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The Borges Enigma

Torque, Or the Kingdom of Luceria and the Search for the Absolute Center, does not exist. Purported to be a lost work of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, it is not cited in any catalogue and has never been beheld firsthand by any living source. The sole reference to this work comes from a review by one Chandler Robert Means, who left the typed review on his desk and then promptly disappeared. Means was the book reviewer for Damned Yankee, a now-defunct New York publication. The review spans over two thousand words, nearly four times the allotted wordspace for Means’ column. Why he chose to review the book so expansively, and the nature behind the review’s subject, are lost to time. His coworkers did not observe Means entering or exiting the building, and took the overlong review of a fictitious book as a creative resignation letter.

The contents of the review are thus: Means summarizes the career of Borges, noting a fondness of his earlier works but chastising the wordiness of this book. Torque is written as being nearly 2500 pages. Borges, it should be noted, was primarily a writer of short fiction. Means spares a few words for the cover design, chiding the “low-rent Aubrey Beardsley” that covered the book with an irritating floral scroll.

The summary of the book runs thusly:

Torque, or the main narrative of the book, follows Sigmund Frey on a voyage aboard the fastest known ship in the universe. He is undertaking a journey to Torque, a planet supposedly in the exact center of the universe. Sigmund takes time out to muse on the meaning and origin of his own name in Nordic myth as well as the concept of the hero’s journey, both recurring subjects of Borges. After an altercation with a meteor that appears to bear the face of an old man, Sigmund takes up a novel he found on the ship. Thus begins the second plot of the novel:

The book Sigmund reads concerns the kingdom of Luceria, and the exploits of a knight also named Sigmund. The kingdom has entered into an era of unprecedented peace, and so there has been little room for spiritual growth. The minstrels of the court run dry of material. Historians are reduced to re-recording accounts that have already been committed to print. The king of Luceria charges Sigmund with finding the exact center of the kingdom, alleging that this will bring the glory so lacking in his reign. Sigmund is ambivalent, but relents after he meets with the king’s daughter, a woman so beautiful she must remain veiled at all times. She promises Sigmund her hand if he completes the task, and so he agrees. The next day he rides along the beam of his compass, ignoring roads and thoroughfares to travel in a straight line. After changing horses twice, he reaches a crumbling ruin occupied by an old man. The old man claims the ruins were the first castle of Luceria, and he the first king of Luceria. The princess is not the king’s daughter, but the old man’s, stolen during his defeat. When Sigmund asks after the center of the kingdom, the old man leads him to an iron door which he unlocks with a key that is shaped like a sword.

Through the door he finds yet another country, this one shining brighter than Luceria. Sigmund examines the portal and finds that things that should rightly exist on the other side of the door, such as the wall of the castle, do not. The old man tells him that the country is the “inner” Luceria, and that if he is to find the center, he must ride through. Seeing little other choice, Sigmund does. He follows his compass in a straight line until he comes to another door, which opens to reveal another impossible country. He does this innumerable times, and slowly comes to realize two things: that Luceria bears the same root as the name Lucifer, and that he is in fact in hell, dispatched by Satan in the guise of the king’s beautiful daughter.

Sigmund Frey reflects on the book’s parallel to his own situation, realizing that his own quest is likewise doomed to failure. For if the universe is truly infinite, consisting of an infinite number of circles, then every point is the center of the universe. He also muses on the possibility that the book was included as an act of sabotage, intended to demoralize him from his journey’s goal.

The nesting of narratives, the meta-narrative, and the geometry of infinity are all favorite subjects of Borges. But no record of the novel exists anywhere but in the review.

Means ends the unusually lengthy review with a complaint that the book ends abruptly, without so much as a philosophical conclusion, let alone a satisfying narrative climax.

The existence of the review as a fond tribute to the author is ponderable. Borges himself was known to review books that did not exist, and his use of the meta-narrative to show fiction’s effect on real life and vice-versa is well observed. The plot appears to borrow heavily from several of his more well-known short stories, the most glaring of which is The Library of Babylon and its description of infinity as a circle. But the question remains why Means would choose such a subject for his last review. What was his intent? Where did he go? And what was his ultimate fate?

Means was never seen again. The review currently rests in the collection of one Reginald Lucero, the former owner of the Damned Yankee. Never appearing in print, the review serves only as Means’ epitaph, one last enigma for an enigmatic man.

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A Matter of Public Welfare

On the television, Stephen Nilch wiped away a tear, black armband riding up his bicep. The news ticker ran:

GRIEVING FATHER’S SAFETY VICTORY/COUNTY TO IMPLEMENT CHANGES AFTER SIX-MONTH PUSH/SEVERE DENT IN JAYWALKING INCIDENTS EXPECTED

“They ever gonna let this go?”Keith asked. He had his feet up on his desk in the sheriff’s office, WORLD’S GREATEST GRANPA mug in one hand.

Stuart, fire marshal, was watching the crews out the window. “Slow news week, I guess. This ain’t Vegas.”

Half of San Andreas avenue was already parted by a chrome fence, now the crews in front of the station dug holes and filled them with cement.

“Who’s paying for this?”

“You are, natch.” Stuart let the blinds fall back into place. “Can’t say I’ll be sorry to see less crackheads cutting across traffic.”

“Crackheads? This is Holover Point. Where they getting crack, out by the cider press?”

Both men chuckled over a well-worn joke.

Keith heaved forward a little. He pointed with an index finger missing everything up to the first knuckle.

“Did they really survey this stretch of land before they put this into motion, or did bleeding hearts grease the way?”

“Not sure what you mean by that.”

“I mean, this might have some unintended consequences, is all. No disrespect to the boy.”

“No disrespect,” Stuart parroted.

“But I don’t think they thought this through.”

 

The accidents came before the fence even finished. Crossers impatient for the light were forced to jog along the fence until they spotted a gap, which was usually the center turn lane. This often ended poorly.

Worse were the mysterious hit-and-run reports that began happening in the dead hours of night. Drivers were breathalyzed and, more often than not, found sober. The unfortunate pedestrians were not found at all.

Public consensus held that the fences, while an admirable idea, were proving ineffective.

 

Stephen Nilch strode into the station. He was much taller than on television, though his grieving-yet-proud expression remained.

Keith said, “oh shit,” and extinguished his cigarette in his coffee.

Nilch nodded to him. “Sheriff.”

“Nilch,” Keith said cautiously.

“Some…indigent has dismantled a section of fence near Ponderosa court,” Nilch said crisply, “I would like to know what you’re going to do about it.”

“Well, hello to you too.” Keith forgot and took a drink. He made a wry face. “Look, we can’t be out there 24/7 protecting your pet project—”

“–the public interest,” Nilch interrupted, “is what you are here to protect, and that fence is part of it.”

“Why should a fence need protecting? And how the hell did they get that thing out of there, are some kids running around town with some bolt cutters and a chainfall?”

Nilch said “fix it,” and slammed the door behind himself.

 

Keith scratched his soul patch and surveyed the hole. It was quite a hole.

No signs of cutting, and the torn ends bent.

“Like something just ripped it out,” deputy Parrish said, probing an edge, “but there’s no torn foliage, no damage to the curb–”

“All right, CSI Glendale, I get your point,” Keith said, dusting off his hands, “this wasn’t a car hopping the curb and taking it out. So what the hell does that leave?”

Parrish found a swatch of rough brown hair on a wire point and gingerly maneuvered it into a sandwich bag.

Keith sighed.

“Maybe it was kids.”

 

Keith was tucking into a pastrami on rye when Stuart walked in. He was dressed in torn jeans in a t-shirt, all splattered with red mud.

“Good god, Stu. You been burying stiffs in the garden again?”

“Night class,” Stuart said sheepishly, taking a seat in one of the folding chairs, “I made you an ashtray.”

“Swell.” Keith napkined away a smear of mayo. “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“I had a thought the other day. Also, I just nearly missed running over someone.”

“Yikes. Well, who should I put out an APB on?”

“Seven feet tall, indistinct features, disappears into thin air when you try to follow him. Ring any bells?”

Keith looked across the desk. His sandwich flopped forgotten onto the plate. “You are shitting me.”

“It all adds up.”

“No it don’t. That’s like saying five and three make seven.”

“But in algebra—”

“Listen, shut up for a second.”

Both men looked out the window.

A car, which had been presumably traveling down the road until recently, was skewed diagonally across the lawn of the funeral parlor opposite the station. When Stephen Nilch exited the car holding his neck, both men groaned audibly.

 

“You, officer.” Stephen pointed his finger like a sword, “I have an incident report to make.”

“For god’s sake, Nilch, don’t talk. And quit moving your head.” Stuart moved to cup his skull.

Keith whistled at the dent in the front of Nilch’ station wagon. “That’s some corn.”

“Are you joking? I just nearly died.”

“You just hit someone with your car,” Keith said, “do I really need to remind you where the law’s sympathies lie here?”

Nilch clammed up sullenly.

“Where’s the body?”

“That’s just it,” Nilch said bewilderedly, “I got out of the car to check—”

“And he disappeared,” the other two men said in unison.

Nilch looked from one to the other.

“Do you want to tell him, or should I?” Stuart asked.

“I’ll go, he hates me already.” Keith gestured to the road. “Nilch, there’s something about this road. The fence was a bad idea.”

“Not that it was a terrible idea,” Stuart cut in, “it might even be good, somewhere else.”

“But it just so happens that right here, it cuts across the migratory path of the Yeti.”

Nilch said, “What.”

“The Yeti. The Sasquatch. Bigfoot, skunk ape, Gigantanthropus crypticus, call it what you will. These suckers chose right where we’re standing to migrate.”

“Get the fuck out,” Nilch said.

“Look, hear the man out,” Stuart urged.

“Shut up, Jimenez.” Nilch jabbed his finger at Keith’s jugular. “You. You have no call to mock me like this. My son is dead—”

“Look, no one’s saying it’s not tragic,” Keith said, “whether or not it would’ve happened if you’d taught him not to run across the street in the first place.”

Nilch made a strained noise.

“But the fact is that this fence is preventing the yeti from moving pastures.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Well, look at it from their perspective,” Stuart said, “they’re gentle creatures, not used to this modern world. It’s sad. One century they walk across a dirt path from one field to another, the next they get run over by a glowing-eyed monster screaming out of the dark, leaving behind only a crumpled skin that may have belong to a gorilla and their rank stench. Sad state of affairs for such a majestic and idiosyncratic animal.”

“You people are insane,” Nilch said, stepping back.

“You’re in denial. What the hell do you think keeps this town afloat? The mill? The postcard sales alone paid for the repaving of main street. Look—” Keith put a hand up. “Leaving all that, the fence hasn’t done much in the way of good. People still try to cross the damn street at midway.”

“No, no, no,” Nilch interrupted, “you don’t get to talk to me about yetis and then suddenly pull back. I’ll have your jobs. Both your jobs.”

“Well,” Stuart said, “if that’s the way you feel.”

Both men watched as Nilch got back in his car and gunned it. The motor turned over with a heavy cough and the car laboriously backed off the sidewalk. Both men waved.

Nilch made a three-point turn, steering with one hand while he shot them the bird with his other. He set the car straight and accelerated. The headlights illuminated a figure standing in the middle of the road. Every hair seemed to absorb the light, the eyes refracted back the headlights in deep red. The car swerved, jumping the curve with one tire and tearing a chunk out of the fence. The horn blared. The figure stalked back to the edge of the road and disappeared into the shadows.

“Majestic creatures,” Stuart said, “they’ve got a natural curiosity. Sadly, that doesn’t come bundled with natural caution.”

“I ever tell you the time my daddy shot one?” Keith asked. Stuart shook his head. “worst meat I ever had. Didn’t melt in your mouth, it disintegrated. Stunk up the deep freeze so bad we had to get a new one.”

Both men looked to the car. Nilch’s head lay against the steering wheel. Keith sighed.

“You fish him out, I’ll get the kit.”

The office smelled like a dead skunk when he opened the door. The sandwich was gone from the plate.

Keith shook his head and grabbed his emergency kit. “Worse than the Jackelopes.”

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A Story for the Telling

Okay, picture this:

There’s a girl somewhere in West Hollywood, knocking on a door in a neighborhood she has no business being anywhere near. She’s from back east, somewhere soft and sweet like she is. She hasn’t been out here long enough to let it curdle the sweetness away from her smile, though lord knows she’s been here too long anyway.

The guy whose apartment she knocks on is a Hollywood wolf, no two ways about it. He’s promised her he’ll get her in pictures and taken what liberties he could, which turn out to be an awful lot. She’s deep in the family way and knocking on his door, asking if he’ll please, please come out. Is he actually in the business? Doesn’t really matter. He’s made promises he has no intention of keeping.

But that’s not the story they want me to tell you. The studios want schmaltz, so let me lay it on thick. Where to start?

America loves an underdog, and they love sports movies, so let’s make it an underdog-sports flick. What sport? Doesn’t really matter. Football, baseball, as long as it’s all-American. Tennis is a little fruity. Let’s say baseball. Our hero is the Kid with the Golden Arm, Mr. Bigshot of Bumfuck, Montana. He’s got a heart of gold and a gal to match. He’s got the whole world by the throat, but something makes him lose his grip. Dad dies? Car crash? Nothing too tragic, we want them dewy, not sobbing. Leave that to the Bette Davis pics. It can’t be his girlfriend buying it, because how else is he going to make the comeback without the Love of a Good Woman?

Anyway, Hero McHitter has a sophomore slump. Very relatable, happens to the best of us. Maybe his girl goes off and gets engaged in the meantime, because god forbid an attractive woman go unclaimed in Hollywood.

The girl stands on the stoop and knocks on Wolfy’s door. He’s miles away, at some club talking off some other hopeful’s tonsils. She just knocks and stands like a good girl, ankles together, never sitting. Her voice is never mean, just entreating. It’s got that lilting, lyrical quality to it. Maybe she could have made it, to B-pictures even. Or maybe she could have met up with someone worse. There’s no track-marks on her arms, she’s not jittery with nosebleeds. There’s just the fat bulge at her waist, weighing down her future.

So Hero looks around and finds something to spur him back to the top. Could be an old lighter, a ball signed by the Babe, or even his father’s hat. Suddenly he’s flooded with meaning, he’s got to go to his girl and confess he’s over the moon for her, he can’t have anyone else by his side as he rises back to the top. She dithers, she’s a woman, but we all know she’s going to yank back to his side like he’s got a magnet in his pocket. Maybe there’s a hint of training, maybe some talks with his former friends, but not too much shop talk. Folks don’t go to sports flicks for stats, they go there to be told something they already know.

In the story I want to tell you, somebody opens the door to that girl on the stoop. It isn’t wolfie, he’s miles away and far beneath her. It’s a neighbor, who tells her to come in and get off her feet, in the cleanest way possible. She gets a cup of tea and the advice she’s needed since day one but no one in this town is willing to give. She gets a friend, which is rare commodity in this sewer berg. She doesn’t come back to wolfie’s door, she’s on her way to somewhere better. Maybe back to her folks(wherever they may be) maybe to a cleaner part of California, maybe to get thee to a nunnery. Maybe she makes a pen pal, writes every so often about how she’s doing(much better) how much she misses Hollywood(not at all) and what her future’s like(bright).

But it won’t play in Peoria.

People don’t want to know good girls can get pregnant out of wedlock. Bastards exist as a dramatical device, an albatross around the neck of some tragic Paramount player trying to catch Gary Cooper’s eye. They don’t want to know their dream machine is run off of human coal, they don’t want to know about the collateral damage the star harvester creates. They want to be comforted. They want someone like Sophmore Slouch McGee, who will bootstrap himself out of the gutter because America loves an underdog, however improbable.

All the tragedy, the slump in the middle of the picture, is just foreplay for the real reason everyone came to the show. The Big Game. Where our hero pulls in a miracle at the last possible second, winning everything, the girl, the game, and the audience’s hearts. It doesn’t have to follow the rules, he can bunt that ball like a pigskin for all we care, we just want to see him win. And when he does we all breathe a sigh of relief. Because we scared ourselves, just a little, with the middle of the movie. For a while there, it looked like bad things really could happen, and everything wouldn’t resolve itself neatly.

There’s the story I want to tell you, the story they want me to tell you, and then there’s the story I don’t want to tell you.

The girl stood on the stoop one more day. Then she didn’t come by anymore.

One more day. That’s what I took to finish the stupid sports script. She was on the stoop one more day, the rain soaking her stockings, waiting for someone to invite her in, waiting for someone to care. I cared, but apparently not enough to stop typing. Maybe she left for somewhere better, maybe somewhere worse. While I took one day to finish the no-brainer script, which was one more than it needed, someone’s fate was decided.

Nobody wants to watch that. Nobody wants it to happen, even though it does happen every day in numbers far too high to quantify, so they do the next best thing: they pretend it doesn’t exist. Good girls don’t get pregnant, so that high-school debutante probably skipped church to smoke or something reprehensible. Pregnancy is a penalty, something they have to work through themselves. Wolf isn’t a hero, by a long shot, but a good girl would immediately know better.

People don’t like fallen-women stories unless the dame bites it at the end, preferably right after repenting her hussy ways. People like sports movies, people like honest and true men like our Hero McHitter, and his gal who remains virginal for him throughout the years, because it was Meant To Be.

There, there’s your script. Didn’t take me but five minutes.

Enjoy your fucking movie.

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A Closed Play in a Single Act

[curtain up]

[the stage is not dressed, consisting only of a bare wooden floor and the wall behind it. There is no furniture, drapery, nor objects to impede the eye’s view]

[the FOOL capers out. The player is dressed in a cap and bells over a plain gray leotard. The FOOL dances madly, wearing a rictus grin, in a series of balletic movements. The FOOL stops abruptly and stares out into the theatre, making as if to speak, grinning madly all the while]

FOOL: hello?

[the FOOL does a pirouette on one toe and looks out into the audience]

FOOL: oh God, please tell me someone’s out there!

FOOL: my name is Joseph Calvin, 3110 West Arbor Street, Seattle Washington. Anyone?

[The FOOL is joined onstage by other players, robed and masked.]

FOOL: Joseph J-O-S-E-P-H, Calvin C-A-L-V-I-N. I’m 43 years old, married twelve. My wife—

[the FOOL begins dancing, twisting wildly around the other dancers, treating them like props]

FOOL: come on, someone, anyone? I know you’re there!

[the FOOL comes to a halt, face assuming a mocking expression of sorrow]

FOOL: please help me. I’m so, so scared.

FOOL: I was investigating this theatre company for insurance fraud. Gould, Gold, and Godot? I’m sorry, could you speak up, if you’re there? I can’t see you.

[the MASKS cluster at the rear of the stage ominously, turning their backs to the center stage]

FOOL: I went to the theatre on Ostrich lane, but there was no one there. It looked abandoned. Listen–

[the FOOL begins wringing imaginary prison bars]

FOOL: no such company ever existed! There were no tax records or anything like that! I only meant to look around, I swear!

FOOL: someone? Anyone!

[the MASKS begin to sway back and forth, heaving seamlessly as one mass]

FOOL: they grabbed me! They grabbed me and—and—I don’t remember!

FOOL: I don’t remember how I got here! This is one long nightmare, please, anyone?

FOOL: if you can hear me, I’m not a player! I’m Joseph Calvin!

[the FOOL doubles up in mock laughter, grabbing their belly]

FOOL: I-I can’t move! I can’t feel my body! I can’t see any of you! Please help me, I know you’re there! If this is being performed, there must be an audience, right?

FOOL: right?

[the FOOL stops and the smile melts from their face. They begin walking backwards]

FOOL: you have to help me. It’s not a joke. I don’t know what I did wrong. I don’t know what they did to me.

[the FOOL reaches the mass of the other players and rests against it, leaning back]

FOOL: I can’t see. Are you there? I can’t see. I can’t move. Where am I?

[the FOOL begins to move backwards, absorbing into the mass of the MASKS]

FOOL: someone in the audience, call the police. Even if you think this is a prank, call them. Joseph J-O-S-E-P-H, Calvin C-A-L-V-I-N. I live at 3110 West Arbor Street, Seattle Washington.

FOOL: call the cops. Call my wife. Please call my wife, tell her what happened.

[the FOOL is submerged halfway, only the head and legs sticking out. Their face assumes a sneering snarl]

FOOL: they’ve got me here as a prisoner, I can’t get out. If you can see me, hear me, get help!

FOOL: PLEASE?

[lifting an arm in farewell, the FOOL disappears completely into the writhing mass of masked players.

FOOL: Nora? Oh God, Nora? Nora, Nora, Nora, hello? Hello? Hell—

[the players slowly untangle themselves. The masks, cap and bells, and all other markers have disappeared. Completely undifferentiated, the identical players march somberly offstage.]

[curtain down]

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Morpheus

“…the very first thing you must learn is to beware of dreams,” the speaker said, “detailed dreams. Dreams that seem indistinguishable from waking life. Yes, especially those.”

Across the aisle, Julia crinkled her nose. Gray had been the recipient of similar admonishments these past weeks, so he didn’t blame her.

“It can and will reach out to you through all available channels.”

Gray wrote ‘eggs’ on his notepad, and then drew a square around it three times so it would look like he was taking notes. Artificial sunlight filtered through the picture windows. They were many feet underground, but the windows were dressed with suburban scenes for their benefit.

“Remember, you were not selected at random. We chose you not only for your expertise, but for your resistance to lucid stimuli. Please, if you notice anything at all, tell someone. There is no shame in seeking help.”

Gray applauded politely when the others did, but was off by a beat. Julia caught him at the door.

“You know a wandering mind is a sign of mental unrest?” she asked. He pretended to hit her with the clipboard.

The housing chamber turned out to be significantly smaller than the practice chamber. Their study subject, codename Morpheus, took up half the wall. Gray sat in the observation seating, little more than a group of folding chairs before the tube that bathed the chamber with a pulsing lavender light. The others were restless, he could see it in their nerving smiles and shifting seats. Once seated, the door hissed shut and hydraulic valves ensured it would not open again in a hurry. Gray clicked his pen and began writing.

The thing hummed with a throbbing, soothing rhythm. It was soporific. The others made endless trips to the coke machine, but Gray abstained. Soon enough, they were both jittery and jaded. Gray resorted to calisthenics.

Ten minutes before shift end, Gray went to click his mechanic pencil and it flipped spectacularly out of his hand. Gray got on hands and knees, but couldn’t see where the pencil landed.

“Does anybody have—” there was a black Bic on his seat already. He didn’t know who to thank, so he thanked the fellow sitting closest to him. The thanks went unacknowledged. Gray got back to writing, the pen moving with a fluidity he was unused to. Someone called, and Gray looked up to find the door open. Shift had ended. Gathering up his papers, he looked down at the last thing he’d written. He stopped dead.

The series of numbers was approximately half a number string he knew well. In an emergency, this could override the lock system and free him from the chamber. With numb fingers, he gathered his things.

“I mean, it could be something,” Julia said. They carpooled because her husband needed the car for his job. She snacked while Gray drove, little Japanese crackers that were individually wrapped. “But it could also just be nothing. They told us to memorize those things and tear them up, remember? I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”

“Yes but the man said—“ Gray changed lanes. “I just want to be sure. If there’s a hole in the wall I don’t want it to be me.”

Julia laughed throatily. “Alles klar, comrade.” she toed off her shoes and rolled down her window.

“I’m serious,” Gray said, “if it can get to us through our sleep that easily, make us forget what reality’s like—you know dream shorthand?”

Julia rolled her head, hand propped against her window.

“Your mind makes shortcuts. I didn’t even see my neighbor’s face because I didn’t pay attention to it in real life. You know you can’t dream anything entirely new?”

Julia rolled her eyes. “I remember that. If you see something unfamiliar it may just be peripheral data. Or you might just be awake, who knows?”

Traffic merged into one lane ahead of him. The black vinyl of the steering wheel was hot in the setting sun. He steered with his elbows while he dug out the sheet and handed it to her. She hummed high in her nose and turned the paper over when she was done with it, as if looking for a secret message.

“It’s all right there. One minute I was recording just fine and the next—”

“Recording what?”

He licked his lips. “Readings. You know. What they told us to do.”

“Readings?” Julia’s voice echoed back at him oddly.

Gray looked down. Instead of a steering wheel, his hands were on a black plastic panel of buttons where he idly tapped out numbers.

 

“—I’m telling you it happened,” Gray said, holding the door for Julia. “I dreamed I was taking you home—”

“Whoa,” Julia said, and laughed.

Gray reddened. “Your car was…I think your husband was using it.”

“All the way in Milwaukee?” She stopped before the next set of doors and peered at him, concerned. “Did you report it?”

“I’m about to,” he said. He bid her adieu in the next hall, she went on to the atrium while he went down to security. There was a single black-uniformed guard on duty, looking bored as he clicked through the security feeds. Gray hesitated, but forced himself to march up to the desk.

“I want to report an irregularity.”

The guard shrugged. Gray looked down incredulously.

“Did you hear what I said?”

The guard nodded curtly, not looking up from the screen bank.

“I have a problem,” Gray said, trying to keep the tremor from his voice, “I think it’s reaching me in my sleep already.”

“You and everybody else, pal.”

Gray stared open mouthed for a second.

“Are you serious?” he said. The guard sighed long and thin through his nose and plonked a clipboard in front of Gray.

“I’m sorry Gary,”

“—Gray—”

“Sir, if you could fill this out with your employee ID number and complaint, I’ll get right on it,” he said in a monotone. Gray snatched the clipboard and scribbled furiously.

“I’m having a hard time believing this,” he said, “is your department supervisor around?”

The guard, still looking at the monitors, shook his head. Gray felt heat gather in his cheeks.

“Well, the next time I see him, I’m going to tell him—”

The guard wore no name tag. His uniform was in perfect order, but there was no photo id, no nameplate, nothing.

Gray stammered. “Wait.”

“Sir, please finish filling out the form.”

Gray looked down at the clipboard. In a series of boxes too long to fit his employee ID number, he had been writing the number string.

 

Julia ran into him in the hall.

“Pinch me,” he said. Julia giggled. “Just do it.”

She did. It hurt, but not enough. He smiled.

“This is a dream.”

She slapped him. It hurt too, but it was more of an echo of pain, he realized, a memory where it was supposed to be currently occurring.

Julia was watching him. “If you want something stronger, I’m afraid we’ll need assistance.”

“I don’t remember going home last night,” he said. She steered him down the hall.

“I mean it. I don’t have a distinct marker between days. When did we start this?”

“You need something to eat,” Julia said patiently, “and then a buttload of caffeine.”

“See? You can’t answer me because I don’t know!”

She smiled pity at him while she punched buttons. A tiny cup fell in the receptacle of the coffee machine and filled.

“You want creamer?”

“I’m not thirsty. Or hungry,” he said.

Julia leaned against the machine, elbow cupped in her other hand. “I’m officially concerned about you.”

Gray pinched himself. It hurt. It hurt right then and there.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t think I’m taking this assignment well.”

Julia as still watching him. “Three weeks,” she said.

“What?”

“You asked how long we’ve been working.” Her smile dimpled her chin. “Three weeks of pen jockeying, writing down random strings of fuck-all. Do you think they even feed us real readings?”

He had to smile back. “That’s not what I was hired to do.”

Her smile disappeared.

“I mean, I want to avoid going down that lane. If there’s room for questions, room for doubt, it might be able to pick at that crack, widen it.”

The fluorescent lighting made hollows of Julia’s cheeks. “Do you think it’s that strong?”

“Who knows?” he asked, “either it’s been getting me outside the facility, or it’s been fooling me into dreaming that it has. Either way, I don’t like the implications.”

Her smile came back. “Listen to you. Analyze everything that happens, even to the death.”

Gray got up. “I should. It was practically beaten into me.”

The vending machine hummed like a black obelisk in the corner, bags and boxes double-bright against the darkness. Did he feel like cool ranch or nacho cheese?

“Maybe you should get off the assignment,” Julia said behind him, “just a hunch.”

He chose potato over corn and input his choice. “Believe me, I plan to. I’m going to quit like it’s raining money.”

“Today must be your day.”

Gray stopped. He found he had not been entering the coordinates of the chip bag, but a number string. He snatched his hand away.

 

Gray set his alarm clock for six-thirty and rolled over. He was not tired, not even a little bit. Late-night television beckoned, and with a sigh he gave up and groped for the remote.

Something was wrong. The batteries were dead or dying, he kept pressing buttons and the light would come on but the television stayed off.

Gray stopped, and looked down at the black universal remote in his hand.

“No,” he said.

 

There was a line to get in today. Gray stood still as the people around him fidgeted, muttering about the holdup. Someone had abandoned a carton of Chinese food in the testing area, now the whole building was on lockdown. All Gray wanted to do was get inside and work.

He stopped short of the security door, his face reflected in the onyx glass, finger hovering over the security pad.

“No,” he said.

 

He was typing on a report. His hands moved almost independently from his brain. Gray looked only at the screen as he hit the keys, never misspelled. He made himself look down.

The keyboard didn’t match the words. There were no letter-keys, only numbers.

“No,” he said.

 

He was sitting at his desk. It was ten minutes to shift end and all his work was in the bag. He tapped his fingers rhythmically, eyes on the second hand as it crept around the clock face.

He stopped tapping. He made his hands into fists.

“No,” he said.

 

He was in the chamber. Julia was there. She stared with—was it passion? Intensity, certainly.

“Gray,” she gasped, “I love you. I love you. Please love me.”

He looked at the tank behind her. It was empty.

“You know, I never got a good look at you,” he said. Julia was silent.

Gray sat down. “I can always just stop doing things with my hands,” he said conversationally, “but you can make me forget, can’t you?”

It was back in its tank. With the shield up, the lavender pulsed into a rapid violet, almost pretty. It rotated gentle in some unseen current, deaf and blind and unborn.

“Has this whole thing been a dream from start to finish?” The thing pulsed with sympathetic radiation.

“You can dilate time, but this can’t last forever. And what then? They find me keeled over in my seat, you find another one? How many? Or am I really the only one? Is there something about me, specifically?”

Morpheus gave no answers, just floated in its liquid half-life.

Gray made fists of his hands, and then put them in his pockets for good measure.

“Well, I guess we’ll see,” he said, “we’ll just see…”

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The King’s New Clothes

I was accosted while slumming on subway. Tedward nabbed my collar and whispered sotto voce:

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

“Yield,” I said, “there’s nothing new under the sun. I may not have heard this particular iteration—”

Teddy shook his head. “You with your Schroedinger’s opinions. Keke darling has found a new painter, simply to die for.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“Literally.”

I folded the copy of the Times I had been using to hide my lunch. “Go on,” I said, “you’ve bugged my Watergate.”

The gist of the matter—once you boiled down layers of Teddy’s pith—was some new thing was painting abstract swirls that made certain sensitives collapse, gray matter no doubt leaking out their ears. At the show’s opening, six art reviewers alone were rendered pudding, to small loss.

“Breathtaking,” said I, “what’s the cheese?”

Teddy leaned in close, a conspicuous gesture for a conspicuous man. “They shuttered his show until they figure out how to play off the reaction. Private showing, you dig?”

“Dug. What time?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Teddy said, “don’t be forward. Keke planned a little soirée to show off a new body mod.”

“And to scalp the guests for potential entrance fees,” I said distastefully, “pass.”

“Everyone who is someone will be there!”

“Well,” I said, “seeing as I am someone who may or may not be someone, let’s just stick that in the box and gas it, shall we?”

He was still puzzling that one when I got off. Some people, I tell you. It’s almost not worth having associates, but then again, who else would you show new outfits to? The populi? Please.

 

Keke Cola had returned from yachting Europeward to her ancestral manse, a glass-and-crystal palace that would’ve made C.F. Kane turn green. She’d decorated for the party by garlanding the place with rafflesia; I was given a pink gas mask with Reagan’s visage as a party favor. My fellow raconteurs were pawing through the buffet table like a trove of ravenous beasts. If there’s one thing we love, unconditionally, it’s a meal gratis.

Alabaster was there, along with Verdigris and several other colors. Sister Mister shot me a meaty hoof, dressed in a copper lame top and upsettingly short denim cutoffs. Algonquin Jack was masticating a humorously large beef rib, dentures seesawing in his mouth from the effort.

Keke, as always, stood in the middle of a knot of people. Her dress was slit down the front practically to the floor, showing off the control-top of her pantyhose briefs. She had some large tortoiseshell lenses on her head, stopping every other word to sweep a strand of hair back with a hand holding a cigarette stem. If she wasn’t careful, she’d ignite all the aquanet undoubtedly keeping her wig anchored.

Keke threw her arms open when she saw me. “Mon amour, ma cherie, it’s been a bit of too long.”

She air-kissed both of my cheeks. Up close I could see she had Coco Chanel’d to such a degree even the trenches of her wrinkles were tan.

“So afraid you’d miss this,” she spoke with a gravely rasp prized by blues singers and gargoyles.

“And miss seeing Verdigris fill up on shrimp?” I said, “I think he’s even sown a pocket into the lining of his jacket for the occasion.”

Verdigris gave me the finger. Keke gave me an oh you slap on the wrist.

“Dear, darling,” she said with sudden gravity, “have you heard the news?”

“About our lord and savior?” I said, “ages ago. I hear his squiggles make people squiggly.”

But the mistress of the house shook her head. “No no, darling, not squiggles. The boy paints de la vie.

“That bad, huh?”

Another wrist slap. This was threatening to become threatening.

“I’ve been to his loft,” Keke pontificated, “and he has such a unique vision.” She leaned in close, flooding me with rosewater and old meat. “There are layers one must be au courant to see.”

“Sing it sister,” I said, nabbing a shrimp cocktail before they went extinct.

“He paints in colors only seen on certain parts of the spectrum. Infra-red. Ultra-violet.”

“Don’t forget concussion green.”

Keke whipped off her Diors. Beneath the glasses, her eyes had been bandaged heavily.

“Neat threads,” I said, “so you’ve finally decided to drive blind then? Or do the police pull you over walking, now.”

“I got my lenses removed,” the lady said rapturously, “so that I may see.”

“Now I smell what you’re spraying. What’s this, a new self-destruction fad? Why not try pogo-sticking off the space needle again?”

The lady’s sticky grin rearranged into a frown. “You mightn’t be jealous, Darling?”

“Jealous?” I said, “I? Why, we’ve all evolved beyond such human peccadillos. You might as well accuse me of knapping flint into a knife.”

Metz pointed at me with a half-eaten squid tentacle. “You’re Krushchevving!”

I raised an eyebrow at him.“You’re about two presidents too late for that slang.”

Keke darling had become carried away with mirth. “I never thought I’d see you get green for a grocer.”

“You aren’t seeing at all,” I said testily, “and when you get to the afterlife, phone me and let me know what Satre is wearing.”

Hoots followed me out.

“Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it has no merit!” Keke called after me.

 

“The hell I don’t understand,” I grumped as I got into the car. “I appreciate art. I live art. I breath art. I sweat art. I ma—I consume art.”

“That may well be,” Lady D sniffed, “but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a flash in the pan masquerading as a claymore.”

Mrs. Dumont had declined to attend the party, natch. There had been bad blood between the two ladies for decades now, something deeply injurious that neither would talk about. My guess? Something to do with shoes.

“What do you think?” I consulted with her. “you think we should crash the showing?”

Dumont gave me Bette Davis eyes. “Crash, gauche. We will destroy it.” She revved the motor.

I changed into black turtleneck and slacks while she drove us, following a map Candy Warhol had inked on a napkin for us the night before. The loft above the Roi en Jaune show was shuttered until further notice. What they hadn’t counted on was decades of Lady D’s espionage against her fellow man. Through a combination of flirting and threatening, she got us a spot in the neighboring parking garage. Four storeys above the cement, I fit together a contraption of her own making, kind of like a crossbow fashioned from old hangers.

“And what happens if it doesn’t work?” I asked.

“You die and leave a beautiful corpse,” she replied.

“Just checking,” I said, and lined up my shot.

Bull’s-eye, though the company who put the billboard up would wonder why their model had gained a single, dark nipple in the morning. I saluted Mrs. Dumont and swung across, barely shitting myself in sheer terror at all. Once I had landed and kissed the surface of the roof a few times, I gave the all-clear signal to Lady D. She nodded and sat back with a thermos of tea, a copy of L’Etranger, and a Kalashnikov.

I slid my slim jim between door and jamb, popped the latch, and I was in.

Getting caught at this point would mean worse than jail time: public excruciation. My ego was in a sling as it was. I shuffled here and there in a crafty fashion, seeing as my dignity had long ago fled to winter in the alps, and looked for something likely.

A light snapped on above my head. Ugh, florescent.

“Who the hell are you?”

The young man spouting this cliché had the remains of a patchy beard and one eyebrow shaved, as if he’d already attempted to disguise himself. His eyes were flat in the middle. So he’d already gone ahead and had the surgery. Yet he wasn’t dead? Curieux.

“I’m the ghost of Potter Stewart,” I said, “I heard there was a breast sighted somewhere in the area and I wanted to check if it was pornography.”

Understanding dawned on the young man’s face. “Oh, you’re one of those.”

I tried not to appear too ruffled. “If by those you mean ‘art appreciator’ then yes, I am.”

He squinted and frowned, I think the light was getting to him. “Look, what do I have to do to get this through your heads? The paintings aren’t supposed to kill people.”

“Did I say I came here to die?” I placed a hand on my breast. “I came here on recommendation of a friend.” Which wasn’t a total lie. “A dear friend.” Which was such a lie. “Who spoke highly of your art.” Truth enough.

The young man sighed and scratched his beard. “You know,” he said ponderously, “when I started out doing this, I had such high hopes.”

“I know,” I said, “developing your style, evolving your technique, and maybe selling a few canvases before you die.”

He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell everybody the good news. And He came into my arm and showed me the way.”

Ah.

“Who did?”

“The King, man, he…” the young man looked down as if he’d find the words he wanted on the floor, racheting his hand. “it’s too…je ne sais quoi.”

“Ne gaspille pas ta salive.” I said, “show, don’t tell. That’s what artists do, don’t they?”

He gave me a smile that made me a bit wary. “Sure,” he said, and giggled.

Never trust a man who giggles and assents too easily. It’s how I got stuck with my last five cars.

I followed him to the sheeted area of the studio, where lithic rectangles overshadowed cans of linseed oil and mineral solvent. He touched each one reverently and he went, naming them.

Regalia. Cassilda’s Lament. Unmasked. Boiling Hali.”

He stopped before the last.

“This is it. The big one. This is the one that has been taking lives.”

He started forward suddenly, grabbing my lapels. “I never meant for this to happen, you know.”

“Sure,” I said, straining back.

“I mean that.” He breathed like a rabbit in a snare. “But…I’m happy it’s happened. Happy. Do you see? Now everyone will know the King’s message.”

“That’s really okay,” I called, as he ran forward and dragged the sheet from the canvas, “I’m really gone cold on the idea—”

The sheet hit the floor with a sound like a thought ending. I pondered the piece.

The young man wrung his hands. “Well?”

“You’re no Kandinsky.”

He frowned. Obviously that hadn’t been the answer he was expecting.

“I mean it’s good,” I said, turning to him, “but I don’t see it on a postcard anytime soon.”

He felt my forehead.

“Hello to you too.”

He took his hand away. “This is wrong.”

“Funny, my phrenologist said the opposite.”

He looked at the painting, back at me, and then at the painting again. His face got suspicious.

“You’re not colorblind?” he asked.

“Well, that would explain my failed airforce career,” I said.

He nodded, as if I had agreed with him outright. “You’re color—the painting doesn’t fucking work on you!”

“Watch your mouth,” I said, “children are within a five-mile radius.”

“This isn’t funny, there’s an entire section of the spectrum you can’t see! You can’t fully fucking appreciate the King’s fucking portrait.”

“Using that word constantly isn’t going to make its property value go up,” I said, “now listen—”

“Stew,” he said absently, looking up at the painting.

“Stew,” I agreed, “is this the only…masterpiece that has been causing these extra-vulgaris symptoms?”

Stew looked at me, eyes wary. It really wasn’t attractive, the flat look. Maybe he could invest in snake-eye contacts.

“Then I am correct in assuming it’s special effects were an accident?”

He went crafty, like a fifth-grader with a forged parental note. “It fucking won’t be,” he ranted, “when I learn to reverse the process and find what I did.”

“Such language,” I chided, tweaking his nose. “anyway, I’m taking it.”

“You’re what?”

“Actually I’m a Pisces.” I hefted a corner of the sheet and tossed it over the painting. “I have the most darling little alcove at home. This will fit right in. I’ll keep it veiled unless I have guests who merit a private display.”

“You can’t do that,” he said numbly.

I waved the kris that Lady D had loaned me from her extensive collection. “I can’t? Anyway, help me with this corner.”

Sheeted and tied, the painting flopped like a wayward kite to the ground. I waved to Lady D, who flicked a lighter at me. I shook my head sternly.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” Stew said, holding a can of what I hoped wasn’t paint thinner, “my only success is getting stolen by a fucking poseur.”

I slapped him lightly on the wrist. “I know you have a beef, Stew. But simmer down.”

I laughed my way down the stairs. I allow myself time to be corny when I’m alone. It helps me keep shtum in the public eye.

On the street Lady D had donned her battle beret, smoking a black cigarette and sitting on the canvas.

“One word,” she said, “and I can make it look like the Secession gallery.”

“Negatory, good lady,” I said, “I’ve decided to adopt it.”

She snorted. “And invite Keke Darling, I suppose.”

I tied it to the luggage rack. “I had thought of that, yes.”

When we were back in the car, Dumont turned to me and gave life to the utterance that every artist dreads:

“What’s it a picture of?”

“The stuff that dreams are made of, kid,” I said. If I craned my head a long way back I could just make out the forlorn silhouette of Stew the painter. Maybe it really was paint thinner. Maybe it was for the best.

“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

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The Happening

I keep tabs on many of the promising young artists in the area. Jean-Baptiste Rasputin(neé Benjamin Brown) was in the forefront; what with his boozing and whoring and excesses he was an artist in the old tradition.

The thing I find most people get wrong about performance art is that it cannot, should not be repeated. What part of the performance is art? Is it the moment captured in still-frame, dissected and rendered lifeless by the shutter? Is it is the flurry of moments, each blink in time where movement and light and Kismet come together to form a one-of-a-kind configuration?

Jean-Baptiste was a born performer. I and my colleagues could tell. He was spoiled and crude and loud and magnificently human.

Verdigris phoned me up on a Tuesday: “Did you see him at the Pigeon Club?”

Seen? I had been. He tried to pay for a drink with a napkin scribble, after his would-be patron had abandoned him to the check. He’d taken out his private parts and rubbed them on chairs, stacking them into a tower of Babel crowned by one unfortunate diner’s Bichon Frise.

“Some idiot recorded him with one of those cellular phones.”

One trip to the internet confirmed my worst fears. He was on one of those streaming video websites, labeled “drunk f***er steals dog.” The filming of the King beating set a dreadful precedent, now no one is “there” unless they have video proof. We (not a club, only a loose consortium of like-minded individuals) abhorred the hollowness of these pseudo-repeat performances. One might as well double a canvas in a mirror.

I told him to meet me at the usual time and place and hung up. I am the collective’s man-on-the-spot insofar that I know my way around an address book and aren’t too cool to write things down. I tied my scarf into a Duncan-proof knot and caught a ride behind the motoboy from the Thai restaurant near my home.

The place was deserted(we place high priority on being fashionably late, of course) except for Lady D. Mrs. Dumont had been pretty once, and the curse haunted her to this day. Her face refused to fall into any interesting formation of wrinkles. She made up for it with Art-deco Jet jewelry and an arrangement of rejects from the bargain bin at Sears. She addressed me with aching dignity.

“Something must be done,” she told me, trembling with such passion her black topknot threatened to topple. “Baptiste has been…discovered.” her disapproval withered the word.

“My feelings exactly, Midge,” I said, “but it’s just not done to go bombarding houses with sarin gas for being tacky.”

She sniffed. I was in no position to stop her, indeed, I might even applaud her secretly as they escorted her away, but we as a collective were allergic to public attention. We were observers, don’tchnknow.

Claude blew in with Metz, eyes bright, piggy cheeks shining with warmth.

“He was streaking through the carwash,” he told us in a breathless whisper. His scarf removal revealed the failed Chicago necktie he’d gotten at the Vectrie exhibit. “He had a chicken in hand that he used as a shield when the attendants tried to reason with him.”

“A chicken?” Lady D sniffed again. It was her favorite pastime. “How very Duchamp.”

“It was one of those Polish hens,” Metz countered, “no foster farmer’s wet dream. The man knows what he’s doing.”

Lady D sniffed again, but seemed mollified.

As the others streamed into the warehouse we used as this week’s meeting grounds, I marked out a contingency plan on the brick wall with a chunk of plaster. With all the shouted suggestions it ended up looking more like Jack the Dripper, but the plan evolved beyond two dimensions by that point.

“He isn’t just a single-performance artist anymore, he’s become an art generating machine,” Havanna piped up.

“It’s in our best interest to feed that machine, keep it going.” Some crater-cheeked soul who had wandered in with Frisley and Oates.

“But if we tip our hand too much, it might ruin the whole thing. Prime directive.” Claude’s old lover who changed names from week to week, still a bit put out at being replaced with Metz. I think he called himself Metz this week out of spite.

Lady D laid it down very slowly and deliberately like a battle-worn general. “We all agree that personal interference only increases the danger of going native. However—” she took a breath to sharpen her tongue, “the danger of discovery has forced our hand. His skill and talent will no longer be exclusive.

“That’s what happened to Warhol,” Sister Mister added sagely.

Dumont nodded. “Then we are in agreement, something must be done. But we must minimize the chances of his publicity. Ergo, one of us must volunteer.”

It wasn’t that I stepped forward, more like everyone else stepped back.

“You’re wanting I should lose the hippest thing since Gorbachev?” I said, “I ain’t got half the glasnost that you do, sister.”

Lady D acknowledged the compliment, but pressed on. “You have the experience, since disarming Kretsky’s infernal device.”

I knew Kretsky would come back to bite me on the ass. Literally, but those scars have long since healed. This was a fresher danger.

“This ain’t a fireside sing-along, if I get up and start belting kumbaya, heads will roll. I’m not an actor, I’m a pit pony. ‘sides, I go up there and introduce myself, I lose this great relationship of observer and observee.”

“It’s either this,” she said, “or the slow slide of mediocrity.”

The lady made a point.

“I’ll do it,” I said, “but I’ll probably hate meself in da morning.”

For this jaunt I wore the disguise of a health-happy pedestrian. The sneakers pinched through my pigwool socks, but I refused to remove the last vestiges of my fashion sense. At least they’d had a teal tracksuit in my size. Lady D and a few others had set up a duck-blind of vagrant’s possessions on the corner across from Baptiste’s apartment.

“Get in close to him,” the lady advised, “try to flatter him, so he’s receptive to your pitch.”

Our artist was hanging half-out of his apartment’s fire escape, drunk on Maker’s Mark and tossing lamps at a young woman who seemed to bear an unfortunate resemblance to his ex-lover Elise. I shot them the hi-sign and began my trek to glory.

There is a specific school of Raku firing that breaks from tradition in the most dramatic fashion possible, yet it may be the closest in terms of original intent. The potters construct their pieces with a series of holes so that when they yank the pieces red-hot from the kiln and drop them into water, the pots scream and steam the rest of their short lives away before exploding in a terrific fashion. This emphasis on impermanence and raw, primitive joy always did something to me.

His apartment door was closed, but someone(probably the artist himself) had destroyed the deadbolt and then fixed it with a stray piece of wire. I cannot communicate my joy as I swung open that apartment door. It was everything I’d hoped for, the mess, the stale smell of garbage and cigarettes and a life lived poorly in the physical world and deeply in the metaphysical. I breathed deep this fleeting moment, when everything was fresh and exciting. Say not that we art admirers dwell vicariously in the lives of artists, we live in the moment just as much as they.

Baptiste was slurring to the sidewalk, “I hope yer happy. I zjust wanna know if yer happy.”

I tapped on the window. “I hate to bother you, but could I steal a moment or two, dear boy?”

I shook a half-full bourbon decanter, which reached him faster than the words.

“The hchell do you wan?” he said, quickly uncapping and taking a swig. “My dad send you here? Fuck you, prole.”

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure,” I said. “I’m an…I guess you could call it ‘admirer.’”

He sized me up with boozy meanness. “You like my paintings?”

“You paint?” I said, “No, I’m more of a fan of your work.”

He nodded at nothing, probably not even listening. “I tol’ em, I said, ‘I don’ give a shit who you think y’are, my paintins are good. Good.” He took another swig.

“I understand,” I said, “I’ve lived a lifetime of tiny minds and wagging tongues who know nothing of ars gratia artis. They think paintings are created for patrons, not the other way around.”

He blunk at me. I don’t think he expected to be understood. It riled him.

“If yer not here for my paintin’s whadda fuck is you here for.” He had a bike chain necklace and a safety pin through one earlobe. I wanted to tell him how beautiful he was, but I’d already lost something by moving from audience to performer. To comment would be to make the dreaded step to analyst.

“Did you know, dear boy,” I said, “that you are gaining an audience?”

He heaved to and fro. “Szo?”

“So?” I said, “so you are gaining attention, which you crave, but from the entirely wrong place. Can you imagine Warhol finding fame as a billboard artist? Caulder being known as a helluva chair carpenter?”

He had the good sense to shudder. “Fuck, no man.”

I nodded. “Wilde was wrong. The only thing worse than being talked about, is being jeered about. They laugh at you, they don’t  appreciate your raw talent.

He sniffed. “That’s so true man.” He had retreated maudlinly into himself.

“But you have grown a small contingency of loyal followers.”

He looked around, as if other people were hidden behind the bars of the fire escape. “Where?”

I was pushing the envelope, but I was the one up here, not them. I pointed to the duck-blind on the ground.

“There. Just there.”

He waved sloppily to them. Even from this distance, I could see lady D’s eyes shining.

“They’re all fans of your work. We all love what you do and want to save you.”

His eyebrows disappeared into his hair. “You do?” My, he was just full of intelligent questions.

“Yes,” I said, “preserve you as you are, here at what we believe to be your peak.

He was crying, now. I don’t think he’d ever expected to receive praise. That was what made him so attractive, this little nobody, this little malcontent, this dimestore Diogenes in tattered jeans.

“Fuck, man.” H hid his eyes in his hand. I put my arm around his shoulder. “Fuck, you’re gonna make me cry.”

I could’ve whispered something profound in his ear, or some blasé one-liner pun, but I’ll never tell. This is my coin, my payment for services rendered. Using forward momentum, I rolled him over the rail.

He shrieked like steam as he spun out over the moments, landing neatly on a page in time’s scrapbook.

Lady D stood up and applauded.

“Bravo! Bravissima!” she called. I did not bow, that would be gauche.

Instead I quietly beat a retreat to the fire stairs, as the shrieking young miss on the sidewalk ran for the police. I had seen the inside of a prison during the draft and had no intention of repeating the experience.

What was the performance? Was it his journey to art school, despite his obviously lackluster talent? Was it the triumph of his ego under the relentless hammer of reality? Was it the endless division of moments, spanning from inception to termination? Was it the floral arrangement of his corpse on the sidewalk, a collage of disparate elements pasted together with blood to form the portrait of art’s own harlequin?

I say it was the whistle, that final spin out in the wake of inevitability, as his body was suspended in air, his face in-between terror and elation, his body in-between moments, forever suspended in my memory.

I whistled all the way home. Salut!

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A Week in Hell

Day 1

Wake to a generally irritating pelvic rash that only itches enough to entice you to scratch it. Any attempts at scaling away irritated skin cells result in the worst burning you’ve ever felt. You breakfast on stale cereal. At the fifth bite or so, you spit out a moth. You will not be able to finish the bowl, even if you check it and find no grubs in wait for you. You shower in lukewarm water. This is the coldest water you will get in hell. Pools are warm as spit and the decks around them are always sticky.

Catch a ride on one of hell’s many buses. Their clinical, antiseptic smell is a thousand times more unnerving than the baked-on stink of humanity that buses in life had. Stare out the window and try to remember if you dreamed last night.

Day 2

Go sit with Mussolini. “Celebrities” are often assigned sitters from the faceless, like yourself, who did petty human evil but didn’t wow on your way down. Down here, Benito has been reduced to doddering old man, physically frail and prone to flatulence. He doesn’t remember. You read A Tale of Two Cities to him, and then play checkers over pierogi. Every thirty minutes, a maggot about the size and texture of a subway train tunnels its way out of his elderly hindquarters. He is lucid by the time you finish today’s chapter and spits in your face, telling you to bring him a gun so he can show this place what real fear is. You leave him howling over his latest maggot.

Once outside, you bum a smoke off Ambrose Bierce. He’s always good for them.

Day 3

Endure several hours torture at the hands of high-school philosophers, wishing the blood in your veins would turn to sandpaper as they crib from what they remember of Atlas Shrugged. Any attempts at logic will be blustered over, steamrollered by as the conversational juggernaut lumbers to its conclusion. At the first, and only, pause for breath, you politely agree to whatever and excuse yourself. They latch on to the next passerby. No matter how many times they make their point, it is never enough.

Needing cessation of your hectic schedule, you visit a discotheque. The music of hell is that of every mega-pop hit, of every decade ever. Taken alone they might be bearable, even enjoyable after a fashion. But here they blend together in a cacophony that threatens deafness but never delivers. After twenty minutes, everyone fakes bowel pain and goes for a bathroom break. Of course there is no toilet paper.

Day 4

Take a walk through the historical gardens of hell, with conquistador-trees as far as the eye can see. Unbaptized infants gurgle and flit through the fountains of blood—they alone do not realize where they are. You catch one in your hands like a ladybug, hoping it will spare you a glance. But the infant’s eyes(it is sexless) is focused on some tantalizing horizon, never reached but all the more precious for it. You let the infant go and realize the week is half over.

Day 5

You run into your molester uncle. There is a deep fear behind his eyes, but you do not care what originated it. You say hi just for the simple joy of seeing him flinch.

The libraries of hell call. Cataloging every atrocity known to man is a surprisingly repetitive task. Crucifixion goes back a long ways, and no one’s really improved on the original formula. You find yourself longing for a laser-beheading or something. Lunch is a casserole of paperback pages and canned spaghetti sauce. You pick John Grisham from your teeth and hope nobody noticed.

Day 6

Satan. Your eyes don’t melt into your skull, but he does have a voice like the whispering of flies. He asks about your judgment by St. Peter while studying the fish tank behind your shoulder. He has chosen one of hell’s many cheap Italian eateries for your meeting and can’t be bothered to make eye contact.  You say Peter was fair, God was…Goddy. Yes you had family in heaven. No, you’ve fallen out of touch. Yaweh didn’t mention him at all. When the check comes he excuses himself to the bathroom. You wonder why he even bothers sometimes.

Hands in your pockets you wander hell’s one city. There is no countryside, or seaside, or even a mountain. You’ve never questioned it, seems oddly fitting. In hell, no one makes eye contact. Perhaps that’s a bit of the reason why you are all here, not for the many bodily sins you’ve committed but for petty transcendental ignorance against your fellow man. Then you espy a Unitarian and realize it’s not that bad.

Day 7

Wake in the dark and try to remember your dream. You don’t really make new things in hell, everything has stopped. No one gets pregnant, no one gets cancer. Yet sometimes you have a nagging feeling you’ve dreamed something completely new since you’ve come to hell. Do the dead have REM? This question jabs you awake as you lie in the sweaty darkness, no body beside yours to curl into, no other mind to lose yourself in. In hell, everyone sleeps alone. You walk up to the rooftop of your high-rise apartment to gaze out over other rooftops in hell.

There are others like you. They blink owlish in the red unlight. It is never truly night here. Hell is like Alaska, you’ve decided. Hot, sweaty Alaska, with no wildlife. Hell is incomplete. You look out over the buildings still being built, for occupants yet to come, you suppose forever or until humanity dies out, to be replaced with a sinless, altogether wiser race, or perhaps a variety of atheistic cow. You cannot finish that thought. You are forever on the edge of an epiphany, but something, maybe a trickle of sweat, maybe the buzz of something in your ear, distracts you and your thought train decouples.

You stay on that roof for an indeterminate amount of time. The alarm clock only goes off once you’ve settled yourself back into bed.

Day 8

Repeat.

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The Secret Miracle

He was afraid it was a tumor, and so his time in the waiting room was spent worrying little strips of paper into even smaller strips of paper. He did the same to his patient gown.

The doctor thumped his chest and felt his head and his testicles, and finally sent him through an ultrasound machine as if he were pregnant. Pregnancy would have been no less shocking than what the doctor found.

They were quiet at the other end of the bed, and, unless he craned his head to the far right, he could not see even a sliver of the screen. Of course he feared the worst. Finally the doctor turned to him with bemused eyes.

“You have a story.”

His mouth gaped open. “What?”

But the doctor was already wheeling the machine about-face so he could see. There, snug between his stomach and pancreas, was the lump of wonder. Relief filled him, as did pride. He tried to seem humble.

“Really?” he said, “a story? To someone like me? This is incredible!”

The nurse gave light applause. The doctor waved her down, but he was smiling as well.

“Now there will be more tests,” he said, “and a government inspector to validate it, but in my professional opinion it is a story.”

He thanked the doctor, shook hands with the nurse, and handed over his health card to be punched.

It was hard to go back to routine afterwards. He lived a mild, nondescript life with a mild, nondescript job as a filing clerk in one of the larger archival libraries. All day he worked as if in a dream, stopping at times to glance around him. Everyone behaved as if nothing had changed and, for them, it hadn’t. He now carried with him a secret, a fantastic secret that buoyed him up beyond his body, into possible futures.

He planned his responses for the congratulations, the slaps on the back tinged with envy. He would stay humble; he was, after all, a humble man.

He rearranged his assigned sleeping cubicle several times, wondering what was expected of a story host’s home. He bought food differently, sometimes going out of his way to visit exotic stores. When the black-framed envelope arrived in his mail, his surprise had long dissapated into happy expectation. He hummed on the elevator ride to the doctor’s office. There, he shook hands with the government inspector, a grim fellow whose teeth showed through his lips in bas-relief. He undressed hastily and did not bother to fasten his gown; the nurse did before placing the machine’s head against his belly.

He waited, this time in happy silence. The inspector and the doctor studied his screen, heads together. He smiled and restrained himself from swinging his feet like a little boy.

Suddenly, the inspector shook his head. Dread lanced through his happy mood, though he recovered nicely. He wondered if it was only a small story. He wouldn’t mind, he was a humble man. But then a rapid, muttering conversation took place, and the doctor started shaking his head too.

“Is…is everything all right?” he croaked. He was ignored.

The inspector shoved the screen aside as if swatting at a fly.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said, “I’ll summon security.”

“Wait,” he cried, “what is it? What’s going on?”

The doctor looked at him, all traces of good humor gone. “This cannot be your story.”

He felt all the color drain from the world. “…what?”

“This story belongs to a woman,” the inspector asserted, “you cannot have come by it fairly.”

A panicked smile crawled across his face. “Wait, please, there must be some mistake—”

The doctor pressed a button, and the doors opened. Two heavy-set nurses flanked the aperture.

“Wait,” he entreated them, “wait, wait!”

They did not, because an untold story was a small miracle. But a stolen story? A crime unforgivable.

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Threads from some random forum

Thread author: burtonfanxx
Subject:hey

Hey guys I know this is a longshot but im looking for that relly good creepypasta that one this guy posted here a fe years ago? It started out with the guy saying he was goin to be in a whole lot of trouble at his job but it was getting too bad and h

Reply: burtonfanxx

Sorry I got cut off (damn character limit) anyway he posted it along with all these sick pictures of peple in these weird neckbraces and messed-up faces and they were all realy good photoshops imean it looked like he took them in somebodys dusty basm

Reply: burtonfanxx

-ment and they all had their pupils blown out like they were on drugs I saved a few but that was like three computers ago and anyway I don’t want the pictures I want the story that went along with them

Any takers?

Reply:imnotspock

Hey again guess I messed up my password too many times lol got locked out of my account so had to make this new one. So anyway anyone remember that guy? Said he worked for some government branch I think he mentioned mk-ultra at one point but this was

Reply:imnotspock

something new and even more fucked up like they went past drugs and into some weird body mod thing there were people there with only haf a face and I think he mentioned operaton paperclip idk what that is but he was really scared and said that he was

Reply:imnotspock

having horrible nitemares where those people got out and he was scared of his boss’s who were forcing him to keep workng an he was pretty sure they tapped his phone and he was rwiting it from someoneelse’s house  and he had no idea what the govenment

Reply:imnotspock

wanted them for he said it was like a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass at this point and one of the other researchers went missing around the time they got a new test subject and he could’t tell if it was him because theyd cut its face off an

Reply:imnotspock

d its tongue and voicebox. That was one of the pictures. I remember it ended with him capslocking that we all needed to spread the word about what they were doing and then the user got b& for no reason like this was the only thing he posted and he di

Reply:imnotspock

dn’t even swear or nothing. The thread was gone by the next day too, but I thought a bunch of people got caps but I don’t see any old users so I figured you got locked out like me, lol. Please help, I’ve been losing sleep thinking about this and I fe

thread locked
Thread author: imnotspock
Subject:what the f?

Man where did my thread go it was up on the front page and then it disapeared? Someone let the mods know they havn’t been answering my pm’s. can someone please anser me that stupid firefly thread got 300 posts in one day and I haven’t even gotten one

Thread locked
Mode set: ban
User:imnotspock

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