A Romance Novel by a Man Whose Life Hasn’t Worked Out

Chapter 2: What’s the Point?

Simone lay supine across her bed, completely naked, her ankles crossed and her old wedding ring pressed between her fingertips. She sighed. Things have been so boring since Leopold’s death, she thought. I have all the money a girl could want … but what I really need is a man.

As if by some divine response, there was a knock at the door. Simone slipped her robe on, glided downstairs, and opened the front door to reveal the delivery man on the doorstep.

“I’m here to deliver a package,” said the brown-suited suitor.

“Oh, are you?” said Simone coquettishly. She slid her hand down the neck of her robe and revealed a some of her cleavage.

“Yeah,” said the man. “Just sign this, please.” He handed her a pen and a form on a clipboard.

Simone was disappointed that the man hadn’t caught the innuendo, and only then did she notice that he was wholly unattractive. His bald, flaking head peaked in a dull point like a snow-capped mountain, while his cheeks sagged like a basset hound’s. The legs exposed by his tight brown shorts were pale and hairy, and they were riddled with varicose veins, almost what you would expect to see on Frankenstein’s monster if he ever showed his legs on screen. His gut—well, it could only be described as balloonish. He wore flip-flops. He secretly knew he shouldn’t have been wearing them because his feet had the habit of striking fear in people, and plus it was against company policy, but it made him feel rebellious, and if he didn’t have those flip-flops—as well as his mom’s homemade cooking—he just might have killed himself long ago. Reminded once more of the direction his life had gone, the delivery man shed a single tear, which, due to the amount of crying he’d already performed that morning, had a trace of blood in it.

But Simone was desperate. She took the clipboard and tossed it to the ground. The man bent over and tried to pick it up, but Simone held him close to her.

“Let’s forget about that for now,” she said. “How about you take a … lunch break?”

“Oh, we’re not allowed to take lunch breaks until noon.” His breath against her face smelled—although he brushed his teeth five times a day—like a dead snake.

“Okay,” said Simone, “then how about we just … bend the rules?” She whispered into his ear, “Just. This. Once?”

“And do what?” he blared.

“And—and make love,” she said plainly.

“Oh. I guess we can try. That area hasn’t worked so well since my second divorce.”

“You don’t say.”

“Yeah. In fact, it was the reason for my third divorce. My third wife called it ‘The Hangman.’ Wanna know why?”

“No, I think I can figur—”

“It was because it was always hanging.” He looked very sad.

Simone sighed. “Well, do you want to at least try to have sex?”

“Sure, I guess we can see if it works.”

They went upstairs. It didn’t work.

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Christopher Haygood is a writer of outlandish things who is fairly new to the publishing world. His work has been featured in The Short Humour Site, and is forthcoming in The Big Jewel, Defenestration, and the video game humor site Dorkly. His irregularly-updated blog is found at highlevelrefuse.wordpress.com

Wet Pavement

I have to walk to class every day because I’m broke, so I don’t own a car. It’s not too bad. The distance is a little over a mile, so it’s a long enough time to slowly watch fast cars almost hit one another but short enough to not tire out my feet.

It’s been raining the past few weeks, and people love to comment on it. They say things like, “Oh man it’s wet outside! But we sure do need the rain.” I couldn’t give a damn whether or not we need the rain. What makes the rain so great for me is the smell.

Wet pavement.

It smells amazing. I realize how strange that must be to say. “You know what smells absolutely terrific? When rain gets all over the roads. Can’t get enough of it.” But it’s true: wet pavement smells incredible.

It smells like something is about to be built. Created. There is absolutely no reasoning behind that connection. It’s not like things get built more often while it rains. Quite the opposite is true, really; construction generally slows down or stops if there’s too much rain. It makes sense to me, though.

Wet pavement is the smell of creation.

On rainy days when I have class, I get to smell the sweet aroma for almost the entire walk.

It’s always interrupted by the underpass on 21st street, though. It’s really short— maybe a block— but it sucks. The smell of creation turns into the smell of train shit almost instantly.

Whatever mixture of sludge, rain, oil, cancer, and other unidentifiable substances spew from that locomotive seep through the cracks of the concrete. Drips of horribleness fall all over the place.

It doesn’t smell like creation.

It smells like destruction.

And ass.

Like I said, it’s only about a block long, so it’s not too horrible.

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Matthew Fugere is a writer and a student from Virginia. When he isn’t writing or studying, he’s probably drawing raptors or flossing. Both are very important activities to him.

The Muse

The Muse by Clarke ClaytonI had just flubbed an audition for a deodorant commercial when he materialized on the sidewalk in Chelsea, wielding an enormous camera and indiscreetly scoping out each girl that sauntered by.

Even then, it occurred to me that he was probably a pervert, but I brushed away that thought easily.  He’s famous, I was excitedly telling myself. Even as a bearer of only the most rudimentary knowledge of the fashion world, I knew exactly who the man with the camera was: Nicholas Foot, famous street-fashion photographer. His photos were everywhere, images of nattily dressed young women against the backdrop of Paris or London or Milan, and often New York. I found most of his photos purely pleasurable to look at, but the ones of New York haunted me because they represented an echelon of the city that seemed frustratingly, perpetually inaccessible: that remote oligarchy of the beautiful people. For that, I could only look at them wistfully.

But, now, suddenly Nicholas Foot and I were sharing the same sidewalk, and so naturally I tried to get his attention. But I didn’t want him to know I was trying; so I marched past him frowning, trying to create an aura of being busy and in-demand. It worked.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you want to have your picture taken? It’s for a popular fashion blog.”

I paused in my tracks, pretending to contemplate the offer and turned to face him, skeptical but amused. “Oh? And who are you?”

“My name is Nicholas. I’m a street fashion photographer. Here’s my card.”

I studied it, and then looked at him. He was a disappointment, physically. His face had pleasant features but there was something colorless and slightly reptilian about his complexion. Still, it was easier than it ought to have been to flirt with him.

“Well,” I told him, warming up while still trying to seem casual. “I’m flattered. I thought I looked like crap today.”

He snapped my photograph a few times right there on the corner, but he didn’t like the light. He fussed with my dress and clicked his teeth.

“You look washed out,” he said. “Let’s cross the street where the light’s better.” I fared no better on the other side of the street. The light was still all wrong. But he kept taking pictures, and I kept laughing at everything he said, for the simple reason that I had already decided I was going to become his muse and accompany him to international fashion events.

“I love your camera,” I told him. “You looked like Cartier-Bresson, prowling around with that camera on your hip.”

That put him in a good mood. He grew chatty, wanted to learn about me.

“You’re an actress? That’s terrific,” he said and shook his head, impressed, as though it were a feat worthy of admiration. “You live in Brooklyn? Wow. I’ve never even been to Brooklyn.”

On a whim I said I would show him around. We agreed to have lunch the next week, and he air-kissed me goodbye.

“Don’t wear yellow next time,” he said as I walked away. “Yellow doesn’t do you justice.”

I was content as I watched him climb into a cab. For once, the city felt as it ought to: a place of possibility, a place where being young and short-skirted ought to entitle you to a mountain of privileges. On the subway ride home, I daydreamed about dresses.

The next week we had lunch in Williamsburg. We were both ten minutes late. I felt confident about the timing. It was important that he still thought of me as enormously busy.

Before lunch, we wandered around for a few minutes scouting people to photograph for his blog. He took a picture of a hipster girl about to go into work at a thrift store. She looked exactly like all the other girls in Williamsburg, but because he’d never been there before, he thought she was a visionary.

“I love your look,” he kept telling her. “Where did you get those leggings?”

She was very photogenic. I looked over his shoulder as he clicked through the series he took of her. The pictures looked great.

“You know what?” he told her. “You’re a natural model. I’m going to use you again to model for me, okay?”

She shrugged. “Okay,” she said, completely disaffected. She must have only been eighteen, nineteen years old.

That was when the first needle of doubt winnowed its way into my veins. It had been so easy to be confident around him at first, such a lark. But who was I compared to this teenager in leggings, this natural model? This vixen who did not even have to attempt being fake-casual, she was so utterly disinterested in the world around her.

They exchanged numbers and she jogged off to her shift at the thrift store.

“I love Brooklyn,” he told me over lunch. “The people here look so unique. They’re so individual.” I feigned agreement.

We talked, and I tried to regain my footing as his potential muse. Sure, maybe I looked washed-out in photos. I wasn’t a natural model! But I had to be better company than leggings girl. I could talk agreeably about any number of subjects; I was an excellent listener.

He told me about his childhood, and how hard his life was. “It’s so difficult being from the South, and having a vision,” he said. “Just about everyone thought I was gay. When I’m clearly not gay, you know?”

I nodded.

“I mean, I’m married,” he was saying. “I have a kid. Gay men don’t marry women and have kids. I’m not gay.”

He was drinking white wine, and lots of it. He’d ordered a bottle at the start of the meal, a festive touch, I thought initially; but he proceeded to down glass after glass of it without offering me any. With each glass, his monologues grew more reflective and vaguely offensive. An hour passed, then another. I should have left, but I felt paralyzed. I could do nothing but nod my way through everything he said.

“It’s just so hard with the work I do,” he told me, staring at the empty bottle. “You just can’t keep everyone happy. I take pictures of beautiful people on the streets wearing beautiful clothes. What’s wrong with that? It’s so simple to me! It’s not complicated in the slightest.

“But people are so demanding. First they wanted pictures of black girls,” he told me confidentially. “Fine. I found some African-American girls to photograph. You know, some of them have great style and amazing bodies—that’s perfect for my blog. I love great bodies.”

I nodded warily.

“ But then, my critics, they ask why I don’t take any pictures of fat people! Old people! ‘Why don’t you ever take pictures of fat girls?’” he mimicked in a high pitched voice. “‘Why don’t you take pictures of poor people wearing regular clothes?’ ”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t they see that the whole world is filled up with fat, poor people wearing regular clothes? If you want to see them, look around you. Jesus. Can’t there just be one place, one tiny little place, for all the thin and good-looking people?”

I nodded sympathetically.

After lunch he said he had an appointment back in Manhattan and that he had to go. He apologized for not snapping more pictures of me, as he’d promised when we’d last parted.

“I don’t really like your outfit, honestly,” he said. “You’re almost there, but something just feels off. Maybe next time?”

I was rattled, but I tried not to let it show. This wasn’t how today was supposed to go. I had dressed nicely. I had listened to him talk for three hours and watched him drink a bottle of white wine alone. I could recite his family genealogy; recount numerous slights of his career. I was becoming his confidant, something of a therapist. The least he could do was admire my dress, take a few stupid pictures of me.

Patience, I told myself. Instead of going to a cafe to prepare before my next audition, I went shopping.

Then it happened. A few weeks later he left me a voicemail inviting me to participate in a photo-shoot for a popular women’s magazine. “It’s going to be a girls-off-the-street thing. I’ve got really beautiful clothes to wear. I’d love for you to participate. Oh, and what size dress are you?  Do you fit into sample sizes? Call me.”

I called him back and told him that I’d love to participate. He described a casual photo-shoot the next Friday evening, just me and a few other of his female friends playing dress-up. We were going to meet at a studio in midtown and drink wine and take some pictures. I hung up and smiled to myself. I was already anticipating the evening warmly, already picturing my new friends and I posing together, slipping into sample sizes with ease.

The evening came and I arrived at the address, buzzed the apartment. Nobody answered. I waited five minutes, buzzed again. Was I early? That was the cardinal sin, running early. That was what losers did. I walked around the block a few times before buzzing again. No answer. I wandered to a bodega and bought candy to soothe myself. Twenty minutes later, I buzzed again. This time he answered, in a gruff voice, and rang me in.

The last half-hour had rattled my nerves to such a degree that I was exhausted. Playing the game of trying to keep Nicholas enchanted with me seemed, for the first time, to be the absolute last thing I wanted to spend my evening doing.

But it was too late to back down, and so I gamely knocked on the studio door. He creaked open the door, bleary-eyed, his shirt open. “You woke me up from one hell of a nap, kid. What a day. My wife just asked for a divorce yesterday so I’m sleeping here now,” he said and yawned. “Do you mind if I have a beer?”

“Go ahead,” I told him. I felt bashful and didn’t remove my jacket. I eyed the room: it was entirely devoid of furniture or décor, but there was an air mattress in one corner. The walls were lined with racks of clothing and there were a few duffel bags stuffed with pairs of fancy heels.

“You can go ahead and look at the clothes,” he said. “Go ahead and start trying things on if you want. I’m going to jump in the shower to wake myself up, okay?”

Curiously, there was nowhere to change. And he hadn’t shut the bathroom door all the way when he stepped into the shower; despite my best efforts not to, I had caught glimpses of his flesh behind the shower curtain.

I set my jaw and pulled a tight dress over my head and reminded myself that I was on my way to being the muse of an important fashion luminary.

I was tugging the zipper up the dress as he emerged from the shower wearing a crisp pair of pants and a towel draped over his shoulder, finishing off the beer. I stood before him, trying to remember how bored the Williamsburg hipster girl had looked when she posed.

He ignored me and went to the fridge, where he retrieved another beer.

“Um, Nicholas, where are the other girls?” I asked him, in a voice that I hoped did not belie my increasing discomfort but rather my longing to have a good time. “Aren’t there other girls coming?”

“Oh,” he said over his shoulder. He was leaned over his desk checking his email. “Nobody else is coming. It’s just you and me.” He pulled out the desk chair and, sitting down, began responding to correspondence. He appeared completely at ease, as though he were alone in the room, as though I, in my sequined dress and furrowed brow, were invisible.

A part of me was frightened to learn that nobody else was coming, but I was also intrigued. I decided that this situation must be some elaborate battle of wits, and I would be a fool for giving up now. I stood still for a few moments, waiting for him to finish up at his desk, when I gradually realized he had no intention of brevity.  I squinted at his computer screen, trying to figure out what crucial task he was accomplishing. Was it possible he had just…Googled himself?

I ought to have been terrified of him by this point: there I was alone in a strange apartment with a strange man who’d lured me with the promise of fashion shoots and magazine features and other people around, all of which were seeming more and more like contrivances. Did he even have his camera with him? I looked around the apartment desperately. I saw no cameras.

He was hunched over his desk squinting at the screen and muttering to himself.  I glanced towards the dead-bolted door. There was still something sinister in the way he was paying no attention to me. He was like a serial killer who specialized in ignoring his victims.

Finally, tired of standing in silence, I changed back into my own clothing and hung the dress back on the rack. Even when I was stripped to underwear, he did not turn around from his computer.

I gathered my coat and purse. “Uh, Nicholas,” I finally said, backing towards the door. “I’m actually going to leave now. I’ve got to go. Maybe we can do this again some other time?”

Finally he looked up. “Oh, you’re still here?” he said. “You were being so quiet that I didn’t even know if you were still in the room.”

I said lightly, “Well, you seemed kind of busy. I feel like I’m interrupting you.”

Something about that he didn’t like. He wrinkled his nose like the remark stank. “Yeah, I think you’re right. You should get going.” He rose to escort me to the door.

“You know,” he said, advancing towards me. “The first time I met you, you really seemed special. You just wanted to have fun. But, I have to say, that tonight….well, I just can read your vibes. And I can just tell you don’t want to have a good time. And when someone doesn’t want to have a good time, I can’t do anything about that. You know? Like, I don’t have the energy to change your mind. That’s not my job. My job is to take photographs.  I just wish…I just wish you weren’t acting like this, because it’s so pitiful.”

He shook his head sympathetically at me for a moment and then slammed the door. I walked out of the apartment and headed downtown. I walked out of midtown, down through Chelsea, through the West Village, finally losing my way among the tangled streets. I thought about how there are some nights in New York when the city is a wonderfully buoyant place that almost quivers with possibility. Sometimes, nothing exciting or interesting even has to happen; the promise alone can fill you up.

It had not been one of those nights.

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Clarke Clayton studied writing at Barnard College, where she was the recipient of the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine, and she was recently named a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest.

Our Vacation at the Beach

Day 1

After an enjoyable airplane ride, Sydney and I arrived in a taxi at the budget seaside hotel. As Sydney walked to the front desk to check us in, I moved along the sea spray-worn lobby carpet, viewing the heads of walruses and sea otters on the walls. I was disturbed to view a small figure in a brown suit at the far end of the lobby, blowing smoke rings into the air. He resembled a sinister mad scientist. “Hello dear,” his lips seemed to silently word as I edged along the frayed carpeting, past the rack of tour pamphlets, towards him. “I am Dr. Okra, and this is my assistant Otto,” indicated the brown-clad figure, pointing a claw towards the tall man beside him.

Otto was not a stereotypical ‘hunchback assistant to the mad scientist.’ He was 6’4” tall, and tucked tightly into an immaculate tuxedo. “Hello, my name is Otto,” he instantly intoned. “I enjoy cantaloupe in abundance, and long walks on the beach. My turn-offs include insincere people and mind games.”  I took a moment to stare at the otter heads on the lobby wall, and then turned back towards Otto, only to find that he was gone. I looked out the window at the sea line, seeing Otto walking in measured steps, carrying a paper plate filled with cantaloupe cubes, as the waves crashed, centimeters from his wingtips.

Sydney returned from the front desk, clutching our room key. I pointed out Otto’s silhouette on the beach, his silhouette pacing out of sight as he ate the last of the cantaloupe cubes. “Bon Appetit!” we cheered. Dr. Okra then declared to us in a sneering tone, “We shall meet again,” and disappeared into the haze of cigarette smoke, his form dissolving on the carpet into a pile of ashes, which were quickly removed by the hotel janitor, using an odd custodial device, and sweeping his broom in unhealthy patterns.

Day 2

We took an early stroll on the beach with a metal detector, looking for coins in the sand, and we saw Otto. He was walking along, feeling the saltwater soak up between his toes, under his rolled-up tuxedo pants. He confided to us that he considered the beach to be his metaphysical sandbox, yielding no obligations other than surfing the next wave. He also pointed out helpfully that Sydney had a distracting food smudge on her Bermuda shorts, recommending a nearby dry cleaner.

It was an enjoyable afternoon along the boardwalk, buying T-shirts and knick-knacks for the family back home. We had dinner at a charming little restaurant, and afterwards Sydney walked to the dry cleaner to get her Bermuda shorts freed from dirt, as I waited near our rental car, staring at a man at the end of the parking lot, in a dark suit and hat, smoking a cigarette. It was Dr. Okra. As his smoke rings wafted into the air, they resembled scorpions and Gila monsters. I felt an odd affinity to the scorpions in the smoke rings, dancing in a strange rhythm as they floated into the air. Sydney returned from the dry cleaner and was entranced by Gila monster smoke.

A wild root grew from the desert floor, spreading strange vibrations. We had been transported, on all physical and metaphysical levels, to the sagebrush of the Mojave Desert, by the odd visions in the smoke rings. Under the harsh desert plants we spread our existential wings into a new universe, vibrating under the signals of the desert moon, looking for scorpions and Gila monsters.

When we fell asleep and stopped looking, the scorpions and Gila monsters slowly appeared, signaling the beginning of our spirit quest!

Day 3

Well, day 2 was quite eventful, so we decided to just relax on the beach during day 3, and finish our vacation shopping. After dinner at the same charming little restaurant as last night, we wandered towards the abandoned arcade, which stood like a shell against the ocean’s waves. We felt an odd pull towards the merry-go-round, where we turned to glimpse Sydney’s spirit animal, a Gila monster, riding atop one of the horses, the merry-go-round spinning, lights gleaming, amidst strange faint carnival music, though the area was deserted. Sydney and I looked up at the Ferris wheel, and saw Dr. Okra in one of the wheel’s cars, spinning revolution after revolution over the dark sand below. “HA-HA-HA!… <cough> <cough> HA!” he cackled insanely.

We turned away from the Ferris wheel, and suddenly Dr. Okra was 10 feet away from us, holding a small air-holed box of scorpions. “I told you we would meet again,” he sneered menacingly. “I have someone I’d like to introduce to you,” he said, while looking at the box of scorpions and trying to pry it open with his claw. “Damn, Otto has the key, where is he?” Dr. Okra looked around furiously, finally seeing Otto walking along the beach, near the waves, holding a paper plate loaded down with honeydew melon cubes. Otto ate the cubes one at a time with a plastic fork, thinking, “I appreciate that Dr. Okra gave me these honeydew melon cubes, but I do not enjoy his insincerity and mind games.” At that point, Otto began to consider a career change, perhaps moving up the ladder at the dry cleaners, where he worked part-time.

Day 4

On our last day of vacation, we checked out of the hotel and drove to the airport, Sydney removed a dry cleaning ticket from her pocket, saying “We must stop and pick up the Bermuda shorts.” We pulled up at the dry cleaners. Inside, as the clothes were rotated out, Otto was hanging from the rotator rack in his tuxedo, a yellow receipt stapled to his lapel. We recognized him, and were shocked to see that he had been dry-cleaned to death. The cashier snarled, “Well, perhaps he should not have crossed Dr. Okra by considering an alternative career…after all that Dr. Okra had done for him, with the melon cubes and whatnot.” The dry cleaning clothes rack continued to spin, transporting Otto back out of view. Sydney gave the cashier the ticket, and paid for the smudge-less Bermuda shorts.

As we walked back to the rental car, I got out my digital camera and took a couple photos of Sydney, who was standing in front of the dry cleaners, holding her receipt in the air. We may not have completed our spirit quest, but we enjoyed the scenery, and as always on our vacations, it’s all about the people we meet.

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Eric Suhem lives in California and enjoys the qualities of his vegetable juicer. He can be found in the orange hallway (www.orangehallway.com).

From Boats

From Boats by Andrew BattershillLong ago, adventurers were not rich vacationers. Rather, they were the people who left their homes for other places far enough away that they’d probably never return. Adventurers worked small, hard jobs. They hitchhiked and squatted and accepted charity. They were men and women who were defined by their lack of belonging, and, more often than not, they ended up in drunken piles on freight trains.

Josiah Harrison was such a man, and, after almost no deliberation, he headed to the Northern Labrador, in order to become part of a trip to the Arctic Circle. The plan was for him to accompany a scientific expedition, carrying things and hunting for them. The scientists, with their clean pelts and full sets of teeth, had always treated our hero more as a packhorse than a person. They were oblivious to Josiah’s real plans, which consisted of finding and killing exotic Arctic beasts, killing all the members of the expedition, stealing their equipment (and dry goods), and meeting up with a crew with whom he’d sailed Cape Horn about a year prior, who were now attempting to find the Northwest Passage.

Gregory Francis, on the other hand, was approaching his arctic adventure with nothing but good intentions, and longstanding, firmly rooted anxieties, in his heart. Gregory was a zoologist, and had recently secured a tenure track position at the third most reputable university in New York City. The Scientist walked with a long, loping gait that seemed to generate power only from the hips, as if the bottom half of his body had somewhere to be in about an hour, and the top half would just as soon stay home. Although he was not an expert on any arctic animals he was chosen to accompany the trip in part because he had developed a reputation for sure-handedness in dealing with live test subjects, and in part because Dr. Williamson had withdrawn from the trip to get three abscessed teeth removed.

Unfortunately for Josiah, the head scientist, Dr. Sherwood, was a naturally cautious man, and due to a grievous misunderstanding of a common sailors axiom he kept the team grounded in Labrador for one week of perfect weather. While Josiah kept his drinking secret and restricted it to the area around the staff door of the hotel restaurant, he realized that he was desperate for the Arctic. There were still trees where they were, but they were starting to get sparse, and he could almost see and smell the flat, white land. But he couldn’t see or smell it; he’d never been there, not himself.

They waited the week out until a massive Arctic storm blew across. The storm lasted three more weeks before the expedition was called off. Dr. Sherwood decided that, since Josiah had been hired unofficially, he would have to find his own way home. Gregory was the most junior member of the team, and was tasked with delivering the news to the small, quiet, sad looking man with all the facial hair.

For the sake of clarity it is perhaps time to describe the hair that Josiah kept on his face and surrounding regions. It was not so much that our hero liked, or had any feelings about beards, rather Josiah did not in any way care about his physical appearance. And so the hair grew unabated, but not in the pattern generally associated with masculine facial hair, more in the style of animal-pelt rug with a lot of cigarette burns in it. Massive tufts of thick, coarse hair protruded from certain parts of his face and neck. Almost as if in recompense for the hair’s thickness, there were large patches that were entirely bald, and no matter how long the hair grew it never covered this skin.

Gregory had always avoided Josiah. He had experienced first hand the caged rage of the common Wolverine, of which he was reminded when watching Josiah hold his own wrist to keep his hand from shaking at trip meetings. But Gregory didn’t dislike the man, in fact, having identified the reason for his discomfort with Josiah, and having situated it entirely in his own insecurities, he wanted to be kind.

The plan had been for Gregory to fire our hero after the staff meeting (Sherwood made the whole team, including Josiah, meet three times a week), but Josiah had finally broken the seal on his new-found public sobriety and had started off the morning with nine stiff belts of gin, followed by breakfast (mostly a liquid breakfast), followed by vomiting, followed by lunch (mostly a liquid lunch), followed by falling asleep in a snow bank fourteen yards from the hotel and, right around the time of the meeting, passing out.

Gregory waited in the lobby of the hotel for four hours, at which point the senior scientists decided to check Josiah out of the hotel and put his things outside. His room was on their dime, after all. Gregory didn’t protest, but didn’t feel good about it either, so he waited, not outside but huddled by a window, for Josiah to return. This was not an act of courage on Gregory’s part, rather he somehow failed to realize that Josiah would be upset, drunk, and dangerous when he got home and found himself abandoned in Northern Labrador.

Finally, just as Gregory’s long neck was starting dip with fatigue, Josiah emerged. Gregory did not see our hero at first, but instead caught the glimpse of a small, round looking snowdrift. The object was not hurrying, but coming right toward the hotel, leaving a long comet’s tail of loose snow in its wake. Gregory’s heart was beating heavily as he opened the door, and when he saw Josiah’s form emerge he took two steps back inside, but did not close the door.

“What the fuck did you do with my stuff?”

“They, um, they decided to move your things and check you out. You missed the meeting.”

Josiah laughed. As his chest moved back and forth, and as he beat the porch with his hands, the snow fell off Josiah, and he appeared, though wet and delirious, as a recognizable person again. Gregory relaxed his weight against the doorframe and waited for Josiah to stop laughing and then wrapped his blanket closely around himself and sat down on the step next to the adventurer. Josiah had stopped laughing and had the remains of several tears frozen to his face. Josiah stood up and without thinking Gregory followed him.

Our hero tilted his head and looked to the sky. Then without adjusting his gaze he reached forward and tried to pat Gregory on the cheek. Gregory, moved by the gesture, said: “I’m really sorry. I wish I could help.”

The Adventurer’s face twitched back to its customary shape, an arrangement that communicated shrewd measurement being taken. “You can help, you can help.”

“How?” Gregory was excited that Josiah had judged him possibly helpful, a capable ally.

“You can help me steal some food and clothes. You know where they keep it all.”

As quickly as Gregory’s hopes had taken sail they’d been dashed on the rocks of ill-considered moral principles, fear, and career ambition. “I can’t do that. I, I can’t.”

Josiah did not smile, but did turn to look at Gregory for a second. “Why not? I’ll probably die if I leave here by myself. Where will I go?”

The young scientist had no answer for Josiah and, not being a man to talk without something to say, he remained completely silent.

Josiah tilted his open mouth back to the sky. “Well, at least I got some real snow experience. I’d only ever seen shit like this on boats, or wait…”

“From boats?”

“Yeah, yeah. Right. From boats. So why can’t you? Afraid of losing your job?”

Gregory kicked the railing with the toe of his boot, causing snow to fall off it and get picked up instantly by wind. “A little bit. But that’s not the main thing. It’s wrong. I can’t steal. It’s wrong.”

Josiah adjusted his neck posture and considered Gregory very carefully once more. “Right. Your conscience. I’m going to go die in the cold now. Goodbye.” He grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder in one motion.

“Don’t you want to come inside and warm up first?”

Josiah, already partially obscured by the wind and snow, turned all the way around and waved. “No thanks, that’ll just make my fingers feel like they’re on fire, and then I’d still die.” And without saying anything else, or visibly hinting that he understood this as a particular hardship, he turned back around and walked slowly away. Even as Josiah kept moving Gregory could make out, not exactly his form, but rather the sense of his movement. And then, after only three minutes, Gregory could not even make out the motion of Josiah’s steps through the drift. This was a place and time where walking too far down the street alone was, almost always, a fatal mistake.

Sending Josiah into the cold was the single guiltiest act of Gregory’s life, and he remembered it until his death. As it turns out, not only did Josiah’s secret plans ultimately justify Gregory’s harsh treatment, but Josiah himself would not remember any details (save one, which will be recounted at the end of this history) of his attempted Northern excursion.

***

At the third stop of his journey back to New York, Josiah got in an argument with the tavern owner over cost that ultimately resulted in our hero choking the owner’s thirteen year old daughter unconscious, and shortly thereafter finding new lodgings.

***

Three weeks later, as Gregory Francis considered his moral culpability silently, Josiah decided to set up camp in a small cow pasture. The Adventurer constructed, with all the skill and assurance of necessity, a small, half dugout in which to sleep and was soon resting comfortably.

Having lived most of his life in luggage compartments, ship’s quarters, and tenements Josiah slept in a tight, practiced fetal position, and so, out of habit and for warmth’s sake, Josiah did not stretch out flat as he looked at the stars and considered the space above the horizon’s line. He understood precisely his place, relative to north, and did not wonder what was above the stars.

A life full of the rich and squalid experiences had robbed him of the senses of wonder and imagination that generally enliven the tedium of most people’s daily activities and lives. Josiah had undertaken his adventures in part because he could not imagine for himself a life, couldn’t set goals and reach them. He was stuck perpetually in a state of improvisation. And so by this point our hero, although not naturally a clear or quick thinker, had developed an advanced ability to ad-lib.

As Josiah fell asleep, not questioning the stars but comforted by them, Gregory Francis spent several minutes collecting himself and carefully wiping his face before he passed out. When he awoke his face felt stuck together, and he used his left hand to confirm that he’d been weeping copiously in his sleep.

***

At the fourth bar of his journey back to New York Josiah bit a blacksmith named James Kleebo’s nose half off in a dispute over the rules of darts.

***

Josiah’s life of adventure had started at five when a man he met on the street used him as a prop in a small-time swindle. The man claimed that Josiah was a mute Russian prince in need of money to get home, but able to offer significant reward once there. There proved to be only one taker, who offered a nickel, which was gladly accepted, but the incident kindled Josiah’s love of excitement. Once, as an eight year old, he stole a horse and sold it, using the money to buy alcohol and a twenty-two-caliber rifle. At his earliest convenience, Josiah left home with only a wheel of cheese and a small bottle of wine, and began his adult life at the age of eleven, hiding in the hold of a ship headed to the Caribbean. His presence was discovered early, but only appreciated after Josiah’s valiant efforts helped defeat the mutiny, which lasted a week and a half and resulted in two-dozen deaths, four of them by Josiah’s own hand. It was also on this trip that Josiah learned to use maps and tie knots.

It had been two weeks since Gregory had been party to murdering that poor, crazed looking man. His pain was not constant, it was the pain of mortal guilt, and as such appeared only sporadically, and with the anxiety’s intensity increased by the long periods for which the guilt had been absent. So it was more than a bit of a surprise to himself and his co-workers when Gregory’s long, spider-like legs and arms seized up, his back straightened with violence and he slid to the floor. He was speaking, not in tongues but not particularly audibly either. The guilt he’d felt in the first couple of days was back now, and stronger.

As Gregory seized uncontrollably, Josiah negotiated the conditions of his three-night rest and recoup stay at the Parsons farmhouse. He could stay, and they would feed him, but first he would have to deal with a marauding woodland boar.

***

At the fifth bar of his journey back to New York Josiah had gambled for 17 straight hours. Having walked in with forty-seven cents in his pocket, by hour nine he had amassed over six hundred dollars.

He retired from the gaming session having lost forty-seven cents.

***

Just three days after his first attack Gregory had already understood (scientifically) that his fits were, quite possibly, permanent. He would bear the illness with grave and quiet dignity, like Howard the Duck. Howard the Duck was a test subject in Gregory’s lab. The plan was to cut small, progressive sections of Howard the Duck’s brain out, to see how much of his physical brain matter he needed to subsist. They were almost at the brainstem now, and, although Howard’s centre of balance and spatial perception were more than a little altered, he bore his cross with a calm, stoic demeanor. There was a strong flavor of poise in the deep wobble with which he stood to face the day.

Our hero had already defeated the boar, and because the battle had been so violent and protracted the Parsons were letting him stay two extra nights.

At dinner that evening Josiah lied about his past, claiming to be an orphan from the Iowa farmlands, as well as promising that he would return in a year to look for work in the region. And, after giving his sugar cake to the Parson’s youngest son Vincent, he retired to his sleeping place in the barn and contemplated his lie. Although he was a man who spoke very little he was having a problem with promises. He mulled over the situation for several minutes and, finding no pragmatic solution, fell asleep.

***

At the sixth bar of his journey back to New York, a young woman at the only occupied table began, at random, to sing hymns in Latin. After the woman had finished singing Josiah turned to the bartender and said: “That’s the sort of shit that’ll remind you of wherever you’re from.”

***

Gregory gradually settled into a new pattern in life. His fits, although frequent, were manageable. He spent the vast majority of his time at home, away from the twists and turns of life likely to trigger his spells. His guilt abated with the speed and subtlety of natural feeling, although the patterns of behavior and anxieties left by its time in his consciousness did not. He hammered away at his work, hoping, as numbers and chemicals slid into one another, to justify his existence, the scientific career he had made wrong before it had begun.

The more Gregory worked on his lifelong project the more desperate he became to solve it. For over twenty years he worked steadily. His body, never more than a doll’s temple, deteriorated further, until by the time he was thirty-nine years old he weighed only one hundred and twenty five pounds. Indeed, the farther away he got from his blood-guilt, and the more progress he made on the noble project undertaken to abate it, the worse his physical state got.

Then, one day, as easily as popping a quarter into a vending machine, Gregory added a chemical to his mixture, and with that his scientific epic was complete. He had cured Glanders, a fatal and contagious horse disease. Wishing to test his cure on real horses, Gregory spent the next week gathering all his mental resources, and then went to the farmer’s market. Nobody at the market had a horse with Glanders, but he was told that Robert Vegetable’s favorite horse, Carrot, was down with the disease at this minute.

Gregory arrived at the Vegetable family farm, and was greeted by Robert’s wife Poppy. After he explained his presence Poppy put down the shotgun and showed Gregory to the barn, where Robert Vegetable, as he had been for most of the day, was sitting on a hay bale, staring at and actively mourning Carrot. Gregory nearly fainted when he saw Robert. The Farmer and his father looked nearly identical, but instead of the rampant partial facial hair Josiah wore, Robert had a two-day partial beard. Instead of a collar of neck hair he had a collar of neck stubble. Robert turned and saw the blood drain from the scientist’s face.

“Who are you? Are you ok?” Robert began approaching the Scientist.

It took Gregory longer than was socially comfortable to answer, during which time Robert walked to the end of the barn. The farmer was less than a foot away and just starting to reach out a sympathetic hand when Gregory said:

“I’m Gregory Francis, and I’m here to cure fucking Glanders.”

Robert’s first reaction was to hug the stranger forcefully, his second was to ask politely for the stranger to temper his language.

Robert paced in a nervous, and inevitable semi-circle as Gregory examined the animal. Gregory snuck several glances at the man. He was younger, and clearly a different person, but, just as anyone wishing to fly would be overjoyed to hover, Gregory was delighted for the opportunity to pursue something reasonably close to redemption.

Robert had never met his father. He lived in rural Manitoba for his whole life, married Poppy when he was seventeen, and died (years later), not in the house in which he was born, but rather in a house that was a forty-minute walk from the house in which he was born.

Gregory administered his shot to Carrot, who whimpered softly and half raised her head before letting it fall gently back. Gregory moved over to the farmer, and held Robert gently by the elbow as he explained what he had done to the animal. If the cure worked the animal would be standing up sometime in the next hour. The ulcerations would take longer to heal but would be gone eventually, leaving only scars. The two men waited, side by side, in silence for over fifty minutes. Gregory closed his eyes after five minutes and kept them closed. Robert never looked away from Carrot.

Fifty-five minutes after the cure was administered Carrot stood weakly, and wobbled towards Robert. He allowed the horse to nuzzle him for about three minutes, then turned around and went to shake Gregory’s hand before pulling him into a tight hug.

“Thank you!”

Robert was surprised to feel the frail scientific genius crying into his shoulder, but decided that the least he could do was maintain the hug, while executing appropriately timed pats on the man’s back and ribs.

***

Josiah survived his trip back to New York. He passed through most of Northern Ontario and rural Manitoba, before crossing the border and sneaking on a train to Boston, then hitching a ride with a travelling salesman into New York. Josiah’s path was filled with the, not random but natural, twists, turns, and diversions of free fun.

Our hero was among the last of the original adventurers, and was (un)fortunate enough to live to an old age. He was a product of his time, and, as was made clear every day, his time had passed. There was no room in the world for hard men like Josiah anymore. Lives like his had been the rock foundation of this new comfort and knowledge the children who surrounded him were afforded, and, like the foundation of a house, he had been left to hold everything up, not allowed into the living room, but relied on and ignored.

And so, Josiah left the city forever. He joined a small band of survivalists who had pooled their resources to purchase a plot of off-the-grid land outside Pouce Coupe, British Columbia. Josiah’s stay at the radical survivalist compound ended when he died shortly following his arrival.

***

Those of you keenly interpreting this history will, at this point, be feeling a strong desire to know what the sole detail of his Arctic adventure that stuck with Josiah was, and it is my distinct pleasure to tell you.

At the second bar of his journey back to New York Josiah composed a lewd poem for the barmaid, Laura. He carved it into the wood of his table, and when she came to clear his bottles she read it with an un-rehearsed smile. They talked as she cleaned up, and in the morning Josiah visited her son Richard at the boy’s grandmother’s house, where he lived. Our hero spent the remainder of the day teaching the boy how to whittle wood with a knife and fish with dynamite. In the afternoon they took a brief break and speculated on the contents of grass, although Josiah himself was not particularly curious.

————————

Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.