I Curse the Curs!

There is nothing I despise more than the curs. I would exterminate them all if I could. I would exterminate them now, and permanently. Why should I explain myself? It is obvious why the curs should be eliminated from our city. A dog should have a master. Without a master, a cur lives only for itself, is indiscriminate in every unclean dominion, snuffles among the horrors of humanity’s very bowels, and spreads disease from one section of the city to the next. A master cares for his cur, delivers it to the veterinarian for the appropriate vaccinations, feeds it, grooms it, and keeps it clean.

I have walked these streets plenty enough. I have seen the curs loping about, sickening blotched tongues dangling wetly down—practically slurping up the sludge from the dirty pavement! The much-trod carpets of their mangy backs look to be infested with God-knows-what manner of insectile life—larvae, lice, ticks . . . . I shudder in the imagining.

Look on that cur there. He lacks a history—has no master. I cannot ask his master, “Where has your dog been?” I cannot know how that nostril was mutilated. The foreshortened tail, the strange burrs in its paws, the missing ear, the bedraggled lips drooping down past its jaw revealing blacktar gums: how did these come about?—any number of disgusting images arises before my appalled consciousness. The cur whines as its wagging picks up and its snout burrows deeper into the pile it has been sniffing. It has found a rotten fruit. The cur gobbles greedily what any well-heeled dog would leave to the floor. Indeed, the cur searches desperately for more. It paces the wall alongside which stretches the spilled trash (which spillage I am certain the cur abetted), and pokes its nose in with infinite hope, and blows and sneezes according with the odd powders and chemicals to be found deep midst the spreading detritus. The cur leaves, having exhausted the possibilities, yet stays, in spirit, for the trash is still there against that wall, even dispersing down the street, even insinuating itself into every crevice of the city, thankful to its cur-progenitor, without which it would have been hauled away to some far site to be compacted and buried away from sight.

And most distressingly, there is the problem of the bad example these curs set for the youth of our city. The curs have no decency, no code of conduct. They defecate in the gutter, piss on the flagpoles, and, most abominably, rut where they please. Just the other day, I came upon some children giggling in an alleyway as they observed the curs propagating with exertion upon each other’s backs. Let me reassure you, I shooed the children away, telling them, “Do not do as the curs do!” and then I took care of those curs.

I say to the city:  Take care of the curs!

Curs! I curse the curs!

————————

Yarrow Paisley lives in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. His writing has appeared recently in Twelve Stories, Clockwise Cat, and Barge Journal, among others. His video work has been featured at Red Lightbulbs. His website may be consulted at yarrowpaisley.com.

We’re Not So Different

It is day #124. Rodeo wakes me up at 9am. His morning bark is as piercing as a car alarm. It is panic inducing. I wake up under the impression the house is on fire. I throw my winter jacket over my sweatpants, slip into my rubber boots, and take Rodeo outside.  On the way out, my downstairs neighbor opens his door just wide enough to give me the finger. I can’t see his face, or his body. Just an arm – long, pale, and cruel – and a finger to match.

It’s freezing out. By my guess, minus 40 degrees, but Rodeo doesn’t seem to mind. We got him from a shelter and he might be part polar bear. He looks it when he rolls around in the snow. As we walk, we run into the man with the red beard who roams the street in a long, khaki trench coat. I can see his bare knees whenever he takes a stride. It grosses me out, until I think about what – or what’s not – under my own coat.

I see my upstairs neighbor doing her morning rounds. She wears the same thing each day: jeans ripped at the knees, a leather coat, black mittens, and a gray skullcap to match her hair. And every morning, she exits the building from the back entrance and slowly mounts the short stack of stairs to check her mail. She walks so slowly, like she’s got invisible, million-pound shackles on.  It takes her about half an hour to walk up and then down the stairs. I know this because when Rodeo was a puppy, and I had to take him out every 10 minutes, he’d sometimes have to pee three times before she had fetched the mail. After she collects the mail, she continues to walk absurdly slowly around the park across the street from our building. “Park” would be generous. It is the lawn/parking lot of a public school that was shut down last year. Or “turned around,” as they say here. That walk takes her about an hour. Then, I’ve learned, she walks to the Jewel Osco around the corner – she walks more briskly at this point – where she buys a large chocolate chip cookie, which she eats en route back to the building. My new years resolution was to create more of a routine in my life, until I saw this. I find myself counting the number of years between us. In decades.

On the way back into the building, the downstairs neighbor keeps his door shut. He hates me, he explained, because I am constantly coming and going. I am creating a draft. I try to explain that puppies have small bladders – it is the circle of life – and that it’s not my fault that I’m always getting packages. That’s what happens when you get married: you get stuff. Two nights after we got Rodeo, when he was still yelping all night, our downstairs neighbor called the cops. Two members of the Chicago Police knocked on our door, to “inquire about any dogs within.” And when I showed them 4-pound Rodeo, one of them said, “does he think being cute is illegal?”

“Ha! Ha!” I said, too loudly, or so I thought. But in fact, the downstairs neighbor thinks they put us in our place. “I had to call the cops before you could get that dog to shut up,” he told me once, during a stern talking-to about how I was Coming In and Out of The Building Too Frequently. He was wearing a neck-brace, but I never asked him what had happened to him. In 124 days, I have only seen him leave the building twice.

I apply for jobs. I watch movie trailers. I go on Facebook. I dip baby carrots in many different condiments in lieu of a sit-down lunch. I have an assignment for “Soak,” a blog entirely dedicated to “hot water healing,” about the newest in hot-tub technology.  They pay $25 a post.

At 1:30, when I take Rodeo out again, there is no one out on the street. They are at work. Or they are hiding. I wonder how my neighbor in the gray skullcap spends her afternoons.

Rodeo and I play fetch on the snow-covered parking lot/lawn. As we head back into the apartment, I see that my downstairs neighbor has a piece of mail from Columbia Journalism Review.  The only people who receive Columbia Journalism Review are 1. Journalists and 2. Their mothers, which means that the downstairs neighbor may have also spent his morning writing 100 words on hot water healing! To think!

The afternoon slides by. I write a post about  R.E.S.T. – Reduced Environmental Stimulus Therapy. The newest in hot water healing!  And finally, at 5:30, Jack comes home, and we make dinner and we sit down and eat it. It is my favorite, my most normal part of the day. We’ll watch a movie, maybe. We discuss what happened at work and the newest in hot water therapy regimens.

The guy who lives on our floor comes home very late night – 3 or 4 in the morning. I’m guessing by his schedule that he regional pilot, and that the women who sometimes come home with him are his stewardesses. My neighbor is a very precise communicator when he speaks to his stewardesses. He says things like, “Would you like to sit on the couch or the floor?” or “Do you want a coca-cola, beer, or glass of water?” “Would you like to watch a movie or see what’s on television?”  It is so easy, then, to picture what is happening, as they sit on the couch, drinking coca-cola, and flipping television channels. I can hear them when they kiss and when the couch starts to rattle against our shared wall. Some nights are louder than others. Sometimes it’s too loud to go back to bed, so Jack and I just have sex, too.  That’s the way the world works. I’m sure my downstairs neighbor and the woman with the gray skullcap will have their own puppies by springtime.

————————

Jessica Weisberg recently moved to Chicago from Brooklyn. Her articles have been published in n+1, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among others.

Crapshoot Universe

Crapshoot Universe ME McMullenMy name’s Otis Bederaufski. They call me Otie.

I’ll tell you up front that a few names have been changed here to cover the posteriors of the semi-innocent, who are fewer in number than you’d expect. Locations are left in tact for the sake of truth. I’m sitting down here in Mexico City waiting for a cool down. It seems that I’m a person of interest with regard to some big explosion out in the high desert somewhere. When I get some paperwork together, I plan to return to the states. How I came to be hanging out in this no tell motel with half the cops in Mexico looking for me is a tale beginning with an off-hand remark on a TV football broadcast a long, long time ago.

From this point on, by the way, I intend to refer to myself in the third person, like this all happened to somebody else. This will lend not only an air of frankness and detachment, but a measure of deniability as well.

***

When the football color guy, Alex, said that one particularly ferocious looking player, with a shaved head, an ear ring and a movie villain’s black goatee, `once played for the University of Mars’, a vision popped into Otis Bederaufski’s head; of blood red University of Mars t-shirts, yellow Venus College shirts with a classic bare-breasted Venus de Milo overlay, and shirts of black on blue, for Uppa Uranus U.

Everybody loved the concept.

Otis’s own internal sense of self indicated that his was the soul of a poet, but he’d given this entrepreneurial trip a shot anyway. Later, putting it behind in ‘purge therapy’ with a symbolic declaration of moral bankruptcy in a wry little ceremony in the third floor lounge, Otis was made aware of something very odd. Under one set of derivative reality models, the leftovers of Otis’s marketing empire, forty six dozen ‘planetary t-shirts’, were donated to poor churches in greater Durango, Mexico, an event documented on local TV and attended by more back-slapping self-congratulation than had been seen in the region for years. In another version of the `t-shirt sequence’, as Dr. Muck’s people were calling it, all forty six dozen shirts, along with all the original art work, were lost in a suspicious fire, leaving no record they ever existed.

***

In therapy with Muck’s associate, Dr. Tiffany Morse, Otis wondered aloud how the same t-shirts could have suffered two such disparate fates. “T-shirts are matter, as I understand it,” Otis said, “and can’t be in more than one place at one time, can they? If they were given away to the poor, how could they have burned up in a fire?”

“Muck’s magnetron equipment,” Dr. Morse said, “as I understand it, enables the splitting of derivative reality models in cyberspace, although how this is accomplished in `real time’ I’m not quite, —“

Dr. Morse was the best clinician in the Desert Institute of the Mental Sciences (DIMS). She may have been overweight and cavalierly overbearing, but in Otis’s book, Morse was okay. These others, Muck and his crowd, were reclusive and secretive. Morse was a clinician. “They may think they’re smart with their little experiments,” she told Otis, “but it was a real bad idea, trust me, to stick you in a marketplace scenario, Otie, where morality has virtually no weight.”

“Morality?”

“Muck is guided by `natural morality’,” Morse said, “a system which he views as constituting the common thread by which these various universes of mind are linked, including yours.”

Natural morality?” Otis smiled. “Never heard of it.”

“Neither has anybody else,” she said. “It’s not ‘morality’ in the traditional sense, believe me. It’s a method of breaking down reality into two antecedent parts, as with the t-shirt experiment.”

“That University of Mars t-shirt stuff came from something I heard on TV,” Otis said.

“We know, Otie.” Dr. Morse maneuvered her huge frame around the desk and faced Otis eye to eye. “It’s hard to make the connections around here, Otie, with so much of your memory gone, but manufacturing the t-shirts was not your idea. Psychotropic drug therapy unlocked a torrent of images. We turned you loose on the computer in my back office. You said you had no knack for merchandizing, and, left to your own devices, produced weird poetry and jingles.”

Morse showed Otis a memo issued by Muck: “To all C Ward Personnel (DIMS)”, it began, “our studies have led us to conclude that the all too common elements of degradation, corruption and depression can be traced more quickly to poetry than any other form of expression. Byron, Shelly, Poe, Frost, Whitman, Ginsburg, Dickinson, Will Shakespeare; —these were a pack of parasites and addicts, social pariahs, misfits, egoists and degenerates. It’s a wonder their verse, for its wantonness, false pride and profligacy, has managed to endure. Immoral and amoral elements thrive, it seems, while the natural morality of choice may very well require cultivation to endure. We are ordered, notwithstanding, to engage our patient’s poetic tendencies. Some suspect it will lead us to a better understanding of his dark power to experience the future through precognitive dreams and visions.”

Otis liked Morse’s bluntness.

She curled her fat lips around a jelly doughnut, took a swig of coffee and gave him an enormous grin. “Dr, Muck’s pathological hatred of poets and poetry has worked against him,” she said. “Start polishing up your couplets and metaphors, Otis. TAG has embraced this poetry business in spite of Muck’s protests. TAG thinks he’s lost his objectivity. He’s to cooperate in the syndication of your work, Otie, as part of an attempt to spread the curative powers of your great gift.”

“What great gift?”

“Don’t be modest,” she said.

“My poetry?”

“Hardly,” Morse said. “You are a pioneer, Otie, a great inter-universal explorer. You are the very first to move between the seams of existence, to experience the future and wax poetic about it.”

***

Otis wasn’t sure if he followed that, but he was pleased to learn that TAG had a curative plan. His poems would be published as `translations’. Pen names would be used to protect the institute’s anonymity. Otis’s verse, it seemed, had what official memos were calling `mysterious curative powers’.

It seemed far fetched to him, but Otis’s cheerless chronicle of a suicide watch in the gray mid-winter regions of northern Sweden, a place famous for cases of chronic light deprivation, was especially favored. A short poem called, Eat Death and Die was the first one used from this loose collection. Authorship was attributed to Sven Bjornson, translated from the Swedish by O. Bederaufski. It was spread over world wide radio and the internet, and soon became a mantra to the abatement of suffering, striking a resonant chord with a vast network of troubled patients around the globe. This power to touch others with a few simple syllables was not easily explained, but mail for O. Bederaufski poured in to the radio station in Durango all the same. Who was this hombre? What secrets of the human soul were revealed in his dark poetic translations? How had he managed to capture, with so few words, the imaginations of so many?

The world was at Otis’s door. They wanted to sell Otis land in Florida. They wanted him to read to their poetry clubs, transfer credit balances, refinance his home and donate to a numbing variety of worthy causes. They wanted more of his soothing translations. It was not yet widely known that the reclusive Florentine poet, Sandino Pilagio, or Sven Bjornson, the brooding Swede, weren’t to be located in their respective countries. If the world wanted to meet them face to face or hear them read in the original Swedish or Italian, all Otis could say on the subject was Good Luck. Copies of the non-disclosure and anonymity agreements prohibiting such revelations were on display in the lobby.

At night, Otis dreamed of a large electrified fence near Riley Road, where he rode his bike as a kid. Snippy little smart ass Vickie was there beside the fence with him, whispering in his dreams that it must surely be crowded inside Otis’s brain, what with so many oddball personalities jammed in there. Otis confronted her.

“Have you been feeding me auto suggestions that I have a multiple personality disorder?” Otis asked, less offended than bemused.

Vickie sneered. “What do you call Sandino Pilagio and Sven Bjornson?”

“Pen names,” Otis said. “What do you call them?”

She smiled enigmatically. “Alter ego sinners,” she said.

“If Sandino and Sven are sinners,” Otis said, “what’s that make me?”

“Dr. Muck thinks you’re Devil as Poet,” she said, “but I know better. You are innocence itself, Otis. Yours is a memory wiped clean of guilty knowledge.”

They could call it ‘multiple personalities’ if they wanted. One personality in multiple settings was more like it. If Vickie’s smug little grin was any indication, she was pleased that Otis saw through Muck’s subtle ruse about the ‘multiple personalities’. Muck was spending a ton of company money on this inter-universal research project. Somebody somewhere was watching very carefully.

Uncle Toke, Otis’s new handler, had a two karat emerald in his front tooth and a tattoo of a green Mamba snake on his neck. A criminal impresario from the slums of TJ, Toke was lying low due to an unfortunate misunderstanding with some TJ drug lords, the Benito Brothers, over a car bomb. Toke looked ludicrously out of place in a starched, white lab smock, but no one besides Otis seemed to notice. “One of Pedro Benito’s cars blew up,” he told Otis, “and they think I was behind it.”

Uncle Toke was part of a ruthless organized crime organization in Tijuana, Mexico, but had irons in fires everywhere. When word of Otis’s poetical radio ruminations reached Toke’s superiors, they flew him straight down to the DIMS strip in the desert to have a little look-see at this new phenomenon. Several rogue governments were interested. If there was somebody out there able to comfort and heal mentally ill people over the radio, they wanted to know what else the guy could do.

With a nullified past and a nose in the future,” Muck had written in a confidential memo, “our subject, Otis Bederaufski, is the essential natural existentialist, living entirely in the moment, disconnected from events more than a few hours away in either temporal direction. We think the natural morality thus established has played a large part in enhancing Otis’s innate precognitive powers.

`Natural’ morality, Otis could see, by the queasy look on Toke’s face, was not a subject his handler was comfortable discussing. “Muck’s ‘natural morality’ is the internal mechanism that defines the unfolding of any given set of experiences,” Toke said in his nasal TJ accent. “If you hadn’t met your amiga, Sandy, for example, none of the experiences derived from that encounter could have happened, including your enrollment here, if Muck is correct.”

“Sandy?”

“Do you remember Sandy?”

Otis didn’t need to think about it, but he did anyway, watching Toke’s leathered old face for a clue as to where this was headed. “Sandy was skinny, with blond hair,” Otis said. “She was walking her beagle. A nice person on her way to California. She’d gone a hundred miles out of her way to visit the ADC.”

“What’s the ADC?”

Otis looked into Uncle Toke’s brown eyes. “Did you?” he said, changing the subject back to what interested him.

“Did I what?”

“Did you order the hit on Pedro Benito?”

“He’d be dead, if I did,” Toke said, “not threatening me all over TJ.”

Curly threw up his hands. “This is all past,” he said gruffly. “Not a word of the Sandy cascade is in the moment.”

“Back off, Curly,” Uncle Toke said. “Give the boy a little room here.”

Otis remained cheerful in the face of this good cop, bad cop routine. The ‘Sandy cascade’, he knew from hearing talk, consisted of all events along Otis’s timeline occurring after he met Sandy and visited the ADC with her.

“This ADC,” Toke said, “you actually saw it?”

“Oh, yes,” Otis said, smiling at this sudden intensity of interest on Toke’s part.

“And, —?”

“And nothing,” Otis said, shrugging. “It was nothing.”

“Nothing?” A look passed across their faces, despair mixed with anger, fear and disappointment.

“Unless you call a bare spot in the middle of a grass field something,” Otis said, sorry he brought it up. “The ADC was a big nothing, believe me.”

“I believe you,” Uncle Toke said, searching Otis’s eyes to see if he was lying.

***

Snug inside a canopy of summer stars, Otis and Sandy had huddled together, gabbing like washerwomen. They’d sipped vodka and Squirt, smoked some of Sandy’s homegrown bud. They sang camp songs and recited scraps of poetry. They watched smoke and sparks from the fire go swirling up into the pines above their heads. They each read unspoken understandings in the other’s eyes. Together, they lamented a lifetime sting of failing French and being cut from the baseball team. Later, inside a blanket, a mood came on with the chill, and the night gave in to salty, spasmodic passion.

At dawn, Otis lay alone beneath the long needle pines, his body stiff and wet, his shirt soaked by a gentle rain. Sandy was gone. Lying still, beaten down by the thought that Sandy and the ADC were just two more disappointments, he read the note. ‘If there’s no hidden twin in Nature’s scheme,’ it said, ‘no indigenous duality of future to protect us from the singular past; if there are no devils or angels, and there is only the here and now, then, this tedious life is nothing after all, and all of us put together are nothing after all.’

“Cheered me right up,” Otis recalled, “to think there was a kindred soul out there, who could sense the nothingness and see our culture as microbes on a doorknob.”

A new, cutting edge psychotropic drug, Vitupera, had been introduced into Otis’s daily regimen around the time of the full moon. Impressions were soon gushing out of Otis like black crude in a wildcatter’s dream. With all the countless nights of his youth to choose from, Otis had retreated to a single summer night camping in the woods, with Sandy’s tiny black and white, battery-operated TV his only touch with the world. His spine tingled with fear when his awareness was suddenly thrust into the midst of the `B-29 raid on Tokyo’ movie. “We were weary flyboys running on fumes,” Otis recalled to Dr. Morse, “skimming over the dark ocean somewhere east of Burma. Getting back to Chang Chow to rejoin our outfit was going to be tough. The Nips shot prisoners.”

Wrapped inside the confines of his memory chair, Otis moves effortlessly along a dark jungle trail, ducking below palm fronds, pausing dead still to listen. The night air is rank and close. His nostrils are filled with the sweet after-aroma of burnt offerings to the Great God Ganj. “One minute, I’m in the jungle, ducking patrols,” he recalled. “Next minute, I’m in my memory chair burning reefer with a bunch of reprobates.”

“Have you ever thought of escape?”

“Escape?”

The thought leaves Otis beneath a blue evening sky streaked with salmon pink. He is reading aloud from one of his early stabs at poetic order, from what would later become Sven Bjornson’s stark, Arctic low light style. Sandy squints and sets her jaw, nodding and smiling. “I went on the road after Grandpa died,” she says, “sleeping on the cold ground of contradiction. Dark verse is right up my alley.”

Otis saw the first of his personally observed universal truths that very day. Escape, he realized, transcended context and was among the most elusive of universal concepts. Sandy couldn’t escape the death of her grandfather, no matter how far or fast she ran.

“You could’ve knocked me over with a moonbeam,” Otis recalled. “To think that my stumbling verse had found such resonance in the souls of others. To think that there were such people in the world as could wax tearful over the evocation of a single, soulful syllable of my doing.”

A sudden reversal put him into a new realm of despair.

Held captive without hope in a filthy, rat-infested jungle hellhole by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Occupational Forces working in conjunction with a full bore Vituperan nightmare in his frontal lobe, Otis lay awake, haunted by a vision more terrible than anyone could imagine, of the young village girl who tried to help him escape. He didn’t know her name. The bastards shot her down. Afterward, he scrawled words for her on the dirt floor of his cell because he had no paper or pen.

 

Eat death and die, maiden / Eat from the earth /

Drink from the sky / Drink from the spring / Sing of blue death,

Eat death and die, maiden / Eat death and die.

 

“A psychotropic reaction put you in a WWII prison camp,” Morse explained later, “a scenario adopted from a movie you saw. You keep reliving the events in your psychotic nightmare-dreams, which had earlier placed you at the absolute dead center (ADC) of the universe, which you found to be a big disappointment, with not even a marker.”

***

Uncle Toke’s emerald tooth flashed bright green in Otis’s eyes as the old man grinned. “Lately, an ominous silence out of Tijuana Granulated Sugar Co. suggests something’s in the works, Otis. Perhaps they’re considering pulling the plug on this project.”

“What does granulated sugar have to do with, —?”

“Works out to TAG in Spanish, Tijuana Azucar Granulado.”

“Ah, —” Otis smiled at the diabolical simplicity of the sugar company cover.

“Someone at TAG suspects that this Swedish death poem business, the Italian passion poetry, is part of a Muck double cross involving encoded revisions of commodity market predictions being sold to a high bidder among rogue states.”

Predictions?”

Otis could picture diminutive Dr. Muck saying that very word, standing in the doorway of Otis’s room, rocking back and forth like a boxer, telling Otis that he shouldn’t be concerned with what uses were made of his ‘predictions’ after he’d revealed them. Muck’s inflection made the word sound dirty.

“Data updates on market fluctuations, unexpected climate changes, political upheavals, pest containment success, crop yields,” Toke said, “there’s a long list of encoded values. TAG doesn’t trust Muck, or Morse, or any of us down here. They especially don’t trust you, Otis. TAG thinks we’re conspiring to cut them out of their due. Company money is being spent hand over fist down here. It just may be that the company’s decided to by-pass TAG altogether, recoup some of their losses directly by snatching the data, or even, God Forbid, the source, Otis.”

“I see groups of grim-faced people in khaki suits seizing computers and arresting everyone,” Otis said, wishing he had a prop crystal ball to complete his scene. “This is the visible half of a hidden duality. The other half is obscured.”

“They could arrange a raid,” Toke said, “but, I doubt they will. Raids and mass liquidations leave too many loose ends. They prefer explosions and fires for cleaning up these terminated projects. No paperwork lying around. The official falderal is controllable. Witnesses are all dead. Very tidy.”

“I see a mob of students protesting outside the electrified fence,” Otis said soberly. “Some sport the bright yellow of Venus U., some, the blood red of the U. of Mars. The loudest and craziest sport the black and blue of Upper Uranus U. Their frenzy comes from horrific stories of the ghastly, inhuman experiments going on down here at DIMS in the Mexican desert.”

“The Winnipeg Grain Market,” Toke said, “recently suspended TAG’s trading licenses and ordered them out of the country. Muck’s flipped, started blogging various influential journals, lashing out against subversive poets and their abominable schemes, calling them `enablers of Satan’.”

***

After dinner, Otis went back to the memory chair for some follow up meditation. It wasn’t long before snippy little Vickie came by in her little white smock, her face showing concern. “Things are going to Hell in a hurry,” she said.

“Other than being stuck in a rogue institution in a remote region of a foreign land,” Otis said, “I’d say we were doing okay. You especially, Vickie. You’re a well-paid tech here, working with a poetic lab rat behind twelve foot high electrified fences.”

“Actually, it’s worse,” Vickie said. “You’re a poet in a time when poets are vilified as parasites. As Sandino Pilagio, you wrote a love poem to your mistress: `In the soft caresses of blue half hue / She undresses / Part to the fire, part to the blue / That her sire might know only half, until all falls due.’ Do you remember that?”

“My mistress?”

“Women adore you, Otis. They throw themselves at you. Beautiful women. Italian countesses flirt with you at baccarat tables. You’ve mingled with the elite, indulged in conspicuous excess at every turn.” She smiled and shook her head. “You don’t remember any of that, do you?”

Otis shook his head glumly.

“You do remember Sandy, the girl who took you to, —“

“The ADC, yes, —the absolute dead center of the universe.”

“Which turned out to be nothing spectacular, right, —except that because of Sandy’s little black and white, battery-operated TV, you later experienced boils and dysentery from the prison camp experience in your mind. Muck’s magnetic machines and Lady Vitupera were factors, of course. Muck made some stupid decisions, Otis. Eons were lost.”

“Eons?” Otis wasn’t sure how long an eon was.

“I might as well tell you. TAG remains dubious about your friend, Sandy.”

“Dubious?” In the half second it took the word to roll off his tongue, Otis stopped to wonder how much snippy little Vickie knew about TAG, not bothering to ask lest he tempt her to lie.

“Questions about Sandy’s actual existence,” she said.

“What questions?” Otis felt resentment welling up inside, that these people would even know about Sandy.

“Why was Sandy’s note in your handwriting?”

“I’ve always assumed it was dictated in the dark,” Otis said, having considered this before, “with only one flashlight between us. Seems a rather harsh tactic on your part, denigrating one of the few personal memories I retain from the past.”

“Dictating a farewell note to the person it’s intended for?” Vickie said. “That rather defeats the purpose, wouldn’t you say? It’s more likely that you wrote it, Otis, and fabricated Sandy and the ensuing impression cascade that followed, a case of the poet falling in love with his own words, as it were, the worst thing a poet can do.”

“How would you know?”

“I‘m a poet myself,” she said. “It’s not something I’m proud of, but, —“

“You sound like Muck. Is Muck listening in on this, Vickie? Is that what’s going on?”

“How did it feel to stand at the center of the universe with the girl of your nihilistic dreams, Otis? Did you feel like the ultimate sinner?”

“Sandy saw the emptiness inside,” Otis said, “and the disappointment. She saw that I’d expected more. Turns out, of course, that the ADC, like sin, is everywhere.”

“Only this dubious memory of Sandy? Not one recollection of your many conquests? What a tragedy, Otis. To have sinned so magnificently, wallowed so unapologetically in such splendid decadence, yet, kept not a single memory of any of it.”

“If there is no memory, can there be sin?”

“It’s unforgivable, Otis, that you would forget your beloved mistress, whose naked skin in the pale moonlight inspired you to such heights of poetic allusion.”

“What beloved mistress?”

“Me, you bastard,” Vickie said. She was smiling, but Otis could see the pain in her eyes. “Your only friend in the world, Otis, and you don’t remember any of it?”

“What about Toke and Curly? Aren’t they my friends?”

“Under orders to take you out the minute it looks like you could fall into the wrong hands. They are not your friends, Otis.”

“What wrong hands? What am I, a canister of poison gas?”

Snippy little Vickie took Otis gently by the arm. “Come with me,” she said. Her eyes were a bubbling brew of conflicting emotional states. Some love, perhaps, but plenty of greed, envy and deceitfulness. “There’s a way to get outside without setting anything off,” she said.

“Outside?”

Going outside had never occurred to Otis. Apart from dreams of Sandy and Riley Road, he felt like he’d always been on Ward C. The thought of going outside intrigued him. He followed Vickie through a security door and into a part of the facility he’d never seen before, his mind reeling before the new impressions now flying at him. They moved slowly through a dim storage area, full of new smells and shapes, feeling their way along slowly. Vickie entered a code on a keypad and there was a metallic snap. A shaft of sunlight pierced through an open door. They were outside. A warm, dry breeze blew in Otis’s face. He was feeling more alive, more exhilarated than he could ever have imagined anyone could feel.

Straight ahead, a shining metal vision loomed; symbol and reality merged into one terrifying obstacle, the electrified fence of his precognitive visions and prophetic dreams. He’d heard them speak of the fence. He knew that beyond it was an open stretch of rough country glowing for as far as the eye could see in the soft violet haze of the desert twilight. Snippy little Vickie led him down a road that ran along the fence. She stopped beside a small wash, where she began pulling aside layers of dirt and dry grass. Soon, her digging revealed an opening where one could slip through without risking electrocution.

Vickie slid under. Otis followed. The dark, windowless buildings of DIMS loomed large on the other side like canyon walls. She started down a service road that ran along the fence toward the back of the DIMS grounds, motioning for Otis to follow. They’d walked for several minutes when there was a sudden and horrific blast behind them. Half a second later, a shock wave knocked them down. By the time Otis got to his feet, flames were leaping a hundred feet into the sky, sending sparks and huge clouds of dark smoke rising off the far side of the DIMS facility.

Otis guessed the fence was no longer electrified, which meant Vickie may not have known the explosion was coming, making the timing of their little break a totally fortuitous thing, which tended to support Dr. Muck’s crapshoot probability theory concerning the nature of unfolding universal reality.

“We are alive because of ‘dumb luck’,” Otis called out. As he followed her, it dawned on Otis that this whole ADC business was really the universe’s little joke. To each observer in the universe, it appeared as if he was at the very center, and that the `center’ followed him where ever he went. “The center is everywhere,” he called out in triumph to Vickie, walking ahead.

“What’s that?”

“Muck’s right about one thing,” Otis said. “This existence is a crapshoot, start to finish. Your poets, your doctors of religion and philosophy, anybody making anything else of it, are way off base. If it makes them feel better, fine, but they’re way off base.”

She’d slowed to wait for Otis, but the noise level was high, and the horrific smoke and burning sky behind them were a horrific distraction. At least six sirens were screaming out from as many directions. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get a word of that, Otis,” Vickie said.

“No matter,” Otis said, smiling.

They had come to a place where the fence ran away at a right angle. They stood together at the edge of a steep-sided ravine that Otis thought had ‘set-up’ written all over it. Without thinking twice, he gave Vickie a little nudge, and she went stumbling forward over the edge, tumbling end over end down the steep-sided ravine. Otis was sorry, but he was pretty certain, by the way she was maneuvering around, that she was about to do it to him. He was also pretty certain there were some wrong hands waiting at the bottom, ready to truss him up and tote him and his predictions off to some rogue state. He’d seen their evil faces in some of his precognitive dreams.

Otis took off walking briskly in the opposite direction.

After several minutes, he turned down a familiar-looking path up the hill. Behind him, the inferno raged, still throwing flames and great belches of black smoke into the sky. On the other side of the hill was a service road where a black limo sat waiting in the shadows, just as Otis had pictured in a precognitive vision. He tapped on the passenger side, startling the driver, who rolled the window down enough to see his face, and gave a most suspicious look. “You’re not Vickie James.”

“James Vickie,” Otis said, opening the door. “You have something for me.”

The driver handed Otis something he’d envisioned before, a pouch, stuffed with cash, Vickie’s payoff for putting Otis in the wrong hands. “Little change in plans,” Otis said, piling in the back. “Take off south, I’ll fill you in.”

The driver drove off, not knowing where they were going, or whether Otis really did have a 9 mm sitting on his left rib, as his passenger’s constant touching there might have indicated. Otis could see the flames in the rear view mirror. The screaming of sirens continued unabated. “What’s your name?” he said, after they’d driven in silence for several minutes.

“Roberto Morales.”

“Can we by-pass Durango altogether, Roberto? Run straight south to Mexico City? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Sure.”

“And let’s stay off the radio, huh?”

“No problem. Did you, —?”

“Set that explosion and fire? No. I got out about ten minutes before it went off.”

“Lucky you.”

“Yeah,” Otis said. “Lucky me.”

————————

M.E. McMullen’s stories have been cited as distinguished fiction by both the Pushcart and the Hugo awards committees. Amazing Stories, 1983: for `Gandy Plays the Palace’; The New Renaissance 2004: for ‘Gladys Simeon’. He has long since squandered the huge cash awards that went with these honors.

Jerky

He lounged in the kitchen wearing boxers and t-shirt.  She dropped the Help Wanted section before him.  He harrumphed, said, the same old, same old, woman, eh?  She opened the refrigerator, shook her head, said, there’s nothing here, just like yesterday, the day before.  He shuffled through old newspaper on the table, asked, now where’s yesterday’s crossword, I wasn’t finished yet.  She ruffled through papers on the counter, moved an old paint can, bug spray cans, said, all we got’s beef jerky.  Six-letter word for swarming insect, he said, second letter “o.”  A job, you, she said, pointing a jerky stick, so we can eat.  He looked at her, pointed his pen at her, a job, you, I’ve worked all my life.  But not this part you haven’t, her teeth tearing at the jerky.  Pen us a country tune, why don’t you, he said, but mind your dental work there, we can’t afford more work.  I’ll die if this is all I eat, she said, but what do you care?  He rolled up the Help Wanted section into a tight ancient scroll, used it to swat at a buzzing lumbering fly.  These flies, she said, they’re eating something, as she swatted at it with her free hand.  He followed it, paper aloft like a sword, as it landed on her forehead.  Don’t you dare, she said, as she watched him grin, his arm held high.

————————

Christian Bell lives near Baltimore, Maryland. His fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, JMWW Quarterly, and Feathertale, among other places. He blogs at I’m Not Emilio Estevez.

5000 Units of Product

My fortunes have changed: I have come into the possession of 5000 units of product. I have come into this possession lawfully and cheaply; I came into this possession for free. Yet one need not wonder as to the quality of the product; the product is good, it is salable; there is nothing wrong with it. Instead the things that are wrong are wrong with the roof of the warehouse where the product was, until now, being stored: the roof of that warehouse is full of holes, and in need of tar and shingles. Meanwhile, there exists the danger that any one of a number of things might fall onto the product: Water. Tar. Shingles. Any one of these things could cause contamination. Therefore, a certain amount of the product (5000 units) has been relocated to my modest yet spacious bi-level suburban home, where I am storing it in the basement.

I am not the only person recently come into possession. Jane and Todd have also been granted possession of the product. Jane and Todd have received 10000 and 15000 units, respectively. These 5000 + 10000 + 15000 = 30000 units constitute the entirety of the product. Jane stores hers in her sparsely-furnished yet comfortable artist loft. Todd stores his on his sprawling harbor houseboat, the size of a very small city.

***

Prior to our shared ownership Todd exited only as a name, a name frequently mentioned by Jane, who was known to me. Now Todd is more than a name: he is an associate. He is six foot two. He is blond. He has no scars. If asked I would die the death for Todd; the same, I am certain, holds true for him.

Jane is Jane is Jane is the same Jane she’s always been, except that Jane and Todd now constitute an Item. Any outside observer of our group would note this, this Itemness. Any outside observer would note signs, signs easy to note, although Jane and Todd attempt to conceal them; such signs include their repeated requests that I leave the room for more coffee, and how they quickly spring apart when I return to say, “We are out of coffee; will chai suffice, instead?”

Jane and Todd have attempted to conceal their Itemness for what I believe they believe to be my own sake: at one time, too long ago to allow me protest now, Jane and I constituted our own Item. This is, of course, no longer the current situation, which is Jane and Todd, together all the time.

Any outside observer would note Todd’s left hand, discreetly slipping around Jane’s waist and down into her jeans left back pocket, Jane and Todd laughing all the while.

***

Jane, smaller than she should be, kept small by a childhood disease; Jane, in large sweaters, in heavy boots, in rings and rings and rings; Jane, trying to act so tough, to be so much bigger than she is—she is an abomination to us all.

The Jane that sits in my living room, laughing with Todd, coyly fingering her long black hair, is not the same Jane I knew. Jane, the Jane of now, can never be that Jane again: she is a Jane disillusioned, a Jane assuming to know me. In any case Jane possesses several habits that I find most deplorable, habits made all the more deplorable by her Itemness with Todd; Janepresent = Jane + (these deplorable habits). These habits are, in no particular order: her need for attention, her unwillingness to confide in me, her slunched shoulders, her open mouth, her laughter, her state of unreadiness, her disbelief, her general miscomprehension.

***

There exist conditions which accompanied the units of product and now reside prominently in our homes. The most prominent of these conditions forbids Jane Todd and I from consuming any of the product, regardless whether such consumption be medical, professional, or recreational. Some would argue this a cruel condition, but others would argue it exceedingly fair: we all know that the product isn’t ours.

What misleads us is its presence in our homes. Jane has told me: “I am never tempted by the product in your house, or on Todd’s houseboat, but only by the units in my artist loft, from which I feel entitled to sample freely.”

As she spoke, a sound like nervous laughter jangled in her voice. Todd and I each told her in friendly and concerned tones that such cravings must be ignored. Todd and I each offered his respective home as a refuge from the deceptive product in her loft.

Jane’s weakness is understandable: in town, in her artist loft, she spends most of her time alone, working. Her dedication leads her to despair; she tells us that she longs for a life she fears she’s missing. Before, when led to despair, she would visit her neighbors, admire their paintings, bake carob-chip muffins for their children. But for the past forty days her neighbors have been gone; the downtown has been empty. I have taken my evening walks through the town and back, and have found the streets deserted, the cars abandoned in their driveways and on curbs. In the past forty days I have heard neither news nor radio, seen neither newspaper nor the nighttime lights that before ruined my view of the stars.

This lack of signs, this vacancy, the houses and buildings dead-bolted and boarded shut from within, all of this is easily explained if one accepts the demise of the Company: the town, after all, was no more than a Company town. In her loft, silhouetted in the large street-side window as she works on her latest landscape, Jane is alone.

***

In the Company’s absence, Todd insists we continue established norms; he insists that I continue to attend his daily vodka and cigarette brunches. Jane, who continues to sleep until or even well past noon, rarely puts in an appearance.

Today, as we sit on the deck and partake of what has become our regular morning custom, Todd, pale, blond, free from distinguishing marks, confides in me his concern that Jane’s loft can no longer serve as a shelter for the product. “When Jane leaves her home,” Todd says, “when, for example, she visits me, the units of product entrusted to her care sit unattended in a wholly deserted space. In a more stable time, a social safety net, comprised of her neighbors and their children, would guard her apartment and the product. With such a safety net intact, with Jane’s loft held under twenty-four-hour supervision, with the building’s hallways and stairwells filled with playing, observant children, no sinister person could contemplate picking her loft’s front lock, let alone approaching her apartment undetected. But with the downtown all deserted, with Jane’s neighbors missing, with the social safety net unmeshed and torn, any number of devious persons might use the occasion to cart off her units of the product.”

Despite Todd’s relaxed and convivial tone, despite his generous offers of shots of Absolut and cartons of Winston-Salems, I find it easy to predict the trajectory of his rhetoric. To concede the weakness of Jane’s artist loft would quickly surrender my own share of the units: my modest yet spacious bi-level home, situated on the outskirts of the city, would be by Todd’s logic less secure than a downtown loft that at least once had neighbors.

I sit back in my chair; I arch my eyebrows. I interlace my fingers so as to stop them from fidgeting. “Administrators,” I cautiously reply, “may be at this moment—even now—observing us, may be recording their observations of our behavior. The Company’s absence may be nothing more than a front, a ruse to measure our psychological profiles, the personalities of those to whom they’ve entrusted the care of the product.”

Todd, caught off-guard by my pre-considered response, in the midst of polishing off his seventh shot, his eleventh breakfast cigarette, nods curtly through the enveloping cloud of smoke. Despite the vagaries and vacuities of my uninformed speculations, Todd cannot easily refute them: they rest on the very same base of assumptions from which he has argued that we adhere to our routines.

With the three of us left uncertain as to what the Company hopes or expects of us, it is impossible to discern how we might fail.

***

Todd’s very large houseboat has no anchor; it is held in place by the tides, which never change. The tides and their constancy are unique to our city’s harbor; they push on the houseboat from all directions, canceling one another out and holding the houseboat still. To walk the sprawling deck of the houseboat, to walk its streets, is to walk the dusty rock floor of the moon, where the only unsteadiness felt is one’s own.

The harbor’s overwhelming stillness impresses all visitors and tourists: the tides, underwater, cannot be heard washing gently against the sides of either the houseboat or the pier. The water’s surface lies calm and quiet, the currents pressing firmly in, the houseboat tucked neatly against the shore, as if embedded in a sea of soft blue plastic.

Todd’s three thousand acres of houseboat fill the harbor nearly completely, nestled against the jutting piers and shoreline like a puzzle piece. Some city officials objected to granting Todd permission to dock his houseboat in our harbor, complaining that the craft would disturb our precariously balanced tides. Secretly they feared the citizens would prefer his city to theirs. But the Company, with whom Todd has long enjoyed a sturdy working relationship, intervened.

***

On Todd’s silent houseboat, over the silent, self-canceling currents in the water, I am aware of the bodies suspended beneath me, the bodies of the many who have died in this dangerous bay. Marine biologists studying these tides have reported a curious phenomenon: a person, observing the lack of waves, convinces himself he can walk on what seems solid water. Emboldened, he steps forward, confident, trusting, certain.

Such stories resolve themselves in a tragic delusion. The person, stepping, falls into the water; the water, undisturbed, envelops the person; the person, drowned, is lost at the bottom of a harbor that is, even at its shallowest point, over nine fathoms deep.

***

In the evening, I take my usual walks, enjoying my solitude, the gathering chill, the lengthening autumn light—the light that at times plays tricks on me. Sometimes its slanted murkiness convinces me I can see others—Company operatives, perhaps, or brave tourists perplexed by the city’s insistent barrenness. At times I spy a pair of them just up ahead, striding swiftly, moving in and out of the shadows, hardly anything more than fleeting glimpses.

The light is dim, but I make out fedoras and sunglasses covering sinister faces. They sidestep a streetlamp and enter an unlit alley, unencumbered in jeans and trench coats and spandex tube tops. I increase my pace; I endeavor to catch up. I hurry and stride around the corner. No one is there.

***

While strolling, I am teased at by a coy and lingering thought; I am bedeviled by the suspicion that the city officials were right, that my fellow citizens have left their homes to relocate aboard Todd’s houseboat. This nagging thought has crossed my mind, has crossed Todd’s mind as well, I’m sure. Surely his houseboat is sprawling enough, immense, too big to ever fully explore. There are sections that Todd has confessed he rarely visits, other parts that he’s not certain he’s ever been to. The houseboat has space enough to house some substantial portion of the city’s population. They could have moved there overnight, proceeding quietly through its blocks, moving into its boiler rooms, dispersing into its depths.

This mass exodus may have come about naturally, spontaneously, being motivated by any one of numerous pressing reasons: Crime. Unemployment. Dissatisfaction. They may have moved there to partake in a healthier lifestyle, wanting winds and waves and salt air. Todd often praises the salt air, is fond of extolling its many virtues. “The salt air,” he says, “is a crucial aid for any type of recovery. The salt air has benefits that aid a great many things, a speedy recovery chief among them.”

***

When I call Jane’s artist loft I receive no answer; I ring forty-three times to allow for the possibilities of momentary indisposition with a painting or the laundry or the shower.

But no one answers. After the forty-third ring I hang up and dial one of the fourteen numbers I have listed for Todd’s houseboat; Jane picks up on the twenty-seventh ring.

“I am living here, now,” she explains, “to complete my recuperation. I had recovered nicely but soon began to regress; the city’s emptiness, its painful, open loneliness, caused a resurgence in my condition: I began to imagine the product as my only consolation. So I have relocated myself and my share of the product to Todd’s immense houseboat. This houseboat is good for recovering, due to, I believe, its flexibility and its impermanence, qualities that all houseboats possess but which this one possesses in abundance. Why have you called?”

***

Our circumstances have changed: we are no longer the only persons in the city, a fact I deliver to Jane and Todd when they arrive at my home for dinner. Here is the story that I tell them:

At 3:45 P.M., I was busy observing the sky when the doorbell rang. I answered the door to find a policeman standing on the steps of my front porch, wearing the uniform of the police from the nearby, smaller, less mutable town.

“Sir,” he said, “I have heard it alleged that on October 15th you came into the possession of 5000 units of a product, the conditions of your possession being that you secure a storage place for said units of product, resisting all temptations, divine or otherwise, to consume them. Can you confirm or deny this allegation?”

“I can,” I said. “I deny it.”

“I see. And might you perhaps, Sir, have any speculations as to the nature of this product, which must by its nature surely exist somewhere else, if not here?”

“I struggle in this life to keep from making such unfounded speculations.”

“I see. And are you aware, Sir, of the repercussions that would repercuss should you at a later date be found in the possession of this or any other potentially illegal product?”

“I am.”

“Very good then, Sir, and thank you. I’m sorry to have troubled you. Have a nice day.”

THE END

When I tell this story I make only one amendment: a uniformed policewoman stands on my porch, instead. I do this to keep Jane and Todd’s collective attention, with the possibilities of sex.

When I finish, Jane asks, “Where is this policewoman now?”

“I observed her taking up residence across the street, where she immediately deployed various snooping and recording devices. She is in all probability watching the house even as we speak, cataloguing all comings and goings and all resulting occurrences. That is why I called from a nearby payphone and told you to drive the nondescript car with the false tags.”

“A prudent precaution.” Yet still Jane frowns.

“We must find some way to move the product,” Todd suggests, stirring absentmindedly at his chai. “Some place to store it, to better secure it. The product, here, in this suspect house, under constant observation, is vulnerable.”

I pick up my cup of chai, my fingers gently squeezing the ceramic handle. “Perhaps there is some abandoned house or building in the town, where we might store it.”

“That is a stupid suggestion,” says Jane. “What a stupid, stupid suggestion! With the city abandoned, with its houses dead-bolted and boarded-up from within and left unheated, there exists no place in town suitable for storing and safeguarding so much product.”

Todd pats Jane’s thigh, runs his hand through his wispy blond hair. “There is no need for undue alarm. This visiting policewoman cannot stay long. We will remain undisturbed for now. Soon she will see that nothing’s out of order. She will see that her rumors and allegations are unfounded, that she has been misinformed. She will leave us then, surely. On that night we will move the product, relocate the product, perhaps even to my houseboat.” He looks very carefully at me, his eyes white and distant, his skin tight, his lips chapped.

“Yes,” Jane agrees, and she laughs, as always, nervously. “Doubtless this policewoman, belonging as she does to a neighboring town, can exercise no jurisdiction here. With nothing wrong, with nothing amiss, she will soon enough go away.”

***

Neither Jane nor Todd knows that I have buried my 5000 units of the product, buried them in the unfinished boiler room in my basement, where there is no concrete floor but only unspoiled dirt, unsuffocated. I wrapped the units tightly in a tarp, to protect them from insects and water and acidic soil. I smoothed the dirt fastidiously with a rake until all appeared again undisturbed.

With the units of product safely buried and hidden I can forget them, I can resist their insidious temptations. Yet after burying the product, I feared for one moment that the units had disappeared; I worried that, were I to dig into the earth again, I would find only rocks and earthworms, and rich dark soil.

***

The next day, there comes a knock on my door, and when I open the door, a policewoman stands on my front porch. Her hair, orange and red, lies unfurled. Her uniform is as blue as the sky, her skin as white as snow. In her hands she holds the large metal box of a two-way transistor radio, a heavy cumbersome box comprised of wires and dials and static. She braces it easily on her hip.

“Sir,” she begins, “I have moved into the house across the street, where I find the reception bad. May I put my radio in your basement?”

I can see it quite clearly, this ruse; I can see straight through to its other side. She hopes to enter my house to inspect the cellar, to find the product she suspects I conceal. She must know of my fascination with radios, of which I know nothing but with which I have always held a burgeoning fascination.

I tell her, “Yes, of course, yes certainly please come in, and let me take this radio from you; would you like some chai, chilled in a tall glass with ice?”

She accepts my offer gratefully. I place her radio by the top of the cellar stairs and then escort her into the living room, where I encourage her to examine my Mark Rothko paintings while I prepare us some refreshment.

On the monitors in the kitchen I watch her as I seep the tea bags in boiled water, mix in honey and ginger; I watch as she steps from painting to painting, from Black on Maroon to Brown on Maroon to Red on Maroon. Slanted overhangs shelter the Rothko paintings, which hang on steel supports jutting slightly from the walls, as though from the curved walls of the Guggenheim.

I add ice cubes; I carry the glasses into the living room. Taking hers and thanking me she points to Red and Maroon and says, “This one is upside down.”

Impressed, I tell her, “It is intentionally upside down. An acquaintance of mine, an acquaintance who does not care for the paintings of Mark Rothko, told me once that it did not matter if his works were right-side-up or upside-down. To prove her wrong I reversed this painting, only to find I preferred it this way.”

“I prefer its original orientation,” she comments, “and this chai is very good.”

“I have made thousands of cups of chai, for some less appreciative than you.”

Later, beneath a clouded sky, I think this might be how it begins: with something like Rothko, something already shared. With talk, nervousness erased by the security of knowledge of modern art, with glasses of chai, with 5000 units of product buried in the basement. With conversation and laughter, with one looking outside and noticing the gathering evening shadows, the day somehow passed and still passing.

This policewoman’s name is Lieutenant Knot. But I have learned her first name, and earned the favor of calling her: Marcia.

***

I continue my meetings with Todd every morning, although for the past few days the brunches have gotten poorer, grown ever more meager. He sets before me little by way of vodka and cigarettes. I refrain, discreetly, from drawing attention to this, from making a scene. The city’s desertion would challenge even a man of Todd’s near-unlimited means. The Company’s absence, the disruption of his supply lines, the loss of his contacts and his connections, has no doubt placed a tremendous strain upon his stores. Surely even a stockpile as great as Todd’s, as fine a supply as his, is at its heart inevitably finite.

Todd, as well, both my acquaintance and my partner, shares in this misfortune. He downs his shots with a practiced ease, but a sad reservation haunts the edges of that ease. He bows his head forward toward the cupped shelter made by his hands; he leans his head back as before with the same satisfaction—but he takes longer pauses between his cigarettes, before grasping the carton to light up anew.

***

Today on the houseboat, while Jane paints at her loft, Todd, pale, blond, free from distinguishing marks, confides in me his belief that we may in actuality consume the product; that he believes such consumption to be our privilege, our birthright, our duty. He tells me that of the 15000 units of product with which he was initially entrusted, he has thus far consumed 7983, and furthermore that he intends to consume the remaining 7017. As he talks he unwraps and consumes a unit, carefully watching for my reaction.

I take great pains to keep my expression neutral, unconcerned, casual. I imagine him nothing more than a store customer asking the price of cigarettes, imagine myself the store clerk with other, more pressing things to do than to answer him: the shelves, for one, must be restocked. I imagine the answer “$7.95,” an answer revealing neither tension nor concern. Todd pays with exact change; he smiles, well-groomed and pleasantly dressed, clearly not a shoplifter, clearly not a thug who would rob me at gunpoint.

My ruse, though elaborate, succeeds: Todd relaxes and consumes even more of the product. I am struck by a longing to join him, but again I mask my true emotions. I have already refused Todd’s offer of a unit, and I am in any case aware of the hidden security video cameras Todd has trained on me, which record my every motion and every word. These cameras are SONY SG27’s, with impressive range and resolution; they are not unlike the ones I train on Jane and Todd from the moment they enter my house until the moment Jane’s car slips the two of them down the drive.

***

Jane, on the mend from her nearly disastrous flirtation with the product, sees certain relevance in the fact that I was granted the least number of units, even though the Company assured us that they had decided distribution randomly. Still Jane sees certain relevance. Still Jane sees a certain relevance.

“You should not have 5000 units of product,” she says. “You should not have even 0001 units of product. You cannot capably store it, cannot secure it from the elements both natural and unsavory that might damage the fragile units. Your house, spacious and suburban as it is, is unfinished: it has no roof.”

That my house has no roof I must admit. But her logic still flounders, unsound. “I am storing the product in my basement,” I say. And I lie: “Beneath a tarp.”

“Water, pouring from the heavens as rain, will waterfall down the stairs and across the floor and under the tarp, contaminating the product.”

“And so I have dug a moat.”

“The moat will fill and overflow.”

“And so I have dug a drain.”

This fact of the drain is a powerful fact, a fact which slips sticks of dynamite into the small hole overlooked in her argument, a fact which spills potent acid on the weak link. With the link gone, with the wall of her argument lost to dynamite sabotage, Jane is forced to rethink her position. “You seem to have taken all of the necessary precautions,” she grudgingly admits. For the rest of the evening she pouts and works hard at recovery, consoling herself by running her hand along Todd’s thigh.

***

Do Jane and Todd talk about me when not in my company? When not in my company they can only discuss so much: the houseboat, the tides, Jane’s artist loft, the product… Eventually they must select me as a topic, or sit in silence. But what do they say? What does Jane reveal from the days we spent together?

The times she wasn’t listening. Her forced and tired smiles. Cold dinners. Joyless vacations. My fumbling, inadequate hand.

***

My house, always cold, grows colder as autumn progresses. Sometimes I awake to find myself glazed with a layer of frost, my toes and fingers numb.

Jane never cared for the cold; even now she announces each time that she steps through the door, “It’s always so cold in here! Is anyone else as cold as I am? I’m always so cold when I’m here!” I keep the house cold because I prefer a chill, which reminds me of my joyful youth spent in Alaska. The chill exists and flourishes because the house has never had a roof. Imagine the expenses, the folly, in heating a roofless house! Yet I remain silent when Jane announces her discomfort. She has never understood how I prefer not to block the stars, the birds, the leaves, the sun, the rain. She has never understood and never will, because her youth, although similarly spent in Alaska, was not a joyful one. She shivers as I cordially offer her a sweater.

Janepast, the Jane of the days we spent together as an Item, insisted on setting her artist loft’s thermostat at “an invigorating 94.3°F.” Even now I well remember the restless nights I spent there with Jane, staring at the roof, sweating on top of the covers. The end of our days as an Item, if not entirely welcome, did provide a few welcome reliefs.

Jane believes that heat, not cold, best maintains product freshness. Jane, like Todd and I, knows nothing of such things. I tell Jane that a cold house not only maintains product freshness, but significantly aids a person’s digestion.

“Cold houses,” says Jane, “are signs of mental illness.”

I notice that all this time Todd pays us no attention. He stirs distractedly at his chai, cooling his chai, the chai I have heated to a blistering 211.7°F. Jane prefers the chai warm, insisting it essential for her final recovery.

Despite the chai, despite my concern for her condition, Jane largely ignores me. Teasingly, I make a face and complain: “I fear you don’t like me any more, Jane.”

Jane, nasty, brutish, short, sneers at me. “Of course I no longer like you,” she says. “That is why I left you.”

***

The Jane that I remember most clearly is the Jane of our childhoods, both of us raised in the same Alaskan town, yet not knowing each other until older. She was sickly, a rumor of a child, existing inside her house behind closed doors, beneath blankets. Occasionally she appeared at the school for a few days, as though only visiting, moving slowly to her seat in sweaters and scarves, pale and fragile, shaking as she took her place.

By high school she had grown stronger, eventually entering as a sophomore, my age but smaller than the freshmen. I, in my senior year, would see her in the hallways between classes, or after lunch by the courtyard fountain, popular for her sudden arrival in life, surrounded by boys and girls alike, all of them talking of sports or movies or dances. As I passed she would glance at me, holding my gaze for a second, her eyes curious, her full dark lips caught open, before turning back to the others, forgetting, beginning to laugh again. Relaxing. Unworried. Unaware.

***

Only by chance did Jane and I find one another again after high school, at Cornell University, where she studied painting, I art history.

In the fall of my junior year, walking along the commons, I found her sitting at the edge of a fountain, eating a pear. As I passed, staring, not knowing for certain whether it were her, she looked and caught my gaze again, as she had three years earlier. I continued walking, turning my head only when far past her, to see her returned to her reading, the whittled core of the pear held loosely in her hand.

In the following weeks we passed each other regularly, as steadily as the bell that tolled the quarter hours, never making eye contact, never speaking. By the next semester we had our first class together, and one day, afterward, walking in the same direction, we spoke for the first time in our lives. I had forgotten her name, she had not forgotten mine. We both shared a hurried sense we could do nothing to deny each other.

We were young. We were young. We were young.

***

Marcia visits each afternoon for a late lunch and pleasant conversation. I anticipate her arrival with a skittish fear, cracking my knuckles and rereading the page of my book, still understanding nothing. Only after she arrives do I relax, able to ease into words, to observe her reactions, to consider what I say. She remains interested, friendly and only somewhat distanced, with occasional moments of warmth: when the topic turns to art criticism, when she speaks of her experiences as an actor. Always I notice her noticing the door to the basement steps.

She adjusts her police cap, perspiring faintly, charmingly. When I leave the room she records her observations; I return to find her scribbling in her notebook. I delay my return to the living room, I cough loudly before I reenter, allowing her time to hastily finish, to stuff her spiral notebook back into her breast pocket.

Our daily conversations end with her reluctant glance at the clock, then her apology and goodbye and her hurrying back to her house to resume observation of mine. I watch from an upstairs bedroom window as she watches through binoculars and cameras, talking to herself, into a recorder. My nights are heady with this, this watching.

***

Today at Todd’s houseboat, in the midst of our pitiful brunch, Todd tells me that he is no longer certain the Company has left us. He tells me of having heard scratches at night, scrapings around the houseboat—the sound of divers seeking footholds, their flippers splashing gently, their rubber suits slipping over the bow. “Last night, in the silence following their departure, I at last moved from my bed; I walked the streets of this houseboat, and found drops of water on the deck. Divers, malevolent scuba-divers! They search this boat at night for the units of product. I’ve found their lock pick’s scratches all around the lock!”

He has grown frailer, his elbows sharper, his chin bones jutting. I find that if I concentrate, I can see through his skin to his bones, dirty white and porous and firmly delicate as eggs, wrapped in fatty yellow tendons and faint blue veins.

He unwraps and chews at a unit, his forty-ninth so far this morning. His long fingers flutter near his mouth. His jaw muscles press against his skin as if to wear though; his Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. Being discreet as always, I look away.

***

Do Jane and Todd ever plot against me? If and when their conversation considers me there are only so many subtopics they can discuss. Do they consider me an unfortunate reminder, an obstacle to true commitment? Eventually they must contemplate a world, a life without me.

If so I cannot complain: the good of the many must outweigh the needs of the few. Were this but four years ago, the time when Jane and I comprised the majority, I would not have entertained even minor complaints from Todd; I would have reminded him of his place as the sole minority. How can I now, in good conscience, Todd’s friend and acquaintance, refuse the same?

***

After each brunch I’m forced to hurry back to my house, arriving in time to complete my preparations for Marcia’s visits.

She arrives at five past two like clockwork. With each visit I notice that her police uniform has grown dirtier and dirtier. “Wash it,” I suggest. “I do wash it,” Marcia says, “How silly to think that I don’t wash it! It’s this city dirt, which doesn’t come out. It’s in the air. It gets in and it doesn’t come out.” She rubs at her eyes, excusing herself to use the powder room’s sink, the city grit lodged behind her eyelids, unyielding to water, eye drops, tears.

Nonetheless, she remains upbeat; she changes the subject to the harbor’s tides, which she knows well: her mother, a marine biologist, regularly brought Marcia with her on trips to the harbor. But Marcia spent more time with her father, a folklorist, with whom she traveled the countryside, interviewing people about their stories and beliefs.

She repeats for me what scraps of the tales she remembers. “Perhaps because of my mother,” she says, “he was particularly enamored by the motif of the bewitched frog.” The motif of the bewitched frog describes a frog content with being a frog, yet unwelcomingly metamorphosed, by accident or malevolence, to humanity. “What saves the frog?” I ask. “Nothing saves the frog,” Marcia answers. “Nothing saves the frog?” I ask. “Sometimes a kiss saves the frog,” Marcia answers, “but only sometimes.”

I hand her her drink. We talk, though at other times we lapse into lengthy silences. She stands and examines my Mark Rothko paintings, scratching her forearm distractedly, raising the mug of chai to her mouth to take little sips.

She makes no mention of Red on Maroon, although I know that she has noticed it, has noted its new orientation.

***

Whenever I am out walking, when I am taking my evening constitutionals, or when I am heading to or from Todd and Jane on the houseboat, I am at all times followed by Marcia. As I pass the abandoned apartments, the flickering streetlamps, I am aware of her steady and silent tread a dozen meters distant, her presence behind me.

I do nothing to acknowledge that I know that she is there. I continue forward, my gait untroubled, my manner relaxed and nonchalant. She, for her part, does not let on whether she is aware of my ruse, that she knows that I know.

***

At night, in my house, on the second floor, I stand and feel the air moving on my forehead, on my cheeks, on my bare chest.

Jane never cared for this nor my former house. “You cannot secure,” she told me, “what even the ancient caveman secured. You have clothing and chai and Mark Rothko paintings, but you cannot secure a house that is better than a cave.”

That my former house was cavernous, I must admit. The house where Jane and I explored our Itemness had dark narrow hallways, smooth low ceilings, walls of piled rock and sandstone. It balanced cleverly, cantilevered above a bend in a small stretch of river; water collected beneath it in a pool before continuing over a fall, the sound and mist of its cascading filling the house’s hallways and dark rooms. My childhood, happy and full, flowed breathably, drinkably, continuously near.

How I adored that house’s courage, its freedom! How light and yet how solid it was, its central stone tower like a tree, like a sailing mast! Yet Jane did not enjoy the house; she insisted daily that we return to the city. “There’s no culture here,” she would say, “no culture out here, in the cultureless country. There are no neighbors, no paintings, no children. Why do we stay?” Depressed with the solitude, the landscape, she halted her work, afraid she’d forgotten the look of the city, of other people.

Even then, in those days toward the end, it was not my intention to stifle her! My intentions were, at all times, the very best of intentions. I had thought the house would change her mind, would cause her to lose her apprehension, would lead her to come to see what I saw and what I prized.

Instead, she regularly retreated into the guest house, complaining of the chill, the must, the damp. “This house will topple into the water,” she complained, complained while she retreated. She would not let me touch her in the bed. “I hope that we are in it when it falls.”

In the mornings, as I sat sipping my chai, pitching stones into the river, Jane, over the noise of the falls, would slam her car door, would start her car’s engine, would sharply turn the wheel and messily pull her car from the gravel drive.

***

When I sit in the living room of my suburban home in the evenings, reading and listening to music, every few minutes the need grips me to walk to the bay window and peek under the curtain. I tell myself that she will not be there, or that she will be there and that she will see me—yet still I look. She is always there, watching from the upper right bedroom window, talking to her recorder.

When she watches me, when she speaks to herself, when she makes her notes about me, what does she say? I watch the tapes that I make of her, attempting to read her words. On the monitor’s screen, her lips open and close, open and close repeatedly. She moistens her lips with her tongue; she takes a breath. She continues speaking.

***

When did it end? I cannot remember. Reluctantly, I found myself here in the city, accompanying Jane to her showings and to parties; I found myself closing up my former home and moving into my current house, spacious and bi-level, yes, and sitting on the outskirts of the city—but sitting too close.

I had forgotten, while living out in the cultureless country, what I had learned at great cost while in college: that this city, like all cities, is difficult to leave.

***

There are times when I’m tempted to call Jane, when I’m tempted to disregard my knowledge that the phone lines on Todd’s houseboat are all tapped, that every phone call there is recorded and reviewed. There are times when I pick up the phone, when I dial, when I let the phone ring sixty-seven times before I hang up.

The years between Jane and I, now grimly retreating, have told me nothing of her, nor her of me. We circle each other as total strangers, guarded, wary, intolerant, equally unyielding. How did those five forgotten years pass, with us an Item, intimate, understanding nothing?

I think that she has never understood me.

***

There are brief moments, rare minutes, when Marcia’s house goes dark, when she disappears from my screens, when she steps from the windows and leaves off her observations of me. On those occasions, is she reporting to her superiors? Does she radio in the detailed notes that she’s spent the week making of me?

I leave on my houselights while I descend into the basement. Ignoring the stretch of dirt where the units of product are buried, I cross to the table that holds the transistor radio. I flip the switch to turn it on; I fill the room with its absence of news, with its wiry static. I scan up and down along the spectrum, fiddling with dials; I try to tune in the secret frequency that she uses.

On such occasions, I am careful to do nothing to arouse Marcia’s suspicions. I leave my curtains open, except for a select few that I strategically leave closed.

***

After a week I visit Todd’s houseboat for dinner, assuring Jane and Todd that I wasn’t followed––although I was, albeit discreetly. We sit and eat and Jane avoids looking at me; Todd smiles his slight smile, a smile like a knife mark in a lump of dough. I sit, chewing, staring at the dark motionless water. Todd looks thinner, paler even than usual, as if he were fading, translucent as a jellyfish, with an odd yellow light shining dully inside him. He untouches his meal. He sips only water without lime.

He says: “You have noticed my recent illness, a wasting infirmity, which has reduced me to my present pathetic condition. A terrible thing, to have a poison inside you, poisoning you. And the pain—equally terrible, relieved only by the product, the merciful product, the product which I need more of. Jane has already contributed her share of the units—generously contributed.”

His fragile lips sip the water. His glass cup sweats in his hand, water seeping between his fingers, down his hairless forearm.

“Whatever I can do to help you I shall,” I say.

Todd smiles again, as thin as thread, his mouth a stitched wound. “We must help one another,” he answers. “The Company must not find us, or what remains of the product. We must get rid of the product,” says Todd. “We should try to sell it.”

“But whom would we sell it to?” I ask.

“We should sell it,” he says, “tomorrow. We could get,” Todd sucks his teeth, “a dollar per unit of product.”

“Fuck the product,” says Jane. “Shut up shut up.”

“Jane,” I say, “Jane, I—”

“Listen,” she says, and she points her small finger at me, “Stop talking like we’re friends. I don’t miss you,” she says. “I don’t ever, ever miss you. I forget that you exist until I see you, and then I want to run away.”

She turns to Todd. “Don’t talk to me,” she says. “Don’t say another word. Shut up shut up.” Then she goes inside, goes inside the cabin.

The moon reflects on the top of the water, a perfect reflection, though no doubt some of it filters through. It seeps below at the top for a couple of inches, smearing and saturating the very surface, just like it would on a sea of calm blue gelatin.

“Well,” says Todd. His hand barely shaking.

“It’s okay,” I say. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll leave.”

I get up to do so. Inside the cabin, Jane slams the oven door closed, smashes a coffee mug over the counter, tries to stomp her feet on the thick woven carpets.

Hard at work on her latest landscape.

***

Without a jacket, I’m cold on my slow walk home through the empty, desolate city. My steady footsteps reverberate on the dirty sidewalks, echoing sharply through the narrow, unlit alleys. Elsewhere, my former home still stands in the woods, majestic, balanced daringly above its bend in the river. With winter approaching, the water beneath it has started to cool, to gather and thicken, to lose its momentum. The falls will gradually solidify. But a trickle of water always meanders through; it remains unfrozen; it dribbles incessantly over the edge.

Inside the house, within its deliciously cold dark and cavernous rooms, that trickle of water resounds; it leaves its soft but insistent trace.

Marcia follows behind me at a distance; the moonlight reveals her quick reflection in the dirty restaurant windows. She keeps to the shadows, keeps her face turned down toward her feet, her red hair tucked underneath her police cap.

I pay her no mind; I make no sign that I have seen her. Marcia is, like me, no doubt, only out for an evening walk, appreciating the silence and cool night air.

***

That night, unable to sleep, I am disturbed by scraping sounds, by steady scraping noises emerging from my basement.

I get up and proceed slowly and softly to the central steps, and then to the cellar steps. There, hugging their sides, I begin down, cautiously. Whenever I hear the scraping sounds I stop and listen, attentive, alert. At last I can make out its source: the sound of shovels crunching into wet dirt.

Glancing over the banister, I peer into the darkness of the basement, and for an instant I believe that I can see dark, murky people in the shadows, people with thick black rubber skin, with tubes for hair, with glass and plastic canister faces; but when I suddenly flip on the lights, I am alone. I continue across the moat to the small plateau where the units of product are buried, the ground there still smooth and undisturbed.

On the rough concrete floor of the finished recreation room I find the drying, faint outline of a dark blue watery footprint.

***

That night, it rains. I ascend the stairs to my bedroom and stand, naked, on my bed, shivering uncontrollably as the chill rain pelts my body. The water drums the second floor of my house, cascading down the stairs in swirling rivulets. The rainwater washes through the house, carrying with it leaves and mud and dead insects, sweeping downward into the basement, where channels and drains await.

In time the rain slows to a light mist, and fog descends into my house. I stand among my twisted sheets, dripping, still shivering. I move downstairs into the kitchen, start boiling the water for chai.

Mug in hand, I peek out from behind the curtains, captivated as Marcia stares at me from behind her own curtains—but she cannot see me. She raises her binoculars, then lowers her binoculars, rubbing at bloodshot eyes.

Raising her binoculars again she continues studying my house, and I know that she must be able to see me, peeking out from behind these curtains, my hands suddenly hot, my face suddenly flushed with this pretentiousness. Standing, I pull apart the curtains, I cup my hands against the glass, press my forehead against the glass. For seconds Marcia and I stare at each other, and then she drops the binoculars, drops behind the window. Her house’s lights go dark.

But she doesn’t run away.

***

When I call Todd’s houseboat I receive no answer; I ring forty-three times, to allow for any number of possible indispositions. Laundry. Baking. An argument.

After forty-three rings, I hang up.

***

Across the street, Marcia’s bi-level house remains dark.

***

My circumstances have changed: at the harbor, Todd’s houseboat has disappeared. I stand on the dock; I stand as motionless as the blue-gray solid water, as still as Plexiglas.

The harbor lies before me, reflective and calm, impassive and opaque. There remains but the faintest trace of the houseboat’s former presence: a minor impression upon the water, marking the spot where it once sat, the thick blue water that it displaced.

I move a bit closer; I take a small step toward the edge of the pier. Emboldened, confident, trusting, I raise my foot above its dark firm surface. I close my eyes and can easily picture myself walking swiftly across the harbor, crossing to stand where the houseboat’s subtle imprint still lingers. Practically certain, I imagine that I, too, have some means of escape, that I can stride along the lack of waves, walking my way out of the city.

My foot dips lower and touches the surface; it slips inside; it stirs up the slightest of ripples.

And in that instant, I see, far below me, the many bodies that wait down there, the bodies of those who stepped on the water and slipped straight through, slipping through it like needles into thread. They hang there, preserved, suspended, pale, blond, free from distinguishing marks, embraced by the harbor’s eternally self-canceling currents.

I take a step back from the edge and the moment passes; it fades away like the houseboat’s now dissipated impression.

Behind me, Marcia discreetly observes from around the corner of a building, scribbling notes on her small spiral pad. Without turning I call her name, first too quietly, then loudly enough for her to hear. She scuffles backward, behind the building.

“Marcia,” I call again. But I hear only the water’s silence, the city’s silence, Marcia’s silence as she holds her breath, her hands shaking.

I close my eyes and count to five thousand, then turn and walk to and around the edge of the building. When I do, I find nobody there. Marcia is gone.

***

Arriving home I go directly to Marcia’s house, knocking on her front door. She answers wrapped in a bathrobe and a towel, drying her hair, fresh from the shower. “You caught me just out of the bath,” she breathlessly says.

I ask, “May I use your transistor radio?”

She answers, “What would you have me do?”

Her orange and red curls, dark, heavy with water, almost black, hang dripping. Her pale skin, scrubbed clean with soap and pumice, flushes pink.

***

At the harbor, Marcia and I kiss once, twice, three times, and then we push the 5000 units of product, one after one after one, over the edge of the pier and out into the harbor.

At first the units float—good, salable, no worse for the time they spent interred. They bob and drift out into the empty space where Todd’s sprawling houseboat once sat, and I am afraid that they’re too well-packed, that they are airtight, that they’ll never go under.

But then the water seeps up, dark and blue, and spreads through the fragile cardboard cartons; the units tilt, growing heavy, laden, dipping down below the surface—and then they sink, and then they drown.

————————

A D Jameson is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011) and the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011). He teaches writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, and StoryStudio Chicago; he also teaches occasional film classes at Facets Multimedia. In his spare time, he contributes to the group literary blog Big Other.