Mushroom Day

Sam sat on a rock in the forest and aimed his copper bow at the sky. He lined up the tip of the arrow with an invisible target. He pretended to fire and made a sound like any young man would – bang bang bang – and he didn’t even know anything about guns. Sam didn’t know much about most things in the world. His headful of thoughts was always swimming in another realm. That’s why Sam wasn’t allowed into the army. They told him he was crazy and unfit for battle.

“Hogwash!” he cried out, looking down at the ground and the smiling face of a mushroom with an orange cap and a thick ivory stalk.

And the mushroom seemed concern. “What’s the problem, Sam? Are you having problems adjusting to society again?”

“You got that right, Mr. Mushroom. I just want to fight like all the others. It’s my duty and they won’t let me – they call me Stupid Sam.”

The mushroom lit a cigarette and began to smoke it as he tried to give Sam some advice. “Maybe you are destined for greater things. Did you ever think about that?”

“If I can’t fight then I am nothing. Do you expect me to tend sheep in a golden field for all of my life?”

“I think that sounds kind of nice. I would like that a whole lot better than getting axed or shot with an arrow or slit with a sword.”

Sam got agitated. “Oh what the hell do you know? Look at you. You’re just a mushroom living in the forest. You don’t even have legs!”

“I like living in the forest. All my friends are here and I don’t even mind the rain.”

“Oh stop talking like a little girl!”

“Maybe you just need to settle down a little bit. You’re scaring me, Sam.”

“Well I’m not surprised you’re frightened … I can be quite fierce if I need to be.” Sam turned around and watched the clouds race by. “I’m sure I can get in an army somewhere else. Nobody has to know.”

“You would fight for the enemy?”

“We are the enemy. We’re no different than any other enemy in the world.”

“But that’s treason … They’ll cut your head off for sure.”

“I don’t care Mr. Mushroom. I was bred to fight and fight I will – no matter what side I’m on.”

Sam set down the bow and drew the sword at his side. He studied the blade against the sky. The mushroom grew nervous. “What are you going to do with that?” he squeaked.

Sam quickly turned and drew closer to the mushroom. “Maybe I’ll undo your hat for you. Would you like that?”

The mushroom tried to pull himself from the ground and run – but of course he couldn’t. “Oh … come on Sam. I didn’t do anything. I’m just a mushroom. Please don’t hurt me.”

Sam touched his chin and walked in slow circles. He looked at the mushroom and pointed. “You know … Maybe you can help me out.”

“I’ll do anything. Just don’t hurt me.”

“Suppose I cut you from the ground and returned to the village hoisting my prize high. Then they would all see what a great warrior I am.”

“That sounds like it would hurt me.”

“Oh shut up, mushroom! I’m trying to think.”

“Do you really think they would be that impressed by a mushroom?”

“Of course they would. You’re poisonous aren’t you?”

“No.”

“Well, then surely you are an extremely rare mushroom?”

“No. There are lots of us.”

Sam touched his face in frustration. “Damn it! Do you at least go well with a fine meat stew?”

“Actually, I’ve been told I have very little flavor.”

“Wait a minute … this is all a mind game. You’re trying to convince me that you’re not a grand prize, when in fact, you are.” Sam held his sword high and was set to cut the mushroom down when an arrow pierced his throat. He fell to the ground and soon died.

After a few moments passed, the mushroom called out in fear. “Who did that? Are you still there?” A figure moved between some distant trees. The mushroom strained his voice. “Please! I want to talk to you.” And suddenly there was someone standing tall over him.

“A mushroom that talks. Now that is a grand prize, but killing you would make your talent useless.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Gorgon the Great. I am the king.”

The mushroom looked up at him suspiciously. “Why would the king be walking around in the forest all by himself?”

“I like to hunt alone.” The king tapped his foot against Sam’s lifeless body. “Who is this?”

“His name was Sam.”

The king knelt down beside the body and turned the face toward him. He studied it. “It seems I have slayed Stupid Sam.”

“But you also saved my life,” the mushroom reassured him.

“I should have thought about it more. What makes your life any more valuable than his? I shouldn’t have killed him. I should have just let him kill you.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say.”

“Are you passing judgment upon the king? How dare you … fungi!”

“My apologies my lord, but I have feelings too.”

The king kicked at leaves and listened to the wind. “Do you hear that?”

“What is it?”

“The kingdom is being attacked. I must go!”

The king ran and the mushroom desperately tried to make him come back. “Hey wait! Could you at least move his body so I don’t have to look at a skeleton for the rest of my life!?”

The Mall Train

I didn’t mean for the kid to fall out. He just did.

I was working at the mall when the accident happened. I was the guy who drove the kiddie train all over the place – circle after circle after circle on the top floor of the Paradise Mall down in the valley. It was 50 cents for a kid and a dollar for an adult. I couldn’t let fat people on though, there was a weight restriction. Really tall people couldn’t ride the train either. It was a small train, made for kids and one or two reasonably-sized adults.

I had to go in real early in the morning one day to learn how to drive the train. It was a “safety course” according to the manager. I also had to take a written test before they released me to the world. I got one question wrong. It had something to do with not running over people.

The manager said that was okay because it was pretty much common sense not to run over people and he had a “gut feeling” that I was a fairly sensible person. He gave me a nametag with one of those labeling machine stickers on it that said: THAD.

“But my name is Chad.”

“Chad? Really?” the manager said, looking at me like I must not know my very own name.

“Actually it’s Chadwick. I shortened it.”

“Chadwick won’t fit on the nametag.”

“Just Chad is fine.”

“Look, just wear this one today and I’ll make you a new one later,” he said, just before he plopped a silly little engineer’s cap on my head. “Good luck.”

My name remained THAD for the entire duration of my employment at the mall because he was too damn lazy to ever change it.

 

It was on a crazy weekend near Christmas when everything went wrong. I was stuck on the afternoon shift and the Paradise Mall was filled to the brim with people. The train came with a whistle you could blow if people were in your way. Most people were in tune enough to step out of the way of a kiddie train racing through the mall, but a lot didn’t. I’ve clipped a few heels and gotten bawled out about it, but nothing as bad as that last day.

I was getting real tired of just being able to drive the train on one level and so I decided to do something about that. I had eyed the escalators many times as I rode around and finally decided that they were wide enough to accommodate my train. I took slow aim and steered the locomotive toward the escalator opening near a Dick’s Sporting Goods store. Someone yelled out, “Hey! Look out!” Then there was a loud ka-klunk.  The downhill grade of the escalator was a lot sharper than I expected and the grinding movement of the teethy stairs soon caused a derailment. I heard screaming and crashing behind me and that’s when the kid was bounced out and went over the side of the escalator rail.

He would have been smashed up on the floor pretty good if it hadn’t been for the nice lady who caught him. But people were still pretty mad at me. My boss yelled and fired me right away. They took my entire last paycheck to help cover the damages. I still owe them a lot more but I can’t pay because I don’t have a job. The family of the kid who fell out is trying to make my life hell with some civil suit over “trauma.” The mall no longer has a train because I totaled it.

 

I sat sipping egg nog on a chill Christmas day watching distant traffic out my bedroom window. The rest of the family was on a Caribbean cruise for the holidays. There was my father, my mother, my younger sister Sadie, and my younger brother Hermes. I couldn’t go because I had to drive the train. The accident happened two days after my family left. I was 22 years of age and suddenly all alone in a big house with nowhere to go.

The house was on the outside of the suburbs. We had a large wooded lot and a long driveway that came in off the main road and curved. You could barely see the house through the pines. I looked out the big living room window and I could barely see the road. The sun was shining but it was cold out. Patches of white littered the landscape. I put on a coat and went out the front door. I could see my breath steam out of me and it made me think of the mall train. I really wish I wouldn’t have crashed it. But then again, maybe it wasn’t my entire fault. Mall management should have picked up on something after that psychological test they gave me. They had a question on there that asked if I had ever eaten food out of a trash can. I answered yes. Maybe that’s why I got the job.

It was real quiet outside except for that winter wind filtering through the green boughs and knocking into me. I pulled a knit cap from my coat pocket and slipped it over my head. I didn’t like my head. It was too round. I didn’t like my hair. It was too curly and it looked like I had a perm. Society classifies me as a redhead but my hair color is actually orange. Jesus, I have orange hair. I have to keep it cut short so I don’t look like a clown. I was never very popular in high school and the girls were never attracted to me. I wanted to play football, but I never did. I was a good athlete, but I wasn’t one of the crowd. Graduation day was sweet freedom.

I smoked a cigarette as I walked around the yard. The sun was slipping and the air was growing colder. My shoes crunched in the patches of snow. My father told me before leaving on the family boat trip that I better start thinking about college. He was getting very impatient with me. He told me other kids my age were close to finishing up college and that I was allowing myself to be left behind.

“There’s no future in train driving,” he lectured. “You need a solid education and then you can own the train drivers.”

I didn’t want to own anything.

I once told him that I wanted to move to Kansas and run a sunflower farm. He told me to get my head out of the clouds and get a MBA.

“You can never go wrong with business,” he said. “The world will always need good businessmen.”

He’s a regional vice president for a chain of banks. He makes a lot of money. I don’t know exactly how much, but I’m sure he’s swimming in it. Mom doesn’t work. She’s never worked. She stays at home and bakes and drinks and sometimes goes down to the community center and helps out with a neighborhood rummage sale. My sister Sadie is in junior high. She’s an obnoxious little member of the “spirit squad” and vice president of the student council. Father loves her ambition and energy and her social power. He’s already grooming her for Harvard. My brother Hermes is lost in the shadows. He is a dark, brooding young boy who spends countless hours by himself writing plays and then he acts them out with Sadie’s hand-me-down dolls. My father yells at him for playing with dolls.

“If I ever see you playing with another doll,” he screamed at him one day. “I’m going to ship you off to the queer farm!”

I had to walk by Hermes’ bedroom door to get to mine and it was always closed and he cried a lot. Our father often vocalized his concerns about Hermes turning out just like me.

He’d say things like, “I already have one son heading down the path to being a nobody … I don’t need two.”

I sighed at the thought of telling him about the train accident. He’d really let me have it for that one. I thought about packing my bags and getting on a real train and going to the other side of the world – anything to spare his disapproving wrath. But then I figured a train ride to the city for a couple of days would be just as good.

 

Two days later I phoned my friend Brick. Brick was a jock, but the only jock that ever befriended me and stayed in touch after graduation. Brick had a truck and he drove me to the station. He turned down the radio so he could hear what I had to say.

“I just want to get away for a little bit … so I can see new things.”

“What kinds of things do you want to see?”

“Girls who wear dresses.”

Brick smiled and agreed.

“If you meet some, don’t forget to tell them about me … the most handsome young man in all of Lubricant County.”

He was a bit dumb, but he was right. Brick looked like the guy every guy wanted to look like – the perfect male specimen from toe to head. Back in high school all the girls swooned in the halls and smacked big glossy smiles in his direction every time he strolled by. He was a star player on the football team and helped our school win some state swimming meet. The girls loved the swim meets. They gathered in the front sections of the bleachers and cheered for his lean, wet body with giggling vigor. Brick was constantly distracted by the sex. He already had one illegitimate child with a former cheerleader and another on the way with a different former cheerleader. I could tell it all weighed heavy on him, but he smiled through it.

“Whatcha going to do about that?” I asked him.

He turned to me and grinned, pushed his cowboy hat back on his head.

“You mean the kids?”

“Yeah. The kids.”

“I don’t know. Suppose I better start lookin’ for a second job. You think that mall you worked at is hiring?”

“Not for a driver of the train.”

Brick laughed out loud and slapped at the steering wheel with the palm of his hand.

“Oy yeah. I guess you wouldn’t be a very good reference to put down on my application, would ya?”

“Zip it, Brick … and just drive.”

 

The station was a little red house beside the tracks with clean windows and empty flower boxes. There was one man inside and he sold me a ticket to the city. I found an empty bench on the platform and waited. A college girl sat down beside me and started to read some chick magazine.

“Hello.” I said to her.

She looked up from her mag, turned her head and smiled to me.

“Hello.”

“Are you going to the city as well?” I asked her.

“I live in the city. I just finished visiting a family friend.”

“Who are they? Maybe I know them.”

“The Scotts on Hairpin Road.”

I shook my head. “Nope. Never heard of them.”

“They’re very fine people. They know my uncle and have a daughter about my age. Don’t you know Charlotte Scott? I’m sure she went to school around here.”

“No. I don’t know her, but it sounds like I should.”

“She’s very popular.”

“Well, that makes sense because I’m not.”

She tucked the magazine away and turned to face me with more interest than before. Her eyes were big and blue and her skin looked perfect.

“Do you go to school in the city?” she asked me.

“No. I actually don’t go to school. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. What are you going for?”

She proudly raised her head and smiled. “I am going to be a graphic artist.”

I was impressed by that. “That’s a really honorable career path to take.”

She scrunched her nose and grinned at me. “Okay. Thanks.”

The train began to pull in and she quickly stood up and extended her soft hand. “It was very nice talking to you.”

“We could sit together on the train,” I eagerly suggested.

She rubbed at her nose and glanced away.

“I suppose that would be all right … Who are you?”

“Chadwick Smith.”

“Well, Chadwick Smith, I’m Aspen.”

“That’s a tree. I like that name. Do you quake gently in the wind?”

Aspen looked at me like I was crazy. “We better get on board.”

She took me by the hand and pulled me along the platform and we got on the train. She pulled me down a long aisle of sad and frustrated faces to a row near the back. We sat facing each other, pressed tight against the window. She fumbled through a satchel for a bit and then set it down beside her and moved her perfumed face close to mine. Her breath smelled like roses as she spoke.

“Are you going to look for a job in the city?” she asked me, her blue eyes catching a glint of cold sunlight, and all sparkling.

“I just got fired and taking a bit of a break, that’s all.”

Her eyes widened with interest. “Why did you get fired?”

“I tried to drive a kiddie train down an escalator at the mall.”

A hand went to her mouth as she broke out in a wide grin and laughed a bit. “That was you?”

“Yes.”

“I have to admit, I thought it was pretty funny.”

“You know about that?”

“Yes. It was in the newspaper. There were even pictures. Don’t you read the newspaper?”

“No. I’d like to have a clipping and frame it and hang it in my room, though. Do you think you could get me one?”

“I’ll work on it.”

“It was a real tragedy.”

She laughed again. “No one was killed … Right?”

“I almost killed a toddler. I don’t think it’s very funny.”

She snorted. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I won’t bring it up again during the whole trip.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s a very bad memory for me.”

She got quiet, looked down at her lap and crossed her hands, but I could see her lips stretched wide across her face in the form of a grand smile. I stared out the window and I could see her reflection in the glass, even as the trees whipped by and the winter sky swam high above us.

“Where do you live in the city?” I asked her.

“I have my own apartment.”

“Could we go there?”

She got a serious look on her face. “I barely know you, Chadwick Smith,” and her lips closed tight and with real purpose.

“I just thought it might be fun. I have no plans. I don’t even know where I’m going to stay for the night.”

Aspen leaned back and studied me. “You’re not going to kill me, are you?”

I feigned a sorrowful sigh. “Why do all the girls ask me that?” I smiled back at her for the first time. She shook her head, rolled her eyes and showed me her sparkling white teeth. I wanted to eat them like peppermint Chiclets.

 

Aspen lived in a tall building of glass near the center of the city. We rode an elevator in silence to the 19th floor and stepped out. The hallway smelled like a garden and when she opened the door to her apartment there was a sudden flood of sterile, white light.

“Take a seat,” she said to me as she walked into the kitchen area, her shoes gently clomping on the hardwood floors.

I fell into one of the sofas and looked around the place. She had a collection of C.S. Lewis books shelved upon a bookcase above the fireplace of modern ignition. One of the walls had a giant painting of a ladybug on canvas, but instead of the ladybug being red, it was blue. Large rectangular windows offered up a stunning view of the city and beyond.

“Do you want something to drink?” she called out from the kitchen.

I thought about it hard. “Apple juice.” She stepped out of the kitchen and looked at me like I was high.

“Sorry. I don’t have any apple juice.”

“What are you having?”

“A beer. An imported beer.”

“I’ll have an imported beer too.”

I heard her pop the caps and then she came in where I was and sat down on the couch. Her hand barely swept across mine when she handed me the bottle.

She got uncomfortably close to me. “So, what should we drink to?”

I took a sip of the beer and looked at her. “I don’t know.”

“How about … to new friends?”

“Friends?”

“Aren’t we friends yet? I mean, here you are, in my apartment and I barely just met you. That seems pretty friendly to me.”

I nodded my head and gulped down the rest of the beer. “Can I have another one?”

“Help yourself. I’m going to go change into my pajama pants. They’re so much more comfortable.”

She bounded off to another room with the delicacy of an elvish princess and I hunted another beer. Something on the door of the refrigerator caught my eye before I yanked it open. There was a picture of a man and it had a red heart drawn around it. I looked around for other clues of steady male companionship until she snuck up behind me and busted me for peeping in drawers.

“What are you doing?”

“I was just looking for something to set my beer down on. A coaster.”

“You can just set it on the table; it won’t hurt it.”

I felt rather embarrassed walking back to the couch but didn’t hesitate to ask her about the photo. “Who’s that a picture of on the refrigerator?”

Her face flushed nearly instantly. “Oh. You saw that I guess. He’s … Just a guy I like.”

“Is he your boyfriend?”

“No.”

“But you would like him to be?”

“Hell yes! Did you look at him? He’s so hot.”

“And what do you think of me? Am I hot?”

I could sense her becoming more unsettled as she hesitated. “I think you’re really cute. I like the freckles on your face. They’re like constellations.”

“But am I hot? Would other women consider me hot?”

“Sure … Of course they would.”

“You’re lying, I can tell.”

She became frustrated. “Look, I don’t know why you are becoming so upset about this; I just want to hang out and have a little fun.”

“Are hot guys more fun?”

“Jesus fuck! Okay, you’re hot!”

“That wasn’t sincere. It was forced.”

“Chadwick please, quit being a dick and just relax … or maybe you should just leave.”

“No. I want to stay. I like you and I want another beer.”

Aspen moved her hands in a gesture of ughhh! and rose from the couch. She moved into the kitchen and went to the picture on the refrigerator door and removed it. She turned around, opened a drawer and dropped the picture into a pile of other pictures of men, all encircled by a big red heart. The drawer was nearly overflowing and she thanked God Chadwick hadn’t opened that one when he was rummaging through her personal belongings.

She came back, knelt beside me on the couch and handed me another beer. I tried to tug on the ties of her pajama bottoms. “Hey!” she yelped like a lovesick seal. “What are you doing?”

“I just wanted to see what you have hiding in your pajamas.”

“That’s creepy, Chadwick. I don’t think you know how to talk to women. It’s not very romantic.”

“What am I supposed to say?”

“Tell a girl that she’s beautiful or her dress is really pretty.”

“That sounds stupid.”

“Maybe to you, not to a girl. Is that why you are all alone?”

“I never said I was alone. I could have a girlfriend, you don’t know that.”

“Girls know when a guy doesn’t have a girlfriend. And you do not have a girlfriend.”

I sucked the beer down and held the empty bottle in my hand as I gestured. “I don’t need a girlfriend.”

Aspen moved close enough that parts of our legs were touching. “Oh really? Why is that?”

“I couldn’t stand the frustration.”

“Hmm, I see. You know what? Maybe you are better off alone. You could spare us ladies all the frustration.”

“Women only care about muscles and money – and I don’t have either one.”

“I seriously hope you don’t truly believe that.”

“Oh come on. It’s not bullshit. A man with muscles and money has way better of a chance than me of bagging some hot chick like yourself.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t think of women as only animals to hunt. That would be a fresh start for you.” Aspen got up off the couch and went into a room and closed the door. I guessed it was the bathroom because I heard water running. I sat there for a minute before going over to the door and knocking.

“What are you doing in there?”

“I’m going to take a shower.”

I pondered what a real man would say in such a situation.

“Can I take a shower with you?”

“No, you may not!” And I heard her yank the shower curtain in place.

 

While Aspen showered, I stepped out onto the veranda with another drink. I looked over the rail and the city roared far below. The sky was a stew of pink and blue hues – melting cotton candy from a circus. I thought about Brick and the fact that if he were here right now; she’d already be rolling around naked in the bed with him. I’m not Brick, I’m Chadwick, and I have orange hair. I suddenly wanted to ask her a question and went back to the bathroom door. The water had stopped. She was toweling off when I barged in.

“Hey! What the hell are you doing!?”

“Look at that. The door was unlocked the whole time.”

She wrapped herself tightly with a towel and then glared at me. “I think you should just go.”

“But wait. I wanted to ask you something first.”

She brushed past me and into her bedroom. “What do you want to ask me?”

“Could you dye my hair a different color?”

“What? Why?”

“Because I hate it. Look. I have orange hair.”

She was drying her own luscious locks with a plush hand towel. “So.”

“It makes me not hot.”

“Looks aren’t everything … and besides, it wouldn’t go with your skin. You’d look even worse.”

“I knew you didn’t think I was hot. You think I’m ugly.”

“It doesn’t matter what I or anyone else think. The only thing that matters is what you think. You have a problem with low self-esteem.”

“Nice cliché. It’s a bunch of garbage though. Why don’t you just be honest and tell me I’m not good looking!?”

“Okay, Chadwick. I’m not attracted to you in a physical way. Not everyone in the whole damn world is going to be attracted to you for Christ’s sake. It’s just the way things are so get over it!”

“That’s brutal.”

“You asked for it.”

“Maybe I should go.”

“Do you have enough money for a hotel? Hotels in the city can be very expensive.”

I reached into my pocket and showed her what I had.

“That’s not enough.” She went to her dresser and pulled open a drawer. She reached in and then handed me the money. “Take it. It’s a gift.”

“You must be rich.”

“I get by. Do you have a map?”

“No.”

“The first thing you should buy out there is a good map.”

“Maybe I’ll see you again?”

“We could bump into each other on the train again someday; who knows?”

 

I bought a map at the drugstore around the corner and had a soda and relieved myself in a dirty restroom. I found an old-time barbershop with a real pole outside and I went in.

The barber grunted at me. “What can I do for you?”

“I want my head shaved.”

“Easy enough. Hop in the chair.”

He wrapped the plastic cape around me and his clippers came alive with a buzz like one million bees ready to sting me. I watched as the clumps of little orange hairs quickly fell to the floor like feathers.

I finally asked him, “Is there a good hotel around here?”

“The Brimstone Inn is a pretty fine joint. It’s just on the other side of the park.”

“And what about a bar? I want to go to a good bar with good people, not drunken animals.”

“There’s a bar right there in the hotel. A lot of sophisticated ladies frequent the place, if you know what I mean.”

He turned off the clippers and placed a warm, moist towel on my head and patted at my scalp through the terrycloth. “I think you’re done. Wanna take a look?”

He whirled the chair around and I could see myself in the mirror. I moved my head around as I looked at my shining dome and the shadow of orange stubble. “Looks great. Just what I wanted.”

I paid the man and went out into the chilled end of day. I hurried across the park and found the entrance to The Brimstone Inn. A man in a circus costume held the door open for me and said “Good evening, sir. Welcome to the Brimstone.”

I went to the front desk and ordered up a room for one and paid the man in cash. I was in room 333. It was a very nice room. It was probably the nicest hotel I had ever been in and the window offered up a fine view of the park. It was dark outside after I had showered and buffed my head and I looked like the main dude from that band Live. I chewed on some gum and then went downstairs to the lobby bar. There was a black man in a tuxedo playing a piano and lamenting about lost love and some women were leaning on the piano listening to him with tears in their eyes. I sat at the bar, away from other people, and ordered a vodka over ice and a rum and Coke. After downing a few drinks and no luck with human contact, I suddenly became very hungry for egg dumplings and tomato soup. I asked the bartender about it.

“Hey barkeep. Where could I get some really good egg dumplings and tomato soup?”

He thought about it as he wiped a beer glass with a bleached towel. “Try Jenny’s. It’s just down the street.”

I thanked him and paid him for the drinks. I went out into the lobby and again the man in the circus uniform opened the door for me. “Enjoy your evening, sir,” through a restless wind he said, and he tipped his silly hat to me. I walked down the street and then I found Jenny’s near the end of the block. It was a small place made of aluminum and it had a Jenny’s sign in neon red above the door. I made my way in and sat at the counter. A beat up waitress in orange came over and asked me what I wanted.

“I heard you have the best egg dumplings and tomato soup in the city. How ‘bout it then, can you dish me up a bowl?”

She sarcastically smiled and her wrinkled lips popped. “I’d love to. Do you want anything to drink with that?”

“I’m aching for a Mr. Pibb.”

“Mr. Pibb’s off this week, how ‘bout a Coke?”

“Whatever you recommend, Jenny.”

“I recommend you drink a Coke ‘cause that’s all we have right now. And I’m not Jenny. Jenny signs the checks I work so hard for. Can’t you read my nametag? I’m Mary.”

“And you’re just as pleasant as the Virgin Mother herself.”

“Are you makin’ a crack at me?”

“I’m sorry, Mary … Havin’ a bad day?”

“Shit. You could say that. Jenny back there keeps hiring these dingy broads as waitresses and they come in here to work and all they do is jerk off all day. Then guess who gets stuck with all the work? I hadn’t had a day off in three weeks.”

Someone invisible person from the back called out. “Shut your filthy trap, Mary. I’m doing the best I can!”

Mary rolled her eyes. “See what I gotta put up with? Anyways, these dumb little broads last for a coupla days, maybe, and then they up and quit. They complain it was too hard. I’d like to show them hard … Bam! Right in their stinky little faces!”

She set the Coke down in front of me and I took a sip. “Why don’t you just quit?”

“Quit!? I only wish. I’ve got bills to pay, sweetheart. Don’t you have any bills, cowboy?”

“I have one.”

“One!? God, what I would give if I only had one bill.”

“Yeah, but it’s a big one.”

“Ya gotta gambling problem, sweetheart?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I had an accident at my job, well, the job I used to have.”

“What happened?”

“I crashed the kiddie train at a mall.”

Mary burst out laughing and could barely control herself. “Oh my God. That was you?” She turned and yelled toward the back. “Hey Jenny, you gotta come out here. This is the guy who crashed that kiddie train at that mall!”

“Jesus! Do you have to make such a big deal about it? How did you know about it way down here anyways?”

Mary almost fell over from laughing so hard. “It was in all the papers, you silly goose! They even had your picture like you were some mean criminal or something. I thought I recognized you.”

A bulbous lady with a blonde mullet and unintelligent breasts came waddling out of the back room smacking gum in her small mouth. I guessed it was Jenny. She put a pencil behind her ear and looked at me. Her voice was tough. “You’re the guy who smashed up the kids’ train? Man, that was funnier than hell.”

I took another sip of my Coke and bowed my head in what I guess could be best described as happy shame. “I don’t see what’s so funny about it. Why does everyone keep laughing?

“Man, you must be bat shit crazy to do something like that,” Jenny sarcastically advised me. Then saying to Mary. “I heard he almost killed some poor kid.”

“Why aren’t you in jail?” Mary barked. “You almost killed a kid!”

“I’d rather not talk about it around all these people. Could I please just have my egg dumplings and tomato soup!?”

Jenny left a trail of husky laughs as she returned to the back of the restaurant. Mary ripped a piece of paper off her order pad and slid away to the kitchen after giving me a pissed off look. I took another sip of my Coke and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. What had I become? I almost killed a kid with my juvenile antics.

 

The egg dumplings and tomato soup weren’t that good and I think they made the food crappy on purpose just to piss me off. I guess I was a little rude, but hell man, I didn’t want to talk about it with pure strangers. It was 9:36 in the night and I was back out in the street wondering what to do. I wanted a beer and so I walked around a bit because I knew there would be a bar somewhere not too far off. I stumbled upon this Irish place called The Micks at the corner of some dead end and dimly lit street. I went in and it was pretty quiet and still except for some old man sipping a big glass of milk at the bar. A weepy song about four-leaf clovers moaned in the background. I took a seat about three stools away from the guy drinking milk and I ordered a big imported beer. He sipped. I sipped. The sipping sound of silence. Then he pushed the empty glass in front of him, smacked his lips and looked over at me.

“That was damn fine milk,” he said, and he made a clicking sound with his face.

“Do you always come to a bar to drink milk?” I asked him.

He slowly made his way closer to me and sat down. His breath smelled like a dairy under a hot New Mexican sun.

“Let me tell you about that, son. See, my body don’t allow me to put the booze in anymore, but I still like comin’ to the pub. There isn’t nothing wrong with that is there?”

I held my glass up to him and nodded. “You got a point there. But isn’t it lonely?”

He was suddenly sad and struggled for an answer. “I suppose it is. But it wasn’t always like that. All my friends from the old neighborhood used to come here. Now they’re all dead and I’m probably not far behind.”

I joked with him. “But you’re probably pretty healthy from drinking all that milk though, right?” He smiled and chuckled at that and I could see that he had really bad teeth. “It’s supposed to soothe the ulcers, so they say. At least that’s what my wife used to tell me. But she’s dead now, too.”

“Man. I’m sorry to hear that.”

He waved it away into the air like it was really no big deal. “Everybody has to die some time.”

“Death seems to be weighing heavy on your mind tonight, my friend.”

He sort of lost his shine. “I was at the doctor this morning, like I had always promised my dear wife I would regularly do if anything ever happened to her, and it wasn’t good.”

“Are you sick?”

“They said I have the cancer … in my testicles for crying out loud. I got dick cancer they said. I could drop dead here tonight.”

“Shouldn’t you be in the hospital?”

His old eyes danced in his head as he looked at me and then around the empty pub. “I should be here. Where I matter … I don’t want to die in a hospital.”

“But, can’t they treat it?”

“Their idea of treatment is more like torture if you ask me. I don’t wanna go out like that. I know the awful things they do and I don’t want to be just another experiment.”

“Can I buy you another milk?” I offered.

“Yeah sure … Hey Tommy, can I get another moo juice over here? This guy is paying for it.”

“I think I would do the same thing?”

“What’s that young man?”

“I don’t want to die in a sterile void like that. I think you made the right decision.”

“The docs don’t think so. They said I’ll come runnin’ once the pain really kicks in.”

The bartender placed a moist mug of milk down in front of the old man.

“Hey,” I joked. “Maybe the milk is better than the medicine.”

He grunted. “Or maybe I ought to try some of that medicinal marijuana everyone is talking about.”

“Sure. You’re obviously old enough.”

“Thanks a lot. Hell, we smoked plenty of that shit during the war.”

“I’ve always wondered about that. How did you guys manage to shoot straight if you were stoned all the time?”

“That was easy. We just imagined the enemy was a hot piece of tail, if you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean.”

“Hell, back then it seemed like all the women were hot pieces of tail. Nowadays most of ‘em look like skeletons.”

“And you don’t get off on that sort of thing, do you?”

“The only place I want to see bones like that is my Sunday chicken dinner.”

“I agree. I like a little meat, too.”

He chuckled sincerely. “So, what’s a clean young man like you doing in a place like this?”

“I came down from beyond the suburbs for a night or so. I suppose I’m a little lost and I was thirsty for a beer.”

“Had to get away?”

“Something like that. I don’t have a job anymore and my family is on a Christmas cruise.”

“What happened to your job?”

“I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s pretty bad.”

“Oh shit lad. You’ve got to tell me now.”

“I crashed a kiddie train at a mall.”

The old man exploded with a gush of giddiness. “Oooh hoo hoo! That was you? Oh, darling lad, that was a good one. What a riot that was! Oooh hoo hoo!”

“Do you read the newspaper?”

“Every chance I get. Oooh hoo hoo! They even had a silly little picture of ya too. Like you were some devil!”

I slammed another beer. “Those god damn newspapers. Why don’t they mind their own damn business! I’m not any more of a devil than the real devil himself. Bastards!”

“They wrote that you nearly killed some poor little kid trying to drive down the escalator like ya done.”

It was just then that the old man tipped back a big gulp of milk into his smiling rot. He wiped at his mouth with his sleeve and then he began to choke and he suddenly dropped to the floor.

“Call an ambulance!” I yelled to the bartender. “I think this dick cancer has finally got the best of him.”

 

I rode in the ambulance with him all the way to the hospital because there was no one else to do it. He looked pale and frothy lying out on that gurney the way he was. I thought he was already dead for sure as the paramedics hung out all over him, but he had a smile on his face. Once at the hospital they made me wait outside in a room with a bunch of empty chairs in it while they worked on him because I wasn’t kin. After a while I got restless and wandered around the quiet hospital. I went up and down elevators and walked up and down white hallways and once in a while I looked into a room and saw sick people and heard them cough and moan. I went down to the cafeteria but it was closed and all you could do was get something from a crummy vending machine. I got a granola bar dipped in yogurt and a bottled water. I was worried the sound of change dropping would wake the ones close to death.

When I returned to where I was waiting, some teenaged nurse told me the old man wanted to see me if I was still around. She led me through a door and down a bright hall and to a room where he was lying in a bed like he was in grave pain.

He struggled to speak. “I’m not going to die yet they said. They promised me they would get me out of here before that happens.”

I sat in a chair at the foot of the bed. “They’ll kick you out soon enough. I’m sure of it.”

“I hope so. I don’t like it here. They’re all just pretending to be nice.”

“That’s their job.”

He kind of rolled his tongue and studied the ceiling. “You don’t have to worry about it so much,” he told me. “Life that is. It all works out in the end.”

“You think I’m worried about things?”

“Sure you are. I can tell you’re worried about what the world thinks of you.”

I studied my shoes against the shiny tiles of the floor.

“I suppose I am.”

“Listen to me. No matter what happens or no matter whatcha do, you still end up right here where I am – at the end of the road. It don’t matter if you’re rich or poor or what ya done your whole life. Everyone comes to the end.”

“So are you saying what I do with my life really doesn’t matter?”

“Of course it matters, you still have to do what’s right and just, but you don’t have to be so twisted in knots about it the whole way through. It isn’t worth it. Perfection is merely a mirage. Can I tell you about something that’s bothered me almost my whole life? … And I shouldn’t have let it.”

“Of course.”

“When I was a boy, maybe about ten years old, I stole a candy bar from a department store. It was some kind of chocolate bar. I wanted it so bad, but I didn’t have any money. I just took it and put it in my pocket. But when I walked outside a man was following and he stopped me right there on the street. He was very tall and professional looking and he scared me. He grabbed me by the arm and asked me if I had something in my pocket I didn’t pay for. I started crying a little bit and I reached into my pants and pulled out the candy bar and handed it to him. It was sort of squishy by then. He yelled at me some more and got my name and said he was going to call my folks about it and maybe even the police. I was a scared as shit kid let me tell you. I knew my father would come at me like a hurricane. The tall man told me I wasn’t allowed in the store for the rest of my life and I never went back in, ever. I went home and couldn’t sleep for days worrying about the phone ringing. Nobody ever called. The place burned down a few years after that and I was glad because it sort of erased the memory for me. I suppose it sounds stupid and I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this except to say when you get older you’ll probably realize that no one is perfect. And so what if you’re not perfect; the hell with it. Who cares? Life’s too short to waste away trying to live a fairytale life. That’s what I think.”

He stopped talking and closed his eyes. I could tell he was very tired. I stood up and leaned over him. “I’m going to go now,” I said. He didn’t answer and just started to snore a little bit. I stopped short of the abandoned hallway and closed the door in front of me. I turned back to him and I don’t really understand what came over me but I took a pillow and forced it over his face. When he began to struggle I pushed down harder. His legs were kicking and he tried to claw at me with his old hands. I pushed down harder again until he stopped moving completely. When I finally removed the pillow and looked at him he seemed peaceful enough, except for his eyes, his eyes were wide with sufferings I couldn’t understand.

 

I left the hospital without any trouble and walked back toward The Brimstone Inn. It was very late and there was no one there to open the door for me. A desk clerk looked up as I strolled through the lobby toward the elevators and he nodded. “Sleep well, sir,” he said. I slept better than I had in a long time.

In the morning I dined on a breakfast of fresh scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, delicious coffee and a plate of fresh fruit. I gathered my things and checked out from the hotel and walked to the train station. I couldn’t believe it but I saw Aspen there, sitting on a bench with some hot guy and openly flirting. I walked over to them and they looked up at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn’t.

“Hello,” I said, not even looking at the hot guy.

Aspen nervously licked at her freshly painted lips. “Hi, Chadwick. What a surprise. Are you heading back home so soon?”

I stared at the guy. “Yes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. This is my friend, Glenn Pearson. Glenn’s an architect.”

The hot guy named Glenn Pearson extended a clean hand and smiled. “I’m studying to become an architect, actually,” he said, like a prick.

I clutched his hand and embraced it. “I’m very happy for you.” I left them and stood all by myself on the platform waiting for the train. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t happy or sad. I just was, and I guess that’s all we can ever be. The train groaned to a stop and I got on and took a seat in the back. I watched the other people get on and then there was Aspen and Glenn and they paid me no attention because they were too giddy about each other. I stared out the window as the city slowly disappeared behind me and the world was trees and cold blue sky again. It began to lightly snow and I started reading an old newspaper I found tucked in a seat pocket. I flipped through it quickly but then stopped when I saw the picture of myself lodged in an article beneath the heading: Man crashes child train at mall; boy saved from certain death.

I laughed out loud in front of no one. “I could do a lot worse than that,” I told myself – and the world rolled on beside me and so did I.

And it’s all ancient history now. But it’s still history.

Mr. Rumples

The diligent sound of war machines cracked an October day of bright sun.

There is a disease in the air now and everyone stays inside – mostly. There is no more school or work or going to the doctor. Medicine finally failed. There was nothing that anyone could have done. Someone somewhere chose war over healing, and that’s why the jets still roar, and blood no longer matters.

All I have left to drink is grape juice and I’m getting rather tired of it. I like to sip it near the window in the morning when I look out at a world that is no longer blue, but rather a sickly shade of yellow. The everlasting haze rests its weary head of death in the cradling arms of the mountains, and when it wakes it pukes out noxious gases all across the land. I cough all the time now. I can barely breathe. Everyone has cancer except for the devils that rule.

The other night I opened my blinds to look at the full yellow moon for the last time. The stars were retreating. I watched and watched and watched. I concluded that the spaceships weren’t coming to save us after all. Can I blame them? What reason would anyone have for saving us? Love? Does anyone out there love us?

At night it gets cold and dark and I have to light a wood fire in the corner of the room. I live by myself in a worn mansion outside of the city, a bit in the country. No one comes around much anymore, but there’s an old black cat that sleeps in a dusty chair most of the time. The cat is sick too. I hope the cat dies first because if I die first there will be no one to feed it. The cat’s name is Mr. Rumples, which is funny because my name is Mr. Rumples, too.

I have a gun and only one bullet. I thought about shooting Mr. Rumples once when his sickness was really acting up. I couldn’t do it. I keep the gun on the floor near my mattress where I sleep. I’ll know when it’s the right time. I have a knack for intuition and an eye for irreversible devastation.

I used to have a wife, but she died when the storm came. She was a beautiful woman with intelligent breasts, and near the end her favorite meal was a toasted English muffin and Gatorade. I laughed at her a lot. We laughed at each other a lot. We had been married for 39 years and together we brought five children into the world – they’re all dead now too, as well as all my grandchildren – seventeen of them. It seems like everyone is dead. What does one do with that kind of fucking grief? Put it in a jar? Throw it to the stars?

There had been years of grand love in our large home, a home that was always filled with warm voices and the smells of steaming okra and cherry cobbler from the kitchen. The wife had limited cooking skills and so I had hired a woman to come in to help. She was a black woman by the name of Rosie. She was a stumpy yet cheerful woman and her laugh resonated above all others throughout the house. Her pancakes, stuffed fat with fresh Maine blueberries, were the absolute best. Now Rosie’s dead, too. I miss her, and the love she had brought to our hearts and bellies.

There’s a family cemetery on my land and when it’s safe I go out there, wading through the golden floss of waving grasses until I reach the place of the two oaks and their slotted canopy of love. I run my hands over all the stones I had chosen – and they were just regular rocks really and I had scratched all the names and dates into them with a big nail. I often lie down on the ground when the sun has warmed it and I look up at the yellow sky and wonder all about why the Great Bog had left me to live to the very end and not the young ones or anyone else for that matter. Was it the evolution of my sins that left me with this torture? A wind carrying nothing whips across my face.

I can see the old work shed, rusted and red, and it’s kind of collapsing in on itself. I haven’t mowed the yard or plucked the weeds in months. What’s the use of doing anything, I often wonder. So I do nothing but wait. I wait by the window. I wait on the porch when it’s safe. I wait to fall asleep at night but rarely is it restful. There are noises in the nights here – great booms and screams and sometimes even the thundering of the sky, that angry sky committing abuse in the dark. I shuffle, I starve, and I pluck memories from my head like feathers from a chicken. I don’t want to remember anything or anyone anymore.

Dinner is usually a quiet affair between me and Mr. Rumples. I always light a candle at the table and then we say our prayers that no one hears and then we share some cat food and it’s cold and mushy and tastes mostly of fish no matter what the can says. I hate it, but Mr. Rumples loves it. Damn … he’s going to outlive me and then starve. Poor Mr. Rumples – both of us. After dinner, Mr. Rumples takes his place in the chair and I make a fire and then just sit there watching the flames cast frantic shadows against the dusty walls. I have a stick I use to play with the fire. There’s something calming about poking at a fire with a stick. It’s like pretending to be camping and making hot-tipped arrows or torches to keep the creeps in the forest at bay. The creeps were everywhere at the end. People went absolutely nuts, all over the world. It was the worst horror movie I had ever seen.

My breathing is getting worse. In the morning I sit up on my mattress and cough up blood. I roll to the floor and slowly make my way to what used to be the kitchen and feed the cat. I have my grape juice and it is starting to sting as it goes down. It is mostly silent during the day. I used to loathe the roar of traffic on the country road, but now there is nothing. No cars. No trucks. No people on bicycles. And across the field the railroad tracks are nothing but skeletal remains now. I walk outside there sometimes when I feel up to it. Not so much anymore. Some days I can barely move. But I did enjoy my walks out there along the rusting rails and rotting ties. I found a few spikes and brought them into the house, but I don’t know why. I suppose my mind is going too. Sometimes when I’m shuffling about the place I just stop because I forget what part of the house I was wanting to go. I like to go to the upstairs part of the house where the bedrooms are. I don’t really know why I like to go up there so much, but I think it may have something to do with colorful memories – how the children would race through the hall as bedtime drew nearer and bathroom space scarce. I like to look out Jonah’s window. He was the first son and had the best room in the house. I pull up my rickety chair and scan the voided world, all the way to the crisp line of the sea against the shore. It’s so far away and such a pale baby blue color. I would love to go down there, but I’d never make it back alive.

I leave Jonah’s room and slip into where the girls used to sleep. It’s a dark and dirty pink color now. The wallpaper is losing its grip and curling and slowly falling down. I open the closet and there is one faded dress on a wire hanger and a dusty box of shoes on the floor. The house was once looted when I was trying to walk to the sea and they took most everything that was left. The boys’ room is down the hall and to the right. I push the door open and it squeaks. This room was once hot cat blue and made to look like a baseball diamond. The younger boys played baseball almost every day in the summers and I often went down to the fields and watched them when I wasn’t working. My wife was always there with them; she was good like that. Our bedroom was at the end of the hall and is now just a hollow, empty space. I turn on the sink faucet in the adjoining bathroom and no water comes out. I’m thirsty. I’m starving. I can’t do this anymore. There is something greatly heartless in the coming of the end of life. It’s the final pecking into the flesh by a wild bird that does not care to save you. It’s silent. Then Mr. Rumples meows out from downstairs.

It was a cold night when the end came. I was shivering in the corner of what used to be the living room. Mr. Rumples was burrowed in a blanket on the chair and he was purring.

“How can you be so happy?” I asked him.

He blinked at me once and said nothing. He jumped down off the chair and rubbed against me and then curled into my lap. I stroked his fur and looked into the fire again for a long time. The wind was howling outside and whistled in through the weak spots in the house. I was alone again in this false lap of luxury.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to Mr. Rumples, and I set him back in his chair. “Just stay there.”

The heart races in times of great finality. There’s a gnawing on the soul at the thought of everlasting darkness or the great rivers of Heaven. Will it just be sleep or does one travel to another world to take over for someone else who just croaked? I cocked the gun and wondered. I opened the blinds in the room where I sleep and looked at the fizzing stars. I thought I could hear someone yelling for help out in the tall grasses, or maybe that was just me. I smelled the gun and wondered. I would have loved to have one last hot shower and a good meal. I wandered through the rest of the house, now flowing with amber candlelight. I set every memory aside and took a deep breath as best I could in each hallowed hallway. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye to you all, my dear family and life.

I drew near to the fire, pointed the gun, and shot Mr. Rumples.

Bring Back the Ludovico Technique

There was a beheading in Moore, Oklahoma … that’s all the message said. I questioned if that was uncommon, for just the other night someone down the hall in my shoddy apartment complex was beheaded … and the night before that, right down on my shoddy street, a hot dog vendor was beheaded just as he was slathering someone’s steaming wiener with relish – I don’t like relish. Then there was that incident down at the public library just about two weeks ago when a circulation clerk was beheaded after telling a patron he owed $1.25 in overdue book fines.

Machetes and firearms line every rubber raincoat now – as does madness in the minds of men.

Thank God someone had a gun …

Someone said, in the Land of Violence.

And violence stirs violence until the only solution is more violence – more guns, more bombs, more tanks, more drones, more senseless destruction.

And the money we spend to kill could cure ten times over …

And the Annunaki looked down from Orion and wondered what they had done.

Lord Femfatuntin turned to his galactic centurion and ordered, “Send down the chariots of fire … these idiots are destroying all my hard work … and Tom, if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind bringing me back a box of Count Chocula?”

Tom the Galactic Centurion bowed with respect. “As you wish, my lord.”

 

I was sitting alone in my shoddy apartment eating a bowl of cereal and watching COPS when there was a knock at the door. I stuck my eye in the peephole but all I saw was a thick neck, some broad shoulders and a name patch that read TOM across the breast portion of a shiny space uniform.

I pressed my face to the door. “Who’s there? What do you want?”

“It’s Tom … from the planet Placitas.”

“I don’t know any Toms.”

“Please … Phil Paradise … it’s very important that I speak with you.”

“How did you know my name?”

“You are the spawn of my history – a child of Femfatuntin.”

I looked through the peephole again and shook my head.

“Look,” I said. “I think you may be on drugs and I don’t want to talk to you … so, please go away.”

“I can’t do that, Phil. The future of your very own life and this planet you live on depends entirely on me speaking with you.”

“I don’t open the door to strangers.”

“I’m a lot bigger than you and I can break this door down.”

“Go away or I’ll call the police.”

The aliens in the hallway began to laugh.

“Oh no. Are they going to arrest me for possessing a medicinal herb?”

“They’ll arrest you for harassment and trespassing! That’s what they’ll do. You can count on it!”

“Your laws are ludicrous.”

There was more laughter in the hallway and then the door opened and they just walked in – Tom and his two sidekicks.

“How did you do that?”

“I’m an advanced being, Phil. It’s pretty easy.”

“You guys are very tall and shiny, but you look absolutely human.”

“And you are very short and dull. We made you that way so you could never be a threat while you work, work, work.”

“I must be dreaming. Did I eat acid?”

“Let’s sit down and talk.”

“I thought you might smell bad, but you don’t.”

“Why is it that you people always consider yourselves as the most superior creatures in the universe? You just assume that surely every other living thing out there must smell worse – I don’t understand where you get this ego. I mean, you haven’t even mastered intergalactic space travel yet. The truth of the matter is … you’re just an animal who requires the use of hand sanitizer.”

“Well, if I’m just a filthy animal why did you come to me?”

Tom quickly looked over his shoulder at his comrades and then back at me.

“You’re one of the few reasonable individuals we’ve been able to locate down here.” He put a large hand on my shoulder and awkwardly smiled. “Phil, we’re destroying the planet … and we want you to come back with us before we do.”

I jumped up and yelled, “Why!? There’s no need for that! You’re talking about billions of lives!”

“You mean billions of morons, Phil! Absolute bobbleheads.”

“You can’t do this! I won’t let you!”

“There’s nothing you can do about it Phil Paradise. Nothing.”

I scratched at my head and looked about my shoddy apartment.

“What about my things?”

“You won’t need any of it.”

“But, I have asthma. What about my asthma medication?”

“You won’t have asthma anymore, Phil. Just close the door and come along.”

 

There were some nice people on the spaceship and I was well fed. When the total annihilation came it was quick and clean. They let me watch on a monitor as Earth was vaporized – one second it was there and then it was not. There was some half-hearted clapping and then we all drank the best champagne I ever had. I slept a little and then went to a window to look out at space. Tom came over and stood tall beside me and we looked at space together.

“You’re doing pretty well for your first flight.”

“How fast are we going?”

“Faster than you can even comprehend.”

“There’s others like me back there – sensible like you say – what about them? Why did you leave them behind?”

“We didn’t. We already have them, Phil Paradise. We’ve been collecting them for a long time – babies to octogenarians and beyond. You won’t be alone on Placitas if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I was wondering what it will be like.”

Tom suddenly clamped his big hands to his head and groaned with agitation.

“Oh shit! I forgot my lord’s Count Chocula!”

“He likes Count Chocula? The cereal?”

“Yes … it’s his favorite breakfast treat. Damn it! And Earth is already destroyed. That’s just great! Shit like this always happens to me.”

“Calm down, Tom. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“Oh, but you don’t know Lord Femfatuntin. He has anger issues.”

“But, can’t you just make your own Count Chocula here on the spaceship?”

“We’ve tried that but it just came out tasting like GENERIC Count Chocula, something like Count Cocoa Poofs we called it, with chocolate blood, and he knew right away it wasn’t the real deal. He’ll only eat REAL Count Chocula made on Earth.”

“I guess you’re screwed then, Tom.”

“Thanks, Phil.”

“When will I get to meet him?”

“Maybe in about 400 years.”

 

I didn’t see Tom the Galactic Centurion for a very long time.

They gave me a nice apartment overlooking a tranquil sea of clouds. Maybe I was dead, but I really didn’t know. I felt alive enough when I went to the market on Tuesdays and they gave me food. For free. Everyone got as much food as they wanted any time they wanted it. I had no job in the sense of having a job. I was graciously allowed to have a satisfying task, and that task was to read to wayward dogs and cats at Space Kennel #99. They enjoyed it immensely, evidenced by the plethora of wagging tails and gentle purrs every time I cracked open a new book. Dr. Seuss was their absolute favorite. I asked the animal handler, the odd Susan O’Neil, about it one day.

“How did you get Dr. Seuss books?”

She looked at me and smiled a tight-lipped smile and adjusted her spectacles.

“He’s here.”

“He’s here? Dr. Seuss is here?”

“He prefers to be called Theodor.”

“Well, where is he? I’d like to meet him.”

“He’s incredibly reclusive … but I do think he plays squash at the Stellar Sports Open Air Plaza every other Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m., but only if it’s cloudy outside … and there’s a chance for rain.”

“He plays squash in the rain?”

“So the story goes.”

“I wonder if he really eats green eggs and ham.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Hey Susan O’Neil, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course. You can ask me anything … Phil Paradise.”

“Does anyone ever get beheaded up here?”

“Beheaded? Do you mean like …” and she rolled her eyes and made a hand motion across her throat like it was getting sliced.

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Of course not. We’re not bloody asinine savages like they were!” she wickedly asserted, shakily pointing the tip of her finger toward that spot in the universe where Earth used to be. “This is Shangri-La.”

And that’s when we heard the haunting sound of the great gongs of Placitas reverb all around us followed by the heavy march of the centurions and their steeds. I went out into the path lined by rubber trees and there I saw Tom the Galactic Centurion leading his troops to whatever trouble there was. I ran beside him as hard as I could.

“Tom! What on Placitas is happening?”

He reached his arm down, snatched me up and threw me behind him on the horse.

“I couldn’t hear a word you were saying!”

“I wanted to know what the situation is. What’s with all the menacing war stuff?”

“They’ve come. We didn’t think their ship could make such a long journey, but they’ve finally arrived and we have to stop them.”

“Is it something terrible? I don’t want it to be something terrible.”

“Of course it’s terrible. Why else would we be going to war?”

“But you hate war. You’ve learned to put it away and live in peace.”

“Some things are still worth fighting for … hold on Phil Paradise.”

He rode harder.

“What is it!?”

“They’re trying to open a WalMart here!”

And that’s when the dusts of war raged and Tom lit a fire beneath his troops and I could barely hold on.

“But … Tom … wait!”

“What is it!?”

“Wouldn’t they have Count Chocula?”

 

A Blue Park In London

In a blue park in London

The windows have fires on the other side

Stars lie still in their pitchy silt and listlessly swim

The ground is crusted over in white

And the way the day death light falls

It looks like blue frosting on a Christmas cookie …

There was me sitting on a bench and I was wearing red socks. I heard the ice skate blades grind against the glass pond they had there and I watched small people glide awkwardly, trip, then fall. Their tears added to the slickness and it was a comical chain of events – the ballerinas in plaid wool coats and the shining knights in silver boots skimmed across the pond on their bellies like smooth stones skipped over the ocean.

I opened a white paper bag and reached in for the sandwich. I took a bite. Jim’s Clean Sandwiches was the best damn deli joint I’ve found after coming over here. I was eating painfully delicious pastrami on rye with a dash of spicy mustard. It was kind of cold outside. I took another bite and then there was screaming. A young girl had fallen through the ice.

I got up and ran over to look. There was a thin man stretched out on the ice and he was thrusting his arm out in an effort to reach the girl. I hurried to the edge of the pond and gathered there with the others, looking down at the struggling child.

“Has anyone called the emergency services!?” I yelled, frantically searching for an answer from anyone.

One man put his phone in the air, pointed and looked over at me.

“Yes! I’m doing it now.”

“Tell them to hurry or she’ll be dead!” one woman cried out.

It seemed like forever before I heard the sirens and saw the flashing red lights splashing against the bruised cotton candy sky. The trucks came to a screeching halt and the men jumped down and pushed through the crowd. They pulled the dad in quick to get him off the ice and out of the way; then they sent out the smallest fireman with a rope tied around his waist and he snatched the girl out of the hole and she cried the whole way while they hauled them to shore. The fireman carried her to a gurney near the ambuli and she was soon smothered with blankets while the mom and dad wept over her and kissed her on the head. The gurney went up and into the ambuli and the doors shut with a rude thud and the tires spun and they tore off toward the Central Hospital of Eastwick.

 

I read about the girl being dead in the newspaper. It was that cold and creamy Sunday afternoon when everything was still and quiet except the floors creaking as I gently walked about the old flat. I sighed at the table. I sighed about the dead girl. I glanced out the window. Not much was moving. The mists of winter crawled up out of the streets, over brown rooftops and floated into the forests like gray syrup. I tapped at my tea cup and then got up to throw another log on the fire. Somewhere far off I could hear someone ringing a bell. Then I heard the caroling. It was Christmas.

I sat in the chair near the hearth and watched the orange tongues of the fire lap at the sooty brick. An ember popped. The old clock on the mantel struck seven and chimed. I wondered about Santa Claus getting down a hot fireplace as my wayward mind drifted. The carolers drew closer to my building and so I went to the frosty window, rubbed on it and looked down at the old street. I looked at the faces there – bright eyes lit up by candlelight, steaming mouths moving open and shut as they sang. I could smell the bones of autumn’s leaves on fire through the glass. Then there was the clop clop of the horses as the carriage rolled by all lathered in garland and bells and shiny glass balls of red. The people inside were laughing and waving and crying out – “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”

I drew the curtains but the bells still rang and the voices still floated upward … but soon they got quieter and quieter until drifting away completely. I sat back down in my chair near the hearth. I opened a book all about Christmas and started reading it.  The doorbell rang and then there was a knock. I had nearly forgotten.

The young man at the door wore a coat over his uniform and a wool cap on his head. His shoes were covered in slush. He handed me the white bag from Jim’s Clean Sandwiches.

“I’m gonna give you nine quid tonight … since you’re having to work on Christmas.”

He tipped his hat at me and smiled.

“Thank you, sir. Enjoy your sandwich … oh, and, Merry Christmas.”

I closed the door and it clicked. I turned a knob and the deadbolt snapped in place and kept me safe from the outside world. I dropped the white paper bag on the table and reached inside. It wasn’t a sandwich. But what I pulled out was magical and amazing nonetheless – a little stuffed black bear with a rubber face and a red plastic collar around its neck and a silver chain leash.

“How did they know? … This has always been my favorite.”

I had gotten one as a child in the gift shop at the place where the high bridge gapped the canyon in some Western place under the sun. It was right after when a cable broke and the bridge went smashing down into the canyon and there was so much dust and screaming  – and I had stayed behind so I could set my bear on a rock and just look at him. None of my family came back through the dust. They all got smashed against rock and then dropped down into the raging river at the bottom. I waited and waited and waited until a policeman finally took me away in his patrol car, and then I had a long and challenging life.

 

I sat the bear on the mantel over the fire and stood back and looked at him. I thought about the fact that Jim’s Clean Sandwiches really knows how to deliver. The clock struck eight and chimed. I rummaged around in the refrigerator and made my own clean sandwich. I turned on some soft lights in the living room and plopped down on the couch and began to eat. The carolers were drifting by again. Santa’s sleigh swooped by on stardust, right near my window. I settled back, turned on the television and watched all about the latest godless war for sale.

High Hip God

I was alone to the bone

On an afternoon in Rome

The ballistic tests all positive

Spears sharpened to a bird-beak point

The traffic keeps rolling in honking circles

‘Round a statue of some Italian whore

There’s flaming balls on catapults

And smoky talk in the underground lounge

The voices rise up into the street like sewer gas

Their words all full of shit

I just boarded a diesel-belching bus one day

And here I came to be

One head, one bag, one heart in a can

It’s all it’s ever been

It’s all it will ever be

Trippin’ out on mad Earth

Where is that high hip god to intervene?

Mr. Ripley and the Towels

It was Indian Summer at the hotel by the bay.

Most of them were all leaving now, the tourists that is – back to the cities and their pointless jobs and a house that really even isn’t a home. They left their garbage and their money behind. Maybe the Village of the Sun Hotel and Resort will be a bit quieter now. Maybe I can get some reading done now.

But I pulled up a chair by the window and just sat there. I looked out. I thought about how it must really suck to have people bombing you every day. The big yellow earth movers across the way were now idle, the sun was sliding away and the scar they left behind took on an almost Heavenly hue. I was almost sad about that, confused, thinking maybe I was living in Palestine. But I knew better, really. Does the ocean caress the soul of Gaza?

 

I dressed up nice and went down to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner. I was the only one there and I was seated at a small table near a big window. It was quiet. There wasn’t even any music playing yet. My waitress was from Haiti and she brought me a beer and some water without saying a word. She puttered about, straightening tables and chairs as I looked over the menu. I snapped my fingers at her.

“No whale tonight?”

“Whale?” she said, confused.

“To eat. I don’t see it on the menu.”

“Nobody eats a whale,” she sharply advised.

“All right then … I guess I’ll have the pork chops.”

“How would you like them?”

“I would like them cooked, darling.”

“You want some veggies to go with that?”

“How ‘bout some carrots. I could really go for some carrots – glazed if ya got ‘em.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll go fetch you some bread.”

I watched the water in the harbor melt and bend a dark blue reflection, repeating and repeating, reminding us of mortality. Someone came over and lit the candle at the table and it wasn’t even all the way dark yet. Some old song from the 1930s started scratching out of the hidden speakers in the ceiling, and then it caught and started rolling real smooth. I was still the only one there.

The bread was warm and melted the butter easily. It filled my stomach pretty quick. I wondered if the sound of my chewing could be heard from across the room. I continued eating, slow and tight-lipped. That’s when the young man who had earlier lit my candle came to the table and stood before me like a soldier.

“Excuse me for interrupting your dinner Mr. Ripley, but the hotel manager would like to speak to you.”

“Now? I’m eating dinner.”

“We realize that sir, but he said it was extremely important that he talks to you.”

I sighed and wiped my face with the red cloth napkin.

“All right. Tell him to come over.”

I gulped down some water and then eyed the short round man in a suit of all white who came marching toward me. The fabric of his clothing rubbed together as he walked and made a whoosh whoosh sound. Light reflected off his large balding head and he squinted his eyes a lot.

“Are you the chef?” I asked. “Because if you are, I gotta say, this bread is delicious.”

“I’m the manager of this entire hotel, Mr. Ripley.”

“This must be really important because you’re interfering with my dinner.”

The manager took the empty seat across from me and wiped his meaty hand down his moist face of Asian descent.

“We have a problem, Mr. Ripley.”

“What’s that?”

“We keep inventory of all the towels in this hotel. It’s a very very strict inventory, I must add. We keep track of every single towel – from the day it arrives brand new, to the day we throw it out.”

“Are you missing towels? Is that what this is about?”

“Yes, Mr. Ripley, we are missing towels – three to be exact.”

“Well, what the hell does that have to do with me?”

“The point of origin for the said missing towels just happens to be your room, Mr. Ripley. You are still in room number 71, yes?”

“I am.”

“Well, then perhaps you know the whereabouts of the three missing towels?”

Hey eyed me viciously as if I had just stabbed his favorite dog.

“I don’t know anything about missing towels.”

The waitress arrived with a steaming plate of chops and big glistening carrots as bright as an orange resting in the sun. I looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back, nodded to the manager and disappeared.

“Would you like some of my pork chops, Mr. …?”

“Kenichi … and no thank you, but please, go ahead and eat.”

I cut into the meat and took a bite. Mr. Kenichi eyed me suspiciously.

“Is it good?” he asked.

“It’s pretty good … are you accusing me of stealing towels?”

“Mr. Ripley, the evidence is clear. The maids bring in the towels and then there is not the same amount of towels when they come to wash them. There’s no other explanation than you must have slipped them into your luggage to take home.”

“Hey, look. I think you’re making too much of this. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe I took one down to the pool by accident and forgot it there.”

Mr. Kenichi slammed his meaty paw down on the table.

“No! There are towels at the pool. Everyone knows this!”

“Okay, this is beyond ridiculous. Goodbye Mr. Kenichi.”

I wiped my face again and got up to leave, but as I did two young busboys suddenly appeared behind me and forced me back down into the chair.

“What the hell is going on here!?” I yelled out.

“I wasn’t finished with you, Mr. Ripley,” Mr. Kenichi sneered. “I’ll give you one last chance to be honest with me … did you steal those towels!?”

“I, I, I don’t know. I’ve been here for a couple of weeks; maybe they got mixed in with my things. I sure as hell didn’t take them on purpose!”

“Then you won’t mind if we look around your room then, eh?”

Mr. Kenichi snapped his chubby fingers and the two busboys each grabbed me by the arms and hoisted me up. The tips of my shoes dragged against the carpet as they hauled me away and pushed me into a lobby elevator. Mr. Kenichi pushed number 7 with a fat finger and grinned at me.

“I have a very nice hotel here, Mr. Ripley, and I intend to keep it that way. Everyone deserves a towel, not just you.”

The elevator doors slid open and they pushed me out and pulled me down the hall to room number 71.

“Open it!” Mr. Kenichi demanded.

I fumbled in my pockets for the key card and slid it into the door handle. The green light flashed and they forced their way in with me in tow.

“All right,” Mr. Kenichi ordered the busboys. “I want an accurate count. Search everywhere.”

The busboys went to work opening every drawer and door and they even tore into all my luggage and just tossed my clothes and personal hygiene products everywhere.

“Come on!” I protested. “Is this really necessary?”

Mr. Kenichi plopped down on the bed beside me, clamped one of his hands to my thigh and smiled a grotesque smile.

“Mr. Ripley, I am in charge of everything in this hotel. Everything. My very livelihood depends on things like making sure people do not steal towels. It’s all or nothing in my mind, Mr. Ripley. You may think this is all just a big joke, but I assure you, Mr. Ripley, it is no joke.”

One of the busboys suddenly stood at attention before us.

“Sir?”

“What have you found?”

“There’s another one missing sir.”

“What?” I wondered aloud.

Mr. Kenichi rose angrily.

“Now that’s four towels, Mr. Ripley! Four!”

“I haven’t stolen any towels!” I pleaded.

He slapped my face and I fell back onto the bed.

“All right,” I groaned. “I’m done. I’m checking out right now … and I expect a full refund … and I plan on filing an assault charge with the police!”

Mr. Kenichi slapped me again, harder, and then everything went black for a while.

 

It must have been a long time later because I had a heavy beard. I was dressed all in white and my hands were deep inside an aluminum sink full of soapy water. Someone poked their head around a corner and gave me a quick glance.

“Hey, Mr. Ripley, we need more coffee cup saucers, on the double.”

I came to realize that I was working in the kitchen of the restaurant at the Village of the Sun Hotel and Resort. I was a dishwasher.

I looked back at him.

“I’m on it,” I said.

And it was strange then because I knew exactly what to do and where everything was. I went through the motions of washing and drying the coffee cup saucers flawlessly. But I felt like I had never been there before.

“Here you go, Ed. All done,” I said to a guy named … Ed?

“Thanks, Ripley. I swear, you’re the best damn dishwasher we’ve had in a long time. You sure as hell make my job easier.”

“Thanks, Ed … Is it all right if I take my break now?”

“Sure. Smoke one for me.”

But I didn’t smoke.

The back door of the kitchen was ajar and when I stepped outside it was spring. I pushed my hand inside my pocket and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. I pulled one out and lit it. But I didn’t smoke. But I was smoking. I poked my head back inside the door and looked for Ed.

“Hey Ed, what’s the date today?”

“It’s uh … May 21st.”

I turned away and walked across the street that ran behind the restaurant part of the hotel. Someone blared a horn and I almost got hit by a car. There was a small park and across the park I saw the boardwalk that ran along the water and the lamp posts were all decorated with new flowers. I didn’t know what was going on, yet I did. Someone there was waving at me.

“Mr. Ripley … over here please.”

It was Mr. Kenichi. He greeted me with a firm grip of the shoulder.

“How are you getting along, Mr. Ripley? Are you enjoying the job?”

“I’m not supposed to be here. I want to leave. I want to go home.”

“But Mr. Ripley, this is your home now. You are indebted to me, forever, and here you shall stay … until of course we have to bury you. Have you been to the company cemetery?”

He chuckled at that last part.

“I didn’t steal any towels,” I insisted.

Mr. Kenichi turned his head and looked out at the sea.

“But you did. I know it and the whole world knows it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the truth or not. I can label you to be whatever I want you to be … and everyone will believe it, because everyone is stupid … and someday, Mr. Ripley, while you’re in there up to your elbows in hot soap and water scrubbing a big greasy pot, you’ll believe it too.”

He never looked back at me and just walked away. I watched him waddle into the distance, and there was a carnival not far away on the horizon, just beginning to spin and light up the deadening end of day. I walked back across the park and the street and through the back door of the kitchen. The artificial light blared overhead and bells were ringing. I took my position before the big sink. Ed gave me a disappointing look and shook his arms out in front of himself.

“Come on, superstar, things are piling up.”

I plunged my hands into the water and started washing dishes and then more dishes and then even more dishes, it was all I ever did, every hour of every day … and I really felt like I was on a spaceship as I washed dishes at the Village of the Sun Hotel and Resort for the rest of my life.

The Bad Luck Priest from Venice Beach

Ken sat in a chair. It was a small chair and it was placed in the very center of the room. The carpet was dirty. The room was fairly dark except for the sunlight coming in through the small slit in the heavy curtains. The light accented the dirty carpet in a certain space.

Ken adjusted the binoculars and aimed them back through the slit. He was watching a volleyball match – across the street, in the sand. He didn’t care too much for looking at the people; he liked to just watch the ball, and that’s why his head was moving back and forth so much.

“Damn it!” he yelled out. “Keep it in the air why don’t you!”

He set the binoculars down on the dirty carpet and got up to turn on the stereo. Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult came on and Ken turned it up loud and began to dance to the beat of the cowbell with all kinds of wild gyrations and pivoting thrusts.

“All our times have come

Here but now they’re gone

Seasons don’t fear the reaper

Nor do the wind, the sun, the rain … we can be like they are

Come on baby … don’t fear the reaper …”

 

That’s when someone came pounding on the door – right in the middle of his dancing.

Ken turned down the stereo and craned his head and pointed his ear toward the door.
“Who is it!?”

“It’s the police. Open the door or we’ll break it down, you bastard!”

“What the hell …?” Ken thought aloud. He was confused. Very confused. “All right! All right! I’m coming. Just hold on.”

But he acted too slowly and Ken stumbled backward as the door suddenly came crashing in. Cops with drawn guns quickly filled the room like a dam bursting.

“Get down on the ground! Get down on the ground!” they all yelled in angry unison.

Ken sank to the floor and spread out long and flat. He felt a boot on the back of his neck and his arms were forced behind him and he was handcuffed.

“What the hell is going on!?” Ken screamed.

“Shut up!” one of the cops yelled.

Two officers grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to his feet. They pushed him into the chair.

“I don’t understand this! Why are you doing this!? Why are you arresting me!?” Ken yelled out in frustration.

One of the pigs got in his face. Ken couldn’t stand his breath and turned away. The cop grabbed him by the cheeks and pulled Ken to face him.

“Where’s the dope, man?”

“Dope? What dope? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Another cop stepped in.

“The crack, crackerhead. He wants to know where the crack is.”

“Look, I don’t know anything about any crack. I don’t smoke crack. I’m a nice guy …”

One of the cops slapped him.

“It will be a hell of a lot easier for you if you just be truthful … Where’s the crack!?”

“I’m a priest, you fuckers! I’m a priest! My wallet’s on the kitchen table. Get it and look. I have ID for Christ’s sake!”

The cops backed away and just looked at him for a while. Then they looked around the mostly empty bungalow. It was dim; they saw the slit in the curtains and the beach across the street.

A rookie came out of the kitchen with the wallet.

“Looks like he’s right. Meet Father Ken Belfast – St. Theresa’s.”

The rookie handed it over to the sergeant. He studied it for a minute and then looked at Ken.

“Jesus … I mean, sorry father. We thought you were a suspect by the name of Adrian Morris. This was his last known address.”

“No, no. I just moved in here a week ago.”

The sergeant held up a piece of paper with a picture on it.

“So, in the process of coming to live here, you never came in contact with this man?”

Ken looked at the piece of paper the sergeant was holding.

“He’s black.”

The sergeant turned the paper around and looked at it again.

“Oh yeah. I guess he is. Sorry about that.”

The policemen all began to laugh.

“It’s not funny! Ken pointed out. “How could you mistake me for a black man? I’m white as flour.”

The sergeant moved up and down on his heels and looked around the room and chuckled a bit.

“Geez, sorry. I guess it was kind of dark in here.”

The policemen roared with laughter, even the one that was black.

Ken was outraged.

“If I wasn’t a man of the cloth I’d sue the shit out of every one of you!”

“Sorry again father, but we got to go. There’s more trouble running wild on the streets. Unhook him boys.”

“Wait. That’s it? You break into my home, jump on top of me and put me in handcuffs and now you’re just ‘sorry, gotta go.’ This is ludicrous! I demand something be done about this!”

“Cool your shorts padre. Chalk it up to a simple case of mistaken identity. If you got a complaint, call the station in the morning.”

The policemen left through the opening where the door used to be. Ken was still shaking as he got up to get a drink of water. He looked at the broken door.

“This isn’t safe,” he said to himself and walked out.

 

Ken pounded on the heavy door at the rear of St. Theresa’s. Nothing. He pounded again. The door moved open slowly and there appeared Jesus.

“Man, what is up with you?” Jesus asked.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” Ken said, his hands still shaking. “But there’s been an incident with the police at my new apartment, and I’m afraid I can’t stay there.”

Jesus crossed his arms and looked Ken up and down.

“I thought I made it clear when we parted ways the other day. You were never to come back to this church.”

“I know sir, but I have nowhere else to go. Can I please come in and just talk to you … or is Father Mick here?”

“Father Mick isn’t feeling well. He can’t talk to you now.”

Ken looked around. It was beginning to lightly rain.

“Well, would you mind much if I just lie down in the grass over there?”

Jesus looked over Ken’s shoulder.

“I guess that will be all right, but just for tonight. I want you gone by sunrise. I’ll be checking.”

Jesus closed the heavy door in Ken’s face.

 

It was in the basement of the parish hall where Jesus sat alone at a table eating his breakfast – two fried eggs, some toast and jam, and a small glass of pineapple juice. He was flipping through a big red Bible and mouthing passages to himself.

“Hmm,” he said, and he bit into a piece of toast and chewed. “That’s interesting.”

Someone emerged from the shadows at the bottom of the stairs.

“Are you enjoying your breakfast, Jesus?” asked a stern, gray-haired Father Mick.

The old priest took a chair at the table where Jesus was sitting. He propped his elbows up on the table, rested his chin in his fists and gave the Savior a cold stare.

“I found Kenneth sleeping in the grass outside this morning. Do you know anything about that?”

Jesus took a sip of the pineapple juice, licked his lips and tried to smile at the padre, but he was scared of him.

“I told him he could sleep there.”

“Why!?”

“He had nowhere else to go. I felt for him.”

Father Mick suddenly sledgehammered the top of the table with his fist. Jesus jumped at the sound of his breakfast plate rattling.

“He’s a sinner, Jesus,” Father Mick slurred. “He’s a dirty sinner and a disgrace to this church! You shouldn’t have even spoken to him!”

Jesus looked down and then his head slowly came back up as if he suddenly realized something.

“Hey wait a minute, I’m Jesus. You can’t talk to me like that.”

Father Mick rushed up out of his chair and gripped the edge of the table with his hands.

“This is my church! That means I’m above everyone else – even you.”

“But … I’m … Jesus.”

Father Mick suddenly felt faint and reached in his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his wet brow.

Jesus reached out.

“Father, are you all right?”

“I’m fine, fine. Just a bit worked up … no thanks to you.”

“I’m sorry.”

Father Mick waved off Jesus’ apology.

“Eh. I’m going down to the bar for a hot buttered rum.”

“It’s eight-thirty in the morning.”

“So. I’ll be back later and that fraud outside better be gone.”

“He’s still outside?”

“Yes! Get rid of him.”

Jesus watched as the old priest coughed and shook as he slowly made his way up the stairs and into a canal of darkness.

 

Jesus ran outside without any shoes on. Ken was sitting upright in the grass, shivering. The Son knelt beside him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry. I should have let you in last night.”

“I’m cold.”

“And hungry?”

“Yes.”

Jesus helped Ken to his feet.

“Then I will take you in and feed you. I will sit you in the basement with a hot cup of tea.”

“What about Father Mick? He’ll be angry.”

“He went down to the bar. He won’t be back for a couple of hours. You’ll be long gone by then.”

Jesus led Ken into the church and through the long glass breezeway that connected to the parish hall. They went into the basement and Jesus had Ken sit at his breakfast table.

“What would you like?”

“You cook?”

“If I want to eat, I gotta cook.”

“Whatever you were having is fine.”

Ken felt nervous as he heard Jesus knocking around and whistling in the commercial kitchen behind him. He kept looking up through the small windows at the very top of the room worried that he’d see Father Mick’s shiny shoes scuttling along the sidewalk. Jesus suddenly whooshed up behind him and placed a steaming cup of tea right in front of him.

“I can boil water quickly,” Jesus said, and then he flashed a tight-lipped smile, and he was off again to the kitchen.

Ken sipped at the tea and it burnt his lips.

“God damn that’s hot!” Ken blurted out.

There was a rattling of pots and pans coming from the kitchen and then Jesus appeared beside him in a rush.

“What did you say?”

“The tea. It’s hot.”

“No, no, no … you said a bad word.”

“What?”

“I would never repeat it.”

“God damn?”

Jesus scrunched his fists and stomped his feet in frustration.

“No! Don’t say it again!”

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

Jesus composed himself, straightened his tunic and ran his fingers through his hair. That’s when he noticed the flames in the corner of his eye. The kitchen was on fire.

“Jesus Christ!” Ken yelled.

“What!?”

“Where’s the fire extinguisher?”

“How the hell would I know? It’s probably in the kitchen.”

Ken was jumping up and down and pulling at his hair.

“Well, can’t you blow really cold air on it to make the fire go out?”

“I’m Jesus. I’m not a superhero. And besides, air would just fan the flames.”

“Surely Lord, you should be able to do something.”

“I think we should leave,” Jesus said, and he grabbed Ken by the wrist and pulled him up the stairs and outside to safety.

 

Ken and Jesus sat on a small hill at a park and watched the church burn down.

“Father Mick is going to be pissed,” Ken said. “I mean, really pissed.”

“I’m going to have to leave town,” Jesus said as he fingered his beard.

Ken turned to him and smiled.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to tell you this but I just figured you’d think it was stupid.”

“What’s that?”

“I really like your beard.”

Jesus chuckled.

“Thank you my child.”

“Where will you go, Jesus?”

“I’ve never been to Maine, but I think I’d like it there. There’s a little town on the coast called Machias. I saw it on the map. Maybe I’ll go there.”

“Sounds like you’ve been planning this getaway.”

“Well, my son, I figured I’d horribly disappoint Father Mick sooner or later.”

And then there he was. A small figure all in black fallen on his knees on the sidewalk, shaking his fists in the air, his face greased over in holy and oily soot.

“And what of you, brother Ken? Where will you go?”

Ken looked up at all the smoke boiling in the air.

“I guess … hell?”

Jesus grew serious. He put a hand on Ken’s shoulder and looked deeply into his face.

“Yes … you’re going to hell.”

The Fires of Albuquerque

“I’m sorry to tell you this … but your house just burned down.”

 

You slowly hang up and look out the hotel room window. It’s blue and bright and you can see the ocean out there, just lying flat in its bed. The trees in the courtyard are tall and green – they barely move save for a few fingerlings. Along the path by the shore a couple walks slowly, hand-in-hand, laughing about something, something that has nothing to do with you. You freeze in a fit of laughter because it’s just so god damn fitting, isn’t it? You’re two thousand miles from home and your house just burned down. You make a few phone calls. No one is ever home. You call the front desk and tell them that there’s been an emergency and you have to check out early and leave immediately to the nearest airport. You make arrangements for the car. You pack only what you need and stow the rest in a hotel locker you had to pay for. Here comes the cab. It’s starting to rain and everything out the window is sparkly in the night. He drops you off at the airport and waves goodbye, then speeds off. You’re alone again with troubles at the other end.

 

From above, Albuquerque twinkles like Halloween. The plane slowly circles and makes its approach. There’s a loud noise and you feel like the plane is going to crash, like it’s rushing to the stars at the bottom of the ocean without a single ounce of purpose. But it hits the ground like it should and soon you’re pushing your way through throngs of travelers at the Sunport. Once outside you have to hail another cab. There is no rain. The air is warm and full of dust. You ask the cabbie to roll down his window because you can’t breathe. He doesn’t understand you. He just sings along to the radio in some weird language.

“What’s all that strange orange light out there?” you ask, pointing.

The cabbie turns down the radio and glances at you in the rear-view mirror.

“The lights? Do you see all the lights?”

“Yeah, I do. What is it? Why is everything glowing?”

“The houses. They just burn down. Everybody house burning down.”

“Is your house burning down?”

“I don’t have a house. I live in a cardboard box.”

“That’s my street!” you yell out, and he slams on the brakes.

“I don’t think you can go up there.”

“I’ll walk from here,” you say to him, and hand him some money.

 

The street feels warm and the air is filled with the smell of burning. Red fire truck lights pop all around you. Someone tries to push you back.

“That’s my house,” you say, pointing to the plume of destruction just ahead.

“It’s too dangerous,” the officer tells you. “You have to stay back.”

Your 70s-style tri-level on the hill smacks and melts and groans. Your entire life is turning to ash and floating up to the stars.

As you walk away a neighbor stops you in the middle of the street. He’s the one who never really liked you. He points toward your burning house and laughs in your face.

“Ah, ha ha, ah ha! … That’s what you get for being a jerk all your life!”

 

The Machine Man in the Wheat

It was on a Tuesday when the sun became different.

I remember it clearly because Tuesdays I visit with the doctor because I have a hard time walking in a straight line.

“You’re difficult to conform,” he says.

He also thinks he is smarter than me, but I know better. The questions he asks don’t seem very bright to me. He lacks, say, electricity. So like I was saying, as far as the sun goes, I had come home and went to the back of the house and drew the long green drapes away from the large window there. I looked out and there was a bright spot on the fence where the sun was shining and it drew me in, the color of it, like golden metal pressed up tight. It was a cold color, flat, indecent yet proper. And so I looked up and even the whole sky itself looked different. There was a deeper blue confusion about it. The clouds seemed edgy. There was turmoil in the air amid the subtle change.

The house is hidden in the hills surrounding a city. It’s an urban estate of modern aesthetics – tall glass, sharp edges, white and clean as snow and just as cold and empty and lonely, especially in the shadows. The furniture sits rigid and straight. Everything is strictly kept in its place. My home looks as if it has never been lived in.

I have seven bedrooms and don’t sleep in any of them. I have four bathrooms and use only one. My kitchen is always clean. It hums in the dead of day, the big metal appliances stewing in their pipes and electrical cords. There is a window over the sink and I can look out into my yard – a trapezoidal patch of bright green grass surrounded by jungle. A small pool sits empty. There’s some lawn furniture but it’s all scattered about now because of the strong breezes we’ve had lately. The yard is as deserted as my home.

 

I sat a drink down on a glass end table and the subtle sound of it echoed through the room. Then the telephone rang. It was Fred. I knew this because he was the only one whoever called.

“Hello.”

“I’m always amazed that the telephones still work.”

“I’m glad for it. At least I can call my doctor.”

“Not feeling very well? Is it the crooked walking again?”

“Yes. He doesn’t know what to do about it.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing … would you like me to come by tonight?”

“No. I’m just going to stand here and not move for a while.”

I hung up. Fred hung up. I knew this because he was the only one whoever hung up on me. Fred used to be an accountant of some sort, maybe a lawyer too. But not anymore. I used to be a geology professor. But not anymore. There are many things that are no longer the same. I used to have a wife and twin daughters. But not anymore. I used to park a car in my garage. But not anymore. Walking is all we can do now. If I need something from the city, I have to walk. I walk to the doctor, the grocery, the bar. I even walk to the post office and occasionally send a letter to someone I don’t even know – but no one gets mail anymore.

Sometimes I walk to the city with Fred. I really don’t want to because I don’t like him that much. I would even say he is kind of boring, but not boring in the way of going to sleep, rather, boring in a way that gives me a headache and I can’t stand headaches. It almost makes my stomach hurt when he starts in on how poorly the sidewalks were made.

“Just look it all the cracks,” he always points out, his long arm nearly touching the ground.

“There have been a lot of earthquakes.”

“Even so, they should make better sidewalks.”

“They did their best,” I remind him. “The world was a mess.”

Fred picked up a small stone and threw it. It hit a light post. The sound echoed down the street.

“It’s still a mess, Frank. C’mon, you’re hip to it. You know it will never get better than this.”

I stopped and looked at him. I blew into my hands to warm them.

“Damn it’s cold. I thought we lived in California.”

 

There weren’t too many people at the grocery. There were never too many people anywhere. I liked it like that. The world wasn’t that great before anyways. Fred strolled off to the produce department, but there wasn’t much there. The stores are never stocked that well anymore. I followed him over and together we looked at a handful of oranges.

“They don’t look very fresh, do they?” Fred said, cocking his head and studying the fruit with a bent eye.

“They never are … anymore. I’m going over to the pharmacy.”

“More pills?”

“Yes, more pills.”

“All right then, I’m going over to the meat department. I want to look at a piece of chicken.”

I walked down the main aisle in the front toward the pharmacy. I knocked on the glass.

“Hey. I need to get my pills.”

Someone was fidgeting around in the back. I had to wait. We still always have to wait.

“Your name?” he asked when he came to the window – a little man in a white lab coat all alone with the medicine and a broken heart.

“Frank Buck. Why do you always have to ask? You know who I am.”

He blinked his eyes and barely smiled.

“It’s just procedure sir. It’s company policy. It’s a corporate rule and I cannot break it under any circumstances.”

The corporations still have all the power.

“All right. I guess you can’t break the rules. I understand. You need this job. Not everyone has a job anymore.”

“Did you know that being a pharmacist is the best job a person can have these days?”

“I believe it. You’ve got three bottles for me, right?”

“Yes. Any questions?”

“Do I ever have any questions?”

“Sorry. I have to ask. They’re watching me. They’re listening to me, too.”

“Sounds like you’re trapped.”

“I am,” he tried to whisper through the glass, and I only turned once to look back at him as I walked away.

 

“Do you think we should buy that last piece of chicken?” Fred asked me. “We could have a fry out.”

I peered into the glass case at the lone piece of raw chicken breast sitting in a tray beneath a bluish-green light. I stepped behind the counter and slid a door open and flipped the piece of chicken over.

“It doesn’t look too pale,” I said.

Fred was hungry and wanted the chicken.

“Go ahead and wrap it up. I’ll pay for it.”

I wrapped up the hunk of chicken and we made our way toward the front of the store and through the sliding doors. Something scanned us from above as we walked out.

“When they come for the money, we’ll tell them the chicken was mine.”

“Absolutely.”

 

The chicken sizzled on the charcoal grill I had out back. Fred and I went to the yard and grabbed two chairs. We set them up on the patio. We lit some torches. I poured Fred a strong drink. He watched me suspiciously as I withdrew a cigarette from my pack and stuck it in my mouth.

“I thought you quit those damn things.”

“I did … but why now?”

“I suppose you’re right. Not much to live for anymore is there?”

“I don’t like to talk about it. Why is it we always end up talking about it?”

“I don’t know. What else is there to talk about?”

“Tell me about your dreams.”

Fred thought for a moment.

“I don’t dream anymore.”

“I know. I don’t either. Why is that?”

“I suppose it has something to do with that brain evolution stuff they’re all talking about. You know … what they say about us being able to survive when the others didn’t. They say we don’t need dreams anymore.”

“Leaves the night awfully blank though, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Fred moaned with a downcast stare and a slight nod of his head. “I don’t sleep as much as I used to … Wait; I think the chicken is burning. Flip it over.”

I flipped the meat and there were deep dark burn marks on the side already cooked.

“It might be a bit well done by the time I’m finished with it,” I said.

“That’s okay,” Fred said with a quick laugh. “Chicken is chicken and I’ll take it any way I can.”

The doorbell rang. I opened the door and there stood the two officers from the Debt Police who had come to collect the money for the chicken and the pills.

“Wow,” I said. “It’s been only two hours or so and you’re already here. I swear, it seems you guys get here faster and faster every time.”

“Just give us the money, sir,” one of the officers said.

I stuck my hands in my pockets and dug around.

“Is there a problem, sir?” the other office asked as he stepped forward a bit. “Do you have the money? Yes or no?”

“I know I have it somewhere,” I said as I began to panic. “It’s in the house somewhere. But look here, that man outside, he has the money. The chicken was his idea. It was all HIS idea.”

The officers pushed beside me and well into the house. They went out onto the patio and Fred quickly stood up. I went to help him.

“This guy says the chicken was all your idea. Is it your chicken?”

Fred shakily adjusted the eyeglasses on his face.

“Yes. I was the one who wanted the chicken. He just walked to the store with me to get his medicine. I told him I’d pay for the chicken.”

“Then give us the money.”

Fred nervously dug into his front pants pocket and pulled out some dirty cash. He flipped through the bills with his fingers.

“How much is it again?”

“Twenty-five dollars for the chicken and ninety for the pills,” one of the officers snapped.

Fred handed them three fifty dollar bills.

“The rest is your tip,” Fred said.

“Thanks. We’ll be going now. Make sure to lock all your doors and windows. There are lots of creeps out there milling about in the night.”

We watched as the officers quickly moved back through the house and out the front door. I sank down in my patio chair, sighed and looked at Fred.

“Where do you get all that money?” I asked him. “You’re not a pharmacist or a cop.”

“I saved my money,” Fred said. “As I worked and lived my life I also saved money … for the times like these that I always knew were coming. I funded my survival.”

“Do you have a lot left?”

“No. The Men of the Wars took most of it.”

I glanced inside at the banner on the wall. It was the banner we all had now – and in big capital letters of red, white and blue, it read: Patriotism Has a Price Tag – and there was a big green Uncle Sam with devil eyes on the banner, and he had his big fists in the air and he was clutching money in one and a pair of women’s high-heeled shoes in the other. And in smaller capital letters near the bottom it read: In Greed We Trust and In God We Don’t.

I didn’t really like the banner, but we didn’t have a choice anymore.

 

After the chicken, some more drinks and a cold handshake, I said goodnight to Fred and closed the door behind him. I locked it just as the officer advised. It was a big cold deadbolt and it made me feel safer even though I knew deep down inside it didn’t really matter … anymore.

I walked crooked through the rest of the house turning down lights and making sure the other doors and windows were all locked up tight. I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I looked in the mirror and my face looked old. I ran some water in a glass and washed down a handful of pills. I flicked off the light and quietly closed the door. I turned on the ceiling fan that runs right over my bed and sat in a chair by the window. I knew I wouldn’t sleep. What good is sleep without dreams? I looked out the window but all I saw was dark. It was my jungle surrounding me. I liked it like that. I didn’t want to know anything about the world on fire out there.