Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Old Grey Man

Jolene first saw the man when her truck was idling at the drive-thru, foraging through the 99 cent menu. She watched the grey heap of him and chewed her lip as she contemplated miniature tacos. Even in the sticky July heat he seemed to be more cloth than man. He looked like he’d smell. She could tell it’d be a baked-on stink of too much living, plus something more unpleasant underneath. Maybe piss.

The speaker crackled to life, startling her from her thoughts.

“Wel—me to –et Taco, —at w—d y— li— t—day?”

She looked at the man. Then down at her money. She made a decision.

At the pay window, she pulled her extra burrito from the bag and slid over the seat, popping open the passenger side door.

“Here!” she called and scythed the burrito out over the parking lot. The old man, in a surprisingly deft move, caught it in one hand. His left.

She smiled and slid back into her seat. The counter boy, nonplussed, asked her cleavage whether she wanted special sauce.

He was always by the bus stop. That was the intel she gathered the next day. He never got on, didn’t join the city’s homeless population in recycling cans for fare. Sometimes he left the spot, late at night, probably to forage.

He was sitting in the shade of a liquid maple when she found him. Jolene casually threw her leg over a shopping cart and sat sidesaddle. If he noticed this, or anything ever, he gave no indication.

Long, sweaty minutes passed while Jolene got eaten up by flies. The flies didn’t seem to bother him, in fact they kept a good distance away. She realized that he did smell, completely different from the stench she’d anticipated, but just as strong. Like dry rot. She took a few swigs from her water bottle to fortify herself.

From the heap, a gloved hand snaked out, bearing a bent Styrofoam cup.

“Would you mind?” the homeless man said.

Jolene decided to call him Keith, after her sixth grade homeroom teacher. He didn’t know how old he was. He had lived in this area ever since he’d got out, though from where exactly, he would not say. He would not take off his gloves.

Jolene sat there for hours while sweat greased her skin and talked to the old man about the town, his life, the people he met. At no point did she ever see his skin. When she bid him farewell that day, she said, “See you tomorrow.”

And she did.

When she wasn’t out running errands, she sat and talked with the homeless man. Occasionally another bum would walk up, looking for her mercy, but these were isolated incidents. She found that none of the other homeless people liked to be around him for too long.

It was a week before he talked about himself.

“It started with my uncle,” he said, “he was my dad’s younger brother, used to live with us. University student.” He hocked and spat.  “He was always picking weird shit up. He’d fill up his little room at the end of the hall, till my dad would yell at him and empty it out again. Guess he was whatchacallit. Touched. Things were fine until he came in one day with this…growth on his hand. Looked like mold. Surprised he didn’t get it sooner, picking up shit like he did.”

Jolene nodded and watched, fascinated, as Keith scratched an invisible itch. The heat was in triple digits, even in the shade, but she saw no sign of dampness on his layers of cloth.

“’Course he never got it checked out, and by the time dad noticed it was too late. Hand damn near rotted off. My uncle died in a whatsit. Sanitarium. Nice name for the funny farm in those days, ‘course there wasn’t nothing funny bout ‘em in those days. I remember the day he had to go out and get his ashes. Thing was, the folks said they never cremated him…” the old man trailed off.

Jolene licked away the crumbs of today’s fishstick meal, studying him. The old man was prone to gesturing with his left hand while he spoke, but never the right. No one could tell her how he got around. He never rose from his heap.

“Anyway, I forget about it till about…’85? ’87? Spots start showing up on my peter. ‘Course, with my time in Da Nang, I think it’s just some kinda jungle rot. Doc gives me some steroid cream or somethin’. Doesn’t go away.”

Jolene noticed the position of the sun and left, promising more food tomorrow. The old man did not reply, did not move.

“It was on my back after a while, too,” he said the next day, after six hotdogs disappeared into the folds of cloth on his head. Thought Jolene strained, she catches no glimpse of a pink mouth.

“Washed with every damn kind of soap known to man, might as well have been sprinkling sugar on it, for all the good it did. Didn’t even think of my uncle, though him and me were pretty thick back in the day.” He stopped to hack at phlegm, a prolonged attack that went on for six minutes. She timed him. When he was done the cloth around his mouth was stained with wet.

Jolene didn’t know why she picked this time to ask it, only that all their interactions had been building up to this question.

She asked, “So why do you keep all covered up?”

The old man fell silent. His left hand flexed once and then stopped, as if even this simple motion taxed him.

His next statement was so quiet the passing cars nearly drowned it out.

“Goddamn doctors couldn’t tell me what the hell was wrong. I bore all their poking and prodding till ‘long about ’93, when I skedaddled out of one of those veteran hospitals. Laid low in case they looked for me. Then after a while I didn’t have any other choice.”

Jolene frowned. “What?”

“I don’t think there was ever anything they coulda done, but I think it spread faster once I got out. I remembered my uncle then, not that it did me any good. It just ate and ate. Got so I was as bad as Hamburger Sue down by the rails, don’t nobody want to give change to someone who looks like the ass end of a nightmare.”

“What’re you saying?”

“Every year I weigh a little less. I think the heat makes it spread faster, but I ain’t gotta choice. I used to be down by the soup kitchen until someone saw me one day. I keep thinkin’ someone will see me and call someone, but I guess I don’t have much of a reason to be scared anymore. Went to piss the other day and my fucking peter broke off. I just keep thinkin’ of my uncle, laying in that hospital bed, whatchacallit. Disintegrating. Terrible way to go.”

Jolene licked the sweat off her upper lip. “I think you’re fulla shit.”

Keith did not seem put off. In fact, he gave no indication of hearing her at all, continuing to speak in a flat cadence.

“Can’t even go down to the soup kitchen anymore, couldn’t take the soup anyway. Can’t move too much so I live off what I can reach from the dumpster.”

“I said,” Jolene pitched her voice louder, “you’re. Full. Of. Shit.”

“—ain’t got no one to help me, ain’t got nowhere to go, ain’t got nothing to do but sit here and—”

There was a powdery, crumbling sound, and then silence. The man seemed to settle.

Jolene realized she’d been squeezing a mustard packet, it had burst in her fingers. She dragged her hand on the seat of her jeans, staring at the heap.

“Mister,” she called. No response.

“Hey mister,” she said, scooting closer. Nothing.

“You alright?” she asked and picked up his knitted cap.

Of course, there was nothing underneath.

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A Murder of Crows

I’ll admit the whole thing was probably my fault. I’m a man, a full-grown man, and damnit if I can’t take responsibility for the fact that it’s my sentimental ass that started the whole thing. Any boy scout knows not to get friendly with the forest critters. No matter how cute they look, wild things aren’t pets.

I was on my way to work when I saw the crow. I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot for animals, especially lame ones. This one was pretty obviously young, he hopped away instead of taking wing the minute I walked up to him. He let me get too close before he flew away. That was where it started.

Next I saw him, (and I only guess it was him, I wouldn’t be surprised if after all this he was actually a bunch of small crows playing my heartstrings. Nothing would surprise me now) he’s out balancing on that sad excuse for a fencepost I’ve got the mailbox nailed to. It’s still got a few strands of barbed wire from when the folks before me owned horses, and he’s hopping post to wire, wire to post, and there’s a mockingbird dive-bombing him. That’s how I know he’s really too young, any crow worth their salt would’ve had their beak through that damned car alarm’s eye. Crows around here will take on barn owls alone, so he must be too little. Or a gimp. Me and my big soft heart, I run up and that thing beats it out of there, aping a cellphone. The little guy just huddles on the wire and stares up at me like I’m God descended from the clouds in a big rainbow wig, and the house phone rings.

I start. “Aw, hell.”

The little guy beat it out of there.

That night I got a couple of cheap steaks and I fired up the hibatchi. There isn’t much to do out at my place but look out to the hills until the dark hides them. TV can’t pick up shit around here. Anyway, I’ve got one side too well done, trying to unstick it from the grill, and I hear a flutter and thump on that old Ash stump I used to split firewood on.

This is how I started the beginning of the end, I pinched a snip of meat off the steak, trying not to swear too loud at the juice searing my fingers, and tossed it behind me.

Like I said, I’m a sentimental old idiot.

It might’ve been one crow or lots, for all I know, but there was always someone sitting on my stump when I got up in the morning, and when I get home from work. An old bachelor like me, that’s the only routine presence I got. I never told anyone, you can imagine how it’d look. I ain’t got the patience for a cat and a dog…well I just can’t. Long story, for a different day.

Round this time I did a little research and found crows are actually pretty clever animals. Aw, hell. Dogs’re clever. Crows are what you’d call intelligent. They can use tools, they can even learn to talk. Not like parrots, more like myna birds. Not as many words, but they sound like the people they’re copying. It got so I would go out there mornings, calling out “hello there, boy!” and have my own “aw, hell,” answer back. We had great one-sided conversations, him and me, I’d bullshit about any old thing and he’d listen and watch with those black eyes.

I never come up with a name for him or none of that Beatrix Potter shit. Crows aren’t pets. But I guess despite myself I started calling him Jeremy in my head. Not sure why. Still, it’s a good crow name.

Anyway, it was nice for a while. But then Larry caught wind of the whole thing and…aw, hell. I’ll back up.

Every workplace has a Larry. Everyone said he was touched in the head, but me, I think he was smarter than he let on. He was smart enough to use it to his advantage. Whenever he said or did something you’d deck anyone else for doing, he’s laugh and grin and all the sense would go out of his eyes and you knew you’d get nowhere.

One lunch break he comes over to me grinning and he’s still got Salisbury steak sauce on his chin and he says “I know what you got going on over at your place, Martinez.”

I say “do you now,” and try to sound bored. Sometimes he talks just to get a rise out of you, and if you cut it off at the source he’ll back off. But then he says:

“Ain’t a crow a funny thing to have for a pet? Pests, my daddy said.”

And right then and there the cold struck me and I knew he was going to try something. See, that’s what made me think he wasn’t as stupid as he let on, he was good at blindsiding you with those kinds of questions, digging into you until he found what you valued.

So even though I told him, “it ain’t a pet, Lar, it’s a wild animal,” he knew and I knew he knew it wasn’t going to be as simple as that.

I didn’t get trouble for a good long while after that, but all that did was put me more on edge. If he felt the explosion was worth it, he’d take his time getting there. Like our other receptionist and her baby bump. It took a while, but he picked out that there was no Mr. F waiting for her, and she’d copped her dead daddy’s ring to pass muster. Lar’s personal like that.

It seemed stupid, but I didn’t think he’d actually get up the gumption to come by my property. Old men get too stuck in their ways, and I was too comfortable in my skin to get properly paranoid. Not like I could’ve driven Jeremy off anyway.

I was down by the road. Some enterprising asshole had gone after my mailbox, which ain’t used so much since this isn’t a county road, but they bent my garden fence, too. I was out there in my slippers and robe and pliers, swearing up a storm and putting my pinched fingers in my mouth.

When I heard the crack I knew goddamn exactly what it was.  Deer don’t come this far down, and the kids with the air rifles prefer to dick around the dump and take potshots at that upended Volvo. I dropped everything and went running, robe blowing up around my skinny shanks. I was probably a sight.

I found him out by the stump, poor sheltered bastard hadn’t known to be afraid of an idiot with a gun. I dove to my knees and scooped him up. I’ll admit to a few manly tears on his behalf. He just looked so damn pathetic with his wings all spread out and spasming like he could still get away.

I told him, “Shit, Jeremy, I’m sorry.” Which was the first time I’d called him that outside my head.

He lifted his head up and croaked, “aw, hell,” and died.

I almost buried him at the foot of the garden, where the yard meets the trees, but argued myself out of it. He wasn’t a hamster or a hound, he was a wild thing I really had no call interring.

In the end I built him a little stick tower in the trees, just out of sight of the house, and laid him on that. Kind of like those towers of silence people build in India. I figured his family would appreciate the gesture.

I went to work like normal that day. Had to. The whole day I tried to work like nothing was wrong, and every second I could feel that beady-eyed sumbitch watching me. He was never one for subtlety, though, so at lunch he just came over and asked me how the pet was.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I wanted to smash that shit-eating grin of his, how I wanted to jump over the table and sink my fist into his face until the red went away. But shit, then I’d be the crazy one, not him.

So I told him his mom was fine and sends her love and that got a laugh. One thing he couldn’t defend against, couldn’t fight without looking even more like an asshole, so he made his exit.

I kept finding bits of dead animals on my doorstop after that. Thought it was Lar until I saw a few crows winging it away from my porch. Felt I deserved it after what I’d done. Crows, being intelligent animals, must have their own kind of justice too.

They started showing up more, mostly around my work. Guys would be out there with chainsaws, sectioning 100-year-old cedar trunks, and the crows would be hunched in the next tree over. Just staring. None of them did crow things, dive-bombing, going after the food, they just sat and watched. Studied. Me and Lar were the only ones they left alone.

It didn’t bother me so much but it bothered Lar a whole awful lot. He didn’t like being alone in the woods anymore, even asked for company during a piss. We stopped indulging him after the first few times, no one liked Larry to begin with but now he was really dragging on our nerves.

The whole thing came to a head late September. I remember it started getting dark early. I was packing my shit up, had my magnalight out on a tall stump, when I heard this crashing in the woods. Now, bears ain’t exactly unknown in this part of the state, so I get ready to run, but then a voice calls out.

It’s Larry. And he’s lost. And I’m so relieved he’s not a bear maybe I forgive him a tiny bit and call out to him. But before I can someone else does. It’s Mckenna, one of the loggers. Big guy, big voice. Here’s the thing, it’s coming from the opposite direction, from in the trees. And I guess Lar hears and he’s so relieved the idiot drops his gear and runs to the sound.

I’m getting the creeps pretty strong so put my fingers to my mouth and whistle. That slows him. Then someone else calls. Ruiz. He’s calling “hurry up, dickhead.” Not just once, but again and again. Lar still hesitates. Then comes the chorus.

I get the creeping chills up and down my arms as the entire logging crew calls for him to hurry up, we have to get back and clock out. The weird thing about it, though, is they’re all just saying the same thing over and over again, repeating it back like a tape recorder. Lar runs towards the trees. I nearly drop my magnalight when I run in the opposite direction.

I don’t say anything. I know what that sounds like. What could I say? We wait until we get tired of waiting and the foreman volunteers to stay while we clock out and then we come back and wait some more. People have dinners waiting for them, and me? I just want to get the hell out of there. We’re slapping a search party together when the scream comes peeling out of those trees. It’s that scream you get from people who step on a nail or find out that the rotor’s still going the second after they stick their hand in the mower. Surprise pain.

We all bunch together in the dark. I should really say something. Then, a bird swoops by and perches right there in the light of the floodlamps. It could be Jeremy. It could be any other crow. But it perches right there and cocks his head and we’re all reflected back in his big black eye. Then he ducks his head like he’s swallowing and that scream comes out of him.

Mckenna drops his hard hat and breathes, “Jeezus.”

The bird flits away.

Nobody really found Lar, but I guess no one looked too hard either. Sad to say, but he didn’t have a whole lot going for him. Some hunters found this long femur somewhere around October, picked clean as a whistle. Human. But never the whole skeleton. I read that the forest had use for the whole shebang, no part of the corpse goes to waste.

Me? I took one step outside my door the next morning and nearly shit myself. All those beady eyes staring back at me. They must’ve turned out the entire county to see me.

Now, even on a good morning I’m not conversation material, so I just toss out the first thing on my mind. “Breakfast?”

Then the crow nine down, twenty-third from the left, says, “please.” He says it in Larry’s voice, sounds like he’s about to burst out crying. Then they all take flight.

That’s all there really is to it. I learned my lesson, crows aren’t pets. They’re wild things with their own damn sense of justice. If I drag roadkill to my property, it’s because I’m doing a civic service, I’m not like those cat ladies who set cans of tuna on every available surface. And I ain’t teaching the little ones to talk, either.

They do that on their own.

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Caroline

It’s funny how you forget about someone until something hits you right out of the blue; a song, a poem, the sunlight at a particular time of day. For me it was an email, and suddenly Caroline LaRea popped back into my life. It was a mass email, BCC’d so I couldn’t see who else it had been sent to. I could guess well enough, though.

i hope you biches had a nice lif cause guess what shit rolls down hill and youll get yours soon enogh

I remember Caroline from the silly, shallow waters of High School, where alliances are forged and lost on a whim. We were all cruel, stupid creatures, I was no exception. Everyone had those chunky three-part friendship necklaces on dime store chains that we all mixed and matched at will. One day it was Caroline, Rita Belford and I, the next we had formed splinter cells of our own. Everyone was hurt and so no one was hurt.

I emailed Rita about it. She’s the only one I kept in touch with over the years, through the tenuous connection of our children’s soccer league. We compared notes. The same email, down to the letter. Neither of us knew who had dealt the mortal insult, or how “bad” it really was. You hear about it all the time, someone chugging along in their seemingly normal lives until one day they snap and throw it all away for some real or imagined slight.

The next read:

wonder how u can sleep at nite knowing what you did

Everyone was cruel, and therefore everyone deserved it. Caroline was no exception. You paid fire back with fire, and grudges held only as long as the attention span would allow. I could tell you about the gum in my hair, but it was really everyone’s hair, wasn’t it? The gum, the peanut butter on the phone, the thumbtacks in your underwear. Like a crowd execution, we all held the smoking gun.

Rita was understandably reluctant to contact the old crowd. Personal effort involved notwithstanding, we had all constructed lives for ourselves completely separate from high school. There was no disgraced former prom queen waiting in the wings for us. We were business women and housewives, artists and laborers. We had not stayed seventeen on the inside, rotting and venomous. At least, we thought not.

u r all hores i hope everyday you get up and look in the mirror and see and ugly old wore

It seemed so ridiculous. We felt ridiculous even discussing it in daylight. We were full-grown women, not tweenies it at a sleep over. And yet, and yet…

Stephanie didn’t answer her phone. Kendra had moved, no her stepfather didn’t have her new address. Mary wasn’t thrilled to hear from us but yes, she had been receiving the emails. Josie was disconnected. Ditto Ann and Pam. Joy picked up for a moment, breathed heavy, then set the receiver back down in the cradle.

My first date with Paul Dubins and I broke out in a purple rash from my new satin dress. Anchovies rubbed into the sash. A week later, Stephanie got a lovely new pixie cut to separate her head from the mass of bubblegum she had somehow slept on. Three cheerleaders were victims of a phantom stainer who made them look as if they’d wet themselves. We were all the bully and the bullied. Ours was a silent alliance, with rules even we couldn’t parse. None of us considered them for very long anyway. And never once did it occur to us that any of it was wrong.

Rita started smoking again. She hadn’t lit up since her eldest. I found it increasingly harder to tear myself away from the computer. We hadn’t thought we were bad kids. We hadn’t thought we were angels, either, don’t get me wrong. We thought we were just being normal teens. Once someone casts doubt on something so innocuous to you, it throws the rest of your world into chaos. We could rationalize all we wanted, but the fact remained that in some aspect we had been measured and found lacking.

The next came the weekend Rita was chaperoning a youth camp trip. I was alone at home with my coffee to receive it.

im coming for u bitches. one day u wait an ill be there, and youll be sorry u ever fuckd with me

That was the final straw. I fired off my first and only response, saying that I appreciated how she felt, but I thought it unhealthy to dwell on something from so long ago. Perhaps she should talk to a therapist, rather than blaming people who had moved on. I really wished her only the best, and whatever I had done, I was sorry.

The last reply came back.

not caroline

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Langdon’s Neuroparasite

Wordwurm or Langdon’s Neuroparasite is a syndrome usually exclusive to patients already suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Because of this it commonly goes undiagnosed. The worm often drew comparisons to the more well-known “affliction” Morgellon’s disease, as a product of the patient’s disorder. It wasn’t until the 1978 observation of two patients in adjacent (but isolated) rooms did the worm gain credence, as Dr. Alfred Langdon witnessed the worm “jump” from one patient to another. Until 1985 the sole proponent of the disease was Langdon, who first dubbed the event he witnessed as Neurosynchronicity, mistaking it for some kind of pseudo-telepathic event. He was the first to link the patient’s repetition with the symptoms of early Wordwurm.

Those who contract Wordwurm will begin with a single infected word, which they feel compelled to repeat until it loses meaning, often shoehorning it into sentences that do not require it. The patient is unaware of this quirk and will express disbelief when this is pointed out to them. This spreads steadily to other, often-used words in their repertoire, taking anywhere from three days to three weeks. By the time the patient becomes aware of it their vocabulary has deteriorated greatly, and they are often forced to cobble together still-existing words to form lost complex phrases. (e.g. “water tower” becomes “tall wet on metal stick”)This is the most likely period to transmit an infection, though infection is a possibility at any other point as proved by Langdon. Past this phase, the patient will begin visualizing the malady as an actual, physical worm. Curiously, descriptions vary little between sufferers, this is often utilized in the detection of patients faking the disease.

Further study of the disease was curtailed when its discoverer, Alfred Langdon, tragically contracted the illness. Much like the Curies, Dr. Langdon was canonized as a victim of his own research and the disease was named after him. Oddly enough, he was the only person on record to be afflicted solely by the worm, without a pre-existing disorder. This is supported by the fact that he fought the infection for a number of years, far exceeding the incubation time of his patients. More cases of so-called “healthy” infections have been recorded since. Some researchers suggest that Langdon’s infection was the catalyst the worm required to adapt to minds not predisposed towards compulsion.

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Gordon Verre’s Final Review

King’s English? King of what, I don’t know.
By Gordon Verre, Theater Critic

I once spent a five-hour chunk of an afternoon dislodging some unidentifiable, amorphous mass from the plumbing of my high-rise’s kitchen in the sweltering July heat, sweating so badly I could not hold the wrench. This unsatisfying, uphill effort is the first image that sprang to mind ten minutes into the monumental bore that the Fartham Theater chose to open with. My hands ached with remembered pains as the people on stage (I must call them actors, mustn’t I? ho hum.) went through the motions, dutiful as a gaggle of schoolchildren ordered to celebrate pedagogy.

Newcomer Juliet Tremain managed to be far less theatrically inclined than her first name implied. She seemed to be under the impression that if she were to look at another actor, it would blind them with her brilliance, so she spent much of her time mumbling her lines to her costar’s feet. Not that the veterans escaped the evening unscathed. I must say it is almost refreshing to see a man of Phineas Durban’s  age and constitution can still find work in the theatrical world, though sadly not in the janitorial capacity he is infinitely more suited to. James Crump fortunately failed to repeat the exaggerated disdain from last season’s Iago, if only by virtue of sleeping through the performance. Thank heavens for small miracles, as Anna Havermeyer had a stationary surface to bounce her lines off of.

I cannot, however, find too much fault with the actors, as the writing falls far short of adequate. Like many Jacobean stab ‘n soliloquy plays, it suffers from a dearth of memorable characters. For various reasons I could not tell you much about them, for it is far too late to rescue the performance. The basic premise escapes me, which is fine, because it was only trapping for what lay beneath.

Listen…it’s not important anymore. It was a short way into the second act. Such gibberish, can you understand me? The play broke open and spilled out over the audience. Such a beautiful, terrible thing. It was as if I had spent my life understanding, loving, believing in color, only to be told on my deathbed what I had known was only a pale imitation of the real thing, that even my eternal reward or torment would never breach the scope of them. It was as if someone had ripped my child wholesale from the womb, disassembled it, and handed it to me to incubate.

It bit through my mind. The senses twisted together in an orgy of incongruity. The dialogue was the sound of hope vanishing from existence. It smelled sallow. I wept like a tongue and copulated my guttural cries with the rest of the poor souls. Language dissolved in a miasma of inarticulate wailings that communicated both more and less than the phonemes cannibalized to make them. I realized that life had lied to me utterly up until that moment, wanting nothing more than to turn the impetus on back on itself and fracture the idiot-child’s jaw, mocking me with the hollow promise of meaning.

Words…I need new words.

A mask, too perfect and pale for this vale of tears. O God! What a terrible thing/dragged before an audience with the King! I begged penance but earned only contempt. A hand beckons me through yellow curtains, proffering irresistible truths. I am not the Verre who began this article, I am the guttural cry of

.

Editor’s note: The Fartham Theatre has discontinued showings of “The King in Yellow” until further notice. Gordon Verre’s column has been put on indefinite hiatus.

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