He has an apparatus he wears when he goes at home. Holding his breath doesn’t work because aside from the olfactory nonsense he’s normal, and every normal person strains a bit from time to time. Can’t strain for very long while you’re holding your breath. Forget about public bathrooms. Can’t walk around with a gas mask on in Minneapolis. Even in Minneapolis. Off limits. Enclosed spaces in general. Too many people and odds are it’s bound to happen. Someone in the room has had cottage cheese for lunch and they don’t know about his crossed wire and they let loose a nice quiet prayer-to-god of a fart on the mall escalator. He doesn’t get a chance to decide before heaving vomit all over the back of the Farter. Not even a moment to turn out of the way. He can apologize but it never does any good. So he stays home. And when he has to go himself, he uses the apparatus.
DAN AND AMY ARE MY FRIENDS IN MINNEAPOLIS. I DIED WHILE AT A TEMPLE IN KOREA FROM INSANITY (YOU WERE A COMIC BOOK NERD SUPPORTING MY RISE TO POWER AFTER THE APOCALYPSE. PEOPLE WANTED COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS TO COME ALIVE IN MY WORLD. I WAS WEAK. YOU WERE SUPPORT.) I FOUND THE INTER-NET RECORDS IN THE AIR, AND YOU, HAVING SUCH A FINE UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THE WORLD WIDE WEB IS, SAVED ME. MY INTER-NET LIFE WAS SPARED.
I don’t know when I’m allowed to put in my headphones. I’ve done it twice now. Put them in, hit play, laid back, and then the stewardess starts making hand motions. The lights haven’t turned off. The plane isn’t moving. No electronic devices please. No headphones.
At least I’m alone. No one next to me to watch me struggle under the constant barrage of unfamiliar rules. I can squeak and squirm all I want. No apologies. The stewardess has walked off again. The plane is humming. Moving now. Surely. Headphones. Yes. Headphones. As long as I don’t focus too much on whys and hows.
Can’t let my mind settle there. Not the airplane itself, I mean. I’ve done those. I’m cool with man’s dominance of the physical world. It’s humbling and triumphant. A fat stupid metal bird lurching into the sky. No. The part I can’t think too hard on is Chicago, or her name, or the fountain, or the shoelaces dragging on the ground. It doesn’t matter, anyhow. In seventy two hours I’ll be home and life will move on.
The plane settles itself in the air and my gut sags. It’s less than an hour to O’Hare and then I guess a train ride into the city. I haven’t really thought very far into it. I didn’t have time. I bought the ticket on Wednesday, worked all day yesterday and grabbed the 28X out to airport this morning. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. I didn’t even get in touch with the few friends I have living out in Chicago. I’m on my way. That’s it. For a man who’s never spent an ounce of time considering an act of faith… Turn up the volume and stare out the window. The Ohio interstate spirals off in all directions. From this high, it looks like a future people trying to repopulate a landfill. Green around the edges.
It seemed like a thing to do. I had the days off work and it’s still too cold to kill time smoking joints in the alley. The ticket was only $97 and it’s March—if I can’t find somewhere to stay in the city of Chicago when nothing is going on outside of the permafrost thawing, I’m screwed anyway. I could always call Hilary if things fall through, I guess. She lives up north somewhere. How do I answer the obvious question? That I flew out here to meet a girl I met in a dream? She’ll punch me in the fucking dick.
I don’t dream. At least, hadn’t, up until this point. I read somewhere that I had to be dreaming, that everyone dreams, but it’s the memory part that gets in the way. It seemed logical. If I can’t remember anything while I’m awake, why on earth would I be able to remember my dreams? But I remembered her.
The stewardess stops by with the drink cart. For an hour-long flight. Because of the time-zone change, I arrive at the same time I left Pittsburgh. The coffee tastes like it’s already been digested once, but it’s a nice gesture. They could have withheld beverages and I would have been none the wiser.
It’s a strange world, up here in the sky. A world that exists without you knowing about it. All this free air up here not being put to good use. A nice place to live a different life, I’d imagine. An unknown life, sitting around the clouds.
It’s in the afternoon. In the dream. And I’m surrounded by skyscrapers. There’s a fountain. A giant fountain set off down the street. The sun has burst and it reflects around the wet steel and glass of the thawing city. Fuck, I think there were even birds flying through the air. Like a movie. And she walked towards me from the fountain through the crowds of Midwesterners milling around the square. She was—is? young. Her dark hair was unkempt. She slouched, just slightly, and her shoelaces dragged across the ground. Her eyes—distortion or otherwise; she was coming for me. An answer pursed on her lips.
I don’t know. It’s burned in there. I saw the same thirty seconds over and over again. Her walking towards me. Every early morning for two weeks straight. I don’t remember to buy toilet paper until I’m peeling apart 2-ply paper towels, but I remember every second of it. I found the buildings and the fountain—Buckingham Fountain—on Google Maps. I don’t really know what the plan is. I have a book. Tentatively… sit there. Until the light is right. Or until dark. Jesus christ. That’s really my plan.
The overhead light dings on. Headphones off. Coming in for a landing. The world gets larger outside the window. Rises up at the plane at a speed that seems impossible. It’s Friday, 11:00am central time. Her name is Diana and she’s waiting for me by the fountain, and by Sunday, this will be done.
SOMEBODY COMES INTO POSSESSION OF A DOG THAT HE INADVERTENTLY TEACHES TO SPEAK, BUT ONLY [ONE] WORD, AND ONE BY ONE EACH SOUND IT MAKES BECOMES THAT WORD, DRIVING THE OWNER TO MADNESS
He coos and I find subtle ways to stop the water from spilling over the banks of my eyes and onto his bristling skin. The way he says my name—the way he’s able to say my name without pause, without regret. His bitten fingernails trace across my side and he does it again. A deep breath. Exhale. “Oliver.” With his entire body. If I could shorten time. If I could cut the last month out of my mind and focus just on his weight against my ribs. Close my eyes. Take him in. If he would just stop saying my name.
It’s the size of a rowboat. Lie down in a rowboat and that’s what you’ve got. Aluminum on all six sides. A pleasant material, actually. Even in winter the metal feels warm.
I suppose they wanted to see if I’d chew through my wrists. Try to choke myself on my rations or light myself on fire. Didn’t. I told em.
I told em. I said GIVE ME FUCKING CIGARETTES THEN, and I’d be fine. Food and water and cigarettes? Sign me up. Paid vacation I said.
Don’t know how long it’s been. Eighteen hundred forty seven cartons, by last count. There’s proper ventilation and no one to ask me how the fucking weather is. I’ve worked out seven new ways to represent base pairs of ten. Wrote a concerto I can play with whistling and fingers. Never once tried to head-butt the floor til I hemorrhaged.
They asked me “Do you understand the risks?”
I asked them what they meant. They repeated the assignment. I said GIVE ME SOME FUCKING CIGARETTES, THEN. Risks. Fucking fleecing those ignorant assholes one drag at a time.
August hadn’t seen herself in eight months. Well, mostly hadn’t seen herself. She’d had a pocket compact that helped her cover blemishes and when the sun was rising she’d sometimes catch her ghost in the window, but other than that, they were contraband. Strictly prohibited the minute you walked through the door. In eight months, she hadn’t seen what her jeans looked like with her body inside of them. She couldn’t tell what the campus cafeteria had done to her silhouette. She knew that she’d gone from a size three to a size nine, an incredible number to her in such a short time. She could feel the weight. But she’d never seen it. She’s not supposed to think about it. She is beautiful. She should not need a mirror.
The counselors made a point never to talk to August in terms of sight, appearance or perception. Every compliment was one of inner-character. Every criticism a momentary misstep. She was supposed to have been reprogrammed, the hours spent fixated on inner strength to wash out the old, destructive needs. Without television or magazines or pixie girlfriends, her broken ego could rebuild itself in safety. No pressure. No competition. No anxiety.
They couldn’t touch her memories, though. She wished they could, so that every step forward wasn’t met by a raw nerve. When she sees the marks her underwear leave on her abdomen and the creases forming in her neck, she knows what they mean out there, in the real world. She knows that the nice people working at Duck Hollow think that she’s beautiful. And that they’re paid to. They’re paid to find her soul entrancing and her inner-self admirable and invaluable. August never understands why she can’t be both. Why she can’t have a beautiful inner strength and an ugly fat disgusting appearance. They tell her that appearance is only a construction of the self, and that once she understands that completely, her compulsions will wither on the vine.
Her parents squeeze her sides in an awkward, three-way embrace when they see her come through the lobby doors. Her mother kisses her. Her father takes her bag. They tell her that she’s positively glowing. That she’s never looked better. That it was so good to see her this way. That she is beautiful and that they hope she looks like this for the rest of her life. They don’t ask how she thinks or feels or dreams or needs. It’s only minutes before she’s sitting in the back seat of the sedan, her hand absentmindedly itching at her waist band.
The difference is pretty subtle at first. It feels like tiredness. An ache, somewhere. Nothing is comfortable. I can shift my weight one way or another, and the frequency continues to shrink. I find the box in the closet, a last resort. It feels like a countdown. Watching a clock watch me back. I fold out the card table into the middle of the room and I bring in a wooden chair from the kitchen table. I open the box and for the briefest of moments it feels hollow. Like an ending that I can remember, a dreadful thing that never leaves as easily as it comes around. A thing owned by time.
As I get closer, it starts to feel like starvation. What I think starvation might feel like. A sucking dryness. A desperate need without the ability to satiate it. The picture finished but unfinished. Picking through the dust on the bottom of a grey cardboard box, the minutea overtaking the basest signals of my brain. Five plus two becomes swallowing and counting slowly. A sunset signals deep breaths. The song on the radio no better than a metronome. A phone call a transcontinental post card. And you, generally, too far away; a puzzle piece left in a house on the hill in a town a long time ago.
THE BRILLIANT THOUGHTS OF A MIDDLE AGED WRITER WITH A FAILING MARRIAGE AND DWINDLING CAREER WHILE PEOPLE-WATCHING AT A COFFEE SHOP.
So the coffee shop part-that part’s true. I was there, and I wasn’t really there for any reason other than to not be at home. So maybe the failing marriage part is true too. I don’t know, I don’t even think of it in those terms anymore. But yeah, I was at the coffee shop, drinking an Americano, listening to the things around me.
Like I said before, the part they got wrong was the phone call. They say there’s no record of it, nothing in a Verizon database anywhere to account for a thirty minute voicemail left for me at 8:07 on a Tuesday night. I swear to god it was there. I listened to it. I listened to it three times over the next two hours, trying to figure out what to do with what I’d heard.
I didn’t recognize the number. Area code 814. That’s all I can remember. I don’t know why it’s not on the phone anymore, or in my voicemail account for that matter. I didn’t delete it. It was there twenty minutes before I was arrested. I’d just listened to it. Just figured out that she’d said Amy. Her name was Amy. And she was very upset at someone named Dan.
It sounded like it was coming through a pocket, or a purse maybe. There were sequences of rhytmic jostling; walking, probably. At first it seemed innocuous, except that the number wasn’t in my phone. I listened for a few minutes, just wondering. Bored, I guess. Yeah, fine. People-watching.
At 10:12 it went-it got ugly. A woman was screaming. I could only make out pieces: “downstairs” and a few shrill “fuck-“s and then a door slamming. I’d assumed I’d stumbled onto a college break-up. Or a teenager fighting with their parents. Until she started whispering. Whispering my name, over and over again into the phone.
I know it sounds crazy and I know I can’t prove anything because they say the god damn message is gone. Ask them where it went. They took my phone the second I was in handcuffs. I haven’t seen it since. For all I know they’re lying to me and they’ve traced the incoming phone number and found a vindictive kid leaving prank messages on random phones. She could have heard my name from my voicemail message. She could have found my number on a business card. She knew things, though. Terrible things.
…I typed it out to them, yeah. To the best of my memory. She used uglier words and phrases. Somehow simpler and more. I couldn’t recreate them.
“Roger, Roger, Roger, Roger [she keeps repeating]-Roger I’m going to do it tonight. I’ve given him sedatives. I’ve given him sedatives, Roger. Roger, roger, roger[repeating]. I’m waiting for him to turn off his light and then I’m going back inside with my knife, Roger. Roger I’m calling you because I know you want to listen. I know that that’s why you’re sitting there, in that chair, waiting. Roger wants to hear it. A life. Roger, Roger, Roger[repeating]. I’m going to hold the phone up close to his throat, Roger. So close. I’m going to let you hear it tear open. I’m going to give you what Jan doesn’t even know exists. What you need but can’t have. Roger, Roger, Roger [repeating]. You will hear the knife go in but I can’t make you feel it, Roger, Roger, Roger [repeating indefinitely.] Ah, Roger. The light is out.”
That’s where the call ended. My voicemail box was full. A machine said so. I listened over and over. I tried finding a Dan and Amy. I looked everyone. I googled the phone number and posted it on Facebook to see if anyone knew it. I paid $20 for a reverse look-up. Nothing worked. I went home and the police were waiting for me.
Jan was standing in the doorway as they handcuffed me. I asked them why, they said they found Dan. I asked them who Dan was, they asked me about a knife they found hidden in my filing cabinet. They told me I had the right to remain silent. I asked them to listen to the message. They took my phone. I’ve been in jail for three weeks with no hearing set. You tell me what the fuck happened.
“The man makes a lot of poor choices for a few years in a row and then some other things happen which sort of exasperate his situation. The man does a lot of stuff for a long while. He eats three quarters of too many pizzas and tries to color too many experiences with his bored brand of exhaustion. Doesn’t really work for anyone. The man doesn’t do well at making things work. Doesn’t do well at anything relatable, really. But the man knows that. Has been gnashing on it for years, unable to swallow. Unable to spit. The man doesn’t change and the scenery doesn’t change and so the story doesn’t change and that’s that.” — NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW, AUGUST 17th
Ben’s moving today. He’s got most everything he owns packed up into boxes from the Kroger and they’re stacked neatly against walls surrounding the apartment building’s first floor hallway. He’s waiting on his girlfriend to come with the truck. She left twenty minutes ago. Feels like hours to Ben. His neighbors walk by and ask if he’s moving in. Some of them know him, or his face, anyway. And they certainly know his girlfriend, who meets everyone, always. And Molly. If Molly were here, instead of at his sister’s, certainly they’d know.
Ben hadn’t really planned on moving. Not to the suburbs. The sprawl is deafening to him. The time waiting at lights, inside Olive Gardens, listening to lawnmowers. Nothing about it seemed appealing. Sure, he’d be paying less, and on a mortgage. He’d own something, at least tacitly, and that was a step that he felt good undertaking. But the commute. Ben is moving from a ten minute walk to his computer analyst cubicle to a forty minute, panic inducing drive in from the South Hills. He’d built a routine around waking at eight AM, showering, enjoying a cigarette, walking Molly, and arriving to work casually and on time. Now it would be six thirty, at best. And he’d have to drive. He’d have to get a driver’s license. Ben’s girlfriend saw only positives. A home. An official start to their official lives together.
Ben bought the house two weeks earlier, in a panic. He’d needed a yard, a good sized yard, fenced in preferably. He needed it to be close but affordable. Those were the only stipulations he gave Grace Realty and they found the beige farmhouse that needed some love but was ready when Ben was. Ben was ready, because he was tired of watching Molly.
For his twenty-seventh birthday, Ben bought himself a toy. He told his girlfriend that he was going to develop machine level code on it. Hobby. A flying drone the size of a football that flitted around their apartment on four plastic rotors. Ben could control it from his office computer. He could see what it saw through its high definition optics. Ben didn’t program flight stabilization algorithms for the toy. He didn’t use its camera to make a topography of his kitchen. He watched his dog Molly, pacing back and forth in front of the apartment door, from eight fourty-five in the morning until, he assumed, he walked through the door at five fifteen. He fixed the drone’s camera on the unsettled hound and couldn’t bear to look away.
She’d tire of pacing for a time and wander through the rest of the house. Ben would follow. She’d pick at her food, her smooth black coat shimmering from the afternoon sun coming through the kitchen window. She’d run her side along the dining room chairs, itching herself. She’d make the rounds through the four rooms and then back to the door to sit, her body running the length of the door frame, waiting.
Ben watched for ten days before telling his girlfriend that he was moving. That he didn’t want to be couped up in the city anymore. Fuck this shitty apartment and the pot holes and the hospital helicopters, he told her. He told her that he wanted a yard to mow and a porch to sit on. That he wanted her to come with him. That he was ready for a new life. Molly sat between their legs, her snout buried into their thighs. Ben ran his fingers under the creases of her ears, right where he knew to, and he thought of her lying in the grass, mouth gaping into the sky and tail beating against the ground.
We gotta move, Ben said to the muted television. As much for you as for me.
It’s important to Tom because Tom likes figurines. Figurines of a particular type. Figurines that have a certain unmistakable quality that, without prejudice or ceremony, gives Tom a raging high-beams eyes wide open hard on. Figurines originally made thirty years ago by an individual or group known only by the name stamped in the ceramic feet of these explicit creatures: ALLEN.
Tom doesn’t remember, really, where it started. A thrift shop, he thinks. And he’s mostly right. Tom doesn’t remember the figurines that his father kept in the basement. The figurines that his older brother stole and hid between his mattresses. The figurines his mother threw against the living room wall during a particularly troubling series of family fatigues. Those figurines were unrecognizable to Tom when he saw them the first time. They were beyond his grasp. They fell away to Triceratops’s and Ninja throwing stars and grape soda. He didn’t know.
At 24, wandering the way his generation wandered, Tom went looking for an ashtray and instead came home with the little wonder. Five inches of corruption. Filthy, but only because it had talked to him. ALLEN was in there, somewhere. It had a particularly interesting set of angles and deformations. ALLEN knew that there was a code buried in Tom’s brain that made looking at that figurine feel like picking out a new puppy while the checkout girl has both balls in your mouth. That’s Tom’s particular view of things, anyhow. That these ALLEN figurines do something particular unique and unequivocally good. There is no bad, Tom thinks, from staring into their eyes for hours on end. No disease or death or deprivation caused by the evenings he spends in his bath, eyes half open, focused on the fuzzy visage propped on the tub at his feet, his hands wrinkled and laced together behind his knees.
There are several places to look for information about the ALLEN “statues”, the phenomena associated, and the cult-like status the creators of the baubles have attained. None of it is accurate and none of it helps Tom from grinding his teeth in his sleep. He’d be more forgiving of himself if he could just find another voice to add cadence to his own. Someone or something that could help him accept his love for what it is, and move beyond it. Something to bury his guilt. That ALLEN was a crazy man living on a mountain. That it’s a government conspiracy. ALlen sort of looks like alien. The figurines could look like Arabic characters outside during the month of May at four in the afternoon.
He can’t ever hope to know any more than he does already. He paces back and forth in between bouts of bliss and work and sleep and disconnection. He leans on the tiny strength of those little beasts, using the knowledge of them to buoy his best and worst days. Tom’s made the choice. He’d like to pretend that there’s still room to choose, but the figurines know different.
They have a history, as does ALLEN, as will Tom. It isn’t anything good or heartwarming or instructional. Their histories aren’t better or worse because of their relationship to the figurines. But when Tom tries one day, once and for all, to end his seduction, he does so unprepared. He does so when he comes home, after being forced into a dinner engagement with coworkers that turned into half-good pool at the bar and a cab ride home and an intense feeling of control. He does so after finding the half-full bottle of sickeningly sweet vodka and the ball-peen hammer he used to crack nuts on his coffee table. He put one of them down. His newest, to be fair, but one of the figurines, the beholder, the object of infinite power. Tom smiles and drinks and smiles and screams at the figurines and swings the hammer against the table over and over again, pocking the surface surrounding the figuring, tempting it. Drawing it closer.
Tom hit it, then. He smashed the hammer into the ceramic anonymity and it fell apart pathetically. No dust or explosions or transference of power. Just broken pottery and a piece of paper that had been gnarled up inside. A piece of paper folded over an impossible number of times. Oh, Tom.
He begins unfolding the paper. Enough time passes that the vodka is gone and Tom is sick to himself, slurring his pronouncements into the walls of his tiny apartment, waiting to find out what this was all about. The big payoff. The sliver of parchment had unraveled itself to cover most of the coffee table, but there was nothing to be read. No ALLEN letterhead or confessional note or riddle to be solved. A blank sheet of paper.
No, not blank. Tom doesn’t see it, because it’s faded. The ink’s gone. ALLEN hadn’t planned for it.
The paper, in the center of the paper, was written a word. Barely staining the paper now. Tom can’t read the word. Would maybe be able to read it if he took it somewhere, a laboratory, a university. But he would have to talk about ALLEN. And breaking the figurine. He can’t read the word and he broke the figurine and he pukes. He vomits into his lap.
He wakes up tomorrow and can’t remember why. Or what happened. He remembers the bar. He remembers the hammer and he can see the remains of his addiction littered across his table. He sees the paper. Tom checks his watch, has to leave for work in thirty minutes. He turns back towards the bedroom and to the other beautiful creatures. He closes his bedroom door behind him and leans his forehead against the cool glass of the mirror hanging from the back. In it, right against his eye, he can see them and he feels his mind slip. So nice. So much nicer than anything anyone could ever understand, he thinks to himself. His breath condenses on the mirror around his cheek. He stays there a long time, longer than thirty minutes, certainly, because he thinks he sees something about number three that he hadn’t seen before. An angle he hadn’t let curl around his mind for hours at a time.
It’s okay, Tom likes to think to himself. Whatever ALLEN is. It’s mine and it’s okay.