Monthly Archives: November 2014

Pharmacy Phire

You know

they burned down the pharmacy.

Cops said it was bad wiring, but you could smell gasoline a block away.

Nobody went to the pharmacy anymore. Not since the Wallmart moved in across town. It was brighter, cleaner, and it didn’t have that chemical smell. So there was nobody home when the fire started.

No one knows what the building next to the pharmacy is for. It has no windows, and the only door sits five feet above ground. It’s solid concrete, so whoever wants to burn it down will need a lot more than gasoline. The pharmacy was mostly wood. The sprinklers never went off, not once. Someone said they saw the fire truck do three laps around the block before parking–on the side of the street that didn’t have a hydrant. Don’t ask about insurance, nobody came out to investigate the ruins.

The lot that the pharmacy was built on used to be solid olive trees. Like an orchard remnant.  This town was built around a railroad depot, so what the hell were olive trees doing here?

The street the pharmacy was on was named after a famous philosopher, the one that said “monsters cannot come unannounced.” There are two other businesses on the street, used to be three but Southland Glass shuttered its front some months ago. Left no forwarding address.

Used to be you could walk your dog down the sidewalk. Now there’s glass and garbage and all sorts of junk. We never saw a junky until that pharmacy moved in. Now you can see them come out after dark, their eyes reflecting your headlights like urban deer. They stay behind the gas station, talking until someone walks up, so one knows if they speak English.

The pharmacy sold carbolic acid and things like that. Things that you might think were regulated out of public hands. You could buy a quart of strong acid for less than the price of a dog. Does anyone need carbolic acid in this day and age? You had to watch everyone who went in that pharmacy, even if they just came out carrying cotton swabs.

This town has been folding for years. First the plant closed down, then that big department store moved five miles down the road. People are moving out, and the ones moving in are uglier. The kids don’t play double-dutch and mark up the street with chalk, they toss bottles like they’re going to bounce and take up half the lane. Honking won’t move them. They won’t even look at you if you threaten to run them down.

The kids didn’t burn down the pharmacy, you can be sure of that. This kind of thing takes planning to pull off, connections. The cops were in on it, they cordoned off the whole street and then stood laughing into their hats as god-knows-what burned into everyone’s lungs. No one was ever arrested, and we never saw those cops again.

The place where the building was is just a black skeleton now, no one’s going to build on it. The ashes stank when it rained, but no one noticed because of the other thing that happened. The water washed away the ashes and we found the foundation bricks were all stamped with one word: Tubal-cain. That was it. No eye of providence, no compass and square, no other clue as to what the hell was going on.

The other day someone popped their head out of the building next to the pharmacy. They had an apron on and a paper respirator and asked a kid nearby if they had a spare hammer handy. Then they said “oh,” as if they made a mistake and closed it again. The donut place down the street keeps having dust on all their donuts, like the ash was falling indoors, too. You can smell hot metal if you stand on the corner of Derrida and Descartes, but only if you’re waiting for the light. We’ve seen the cops around town in other uniforms. Right now most of them are in construction, sit over a concrete hole on Renault and laugh at nothing. Olive oil has gotten exorbitantly expensive all the sudden. Can a fire still burn after it’s put out? Someone’s taken chalk to the street, marking it up like a hog for slaughter. The ruins of the pharmacy sit on the chops. The ashes crinkle in the breeze, like they’re laughing. If you put a radio on your windowsill, it picks up a noise like electric crickets trying to play Mozart. That’s all that comes in, day after day. The cops say it’s because of interference, all the metal in the ash. What metal? And why weren’t there any pill bottles or scales or pestles recovered from the ashes? Sift through the stuff at midnight, all you’ll find is dirty hands and disappointment.

Some people say that there was never a pharmacy there to begin with, but come on

………that’s just crazy.

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The Machine’s God

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How it started:

I went to bed with a fever once and didn’t wake up for nine days. They told me I was incomprehensible, delirious, what came out of my mouth was like a traffic jam of words and animal noises. I woke on the tenth day feeling hungry. I made myself a fried egg sandwich and then I went to my workbench and built the first one.

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The first:

It came to me in my fever dream. I dreamt of fire, of warm, liquid metal. There was no struggle, I simply held the material in my hands and it seemed to shape itself. I didn’t truly know what I had made until I turned it on. My sister came in the door when I had it in my hand. She lost half the hair on her head. She’s forgiven me since then, but I don’t know if I ever will.

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The next:

I locked my first creation away under my floorboards. For all I know, it’s still there, under the rotting remains of our old house. The next I tried to manufacture with caution, but the work leapt ahead of my hands before my brain could object. This one scuttled away under the armoire. We didn’t find it for weeks, only its leavings. All the jam in the house missing, teacups broken, and the cat found stark raving mad in the closet. The search ended when I was putting on my greatcoat to go out one day and heard a crunch under my left shoe. I felt bad, despite myself.

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The apex:

This was the one I came to regret the most. It seemed so innocuous when I finished it, made of old pig iron scraps and watch springs. I remember how it fit to the curve of my palm. But then it disappeared for a month. By this time we were used to the machines disappearing for a time after their birth, usually they turned up none the worse for wear. I began to worry when I heard the new mayoral candidate use words I myself had coined, a trip to town hall confirmed my fears. It had grown…and with growth had come a thirst for power. Before I could consign it to the dust, half the town was uninhabitable. Forgive me.

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The demiurge:

By now they became as pets, or children. Small in my affections. I had created what seemed the entire gamut of terrestrial life, the insect, the dray horse, the worker bee. It was inevitable that I create something of a deity for them. It wasn’t a bother at first. It merely floated around the rafters, sermonizing the others in a series of squeaks and clicks. The others were quiet when it did that, so I let them be. Later that week I discovered a small shrine on the highest gable of my new house. The others were sacrificing themselves, hurling their tiny bodies to the ground below. Well, there was nothing else for it. I got my wrenches and went to disassemble it. The task nearly got the better of me, but in the end I trapped the thing in the furnace. The flame was violet for weeks after that.

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The reaper:

I am old now, my hands have lost their surety, and I get lost in conversations I held decades ago. Like any proper machine, I am winding down for the day. A few of them, my machines, my children, pile at my feet, watching. Even if I knew how to talk to them, I would have nothing to say. They are all of them self-sufficient, and seem to take care of themselves. Yet they seem to look to me for…something. No matter. I am busy with my very last creation. It is not black, nor does it contain skeletal parts, but the function should be obvious to all who lay eyes on it. I start it up and hold my arms out for final judgment. One slice and I am machine undone.

____

Special thanks to Bill Draheim, who nicely collaborated on this post.

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Ad Hock

The lady who pawned her father’s dentures made me the promise that he did not need them anymore. She did not, however, say that this was because she had been decreasing his food intake over the course of a year in order to encourage his end.

She didn’t say. But I heard it all the same.

I’ve always been able to do this, look past the things people tell me to the words unspoken. The things no one wants to say. It’s not telepathy, but it doesn’t make people comfortable.

A man pawns his trumpet for rent money. It’ll all go into his arms instead. A woman brings in her husband’s golf clubs because he never plays it anymore. He doesn’t do anything anymore, he hasn’t been home in months. She cries on the inside.

When I was eleven my grandfather handed me a penknife in a handkerchief, said it was given to him by a fellow soldier during the Korean war. Actually he’d taken it off an enemy combatant after stabbing him in the ass, the man had been at a bathroom break and my grandfather ambushed him. He made the man watch as he took it and then slit his throat. I told my grandfather as such and he cracked my orbital socket with a frying pan.

This was my first lesson in discretion.

I don’t look for these things. If I had a choice between silence and sadness? I would choose to be deaf.

I don’t repeat the things I learn about people. But that’s not to say I never find a use for it.

A girl brought in her father’s class ring, said it was a cheap trinket bought by an ex. I knew that it was her father’s, I knew he valued it, and I knew she was pawning it to give her boyfriend enough cash for a motorcycle and a ticket out of town. I picked up a phone after she left, and gained the fifth hand yamaha that caught the boy’s eye for a much lower price. A week later I got a cell phone, a game console, and a whole heap of clothes from her father. A black eye and swollen wrist floated in his mind.

After my mother killed herself, my father got me a job at Kenny’s Pawn Parlor. He said it was to keep my mind off grief, although both he and I knew that I was never going to graduate high school. I’m not someone who ever had a shining career ahead of them. I’m good at this. I know where to press, I know how to get the best price for trinkets that have only sentimental value.

Susan, a girl I used to sit near in chemistry. She didn’t recognize me, but there was no mistaking that bust. She had it wreathed in cheap jewelry and spit-marks as she juggled a wailing toddler and a phone. I shorted her on the cash for her wedding ring, but I don’t think she noticed. When she left I took it out of the box and smelled it. Regrets, love, empty promises. If I held it right, I could smell cherry lemonade and homework.

People think I buy old junk. I don’t. I buy memories, something infinitely more valuable.

It feels like I’ve stood on the same spot for the past thirty years. I have everything in this shop, the child’s first shoes to the retiree’s final pair of bifocals. Other people have lived around me while I never picked up the talent for it.

This guy brings in a bag of shoes. He says they’re his wife’s. There is no band line on his finger. He’s never been married in his life. There’s something wrong with his smile, something writhes behind it like worms. I can smell the chaos on him, and placate him until he leaves me satisfied. I burn the shoes.

People don’t get it. It’s not that I’m a bad person. It’s that I never got the opportunity to be a good one.

No one’s ever proud of a pawnbroker. No one calls a toast at a party for a child going into hock. The only thing they can say about it is at least you’re not a burglar. But you know they would almost prefer that.

No one from my family ever pawns anything here. They go to Sol, all the way across town. I think they all know, in their own way. It’s nothing personal. I understand. I understand better than anyone.

The day I started work, my father came in. it was the only time, before or since, he had ever come to see me. He held his hands in his pockets and looked down on the ground, almost guilty. He talked to the carpet, asking me if I was having a good first day. I told him I was having a day, that was it.

He said that was good. But that wasn’t it.

There was something behind that.

He took something from his pocket and unwrapped it. He said that he had taken care of everything else in my mother’s estate, all that was left was a cut-glass ashtray. My mother didn’t smoke, it had been her aunt Phyllis’s. I told him I could go twenty-five percent above market value and my father said, no, that was alright. He didn’t look at me once as I rang up the sale. I gave him the cash and he handed me back a couple bills. For the trouble, he said. Like a tip.

And all the time, the words behind his words ran:

“Why did I let you live?”

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Passing Ships

The pool was closed. Drained empty and dry.

Jeremy knew this because every time he walked past, he checked. He undid the deadbolt and knob with the ring of keys that jangled from his waist and surveyed the empty room. The floaters were stacked against the far wall, the diving board removed, and nothing remained in the basin but moisture stains.

None of this explained how he could hear the sounds of people playing in the water from time to time.

Jeremy was never sure if it was only him. Thu, the laundry girl, refused to go down that hall, though this might have less to do with the pool than the deep pile of the carpet snagging her cart wheels.

The Virago had not been a bustling draw, even in her heyday before the stock market crash. No Virginia Rappe-like scandal within its Victorian doors, only a tradition of stockbroker’s children and minor socialites dropping by to view the ever-thinning herd of seasonal delights. Now self-help seminars rented out the ballroom and the cuspidor stood on its own little pedestal, placarded as any artifact should be.

Jeremy worked on his thesis at night and gave thanks daily that he wasn’t flipping burgers. The job was a job was a job. He couldn’t complain, hell, what was there to complain about?

He took a toolbox up to the fourth via the hallway.

Shouts. Squeals. A child begging wordlessly. A man’s voice: “up! Up! Up we go!”

The rattle of the keys. Jeremy popped his head in. Silence.

“Took you long enough,” Banks grumbled. Jeremy had to stand there while he finished the exact right crescent wrench from the box and closed the valve on the pipe shattered by a cover band’s third-rate antics. The pool room was quiet on the return journey.

Sometimes he felt like going into the pool. Just skimming off his clothes, laying in the empty basin and holding his breath. A wild fancy that never grew anything more substantial.

Jeremy wasn’t curious.

No, he was. A bit. It was hard not to be when the haunting was so insistent. He wouldn’t have to continue with his compulsive rituals if the room would just be quiet.

Jeremy bought a baby monitor and placed in the empty room. Forgotten, until weeks later Carthage brought it to the desk.

“Someone screwing around in there?”

The one in Jeremy’s bag hadn’t gone off once.

Working at a hotel carried its own brand of discretion. People wanted things when they wanted them, and it was up to you to provide them, short of a few measures. Discretion was less of a skill than it was a survival tool. Jeremy had to put out a few conversational feelers before he was satisfied he wouldn’t be sacked instantly for prying.

“So like…was someone murdered here?”

Carthage stopped wrenching at the pipe wheel. “Jeremy, I’m surprised at you! This is a four-star establishment. Of course someone’s died here. We might as well name the honeymoon suite heartattack hotel! But no, never in the pool. Apparently it was drained for maintenance and never reopened.”

“Why?”

“Well, a couple of reasons. I guess the biggest one was just that pools stopped being the in thing. Also, regrouting all that tile would be a bitch and a half. No, nothing sinister. Just inconvenient.”

Nothing sinister. That part made sense. It was never someone screaming or the eerie moaning of hell. It was laughing, shouting, the sounds of recreation. The sounds of leisure.

So what made it that way?

Banks caught him with his head against the door. “You feelin’ okay?”

Jeremy straightened up. “Fine, sir. Just thought I heard something.”

Banks snorted. “Great. Rats or ghosts? Neither we could use more of.” he thumbed the hall behind him. “The runner on three left a BM behind the TV, Rosa could use a hand.”

All rooms in the hotel had the same pageant of smells: bare feet, potpourri, bleach, and just a soupçon of shit.

Except the pool. The pool smelled damp. Though Jeremy put his hand to the cement, the tile, even the dry floaters, he never found any moisture.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Thu said, resting the neck of her beer on her lower lip, “everything is transient. This place used to be somewhere.”

“Now it’s nowhere?”

Thu ignored his smartass comment. “There used to be big parties here. High-rollers. Now we’re lucky if we get a few business men and some vacationing families. And in the future, who knows? It might become a palace again.”

Jeremy spun his bottle cap on the pavement. He sat on the box he was supposed to be breaking down. Thu stood, arms folded into herself, leaning against the building.

“Is that what you think is haunting us?” he heard himself asking, “the future? Or the past?”

Thu looked at him, smiling slightly. “Isn’t haunted a strong word?”

“What else would you call it?”

“You feel any cold spots? Doors slam shut on you?” Thu took a swig. “The only thing you’ve told me is you hear things sometimes.”

“That is the only thing,” Jeremy admitted.

“Well, have you ever considered the possibility that you’re completely bonkers?” she said jokingly. Thu lifted her body from the side of the building, rolling away from her hips upward. “If it gets one of those paranormal investigation shows here, have at it. Otherwise, why bother?”

Why bother. The phrase stuck with Jeremy the rest of the week. That was what this place felt like. Like it was between things and couldn’t be bothered to extract itself.

Sometimes he’d look down and find he’d written the exact sentence over and over.

Banks found him in the hall. “Slow this week, Jeremy.”

Jeremy couldn’t formulate a response, and so remained silent.

“Slow last week. Slow the whole month.” He sighed. “Might be cutting back staff soon.”

Jeremy nodded. Banks was gone before he could fully decide whether that upset him or not.

He entered the west hall. Laughing and splashing reverberated in a large, cement chamber. Jeremy removed his shoes and crept in his socks across the fleur-de-lis patterned rug. He dared to place his head to the wood of the door. The sound hushed, but did not stop.

A woman’s voice echoed through the door.

“What’s that, Violet? You seem to have come over a little queer all the sudden.”

“Oh, nothing. Only…I thought I heard something.”

“Really?” Laughter. “Oh, this old place is haunted to the core! One day they’ll have to close it on account of spooks.”

“Seems a shame. Such a lovely old place…”

“Are you coming back to the water?” splashes.

“In a moment.”

And the soft, almost imperceptible sound of someone, perhaps a woman, perhaps laying their head against the door from the other side. Listening.

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