “They don’t come so often as they used to.”
“You seeing this guy?” Jimmy asks.
“This guy across from us. He’s been giving us looks.”
“The one in the fancy shirt?”
“So you do see him.”
“It’s a nice shirt.”
“It’s giving me a funny feeling.”
“How about the girl he’s with?”
Jimmy swallows. He’d seen her already. She hadn’t seen him. That’s the power she had over him.
“Girl like that’ll change your life,” Leroy says.
“Girl like that’ll never be in your life,” Jimmy corrects him.
The problem wasn’t that she was drop-dead gorgeous. She wasn’t. That would have been digestible. The problem was this: she was just like anyone else, her teeth not quite straight, her stomach not quite flat. And yet from the perceived glances coming from the boy by her side, aimed their way, Jimmy sensed a distance where a connection had once existed—a recognition, a tacit trust, an awareness that the other, at the very least, was human. But that was a long time ago. Longer than Jimmy could remember.
There is nothing of hers that Jimmy wants in particular. He wants it all.
He takes a pull from his bottle and, feeling a pain in the back of his mouth, reaches in and pinches a chipped and blackish tooth, a bicuspid. He feels it crumble. His tooth--this object that remains in the heads of bygone species until they’re found and dug up--has disintegrated, gone to dust. It slides down his throat and he swallows. And he wonders, as he wondered quite often, what exactly he did to deserve this.
“You should get that tooth checked out, Jim,” Leroy says. “You know how many people die every year on account of their teeth? The dentist from the hospital told me once. Crazy number. Can’t remember it though. Ha-ha. You should really get it checked out, though.”
“You going to pay for the dentist?”
“Hey, Jim. I’m just saying.”
Jimmy closes his eyes, exhales hard, and attempts to center himself, a thing his PO or social worker or someone had told him to do. And as he does this he hears from across the way the boy in the fancy shirt saying to the girl, “What’s wrong with this guy’s stomach?” which, Jimmy feels, can only be in reference to Leroy’s bulging lump, the result of a hernia gone unchecked.
And then a warmth circulates through Jimmy, blood pumping, a twitch behind the eyelids.“I’m going over there,” he says.
“To do what?”
“Have a word.”
“Are you sure?”
Jimmy isn’t sure. Not in the slightest. But in him is an anger so feral that, frightened as he is, he feels he has nothing to lose. Nothing to lose; he considers the statement--its silliness, its harsh objectivity. He has his life to lose, after all, but soon enough he would be under a bridge, or beneath scaffolding, or in the industrial part of town perched atop a pile of broken brick, wheezing, snorting, coughing up blood. And then there would be coldness. And then, probably, nothing. Maybe there would be heaven, but probably there would be nothing. So the statement seemed appropriate. He had nothing to lose.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m sure”
“Okay,” Leroy says, seemingly unaware of the gravity of whatever’s unfolding before him. “I’ll come with you, I suppose. I wanted to ask him where he got his shirt, anyways.”
Here is Jimmy’s plan:
- Stand up
- Saunter over to the couple
- Communicate via small talk his dynamic vision of mankind
- Romance the girl
- Take her hand
- Touch away the emptiness
- Leave the boy sobbing in the fetal position
- Walk off into the sun
Seconds later they’re in front of the couple, speaking. Leroy has the first word: “Are you, like, French, man?”
The boy, a tall skinny kid with square glasses and an oval face, is taken aback. He has that look about him that lets you know from the jump: he’s the sort of kid who’s never questioned, has surely never considered, the extent to which he’s seen by the strangers who sit in the park.
“The reason I ask,” Leroy continues, sitting down on the bench beside him, “is that you’re looking mighty French in that shirt. I have to ask, how much did you spend on it?”
“Uhm,” the boy says, glancing at the girl by his side, smiling incredulously. “I’m not French, man. I’m like Italian or something. And I have no clue how much I paid for this shirt.”
Clear to Jimmy is the notion that this boy does, in fact, know how much he paid for the shirt, and only as a matter of upscale principle was he feigning otherwise. It only makes Jimmy madder. “His shirt blows, man,” he says.
Jimmy had hoped, albeit distantly, that the girl would suddenly widen her eyes when she saw him, that she’d hear his voice and, like a daughter upon her father’s return, forget her anger and sadness and grief, and just--give in; but it never came. Instead she stares, body tense, into her phone, saying nothing.
“Let’s get out of here, Leroy. Fuck these guys.”
The boy smiles in a scared, superior way. He’s decided who they are, and Jimmy’s halfway sure that he’s right.
Jimmy figures: the boy himself may someday become a banker, a doctor, a jump-suited man washing the high-up windows of skyscrapers. He could be anything in the world, but he’d never be where Jimmy is now.
“Easy, man,” the boy says. “Can’t you see she’s tired?” He gestures to the girl by his side. “Give it a rest, for her, won’t you? We’ve been out all day and--”
“I like him, Jim” Leroy interrupts. “I think he’s a good guy, taking care of this girl like that. I really think we should leave him alone now. After he tells us where he got that shirt, I mean.”
Jimmy sits down by the girl. Her shoulders stiffen. Jimmy snorts. “You know he’s full of shit, right?” Jimmy asks. “Boy’s never lived a day in his life. You know that, I know you do. You have to.”
“I am full of shit,” the boy interjects. “She knows it too, I told her so.” He smiles languidly and sits back against the bench, reaching an arm around the girl.
Jimmy stands up, and as his body straightens, he realizes the degree of his drunkenness: quite. And he has to catch himself from stumbling. In doing so, he catches a glance of the boy’s shirt. Leroy had been right. It was nice. Nicer than anything they’d ever owned. He feels something rise from beneath him, from the gut, and decides in spite of himself to say more: “You must know he’ll let you down, this guy. He’s really not the sort of guy you want to get mixed up with. He says it himself: he’s full of shit. You see that, don’t you? I mean just look at him.”
The girl squirms.
“Hey, Jim,” Leroy says. “He’s got nicer clothes than you do. Why don’t you cut him some slack?”
“Yeah, man,” the boy says, chuckling. “Why don’t you cut me some slack?”
Jimmy grumbles. All there is left for him now is to find a place to sleep.
As he walks away he hears from a distance the simple words of his friend. “Don’t worry about him, he’s had a hard life. I just wanted to say that I like your shirt and--wait, that’s a pretty nice watch. Where’d you get it?”
And even more distantly the boy’s response: “Not sure man, but you won’t find one of these in a dumpster.”
Leroy takes no offense—he sits down next to the boy and informs him, “Well try this on for size. I got mine in a dumpster, and guess what? It’s a hell of a thing, this watch. Jimmy and I looked it up, the value and all, and guess what? It's a collectable. Goes for fifty a pop, no less. There were only fifty thousand or so made in the country.”
—but Leroy is enraged. The way the dig so effortlessly married contempt and understanding, how it indicated so subtly that their lives were wasted things, doomed to fizzle out predictably, comically, rendering them worthy of ridicule. There was no code of recognition. Nothing at all but an awareness of the boy’s own superiority. Jimmy looks into Leroy’s eyes and sees no sign of worry or anger, just blankness, and feels an unquenchable pity for the lives they both were living.
But the boy is having fun with this. Jimmy thinks he might tell his college buddies about it back home, might have a good laugh, impressing them all with his adventurous charm and wit, his willingness to engage with such people as Leroy and himself.
The girl clamps the boy's hand, as if pleading with him to make this stop, to end it all, to just take her home. She does not see Jimmy’s vision. “Listen guys,” the boy says, taking notice. “I have to get these groceries to the fridge, but it’s been real. It really has. Maybe we can do it again sometime. Grab drinks.” He winks and nods at the bottle in Jimmy’s hand. His sarcasm bites. He checks his Rolex and snickers. Maybe it isn’t a Rolex, but it isn’t a goddamned X-Men watch either.
“Go, then,” Jimmy says. “Get out of here, you prick. Get the fuck out.” He straightens his back and spits, sick with rage, and cocks back his arm in a mock-punching motion. The boy does not flinch, and Jimmy smirks, knowing he’s lost. Lost again. Drunk and lost in the middle of the park, mad, then madder because why was he even mad? He was mad about nothing, it seemed, except, of course, for who he was and what he had become. “I saw you staring at us, man, you were making fun. How do you think that made us feel?”
“Let’s go,” the boy says to the girl.
She stands up, their hands still pressed together. They walk away in lockstep.
“How do you think that makes us feel, man?” Jimmy repeats a bit louder. “How do you think that makes us feel?”
“Hey Jimmy, it’s okay,” Leroy says. “He’s a fine guy. He really is, I’m sure he meant nothing by it.”
But Jimmy isn’t satisfied. He stomps after the boy and grabs his shoulder. “I asked you a question, man.”
Quicker than Jimmy expected, the boy turns to face him. There is venom in his eyes. “I didn’t say shit, dude. Didn’t even see you. Ok? I was looking at the fucking squirrels. We both were. Were having a nice time, too, before you came along.” He spits on the ground. “But whatever. Good luck with...whatever it is you do. Take care of yourself.”
A stunned Jimmy can do nothing but stand there, stumbling, watch them fade into the sun. He feels low and then lower. And then he lunges, double stepping, and pulls the boy down by his shoulders.
“What the fuck?” the girl shrieks, hands to cheeks, like it’s really a scene from a movie.
But unlike a movie the boy is silent at first, motionless, disbelieving entirely what is happening to him. Jimmy wonders comically, as he presses his knees into the boy’s neck, if it’s the heat that leaves him incredulous; Jimmy smiles. He is winning. Winning! Winning at last. And because he is improvising, he digs his teeth into the boy’s neck. He feels the empty slot where his bicuspid had been, but it doesn’t matter now. He’s doing it, is on top, and even when the boy begins to scream and shake and make these horrible gurgling sounds, Jimmy knows that he has won. He hears Leroy calling behind him--the muted cries to stop, the pleading, the uncertainty of Leroy’s future being borne right before him--but Jimmy doesn’t care. Not now. He digs his teeth deeper, he tastes nickel and iron, the blood of good upbringing. This is what it tastes like. It tastes like this. And whatever injustice Jimmy has faced, and whatever luck this boy has come across, it is all behind them now. The boy is dying. Oh, he is dead. He has to be. He will bleed out in a matter of minutes, despite the air-lift, the medical presence in the dozens, . It would all be futile, and the boy would die.
The attack is elegant, glorious.
Just as the police hurry their way, hands to hips, Jimmy thinks about Leroy: what would he do now? He had nowhere to go, no prospects, nothing.
The police tackle Jimmy in a violent effort. It is a predictable affair. They stomp on his face and club his chest and back, and before long Jimmy is put to rest by the blessing of unconsciousness.
When he awakes he’s strapped to a gurney, facing the sky, being folded into the back of an ambulance.
“He’s up,” an officer says.
Through the Northeastern fog that has come over the sky, Jimmy makes out a second officer, and further behind him, Leroy, his hands in his pockets, his feet bare and disgusting. Leroy looks at Jimmy as if he’s waiting for something, and then Jimmy sees it; he’s waiting, as Jimmy had waited before, for him.
He’s Leroy’s mother, and he’s finally starting to see it.
It would be months before he saw Leroy again. Years, maybe. There was always the off chance he’d be found innocent for some asinine reason—a glitch in the system—but this time, he felt, was different. That chance was slim as none.
And there’s Leroy, hopeless, waiting. He’s Jimmy’s age, but only in years. His heart is decades behind. And what do children do when they're left on their own?
The second cop’s radio buzzes from his hip, and he drifts off, out of Leroy’s line of sight. Left are Jimmy and Leroy.
Leroy walks slowly over to the ambulance.
“How’d you do it, Jim?”
“I just did,” he says. “Sometimes it’s what a guy’s got to do.”
“Did he say something?”
“It wasn’t what he said. It’s what he was. What we are.”
Leroy looks past Jimmy, beyond the bus, nowhere in particular. “You shouldn’t have done that, Jim. It really was a crazy thing to do. I hardly blame the cops on this one. I mean, I don’t like it anymore than you do, but I really can’t blame them. It was a crazy thing to do, Jim. Really. I wish you hadn’t done that.”
“I know that, Leroy.”
Leroy sniffles. “Well now what?”
“Now I go away. To the hospital or to jail, but in any case, away. And you enjoy your Summer. It’s just getting started, after all.”
In Leroy’s face Jimmy senses unease. Leroy had never been left unattended, not since they were young. Jimmy was all he’d ever had, and now he was gone, gone for who knows how long. And Leroy would be alone.
“What am I going to do, Jim?”
Jimmy’s face tightens, and strapped as they were, his hands begin to shake. “Look ahead, man. Look at the park. Are you looking? Look. You can sleep there tonight. On the bench by the maples past the two-plied section of benches, you’ll see it. A ways down the path. Stay there for the night. After that, you’re on your own.”
Leroy continues to look away from the park.
Jimmy sees the cops coming near. The first has just finished taking a report from the girl, who, from Jimmy’s angle, looks mangled and broken and maybe, he hopes despite himself, a little relieved. The second is off of the radio and lumbering toward them. “Hurry,” Jimmy says. “Take off my boots.”
“Before they stop you, take off my boots.”
“But what about you?”
“We’ll find me more when I’m out.”
A little reluctantly Leroy walks over to Jimmy’s feet, and with a tenderness Jimmy doesn’t expect, he begins to unlace the boots. “Jesus, Jim. When was the last time you took these things off?”
Jimmy doesn’t respond. He doesn’t have to. He’d found Leroy his shoes, and for a time that’s all that mattered. Whatever else occurred down the line, Leroy had shoes on his feet.
Leroy wrenches the crusted up boots off of Jimmy’s feet and places them onto his own. “They fit good, Jim. Good as I could’ve imagined.”
“I didn’t even like those sneakers from the store, anyway. You know that, right?”
“Sure you didn’t, man.”
“But what about when you get back?”
“Don’t worry about that now.”
“But what about it?”
“I suppose we’ll have to find me another pair,” Jimmy says with a bite of irony that seems to fly right past Leroy. But he doesn’t feel pity. Not now.
“Me and you?”
“You and me.”
And then, and then: silence. Naturally, silence. They’d said all they had to.
The officers return. They close the ambulance doors and drive off with Jimmy inside. Out of the dual-windows behind him, through which the last golden beams of dying light shine, Jimmy watches the standing image of Leroy fall back into time. They blink at each other across the widening space. There is no wave, no kiss blown. None of that was necessary, for by winter the people would be inside. Yes, all of them but Jimmy and Leroy. They would be out, looking for shoes.
A Locket for Anita
I met your grandmother when she worked as a servant girl in the bakery beside the cathedral. She was just sixteen when she started working there after she ran away from home. All I know is that she was an orphan raised by her abusive stepmother-- a typical fairytale in the making if you would ask me. A simple pale skinny maiden yet she was the loveliest in my eyes.
I know your grandmother liked me first. She always wore that same sweet smile every time I came buying for bread. Every morning, I would rush to the bakery to buy bread for breakfast, then I would go there again to buy bread for snacks, bread at noon, and another piece of bread for dinner. At night, I would be lying on my bed half asleep excited to rise early to do it all over again. It was my joy to see her lovely face every day. For months, I had been religious in my routine--never tired of going back and forth to see her smile.
When the war broke, I had to leave. I decided to confess my love which she warmly accepted. As a sign of my devotion, I gave her this gold locket that I've worked hard for. Honestly, I wasn't hopeful that I would ever return but I told her to wait for me so we could both have our photos taken for the locket.
Four years had passed and I returned home as a man. I went to the bakery but I didn't find her. The owner told me that she went back to her hometown the day I went to war. Without waiting for another day, I set forth to find her. My dire heart has longed enough and I wouldn't want to waste another day without her by my side.
When I came near to the wooden gate, I saw Anita from a far as lovely as ever. My Anita, wearing the necklace I gave her. When our eyes met, my heart raced! I ran to her and hugged her really tight. It took her a while before she wrapped her arms around me and hugged me even tighter so tight that it seemed as if she never would want to let go. Just three days after, I asked her to marry me which she happily agreed to.
My Anita... I loved her every day since. Sadly, your grandmother died not knowing who I was to her-- dementia caused her a lot. Her last words were "Anita, Victor, Anita, Anita, Victor" and I said, "Yes, my darling, I am here." She peacefully passed away holding this locket which she cherished with all her heart.
A month after the funeral, while I was on the porch holding this locket, I could imagine my beautiful Anita dancing, prancing, and laughing under our favorite tree. The gold locket is old but it still glimmers. When I opened it, I saw my picture which was taken after the war. On the other half, a picture of two girls who looked exactly the same.
The Tale of the Mice
"I don't know...," replied the Mother mouse as she was holding back her tears. "He was just in the other room last night and now..." the Mother mouse started crying again.
"Hush, stop crying... Maybe he just went out for an early walk."
"That's not possible. He was very weak and very pale. Verit started acting rather odd after his long walk with Yezdit the Traveler and the Walker. He seldom talked to me– always sitting in his room drowned in deep thoughts and giving out long sighs. Yesterday, I caught Verit staring at me with the saddest expression I have yet seen of him. He seemed very disturbed. I asked him what's wrong but he never said a word. He just looked at me with his loving eyes and started talking about his dreams for our child." The Mother mouse continued sobbing, deeply worried for what might have happened.
"Please stop crying, you're still weak. By the way, where is your newborn? Zabota the Caretaker said it's a boy."
The Mother mouse dried her tears in attempt to answer.
"Yes, I gave birth to a son. What a precious gift to the world. Our baby is still in the safe room right now. It's best to keep him warm in the meantime."
"Did you and Verit have an argument?" sniffed the Gossiper.
"No, we didn't. Last night before we went to sleep, while I was nursing my wound, he started talking about our son. 'Khodit… what a beautiful name, ' Verit told me, 'Khodit the Wanderer… Our precious son, my precious boy...When he grows up, I want him to travel to beautiful places far from here. Someday I hope he visits the vast lush greens of vales and hills that we heard from the stories of Skazat the Storyteller. Khodit will surely enjoy travelling to places different from the world we know..." He paused for a while trying to hold his tears. "Though I liked the name, I want to change it with something better-- Spasti, we are now going to call him Spasti the Saviour... Always tell our little boy that he is important no matter how small he is..."
Her heart went heavy as she recalled their conversation. The Mother mouse wiped the tears in her eyes that was about to fall then she continued, " Those are his exact words. I heard a painful crack in his shaky voice whenever he mentioned our son's name. Was it him saying goodbye to me? I should have known." Tears flowed incessantly from her eyes once more.
"I know Verit, he would never leave you just like that. The worst thing that could happen to him is to disappear just like what happened to the Borba the Fighter and the Mechta the Dreamer. Have you asked Yezdit?"
"No, I’ve never seen him since..."
Their conversation was interrupted by a loud thump from the Walker who had been standing at a distance. Even though the Walker was far from them, the Gossiper mouse have noticed him from the corner of her eyes looking at them from time to time. She moved a little closer to the Mother mouse and spoke in great caution.
"Do you think the Walker had something to do with this? the Gossiper mouse whispered. "I really find him very suspicious. He leisurely walks around during the day passing by our houses not saying a word-- never greeting anyone. Some neighbors think that he’s responsible for the disappearance of Borba and Mechta because they went missing after the Walker accompanied them. And look at him… he's very odd, very white, and very huge!
"I don’t know.... the Walker never harmed us. I think it was Yezdit. Maybe they fought. They never talked after the long walk. Maybe it was their argument that bothered him. Verit started having nightmares saying words I didn't understand, "esssSlabi,slabi...nache..natchela.." The attacks became frequent lately. Last night, I woke up to a very strange sound- a groaning sound. I saw Verit cringing on the floor so I asked him what's wrong. He tried to stand very slowly catching his belly, trembling, shuddering, yet he told me that it was nothing. I could tell that he was trying to move his limbs but he couldn't. I saw his eyes- that helpless expression in his sad eyes, but I couldn't do anything from a far…I myself am still weak."
"You should have been alert. They say the disappearances took place at night. The Weaver mouse said her husband, Borba, was gone when she woke up, the following morning Mechta disappeared! You should have stayed awake. You could have..." The Gossiper mouse abruptly paused when she saw the Walker briskly walking towards them.
The two mice were scared--petrified they couldn't move. The Walker went closer to the Gossiper and looked at her straight in the eye. The Gossiper mouse gulped in fear. In one swoop, the Walker grabbed her tightly! The Gossiper mouse squeaked in fear! She was frantically trying to escape from the Walker's grip. The Mother mouse, shocked and appalled, tripped on her feet as she stepped back.
"Vot Etot!" said the Walker in a loud roaring voice.
It was the first time they heard him speak!
The latest abduction took place in broad daylight!
The Mother mouse couldn’t believe what she just witnessed as she was still trembling in fear. At that very instance, the safety of her family crossed her mind– her precious son, Spasti, her husband– his dreams. The mere thought crushed her heart. Then she remembered what Verit said— "Someday, our son will save lives."
(The story is inspired by The Monument to the Laboratory Mouse, a sculpture in the park in front of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The monument commemorates the sacrifice of the mice in genetic research used to understand biological and physiological mechanisms for developing new drugs and curing of diseases.)
The Beauty Queen and Her Fancy Bracelets
Though she has been married thrice- all three to a widower, no controversy about her marriages ever caused ill rumor in the high elite class. Her late husbands have shown much adoration for her that when she was widowed everyone who knows her mourned with her for she herself is such a sweet, kind, thoughtful, generous lady—a "woman of great propriety" to all her acquaintances.
When her makeup is all set, she stands and unlocks her jewelry closet with a fingerprint censor. Today, she must choose the finest piece of bracelet that will match her clothes. She will be meeting her friends casually in the Oliver Messel Suite at The Dorchester hotel to formally welcome the new member in their elite socialite club who just flew in from Munich, Germany.
Of all the jewelry, she fancies bracelets more. It is the only thing in the world that makes her heart flutter with joy. She thinks she inherited this fascination from her mother whose bracelets comprise at least half of her collection. As she runs her delicate fingers over her fancy bracelets, she remembers her mother and her best days with her. Her loving mother always tucked her to bed every night, read her stories, and made her recite verses of foreign languages until she fell asleep. Then her mother would always whisper in her ears that someday, she would be the prettiest queen with the fanciest bracelets in the world. Her mother spoke the truth. She smiles as she adores her wonderful collection. “You’re right mum, you’re always right.”
She gazes on the stunning florette cuff in 18k white gold with diamonds and pink tourmaline. It is a perfect match to her simple white cashmere long-sleeved tops. She puts on the bracelet, admires herself in front of the mirror, and turns around several times with subtlety and elegance as a prima ballerina in pirouette. Then she sits down on her Doshi Levien chair and let out a long sigh as she carefully rolls down her sleeves to hide her imperfection—the small cystic lumps on her arms same as her mother’s. The permanent uncurable lumps all over her arms and back started to appear on her body a year before her first marriage. Since then, she had to wear fashionable long sleeves to hide her unpleasant repulsive secret.
The Oliver Messel Suite is one of the signature suites at The Dorchester. It is the sophisticated suite designed by Oliver Messel which is adored by a shimmering history of illustrious guests– and in this room, her socialite friends happily greet her upon her arrival. They are all instantly captivated by her stunning florette diamond cuff. She can sense envy in their sweet praises, and she secretly likes it.
While they are having conversation in between sips of tea, the newest member of the club arrives. Everybody greets her warmly. They inevitably pry on every detail of her outfit. Check. Check. “Oh my God!” The ladies exclaim. She is wearing the Cartier-designed Diamond Panther bracelet! An extravagant pave-set with brilliant single-cut diamonds, calibre-cut onyx, and two marquise-shaped emerald. The new lady’s bracelet becomes the hot topic in the room as everyone is so thrilled to see this rare antique jewelry right in front of their eyes.
“What a fancy bracelet,” she tells the lady as her pupils dilate briefly and unnoticeably.
“Thank you dear, it’s from an auction from Milan. My husband bought it for me as an anniversary gift. And…uhm… I just want to show this beauty to the ladies here,” the lady replied in modesty.
"Really. You are married to Mr. Schultcher, the billionaire with a large shipping business, " she states in a toneless voice, “Will your husband be here as well?"
“Yes, in a month he’ll be here."
“Perfect,” she replied inaudibly. ”Come sit with us. We really love your bracelet!” She says with much excitement and ushers the lady to the sofa.
In the middle of the resonating chit-chats and high pitched laughter in the room, she excuses herself and stands in the far corner appearing to be talking on her phone. She mutters indistinct words of verses she knows by heart through gritted teeth while her eyes are sternly fixed on the fancy bracelet. After a few minutes, she walks casually near the lady and gently taps the lady’s shoulder twice.
“I’m sorry, are you saying something?” the lady asked.
“Oh nothing, I just thought there’s something on your shoulders."
It has started.
Her lips arched a nefarious smile as she sips the cold tea from her cup. She can feel intense itching in her arms and back, but she still smiles in delight.
She meets the lady’s eyes who sits across the room and lowers her sight once more to the fancy bracelet.
“What a conversation starter," she tells herself.
A middle-aged woman with dark brown hair, a white blouse, a pair of indigo pants and a set of pearl earrings entered Bulwark’s lobby. This was Guadalupe Echeverria and as she walked through the granite-floored lobby she remembered her early days at “The Factory,” the nickname she and the other employees had bestowed on the international conglomerate where they worked. The building had been one of the very first modern skyscrapers in Mexico City. It stood alone, like a sandhill crane that had flown too far south. Bulwark’s headquarters were in Seattle, Washington and, in the runup to the signing of NAFTA, the company had made early inroads in Mexico. It had invested in a variety of industries, textile factories near the border and car manufacturing in San Luis and Coahuila. It grew easily across the country, attracting investors with the promise of cheap labor. Before Bulwark, the landscape of the city consisted of buildings no higher than three stories. Now, skyscrapers challenged the surrounding volcanoes with their height and teetered over an ancient lake that struggled to reclaim its territory, crumbling the sediment where the buildings rested. As the buildings slowly sank, Guadalupe climbed the corporate ranks. In her early days, she dreamed about moving, about a better life in the United States. As a sales manager she asked to be transferred to America, but her petition was rejected, reaffirming that she needed to reach higher levels at the company before her dream itself was on the table.
At 40, Guadalupe became the national director of strategy in Mexico. She worked tirelessly in the new position. It was she who single handedly locked the deal for the right to extract lithium from a mine in Sonora. Not long after, she managed to transfer the Latin American customer service department for Bulwark’s banking branch to Guatemala, saving the company millions of dollars in employee salaries. But, what turned Guadalupe into a candidate for Director of Global Strategy at Bulwark’s headquarters was a covert deal with the current party in power, PRI, that would grant Bulwark early access to the cannabis market once it, theoretically, became legal in the country.
Today she had her last interview for the Seattle job. If hired, she would be both the first Mexican and the first woman to hold this position. Guadalupe was in her office reviewing the last details of her presentation for her interview when her chief assistant, Gabriel Reyes, stepped inside. He helped Guadalupe with public relations campaigns that assured the Sonora locals that the lithium mine would have only a minimal environmental impact— claims vociferously disputed in the local press. And it was Gabriel who came up with the idea to develop a press campaign under Guadalupe’s supervision that helped Bulwark to avoid further criticism when they moved the Customer Service department to Guatemala. It was during this project that Guadalupe, despite the risk of such an involvement with a subordinate, initiated their stealthy affair. She had finally escaped a never-ending divorce and after months of solitude, she started to see Gabriel as a means of escape. Yes, he played the hotshot, but Guadalupe kept him in check. She paid at restaurants. She did the driving. And she set the terms. Back when she was still married she had given an extension of her credit card to her husband. He was a contractor and his income was only a third of hers. She wondered if she was wrong for doing that, if she had contributed to his, eventually, untenable sense of inferiority. But she was too busy at work to fight with him, and the last thing she bought him was their divorce. She had always tried to give him whatever he wanted. Isn't that what you're supposed to do for love?
With Gabriel she could forget about her past. She enjoyed his youth. He was romantic and easy to handle. She cherished especially the early mornings she spent with him at her new apartment when, as they wandered amidst her unpacked boxes, he would smoke and tell stories about his cousins who worked in politics or his friends who traveled the world. It was during one of these mornings that Gabriel asked if he could move in with her, if they could start a life together. When she stopped laughing, Guadalupe, surprised about her misjudgment of the relationship, didn’t dismiss him out of hand. She considered his offer for a while, as if she was still young herself. She relished the idea of a fresh start, of a new beginning. But she knew she couldn’t do it. She had resolved, the same day her divorce was finalized, to move to the United States, with or without Bulwark, and she would not take anything with her. It was her dream deferred. The plan, if it hadn’t vanished entirely during her long years with Luis, her ex-husband, had at least faded into the background. But here it was again, as fresh and bright as it had seemed when she had completed her associate’s degree.
After the breakup, Gabriel began to ignore Guadalupe during meetings and called her by her nickname, Lupe, in front of other employees, but, despite these minor insubordinations, their professional relationship was still on relatively stable footing. They only discussed work. She had promised, despite the end of their affair, that she would continue to help him in the company, but the more childish he acted the less committed she became. And here he was again, pouting, leaning on her desk.
He unbuttoned his well-tailored blazer and adjusted his sued belt. She looked at him. He had the face of a fox caught in a trap, and his look said you did this to me.
He exhaled and narrowed his eyes.
“What do you want?” she said.
“I just had a question about the fallout from the lithium thing,” he said and sat in front of her. “This journalist keeps bothering me. She still wants a statement from Bulwark.”
“Gabriel,” she said, “let’s be real. You can handle this.”
“Nervous about your interview?” he said. “You know it’s funny, yesterday I got an email from Bill asking me if I had any interest in moving abroad.”
Of course he would pretend to be on a first name basis with William Forest, Bulwark’s Chief Financial Officer. “I see,” she said. “Now you’d like to follow me?”
“Not at all,” he said. “I like it right here. I’m actually worried. Worried about you. About your American fantasy. You know things aren’t any better there. What are you going to do all alone? What if something happens? I mean how much solitude can you stand?”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“Look,” he said, “I’m not here to fight.” He grabbed her hand—a little too hard. His once surprisingly gentle hands, surprised her again, despite his hostility, with their unusual softness. “I just want to tell you that my offer is still on.” He released her. “I just want the best for you.” He paused. “If you stayed, imagine the things we could do together.”
She closed her computer and her eyes skittered across the room. She searched for her escape route. She was too focused on the interview to come up with a merciful lie.
“Well,” he said, bowing to her discomfort, “I tried. No surprise on how easily you abandon people. What must your mother feel?”
Guadalupe’s temples pounded. Her calves tightened, and she stood up from her chair. She snatched her jacket up and smiled, not even trying to make it seem genuine. Then she left the office. As she paced toward the elevator her eyes closed, her eyelids grew heavy and her throat knotted. Not because of Gabriel, but because of the reminder of her mother. She blinked rapidly, exhaled—she was fine.
The elevator doors opened and she stepped inside. It was empty and the walls were mirrored. As the compartment lurched up, her stomach sank. She felt heavy in her heels, and the doors opened in front of her. She stepped into the hallway with her face down staring at the wood floors, and she followed the grain until she reached the floor-to-ceiling window. She pressed her palm against the pane and felt the warmth it had collected through the day. Forty-six stories high, she looked down into Avenida Reforma and followed the broad street until her eyes met the roundabout where the Independence Angel stood. Cars spun endlessly around it, only to spiral off into the intricacy of the city. As her eyes climbed the steps on the base of the sculpture, Guadalupe thought about the Sundays when the whole avenue would close to car traffic. Kids splashed in the fountains while cyclists yelled at distracted pedestrians. It was during one of these Sundays, the Sunday after the divorce was finalized, that she lost her mother. She could almost hear the sirens in her ears and feel the heat on her knees. As they were approaching the Angel, Guadalupe’s mother began to walk slower, as if she was looking for somewhere to sit. Guadalupe brushed away a street vendor hocking candy and nuts from a pushcart, and when she turned again to grab her mother’s arm, it wasn’t there. She had collapsed on the pavement. Guadalupe and her father tried to lift her up, but she felt heavier than seemed possible. This was her first stroke. She went through a long in-patient recovery and, after a few anxious days, the doctor had told them that the loss of oxygen she’d sustain had resulted in a minor brain injury. “Only short-term memory loss,” he said, “luckily nothing too serious.”
It wasn’t long after that her mother had forgotten Guadalupe’s name, that she struggled to complete basic tasks, to care for herself, even to hold conversation. Her father became so absorbed in her mother’s constant care that he began to look like her. Guadalupe had never felt so alone. It took every effort of her tremendous will not to reach out to Luis. She spent the weekends by herself, in her empty new loft, placing work calls, coordinating swap prices and fantasizing about Seattle. Her mother was lost, but she was not dead, so Guadalupe took no time to grieve. She only worked and worked.
Guadalupe stared at the Angel that rested on top of the column. Its golden body shined against the dark street. Up the avenue, leafy trees framed the asphalt and gave shade to people who sat on iron benches or walked at a fast pace. Beyond the trees the umber rooftops saturated the landscape and a few skyscrapers rose into the horizon. She recognized the building she lived in back when she was still married. It was easy to recognize the neighborhoods from above. Poverty and wealth no longer mixed, the height filtered them and drew clear borders between the two. It was easy to spot telephone cables choking the sky and the almost cubist arrangement of ramshackle houses, but her eyes lingered on the broad streets packed with trees and parks where copper sculptures blazed amidst the foliage. Her gaze soon returned to Reforma.
On the crosswalk in the center of the boulevard she spotted the cross with helium balloons she had walked by a few days back. The balloons were half-floating now and gleamed in the scorching sun. They were placed there to memorialize Ines Flores, a 22-year-old who was abducted, raped, killed and thrown away without consequence. Only one more in an endless list. Her ex-husband had always told her that there was nothing to do. “You have too much to lose,” he would say. “That only happens to whores and lowlifes, just stay away from the bad places.” And though she feared falling victim to this violence, she always managed to convince herself that such a thing wouldn’t happen to her. But now with Luis gone, she began to question herself until guilt started to pollute her thoughts. How had she believed him? She read every article about murdered women. She would spend hours looking for victims and researching their stories. She started to think that at some point it would happen to her too, and this gave still more urgency to her dream of escape: it was no longer a desire, but a necessity. The more she read or watched the news, the closer the threats felt. She stopped wearing nice watches, or walking to the convenience store late at night. She had read that most women fall victim to people whom they know or have a relationship with, but Guadalupe couldn't believe it. How would one do such a thing to someone they love? What she feared the most was a random attack on the streets or during her walks at her neighborhood park. Out of guilt, she decided to help. She contacted an old friend who ran a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, but, by the time she received a response with the offer of a volunteer slot, the Seattle interview was already on the horizon and she needed all her time to prepare. At least from the 46th floor the city seemed less frightening, more tamable. She felt herself sinking into the warm pool of her wealth. Up here, there was nothing to worry about, just two men waiting in the boardroom who she was more than positive she would impress.
Guadalupe took a last look at the city and turned her back on the window. She walked slowly through the hallway, listening to her shoes click on the wood. When she reached the conference room, the door was already open and the two executives were chatting inside. She held her breath and focused on their voices, taking very small steps. She waited for a moment shedding her feelings as she stepped inside the room. Robert Hill and William Forest greeted her politely. Robert was in his late sixties, close to retirement and he had come to Mexico many times in the course of his long career. It had been years since Robert had first noticed Guadalupe’s performance, and it was he who suggested her as a candidate for Global Strategy Director. Thanks to her long and careful planning, he had all but begged her to do the interview. William, on the other hand, was more of a wildcard. He was a recent replacement from Bulwark’s chief competitor, BlackWood, and new to the company. He had an uncanny calmness, and it was hard for Guadalupe to tell if he was friendly or only pretending to be.
“First things first,” said Robert. “What’s your theory about the volcanoes?”
William acted like a mature son enduring one of his father’s endless stories.
“I told William the legend,” he said. “Now we want to know your theory.”
Guadalupe paused, and remembered the first time she met Robert. They were driving to get dinner when Robert pointed out of the Suburban and asked about the surrounding “mountains.” Beyond the endless suburbs, a forest climbed, then, breathless at the treeline, yielded to black rock and gray dust that gradually whitened into snow. Haze gathered on its summit, but the sky was otherwise clear.
“First time in Mexico?” Guadalupe said.
“Why?” he said.
She smiled. “That’s not a mountain.”
He looked at her. “It looks like a mountain to me.”
“That’s a volcano,” she said, “Popocatépetl. The one next to it too. Iztaccihuatl.”
“Who builds a city under a volcano?” he said.
“People who follow their beliefs, I guess.” Guadalupe ran her fingers through her hair. “Do you know the legend about the volcanoes?”
Robert stared as if the volcanoes themselves would begin to speak.
She cleared her throat and dug deep in her memory, this was a legend you only tell to foreigners and it had been a while since she told it.
“Popocatépetl was a Tlaxcaltecan warrior. The Tlaxcaltecans hated the Aztecs with every fiber of their being,” she said. “They were fighting all the time because the Aztecs, being the strongest, made them pay tribute and occasionally sacrificed some of their people to their gods. Iztaccihuatl was the daughter of a cacique, the Tlaxcaltecan chief, and a beautiful princess herself,” she said. “So before Popó went to war he asked for her hand, and her father, the chief, agreed, provided he survived. So he left, leaving Iztaccihuatl by herself holding to his promise of return. It was what he needed to be worthy of her. He needed to leave and get his hands covered in blood to prove his love.”
“That’s what we do right?” Robert said, his tone neutral. “We never learn.”
She looked outside at the traffic, at the city and the volcano. “When Popó returned he found that Izta had died. Some say a jealous suitor told her that Popó had been killed and, unable to stand the pain, she killed herself. Others say it was a surprise raid from the Aztecs, that she killed herself before she could be captured. I have my own theory.” She crossed her arms. “But maybe that’s for another time. At any rate, Popó was so grief stricken that he took her corpse and climbed with it into the mountains. He lay down with it, as he ascended, lay with her day and night, and always he kept a torch burning beside him.” She pointed off into the distance. “So that’s him, burning away... lying with her still.”
“So your theory,” said William. “What is it?”
“I…” she said, “will tell it to you after the presentation. A little treat for your participation.”
William looked at his watch. “She is good. Isn’t she?” His eyes focused on Guadalupe’s hips and his lips tightened slightly. She pretended not to notice.
William and Robert sat at chairs facing a projector screen. As she went over the mine project and explained how she had convinced the government to give them permission to operate it, she found herself bothered by her thoughts about her mother. Of leaving her parents behind and betraying them. She had tried to spend more time with them, but between work and the pain she felt every time she held her mother’s weakened hand she barely spent time with them anymore. She would send presents to make up for her absence and one time she offered her dad to hire a nurse, to make things easier for him. “You can't solve everything with money,” he had said. “Sometimes all you can give is your time.” She hired the nurse anyway, but her dad wouldn't let him in.
She moved to the numbers about relocating the customer service department to Guatemala and projected a graph that showed how much money The Factory would save in 15 years. 23 million dollars. William looked at her, then quickly at his legal pad. The last thing she needed was for William to like her, to be the next Gabriel. She wondered how working with him would be. Would she take Gabriel’s role? She almost stuttered, but managed to pause for a second, drinking a sip of water. It ran down through her dry throat and she felt the liquid cooling her from the inside. That was better. She went over the cannabis project and told them how she had coordinated with the consultants to secure the support of a few crucial politicians. Her presentation ended. She closed her laptop. “Any questions?”
William and Robert looked at each other. She wondered what made Robert so approachable. A rare mix of kindness and indifference?
“How is your relationship with Gabriel Reyes?” said William.
She took another sip of water. Had Gabriel told her the truth? Did William talk with him? And if he did, what did Gabriel say? She wondered if he knew about their affair or if Gabriel had already ruined her chances.
“Gabriel,” she said hesitantly, “Gabriel Reyes. Professional, I would say.”
“I like your attitude,” said William, “I like you. I want to offer you to bring Gabriel along as a corporate assistant. Only if you think it would help with your transition.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. It would be too costly for Bulwark, and I’m confident in my skills.”
William nodded. “Are you married?”
“Not anymore,” she said.
Robert stood up from his chair, stretched his arms and walked out to the hallway. Voices echoed beyond the doorway and William walked slowly to the door and closed it. He walked towards her, but his gaze was looking somewhere else as he approached. He squatted in front of her and picked something up. His hand got closer and closer to her face, something shone between his fingers. “Here,” said William, “I guess it fell while you were talking.”
Guadalupe looked at the shiny object. It was her earning. A round pearl on top of a gold base. The milky color of the pearl blended with William’s white fingers. She grabbed it and held it in her hand. William looked down at her chest and Guadalupe felt sick. She wished he looked at her the way he would look at any other man.
He walked back to his chair and sat. “You have a nice accent. Please tell me why you like this job so much?” He looked at his nails. “It seems that you have an extraordinary passion for it.”
Guadalupe sometimes thought that she only used this job to escape from reality. She loved how predictable and measurable everything was. She had invested her whole life in it. But somehow she had no ready response. It seemed that William didn’t even need to try, that his presence and absurd confidence was enough to be on the top.
“I’ve just… always wanted it.”
“Well, if it does go through, I can show you around Seattle,” he said. “The city isn’t quite what it used to be. There are some places you’ll want to avoid.”
Robert opened the door, his shirt had been stained by water and his belly stretched against its fabric. He sat next to William.
“What did I miss?” he said.
“You came just in time,” she said. “I was about to tell my theory about the volcanoes.”
“Yes,” said Robert. “What is it?”
Guadalupe put her earring back in her earlobe. “I think Iztaccihuatl didn’t wait for him. Sure, she hoped he would return, but she was a princess after all. She faked it. I’m sure there were plenty of men who wanted her and only saw her because of her beauty, but she was too busy dealing with Tlaxcaltecan affairs to waste her time on them. Of course later some romantic dude came up with the legend or who knows maybe the government did to lure young Tlaxcaltecans to join the army, conquer some land and kill their enemies, everything under the promise that a princess will be waiting for you after that.”
“Sounds like someone’s had a heartbreak,” said Robert.
“Sounds like a good deal,” said William. “But the original is easier to sell.”
Guadalupe stood still for a moment. She noticed the gruesome smile on William’s face.
“Anyways, thank you for coming and thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
“This was just a formality,” said Robert.
She tried to suppress her excitement. She pictured herself walking through South Lake Union under the rain staring at the countless cranes resting on top of the half-built skyscrapers.
“It was nice to meet you,” said William. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again.”
“It looks like we will,” she said. “Thanks for finding my earring.” She winced inwardly. Why would she support his flirtation?
Guadalupe shook hands with both men and they stepped out of the room, leaving her alone in the silence. She closed her computer and sat. She chuckled. Her body felt weightless and her mind hazy. Like she had been drinking on an empty stomach. She wanted to call her father, to tell him about the interview, but she knew he wouldn’t share her excitement. She returned to her office, and she called for Gabriel, but he was nowhere to be found. She spent an hour too distracted to work and left for home. Today was special. She wanted a glass of wine and a foot massage. Since her divorce she had been practicing on herself and now she enjoyed her own hands better than anyone else's. It was a familiar touch.
At her apartment she opened a bottle of red wine and sat in the living room. She carefully observed the furniture. A glass table in front of her, a marble buffet, four wooden chairs, a Persian rug and a bookshelf. With the glass in her hand she walked toward the balcony. The sun sank and the polluted air turned into purple clouds and sickeningly pink skies. She listened to the ring of her phone and went back inside.
“Ms. Echeverria you have a visitor,” said a young voice, “Mr. Reyes.”
She placed her glass on the table. Before she answered she took a moment to think about Gabriel. She wanted his company, but she had just sold him out with William. Then again, if Gabriel was good at something it was pleasing her. She even considered telling him she didn’t get the job. She missed his attempts to comfort her.
“Yes, yes, let him in,” she said.
She stood at her door. At the sound of the bell, she waited a minute before admitting him. “Where were you?” she said. “I looked for you at the office.”
“Sorry, boss,” he said, “or should I say Global Strategy Director?” He handed her a bouquet of roses.
Guadalupe took them, hoping her displeasure didn’t show on her face. She cast about for a place to set them and settled on the kitchen sink. She poured him a glass of wine.
“Did they ask about me?” he said, taking the glass from her hand.
“They didn’t,” she said. “I’m sorry. Maybe they will later.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. They couldn’t pay me enough to live in the United States.”
She felt Gabriel’s eyes trying to escape hers, trying to hide his crumbling hopes. He hesitated, then he adjusted his wristwatch and smiled.
“Let's have a seat,” he said.
Guadalupe let Gabriel pass in front of her, and as she paced behind him she noticed his walk was off. They sat on the white couch. Gabriel, a bit too close to her. He had already been drinking, and reeked of brandy.
“Yeah, fuck Seattle,” he said. “Do you even know how many homeless people are there?”
Guadalupe gave him a disapproving glance.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It's just…” he drank from his glass, “I don’t want you to leave.”
He placed his hand on her thigh and squeezed it. “I still want you, to be with you.”
Guadalupe shifted her leg away but Gabriel’s hand quickly returned to her thigh. “I just want you to know how much I’m going to miss you.” He squeezed harder and drank.
“Maybe you’ve had enough?” she said.
He shook his head and placed his glass on the table. He began to pet her hair. Before Guadalupe could react his lips were on hers. His breath was sour, and she pushed him away slowly, trying to dissuade him.
He got up from the couch and his knee knocked the glass off of the table. It landed on the rug, which cushioned the fall and saved it from cracking. As the wine seeped into the fabric, his lips twisted into an uneven grin. Guadalupe reached for the spill, and Gabriel stood suddenly and brought his foot crashing down on the glass. It exploded into smithereens. She wished he had been barefoot.
“You think you can just toy me around.” He pushed her shoulder making sure she couldn't stand up.
“Gabriel,” she said. “You don’t want to do this.”
“Shut up!” he yelled. “You think you are too good for me?” He stepped on the shattered glass again. “Guess what, you're just an old bitch. Sad and lonely. I hope you end up just like your mother.”
Guadalupe felt her body getting warmer. His grip numbed her shoulder. She looked him in the eyes. She tried to stand up, but Gabriel only pushed her down harder. She sank deeper into the couch. Then her phone began to ring in the kitchen again. He let go of her and searched for it.
“Work, I’m sure,” he said. “Work. Work. Work. That’s all there is for you.”
As she watched him stagger, she wondered, almost, if he was talking to himself.
“You’re lucky I’m not a jerk,” he said, then he took the phone from the kitchen table and dropped it into the wastebasket. The wine bottle glistened in the directional lights. He snatched it and walked towards the entrance. With his hand on the knob, he turned suddenly and smashed the bottle into portrait of her parents. The door slammed behind him.
Guadalupe took a long breath, and a tear ran down her cheek. She looked at the shattered glass and thought about picking it up. But she only sat there, frozen. Then, as if waking from a dream, she sprang to the door and locked it, turned, and walked slowly to her bathroom. She ran the sink and washed her face. She wanted—needed—to be somewhere else, but she couldn’t think of any other place to go.
CAPTAIN RON PICKETT
DHARMPAL MAHENDRA JAIN
DR ANGELA JOHNSON
DR. HARMEET KAUR
JOSEPH VITO ROMANO
KEN ALLAN DRONSFIELD
LOIS GREENE STONE
NGOZI OLIVIA OSUOHA
RANDAL A. BURD JR
ROBIN WYATT DUNN
S W BRACKETT
WRITER GO HYEE