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Thursday, July 31, 2008

UP THERE

It starts—or at least I choose to start it—as I'm going up some stairs, into her room. She lives in the attic, up through a tiny hatch. Stairs small and steep, not for her tiny feet, but my shoes take two edges at a time. A room swung on hooks, her clothes closing in. This week it's pleated skirts, her thing, her theme. Four different sorts, layered one behind the other, a sliding scale in grey.

This girl, I must explain, can make me dance deep with my enemies. She punches right through me, and I cannot get enough. It's the first time she's let me up here, this secret place she exists. I'm dressed in my best clothes, rugged up for the expected cold, somehow feeling stuffy and stupid now. She kicks back, more casual than I've ever seen her. Jeans and singlet. Her never-previous let's-stay-in look. She's taking me apart. Piece by tiny piece.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

TERMINAL

When I told him I was sick, it was like ...

Well, it was like nothing. It was just another part of me behaving automatically, like a leg walking or some fingers grasping.

It just came out of me.

What sort of sick?

Really, like, really sick. Hand running over the back of my neck like I'm showering in the movies, hot water running down my back.

Shit. He steps closer. The mucked-up hairs on his head. Are you? Okay? High-ended sentences, trying to lift me.

Yeah, I say. I mean, it hasn't sunken in yet, you know.

For sure.

*

Heading into work the next night, I think of him. He's got his shirt off, and that gorgeous high hair is cartoonish against his pale thin body. Cro-Manga man. And I imagine I'm at the opposite end of the day: successful, purposeful, power-suit striding through intersections is swatches of coffee and smokey-grey, heel, toe, heel, toe.

But I'm fighting, instead, the get-home masses, threading up through them in my sky blue tracksuit, trying to exude some untapped purpose. And when I get there, when I've swiped in and picked up my inventory, he's there, waiting.

Feel like working? Together? That hapless, sexy, unused smile.

We're side by side, reaching back, circulating cereal boxes, when he talks again. I want you to know? That if I can? You know?

I hug the giant Special K to my chest. Sweat in my hair. Thanks, Dan. That really means a lot to me.

And then it's out there, the confirmation. No going back now.

*

If I'd had any sense, I would've changed shifts, changed jobs, gone away for a while and left him alone. But there—right there—was that stupid empty part of me that always needed filling.

I allowed us to fall into routine. I knew he had made them change his roster. I sensed the changes as co-workers came and went in new patterns. He had moved this little universe around me.

He's there, one more week, and we're walking back through the stock room at the end of our shift, when he says, Lyla?

Yeah?

How long? I mean, how long? Have they given you? He's stopped and I've stopped. Distant groans of trucks outside.

Ah, six months. Six to nine. My voice wavers as I say this thick putrid lie, but Dan—sweet fucking Dan—misreads it, puts his hand on my arm.

I'm so. Sorry.

*

From there on, from any moment forward from then, the tiny details of life rage like waves. And I don't ever want them to stop. He knows I live alone, so he brings in casseroles wrapped in foil. Mum makes too much anyway, he tells me. And she says there's no, ah, hurry to bring back the dish.

I love him more intensely for his embarrassment, all that latent weight shifting from shoe to shoe. I hug him, and imagine being young again, that time when life was somehow spent more happily in a lower resolution.

When our cheeks brush, my tears transfer to his soft face.

*

I walk through there sometimes, now, but only in the day, only when I'm sure he's not around. I walk up the aisles and it feels wrong, all this noise, all this colour. I miss the squeak of footsteps on the polished floor, nothing more.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

CIRCA THE DEAD BALL ERA

On went the good thick greasepaint, in went the five Wrigley's, stacked up like pancakes. On with the worn-out cleats, just worn out enough. Walking tip-toed over the short span of concrete, clinking the bat, squeezing the worn-out rubber of the handle. Hands already sweaty, already letting seeping their own fears. The thoughts of turning back, three swipes to the gods of air, furious raging cheeks. That certain glint of sun off the pitcher's blonde head, the dust and grass doing contortionist's tricks. The ball already dense with spit and well-spent fury, dark as sin in the dusk. The nods of ghostly faces disappearing in the twilight outfield: wound-up bodies waiting for your muscle-twitch. Here's the wind-up. And here it comes.

Monday, July 28, 2008

FROM DAY TO DAY

All those thick windows, immovable. All that air, fresh-spilt from the atmosphere, circling around outside where no one could reach it. Raoul lent his head back, letting the weight of it piston out the cricks in his neck. Day nine, in this luxury hotel room. Luxury already more than gone. Just a more comfortable prison, the same way any place turned awful the longer you spent in it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A NURSURY RHYME FOR BOYS

Hush little Baby, don't you cry,
Mama's gonna bake you a pumpkin pie.
And if that pumpkin pie's no good,
Mama's gonna shack up with Robin Hood.
And if Robin Hood don't treat her right,
Mama's gonna set his head alight.
And if his head don't burn so good,
Mama's gonna throw on gas and wood.
And if Mama can evade the laws,
She's gonna buy some robotic claws.
And if a helicopter's free,
She's gonna go on a killing spree.
And those who evade her metal hands,
Will get sliced up by sharpened fans.
So hush little Baby, don't you cry.
Mama's gonna help you, don't ask why.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

CINNAMON HOURS

It came at them like a backwards spun voice: uneasy, nearly identifiable, but still rapidly strange. Ghosts, they thought. Maybe. All they had was the sound of two human breaths, and above them, whatever was left after their inner selves had been expelled. Three more hours, they mouthed to each other, and then we can end it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

TIGEREYE

It’s a windy spring day, and tree spores copter down in alien invasions. The sun blares out and scores of people wear the long-sleeved, broad-brimmed uniform of sensible outdoor workers. I can’t bring myself to join them. Even my shoes—runners with acrylic mesh across the top—are hardly the covered footwear outlined in the hastily printed posters, but they will have to do. Without the luxury of oversubscription, this particular adventure reluctantly embraces me.

Our group leader, who has a name something like Tarragon, is a bunch of bristles under a legionnaire’s cap with two deep-set eyes that I can feel do not like me at all. Those who impress Tarragon are the few who, like him, have arrived wearing wincingly reflective yellow King Gee jumpsuits, the fashion equivalent of four-wheel-drives never taken off bitumen. My legs have already sprung up in hives from the spiky pollened grass that grows waist high across nearly the entire valley.

We beat the grass with long identical sticks. Our team has been assigned a set of co-ordinates, marked in orange highlighter on a badly photocopied map, and we work our way along while each section is measuredly eliminated.

Keep to the line! shouts Tarragon, his voice carrying needlessly away over the valley.

Everyone looks up, searching for the out-of-step member of the party, and it’s me, a few steps behind, prodding the itchy grass attentively.

Stay together— there’s potential evidence everywhere! Tarragon shouts again, barbing his comment rather obviously in my direction.

I wave my hand deferentially, but hold my position. I keep my eyes fixed on the point continually opening for me in the thick grass as I bend it down with my stick, like when you push hair apart to see the scalp beneath.

I think he wants you to keep up, says a woman next to me who usually works in the newsagent’s. She touches my arm, as if I am actually in some way impaired and need gentle reminders of the way people behave.

I know, I tell the woman, but I’m not quite done here yet.

She looks at me quizzically. There’s a procedure, she says, touching my arm again. She thinks she’s just being understanding, that we’re all going through a lot right now, but if we all just pitch in together, everything will be okay.

The procedure won’t work if we’re half-arsed about it, I say. I’m taking my time, looking for details, not just thrashing around like a musketeer.

Most of the line stops, staring at the lady and I. Tarragon rapiers on oblivious, personifying my analogy rather brilliantly. Eventually he spins around and sees us all standing still.

What’s this? he shouts.

Someone thought he’d go at his own pace, sneers the newsagency lady, shedding her humanity like a fruit skin.

Tarragon’s black-marble eyes bore into me. Right, he says. You. Out of the line. Now!
I carefully step back.

Tarragon hoists a grin to his lips. If you think you’re so much more observant than us, why don’t you go back where the dawn team started, and see if they missed anything.

And where would that be?


Grid section J4. Hop to it! Tarragon waves his arms, and the line moves forward without me, enveloping my vacant space.

I swipe my black stick at the disappearing figure of our team leader. Grid section J4 is back behind where we all parked out cars—at least a twenty-minute walk. Tarragon obviously expects me to just jump back in my car and head home. I want to prove him wrong. If his ego is bigger than the importance of the day, then to acquiesce will be to let everyone else down.

I whistle as I walk, relishing my solitude in a day of forced cooperation. The hunching backs of search teams ridge every hill; foot-flattened grass stretches away in equidistant waves; low branches lie broken, wrested away by inquisitive hands. The broken call and response of walkie-talkies wails sullenly in the distance. I locate section J4 via a green cross spray-painted to a granite rock. A cigarette lies in the dirt, trodden down, peeking up like a periscope. I set off down the wide flattened trail, determined to be like those detectives in radio dramas who calmly find the clue everyone else has missed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

HELVETICA

We pulled in just as the sun lent a burnt lip to the mountains. Swaying past were ferns and hydrangeas, flapping at the windscreen, leaving water and pollen. Lee wiped his hand across the inside of the window, and seemed only slightly surprised when it made no difference. I thought, he said, maybe, the condensation.

I smiled thinly and re-gripped the wheel. The unpaved road made steering a series of tics and twitches, like the old jeep was a skittish, jumpy animal. Nearly there.

The garage shimmered with formaldahyde. No air for fifteen years, at least. Lee shivered. Reverse out, he said. Let me get out in the garden. And who was I to argue. I backed the jeep out, and he jumped out before I'd even stopped. I could tell already, the way he kept pushing her hair back. He didn't want to be here. A chorus of voices told me the same thing.

We went in through the side of the house, through the always-open screen door. That smell was still there. Hot fruit and soy sauce.

Jesus, said Lee, covering his mouth with his hand.

I looked at him. I said, Seriously. You're going to do this? and he just shrugged his shoulders, standing still. I clenched my jaw, relaxed it—the way he hated—and felt the pleasant settling pain, my teeth realigning.

She was in the back garden. Of course. Never any ceremony, especially not now.

Ahoy there, I shouted out, from the open kitchen window. My mother half-turned, a clump of rainforest soil bulging through her tightened hand. Her face, from a 90-degree bend, looked more happy than surprised.

Thought you were coming later, she shouted back. As she straightened up, the grim chalkstripe of her mouth levelled off. She had on her overalls, her constant patchwork armour since dad went; almost no denim to them now, all material scraps and dirt.

I didn't answer her. Just watched the wind picking at her hair. Lee appeared at my side. Hi, Helv, he said.

Mum licked her lips. So, she said, I get both boys, do I?

I felt Lee's fingers digging into my shoulder. Ignoring her comment, I said, You want we should take the guest room?

She shrugged her shoulders. Got a bit more to do here. Sleep where you want.

I leant my head against Lee's and watched the old lady turn away.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SOME POPULAR GHOST STORIES EXPLAINED

THE MYSTERY AT WINSBURY MANOR, OR, THE BASSINET NEVER FALLS FAR FROM THE NEST

Wilhelm van Bilge was a moderately successful importer. He stood up one night. That was when the ghost killed him, but the ghost was invisible, so it looked like Wilhelm just died for no particular reason. And also there was also a cot in the room he was standing in. It turned out the ghost was Wilhelm's dead child, come back to seek revenge on him because he pushed his pregnant wife down some stairs, killing her and the child. That's why the cot was important. But why was the cot in the room with him, if his child had been killed? Well, he had bought the cot some months before the child's birth because it was on sale, and his wife had reasoned that the next time they saw it, when they really needed it, that the cot would be far more expensive, and that would be typical. Was Wilhelm, then, perhaps killed by this very irony? No, it was the ghost.



THE LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY, OR, THE MYSTERY OF THE LOCKED ROOM

On that fateful morning, Lady Clarice Wottingstall was found dead in her bed chamber. How she died was a mystery. Her room, which had no windows for some reason and only one door, had been guarded all night by three members of an ancient Peruvian Pygmy tribe—whose own peculiar physiology meant they could never fall asleep, and were hyper-sensitive to noise and movement—who were guests of Lady Wottingstall, and, because of the Somerset Detectives' Convention that very weekend taing up all available rooms at Wottingstall House, had to spend the night stationed at various points down the hallway. Lady Wottingstall, as was her tradition, had spent half and hour before bed checking every possible hiding place in her bedroom (a quirk of personal psychology owing to a particularly traumatic childhood Easter, when her parents forgot where they had hidden the eggs) and came up empty, meaning that no one could have got in or out of her bedroom once her door was locked. How then, did she die? And how to explain the curious moisture that had permeated not only her body, but the entire room?

After many days of investigation by not one but thirteen separate detectives, no answer could be found. Until one day, when the House's boot-polish boy wandered into the bed chamber in search of a missing brush and suddenly exclaimed: "Crimey! This room ain't got no roof!"

The young boy was quite right, but this fact was neither here nor there. It was the Pygmies who did it. Which just goes to show, doesn't it.



THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM AND THE PANCAKE, OR, THIRD TIME'S THE QUALM!

Our unnamed narrator is tried and persecuted for an unknown crime (that crime is, in fact, the unlawful possession and distribution of pencil rubbings) and awakes in what he thinks is a pitch black prison cell (it is). He discovers a bottomless pit in the middle of the room, as well as a plate of pancakes in one corner, and an old grandfather clock in the other. Things go quite well for the rest of the day, as the narrator stays well away from the pit, rations out the pancakes, and enjoys the melodious sounds of the grandfather clock. The next morning, however, he wakes up to find that the plate of pancakes has gone.

It turns out that one of the prison guards had just taken the plate away to refill it with fresh pancakes. Our narrator is mortally embarrassed when the guard returns, as he has been worrying that some dreadful fate has befallen his plate of sweet buttermilk flapjacks. He even thought that they might have disappeared down the hole. Talk about a red face!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

AFTERS

God, it had been a while since The General had ridden up over a hill feeling quite so good. The morning air was fresh, the ground was thick with clean dew, and great buckets of light came through the trees in such a way that a man could be forgiven for moistening up like a Nancy-boy.

This was The Stuff. There hadn't been much of it in The General's life of late, what with the minor setback and detainment on the Home Front, but now The Stuff was back, and it felt terrific. Oh, and the feeling of a fine horse between his legs. How he had missed that. All the muscles and the fetlocks and all that business with the mane. Oh yes. His uniform shone, every button polished perfectly, with all those lovely epaulets and tassels in the rightest of places. And that wonderful red line that ran down the sides of his trousers without the hint of a rumple—well, that was the stuff of legend. His boots were pointy and long, and they faced dead ahead.

The General could not wait for the generous tinge of gunpowder to waft over from the valley, to hear the boom of the cannons and the frantic cry of the enemy. Life, The General was wont of saying, was simply what one did between battles. Just beyond those thick birch trees lay his camp, and a legion of faithful men waiting to respond to his every call. Oh yes, The General was a tactician of the highest quality, always weighing up the options of attack, or for that matter, defence. The General could already see his lines of battlefield incision, the brilliant flanking movements of his men encircling the enemy.

Here it was now, as he emerged from the trees. He sat up even higher on his horse, closed his eyes, and braced himself for triumphant hurrahs and perhaps a rousing bugle tune to accompany his return. The air would ring with cries of, “The General returns!” and “Thank God for The General!” as he rode proudly among his grateful troops.

Strangely, though, no such comments came. The General opened his eyes. Where his strategy tent had once stood, there was now a bare expanse of earth. The place where his faithful lieutenants and officers had queued to receive their orders was now just overgrown groundcover. Where once a thousand brave men raced past the gleaming cannons onto the glorious field of battle with their bayonets held aloft in the name of Freedom —there was now nothing but a rolling meadow, knee-high grass waving in the light breeze.

Surely, thought The General, this could not be the hallowed ground where he had once out-manoeuvred a whole battalion with the superb use of the Punnerman formation. Surely this was not the place where he had fought alongside his men—his brothers—in the cause of the common good.

And yet, there was the tree under which he had stood when all seemed lost, and devised the tactics that brought about the famous Charge of the Spades. And over there, where that depression filled the ground, was that not the spot where a wayward cannon had almost taken three hundred of his men? Where had it all gone? The sun that had gleamed brilliantly off The General’s buckles only moments before now held heavy and hot on his silver-haired head.

There was movement in the fields below. A lone figure walked towards the General, with a gently swaying walk. Great Heavens, thought The General, the lone figure was in civilian clothes, and carried his hands in his pockets. The General rode down into the valley to scrutinise the man from closer quarters.

“What ho!” said The General to the figure, who, on closer inspection, proved to be a man of a haggard description, his shirt ragged and his face unshaven. “Where is the battle that once graced these fields?”

“Battle?” growled the man, “Wha’ battle?”

The General looked at the scruffy figure with more than a hint of suspicion. Here, evidently, was a man who had not felt the cold, flat blade of war pressed against his vitals.

“Why, The Battle,” bellowed The General, rising higher in his saddle with the glorious memory.

The man just scrunched up his face, looking, to The General’s eyes, not unlike a pumpkin that had been left out too long in the sun.

“You do not mean to tell me," said The General,"that you have never heard of the Charge of the Spades."

The man shook his head.

“What about the Punnerman formation?”

The man shook his head again.

“But you must have heard of the great General that presided over these fields,” said The General, moustache bristling with pride.

“I told you,” said the man, “I ain’t ’eard ’o no battle, I ain’t ’eard ’o no Punner’am formation, and I ain’t ’eard ’o no general.’ He scratched his finger vigorously around inside his ear. “Whass more,” he added, “there ain’t never been no battle ’ere for as long as I been walking these fields. And that be quite a while.”

“No battle?” said the General quietly. The red stripe down the side of his trousers had rumpled slightly.

“Ravin’ loony,” said the scruffy man, before walking off over the hill.

The General was left alone in the middle of the field—a field conspicuously absent of gun smoke or courageous cries or brilliant tactical formations.

If you desire peace, The General was once fond of saying, then prepare for war. Perhaps, he thought, it should have been the other way around.

He tugged on his horse’s reins, and with a noticeable slump in his shoulders, rode back the way he had come.

Monday, July 21, 2008

THE GREAT STINGING VELVET, PART 1

I was happy enough, I suppose, until the end of the week, when my mood would swallow itself painfully and I would have to face that awful, unavoidable encounter waiting for me just beyond the gates. I could leave school earlier or later, I could run or I could crawl, and still it would happen. Three of them appearing, sometimes four. Big stupid mouthbreathers whose sole purpose in life, it seemed, was punching me square in the penis.

If I had any sort of wit about me then, I could may have used this to my advantage; the groinal fixation of my bullies, and one in particular, may have been an effective defense where my feeble body-strength was not. The unofficial leader, a scale-faced thug called Roland, was the one who insisted on reframing my daily physical assault into more southerly areas. Which is not to say I detected any sexual pleasure on his part: I really just got the impression he felt he could lessen the stress on his fists by punching something soft, like genitals, rather than something hard, like my head. For that, I suppose, I can be thankful. Not that it made Fridays any more bearable.

But, in the end, this primary school memory became one of many that faded against the inevitable accumulation of older anxieties, so much so that by the time I saw Roland again, some thirty-four years later, I had all but forgotten it. And as so often happens in that strange mire of symmetries we call a life, there was a certain balance to it.

I had been called out to a small cattle farm on the outskirts of the town I now lived, and I wound down the windows as I drove, trying to put some movement through the heavy stillness of the day. News, as it happened, had been as rare as a cool wind for weeks, and when that call had come through earlier that morning, it felt heaven sent. Being the lucky one nearest the phone, I assured the voice on the other end that I would be out right away. My editor almost wept happy tears when I told him I had a lead. We had one more issue to fill before the sweet vacuum of the Sabbath, and so far our front page (and at least three more nearby) were violently blank.

The cattle farm's owner met me at the side of the highway; the entrance to his farm being seemingly a four centimetre space in the continuous angry wave of buffalo grass that lined the roads for kilometres in either direction.

"No signs," he explained. "Don't need 'em." He had the hardened skin of a sun-worker, with baby-soft pink trapped between his squint-creases. "Frank Summers," he said as an introcution. "You'd better get in the ute." He gestured to what was once probably a white pickup. "You can leave your car down behind the grass. Perfectly safe."

So we made our way up the clotted stone riot he called his driveway, me placing my notebook quietly under my arse to stop the blood blisters I envisaged as we juddered along on threadbare seats. "When did this all start?" I shouted to Frank over the scream of the engine.

"Can't rightly say," he shouted back. "First noticed it 'bout a week ago, though can't say how long it's been going on. Damn strange, though."

We eventually made it up to the main farmhouse on our chariot of corrosion and hope, and Frank took me immediately around the back of the house to the large, wood-fenced cattleyard, a labyrinth of dust and the tan backs of the constantly moving cows. He pushed his Akubra back and rubbed the rusty tuft of hair it uncovered. "Gonna show you the worst one first," he said. "Can't see any sense doing otherwise. You up to it?"

I swallowed, feeling real or imagined grit grinding at my throat. "Sure," I said.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

MILGRAM'S PROGRESS

The day came in slowly, like knotted hair dragged slowly through a comb. Those little fists of cereal, emptied from the box, crashed quietly against the bowl and settled in silently. Coffee was a beckon-curl rising from a favourite cup. Cracked edges. Familiarity. Work was a forty minute crawl through other people's machine-made problems. Roadworks where universal laws seemed to lapse. The arrival was no better: searching, all that searching, for a simple place to park. Someone playing a radio too loud down the morning hallways. That endless echo of footsteps, that looping sound wave of workers past, all those weekday paths returning back long after death, like the light from stars.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

XIPHOSURAN DAYS

We had been sending him terrorist messages printed on the inside of his toilet paper rolls for the past three weeks, but, seemingly, the message was not getting through. Was he not using toilet paper? Our detailed reports suggested that he was in the habit of doing so, and not only that but he did so with "alarming regularity" (pp.14-17). His patterns of coming and going from his modestly appointed apartment during the three week period did not suggest, either, that he had suddenly decided to use off-site sanitary facilities. Indeed, why would he? We were, to quote a phrase, up a tree without even a paddle.

It did enter out minds that our terrorist messages weren't working, not "getting to" him, but that was, to our minds, nearly impossible. We had spent months working on the messages, perfectly tailored, fine-tuned, to his unique mental state, which we calculated through a combination of doctor's records, magazine subscriptions, and unfettered access to the communal trash bin at the back of his building. These messages were expertly designed to wake to his most secret fears, to unearth his deepest-buried memories, to bring him around to our control. They were, in essence, perfect.

Indeed, we thought long and hard about what was the best way to deliver these messages to him. Some thoughts included:
1) Printing the terrorist messages on a small toy which would then be hidden in his breakfast cereal.
2) Engraving the terrorist messages on the back of a horseshoe crab, and placing the crab in a plastic bag in the glovebox of his car.
3) Inserting a long "finger-like" protrusion through his bathroom window as he was having a shower, and writing the terrorist message in the condensed steam of his bathroom mirror.

While all ideas had merit, we all agreed that the pure shock of finding a terrorist message waiting for you at the end of a roll of toilet paper was by far the most disturbing, and our researchers agreed (especially after we all discovered the ridiculous price of horseshoe crabs). But why had he not reacted to the messages? We spent days—if we wanted to be completely honest—in a deep funk. Our plan, that we had so much faith in for so long, appeared not to have worked.

We spent days more on constant surveillance. Short of an obvious vigil, we were never more than four feet from his door. We were postmen, neighbours, girl scouts: we were everywhere but right in there next to him, whispering terrorist messages. We were not allowed direct contact, of course, but nothing seemed to be happening in the house. Curtains remained closed, newspapers uncollected. We checked and rechecked our lines of communication. No word. No frantic phone call. No coded messages via televisual ads. We had whole responses ready: cryptic, threatening, designed only for him. Why wouldn't he react?

Eventually—as so often unfortunately happens, we learnt, in such high-pressure situations—one of us cracked. The milkman we planted (who spent real time learning, applying and securing the route with a dairy company that didn't even normally make home deliveries) to observe the daily goings-on in the apartment, one day decided enough was enough. Placing and retrieving yet another two pints of skim milk, he suddenly rose up and forced his shoulder through the front door. The wood splintered and the lock snapped straight out. As we ripped the headphones from our ears and tore out of numerous unmarked vans, as we shook off camouflage netting and untangled hordes of binoculars, we wondered immediately at the immense security risks of such a flimsy door. Why would someone, such an obvious target for terrorist messages, take personal security so lightly?

It's unclear who got there first. Those of us stationed to the rear of the house swear it was us: those stationed to the front say the same. All we know is what we saw:

Our target, our carefully chosen terrorist target, slumped over, in the bathroom, on the toilet, dead, with a horsehoe crab crammed into each ear. We turned away quickly, not so much from disgust, but from shame. They had got here first. And with horseshoe crabs! We glared at each other, not knowing what to say. And all the while, a toilet roll, sitting not four feet to our left, only three sheets from its end.

Friday, July 18, 2008

IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES...

There was the morning rustle. The snap-crack of the paper, the fresh newsprint sending scent fizzing through the air like a punctured fruit skin. Ink meant news. Sweet unopened news, meant only for him. Blurry Saturday eyes finding a place to settle, in the sports pages maybe, or the nascent tagline of a promising feature.

So what, then, prompted him, this particular morning, to glance first at the classifieds? Perhaps the golden glow of sweet Kenyan blend wafting steam gracefully at his eyes, perhaps the random thought of an old street name gently deposed by sleep, or perhaps just that sudden wish for change. Whatever it was, he was now looking at one particular ad, whose words snagged his roaming eyes.

WANTED: 99 Monkeys, 1 Typewriter. Reward offered.

And he thought: why did the last monkey leave his typewriter behind?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

THE SOLID STATE

It’s the night the bombs fall. It’s almost early morning. They scream down, thousands, through the near-black sky, with their fearful power stored in expectation. Then it’s a balloon of light, blurred at the edges, and a crack of fire from the ground. The speed of the shockwave rockets across wires and roads, through walls and concrete, cracking out its electric burning sting.

You turn your body away from the window, quickly, just as the glass gives in, bursting back under the pressure. When it breaks it’s in your ears as the shards fall in a stream, raining into carpet and skin and they land too heavily and it’s this that you notice and not the stomach shudder of a weight-bearing wall giving way beneath you. You ride the slab until it breaks into the cold air and you’re thrown clear onto the gravel with a cloud of smoke and debris catching you before you land in a long runway scrape, your undercarriage ripping as you roll.

Recovery is metallic tastes of dust and blood, seeing spots of yellow, but the only real colour is grey. Buildings and houses bombed into helpless suggestions; a chimney or a set of stairs left pointing back to the sky. A gust of wind makes your shoulder sing with pain. You imagine your raw uncovered muscle straining in the air, peeled back like baked meat.

Everything’s been exposed. The barriers are gone, and their reasons. Why start again, you think, when this is all that happens.

_______________

It’s the night the bombs fall. It’s a well-worn place in your favourite seat. In the studio shadows, the buttons blink their constant patterns, and you wonder if it’s wrong to feel so familiar. The news is only four hours old: a dormant darkness above a city of sleeping heads. You flick open the audio channel. You place the foam caves over your ears. Then you lean forward, and you open your heart to whoever’s there. You plea and you argue and you reason and you rage and you incite and you pacify and you smoke and you burn and you laugh and you cry and maybe no one—or maybe everyone—listens:

Let’s start again, my midnight friends. Let’s reboot the system. Let’s start again, go back to the start of things, even while they’re still in motion. Do it better, an improved history that catches the present—a tail that eats the head.

Let’s annihilate those cobweb minds, ignite those tinder thoughts—with wide-open pages, with unheard voices, with painful truths. Let’s tunnel under our fears and let them all cave in. Watch them implode, into dust, under their own weight.

_______________

It’s the night the bombs fall. It’s a new view out the window. Not a different place (still the lawn stretching green to the white shining gate, still the crisp sun of a spring morning) but a different perspective. Your hands clasp themselves sweatily behind your back. You’ve done it, and maybe every part of your body has turned against you. And maybe it scares you to have stitched the sky with a poison and hurled it so far with unnatural antipodal speed. All with the power of a word.
But it’s good, it’s graceful. It’s the ring on your finger.

And when all your reassurance has left you, and you’re spent like a fuel casing, you slump into your high-backed chair. The weight of ownership: responsibility—of this power— belonging to you, and you alone. You are alone. Waiting, with your fear stored in expectation. Your doors are locked from the outside, and they’ll come for you when they want you. Prop you up with mechanic’s eyes, find what they want, replace what they don’t. They reprogram you easily, because naivety has its own rewards. You know this well. You had your choice.

_______________

It’s the night the bombs fall. It’s your chance. It’s a crush of bodies struggling to hear who’s speaking. People you know, people you don’t. All in this together, a solid wall of resistance. But still—still, a taste of tension. Like animals, we are, waiting for our cages, ready to throw ourselves against the bars. We’ll wield our claws. We’ll snarl. We’ll make them think we’re going to escape.

So you stand, waiting, longer, in this afternoon of pre-arranged impunity. The younger ones, you notice, have painted their faces like it’s a sports match; they’ve ripped up their uniforms and made them into streamers; they shout words they shouldn’t have to know. Then a megaphone appears, and you can finally hear the voices of freedom. We’ll do all this again, they say, and again until things change. Your hands grow tired from constant clapping, but soon there’s the promise of movement. A march. Hear our voices! Watch our actions!

The tide of people pulls you along, ripping your feet from off the grass. You can’t help but wonder what it is you’re doing. What role you’re supposed to be playing. How this will pull back the bombs. Why you’re still marching even after the event—the thing you were supposed to have stopped—has occurred. Before you know it, you’ve slipped into a rhythm of stamping shoes and repeated phrases. Can we start again, you wonder. Can we reverse the weight of history?

_______________

It’s the night the bombs fall. They fall regardless of the victim or the voice or the leader of the follower. They fall with their fearful power stored in expectation.

When they hit, nothing changes. Nothing begins again. The sky that holds them keeps moving, inexorably, through its pattern of light and dark. And it covers us up, watertight.

_______________

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

HEAVY WEAVE, LIGHT BRIGADE

The strange thing was that we all had cardigans. Cardigans to spare. Of course we didn't call them cardigans then; what we wore was a Brundenell, after our dear Lieutenant General, whom we all tolerated much as one would a brattish child at a family party. Many of the older faces around the camp—veterans of Waterloo and more beside—begrudged his punctilious tirades against sloth and disorder solely to remain in possession of their comfortable knitted Brundenell, an almost lone comfort in the otherwise all-pervasive physical and moral disintegration that this war had brought. He would be famous, later, as the 7th Earl of Cardigan, hero and villan of his own ridiculous and astounding battle up between these valleys, as well as the inventor of a comfortable, genteel way to guard against a chill. I saw a picture of him, some years later, garbed in his very own Cardigan, that trademark imperious smirk on his face, and it careened back memories of that day. The smell, that bitter gunsmoke seeped back into my nostrils like it had been there, hiding all along.

Our camp was three orderly lines of tents, like a quaint planned village in our impossibly verdant surroundings. Kadikoi, as it happened, was a beautiful part of the world, and those with a particularly nostaligic bent were prone to wandering a short distance from the camp each morning to take in the crisp air. When the moment came, some days later, when it all began, we charged blindly over fields we had previously taken the time to get to know, and I was not the only one, I know now, who felt that my horse's frantic trampling hooves were a sort of silent betrayal of the landscape. These were the thoughts that employed your head when battle stripped your senses pure.

Before any of that, before that small piece of time in the world so often unravelled, life was, for us poor saps in matching uniforms, filled with more than many ordinary moments. It was everyday stuff: cleaning and keeping up the camp, tending the horses spooked by the large open sky, cooking, laughing, being generally human. And those swift, impatient visits by Brundenell, insisting we all present in two orderly lines with our cardigans clean and buttoned. He had the garments sent express from home, or so it said. He pulled rank (the rank he had purchased, it must be said) and had them steer a ship back to Plymouth just to get them piled on board. And so here we were, with worn out shoes, threadbare trousers, and proper cotton cardigans. We, the royal bloody cavalry, nothing but an instrument to blindly prop up one man's cottage industry.

And yes, we smoked and gambled and trimmed our beards and complained, but when that call came, when it came, by fucking oath did we not stop a second to obey our Lieutenant General's orders. We rode into that god-forsaken valley like men possessed, cardigans held tight beneath our tunics, above our vainly beating hearts, with one purpose and one purpose only. To get out of this—our own dim hell—alive.

History, now, has had its chance to wipe over vasts moments in one man's life with a single word, a tiny stutter of ink. These small things in the grand scheme, these memories of mine, have been painted over with poems and songs, wrought to shorthand for courage and valour, or vanity and futility. There is no way to truly make you understand what it was like. Only to say that I went back there, to that valley, where the first early burn of vineyards now poked through. And what does anyone remember of this place? The Charge, the Battle of Balaclava. Cardigans and knitted Russian hats.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

THIRD GRADE SWEET

At the age of 57, she discovered maple syrup. She doused her breakfast with it. She drenched her lunch in its sweet autumn thickness. She boiled and baked and stewed her dinner in it. She travelled miles out of her way to buy great vats of it, exchanging money under bridges and behind seedy hotels for supply straight from the trees, only hours old.

She fell in with a maple tapper, Jonas Wilms, who had good strong arms and his own evaporation pan. There were freezing nights and warm sticky days out there in his cabin, and the taps in the trees flowed freely. Sometimes, when Jonas was asleep, she would creep out to the biggest maple and unplug the spile and bucket. She would put her mouth straight to the tap hole and suck the warm warm syrup straight from the tree. It tasted of nature: bark and earth. But it was by far the best thing she had ever tasted.

She was on her knees when he found her, doubled over, limbs strict with rigor. The first fingers of the morning's light inched ever closer, but he reached her first. Jonas pounded his heavy fists into her chest, but her life was well gone. Carried away by that maple syrup, the blackest brew he had ever seen, dripping a mournful path down the bark.

Monday, July 14, 2008

QUEUES INTO THIS WORLD

Everyone was called Old Joe from downstairs. That was the conclusion Pierre had drawn.

Who, him? That's old Joe from downstairs.

Funny. I was just talking to old Joe downstairs and he didn't mention anything.

You know old Joe. From downstairs? With the eye?

That's just old Joe blowing his trombone. He's downstairs from you, that's probably why it's so loud.

Every possible question was answered by his existence, every possible human trait had been attributed to him. The questions remained: why had Pierre never seen him?

*

The day of Pierre's moving in had been arduous enough. Not that the process had been at all hard—indeed all he had to do was bring his box of meagre possessions up from the taxi to the lift and then to his front door—but more that it was so empty, so hollow, this upheaval.

Pierre had spent the night stark stock awake in his bed, the last time he would sleep in it. He tried to scrape up all the memories lying in his bedroom was supposed to evoke: intimacy, solitude, reflection: but none of them came. All he could see was a lonely old man, uncomfortable and unsure. Pierre was it. He was all that was left.

*

The third day here. Pierre sat and let the television take him in. His eyes, they were so dry now, closing them lit a little fire it hurt to correct. Beside him, on the table that wasn't his, was a cooling cup of tea and a biscuit whose flavour was bitter waste. And the noise. They'd knock at his door at all hours now, not just in the afternoon. He'd stopped answering the door the day before. He was sick already of their wretched imploding faces. All these old people. They knocked and they came in and they talked and Pierre was sure their heads had no idea what their arms and mouths were doing.

The one with all the shawls, the one with the bedframe walking cane, the one with the turned out eyes, they all came. With nothing to talk about but stories of Old Joe from downstairs. Words could not express Pierre's despair.

Until that one night, when Old Joe came upstairs and through his window and got him, right where he slept, dead to the world.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

FREE TO BE WHO YOU ARE AS LONG AS IT'S NO ONE ELSE

That was the feeling: that jarring car-forward feeling. That perfect numbness of spirit and head. Jitterbugs in the stomach all day, and then when you finally see her—finally—the voice that buzzes in your ear somewhere down a phone line suddenly crackles clear and there's her face pasted at a steering wheel and this is where she enters your world, this is the moment, the line crossed. You adjust and readjust your shoulders and your feet. Her car has a roofrack, one yellow bungee cord dangling off with umbilical tenderness.

When you've got on your way, after you've told her to stay in the car and not to worry, you climb in the front seat beside her and you latch up your seatbelt so you're still held apart. It's as if—you think—it's as if you can't bear the impossible human heat that reality brings. The things you've told her, the things you've written, you've hardly felt closer to another person: but here, now, it's different. You're all awkward smiles and half-turned heads and she's silhouetted by sunlight so that one eye is visible through the tea-tree tint of her sunglasses and it's carmine green.

You slip to talk of books and films. Music especially. She lets you choose. She lets you trace one finger across her music, gently rolling out your choices. You let the melodies fill the empty space. Then you're watching the lines of a mountain, the static flash of signposts. You feel so spent already, like there's a thousand years of history crammed beneath your tongue.

You okay, she asks.

And you say, Fine fine fine.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT

He washes himself with a small buckets and handfuls of freezing water. A bar heater bleats out useless air on the shelf near his head. He shivers somehow deeper into his skin, crouches to ball himself up into something more like a hibernating creature, something more adaptable to helplessly futile conditions. He years to put himself to sleep, to see out this bitter winter.

Like a slingshot his mind shoots back over the Southern Ocean, back to gladly grassed mountains. Back to Patagonian air. He unveils this memory—a treasure he's been hoarding, holding out for the unbearable. The knowledge that he'll never make it back. The water gets so hold it goes boiling hot. Out his tiny window is white. Nothing but white.

Friday, July 11, 2008

WHAT NEXT FOR THE COTTON STAINERS?

We all worked down there, but I was the only one allowed to pull out the wire brush at the end of the night and poke around after those fucken critters who gave us our bad name. I'd feel the real satisfying pop of one of them shells cracking and I'd give myself a little smile, the kind I only let out when no one was around. I'd feel them little pieces of my soul returning as I worked by myself at night, the pieces that always fell away through the day. I'd get out the hose when I felt I'd finished, washing away all those little bodies, watching them spin like leftover crazy rubber ducks disappearing down a plughole. As I'd lock the warehouse, I'd know they'd just be all back tomorrow, same as ever.

We kept on with a good few legal battles—or at least the top brass did—trying to recoup our losses from the people what sold us the land, from the insecticide men—a whole fucken procession of them—as well as wholesalers who'd dropped out of contracts with us quick smart over when some fucker blabbed about the whole "Pyrrhocoris apterus" thing. 'Course he didn't call them that. He used what they call the common name, the one that gives anybody round here the willies. Firebugs.

Firebugs on account of their red colour, which isn't even a hot red, more like an orange, with a black circle on their back like an evil eye staring back at you. What looks like fire is when they get in the machines and done get smashed up with all the cotton. We seen so many of these fucken bugs every day now it ain't even an issue, but back when they was first arrived and no one knew what they were, it was like sparks from the fucken devil dotting all that sweet white. I remember standing on the classing floor when the first palette rolled in for the day and someone says somethin bout rust in the harvesters cause there's all these little red dots but when we think to stop laughing and start looking we realise they's all little creatures, all dead little creatures with legs n feelers n everything.

Now, course, those bugs are as common as mud. We set ourselves everyday to ignore them, pick them out, hope to hell that people gonna start liking cotton that's got a tinge of fucken red in it. And there's me, at the end of every day, working like I give a damn I don't get payed extra, picking and flushen every last goddam one of them useless little cotton stainers from my machines. As if it's ever gonna make goddam fucken difference. Amen to that. Amen to life.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

TERDAYS AND TEMORRERS

Down at the cold edges of the inner-city sat Sunday, trapped and cornered by empty buildings, held fast by her inability to really see the sky. Every corner she turned seemed to lead her back the same way. This city was a maze, without its people. So she sat on the side of the street, a street like all the others, and she was bathed in cold shadow so that she could not even tell what time it was. Everything was so bare; she knew street-sweepers descended in the night, removing even the tiniest happy specks of litter, cleansing any colour from the grey, black and brown.

Occasionally, a car would drive past: always on the opposite side of the road, always empty. When the first cars came, she ran after them, shouting and waving, but they never slowed down and they always got away. Every time they turned a corner they would seem to simply disappear. As she walked, she began aimlessly testing the giant glass and concrete doors to the unnamed buildings. The handles, when she pulled on them, would not even yield a rattle. The doors were stuck tight and the glass so reflective she could only see her own face peering back at her.

When she sighed, the sound echoed out with no sign of returning. She waited for night, or whatever would come next.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

BRAINCHILD

It's the view you see when you're lying on the surprisingly cold floor of a television studio, among the garish accoutrements of a high-octane gameshow; halogen burners are laser-fixed just inches from your face, but because you're on the floor, because you're in a position no one on television is ever supposed to be in, you can safely avoid, and see through, the spotlights. You can see what no one else can. The unadorned ceiling of an ageing TV studio, the strange post-waste lattice of lighting rigs, the cracked runners and dirty concrete roof. And up there, balloons. So many balloons.

Behind you, in front of you, is a silence made more awful by an atmosphere's instant absence. An audience of swallowed cheers and stifled handclaps. The elaborate artifice of a television performance suddenly and violently yanked from its mock reality, its participants left ridiculous and fragile. And you, and your precious valuable brain, seeping vitality and entertainment value onto the black shiny buff of the studio floor.

You were one night from the jackpot. You played on; you risked it all.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

PLEASE BE SEATED

They threw him out. And not even a turn of phrase: they physically picked him up—well, Duane's son did—and threw him out onto the street, thankfully a relatively quiet street, as he landed some way out on the road, still with a lathe in his hand. When the good part of him—which had not entirely realised what had happened—thought about returning the lathe to its rightful place on Duane's workbench, he had to stop himself and actually shake his head to dislodge the thought.

This was the problem: he was a good person. So what had he done to deserve such treatment? What gave him the dubious honour of being hustled out of his place of work and thrown against gravel? He considered the sky as he lay there, grit underneath his tongue, fingernails still jammed with sawdust in a welcome way, he considered the clouds, twisting pillow shapes begging for solidification. If Duane, if all the rest of them, if no one wanted him, he would strike out on his own, working only for his own edification. They would have to follow.

*

Duane dealt with the phone calls first, the messages left over from the night before. They, he thought, held the most pressing issues. Customers who, all over the state, were laying eyes for the first time on their very own expensive replica furniture and not particularly liking what they saw. His first call was a nasty one. Senator Campbell. The Senator was a particular collector of Brewster Chairs, and indeed had as fine a collection as Duane had seen. With an obvious eye on preservation and presentation, The Senator had ordered a fine Brewster replica in which to sit on in his study, without the fear of damage that using an original would entail. Duane put his finest young man, Armand, to work.

Armand had began work as an apprentice only a handful of years ago, and had progressed to master craftsman with astounding speed, owing mainly to his expert eye and uncanny ability to mimic the master designs, often with only a cursory glance. When others in the industry had chided Duane over Armand's premature promotion, he would simply smile and invite them to see the boy at work. The doubters would bring in their own items for Armand: a rare Caquetoire, an ornate Fauteuil, even a spidery original Savonarola imported all the way from Rome: and each time Armand would replicate the chair presented before him so well that the original owners often had trouble telling the two apart.

But Duane could sense his protoge straining. As his fame grew, so did the longer days, the longer nights. The image of Armand striding confidently through the front doors of Duane's Antique Chair Emporium and Workshoppe had longed faded from Duane's mind; he never saw Armand arrive for work any more, he was always already there, with some part of a backrest jammed in a vice, his arms cascading wildly around the frame. Duane began finding strange objects, too, pinned to the farthest recesses of the storeroom. Once, when trying to locate some old beeswax lacquer, Duane came across a pair of women's legs, so real that his breath stopped short. His immediate vision was of an horrific crime, but the limbs had not been amputated, nor were they human–they were too perfect. Brought out to the light, he observed them to be carved expertly out of heavy blackwood, the gnarled grains somehow coaxed into fluidity: calves, tarsals, tendons. When questioned, Armand simply shrugged, returning to his work, gently sanding the sack-back of a Windsor he was restoring.

But now there was this. A series of oh-so-important clients, dragged to Duane's company by Armand's brilliance, and how spurned by his impertinence. When Duane had finally seen one of Armand's new chairs, he was speechless—so shaken, so hammered back into memories, hours spent in that storeroom, savouring Arman's silent gifts. After uncertain hours of phone calls and impromptu visits, one of Duane's customers finally had the temerity to dump a chair straight back on the footpath outside his shop. Duane's son had burst into the office, dragging his father by the arm to see.

There on the ground was Armand's complete creation. A woman with open arms. Even from her unkind position, back cracked against the concrete, face pressed uncertainly into her stomach, she was beautiful. Duane put his hand on his son's shoulder. This was the end and the beginning.

*

Armand eventually stood up, dusted himself off, and turned back to face his former place of work. In his mind, the clouds became real and fell, crashing through ceilings and shadow-dropping unsuspecting heads. The sky would have holes that no one could ever fill.

Monday, July 7, 2008

DECONSTRUCTION

It wasn't until they rolled the body over that they saw it. Painted in the confines of the chalk-line, a gentle pastoral scene. Rolling green fields, dark purple trees, a small barn in the foreground. There's some cows, said someone, and yes, there they were, little brown dots grazing near the horizon. The coroners slipped the body away, and the forensic team were left there, staying for nearly an hour, debating artistic composition.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

A PARTIAL LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS

ANTONIO CROWLEY is the managing editor of Tartar Magazine, and has travelled with you in your morning elevator ride since 1993. He is working on his debut novel and asking you about what bands you're into right now.

BILLY GULOKOTA is the President of TCI Corp International and your imaginary friend between the ages of six and eleven.

CAITLIN HUERTIS is a freelance editor and writer. She looked at you that one time, and it made you drop your sandwich, which you were really looking forward to, but it was worth it.

CARL CUDDLES is an experimental theatre troupe from Ontario, Canada, whose whimsical yet thought provoking stage interpretations of important historical assassinations has garnered many positive local reviews. Also the name of your first pet, an Angora rabbit, who one day escaped and ran all the way to the bottom of Smith Street before anyone noticed.

NIC LUSK is a convicted arsonist, and your first kiss.

KARI SCHERRER has worked as a clinical researcher at Central East University since graduating in 2002. He has written extensively in his field of quantum dynamics, and lived with you for two months in 1999, where he said he didn't pee in the kitchen sink, but you could totally smell it.

MINGO SLUTTER was a 17th-Century Danish explorer credited with introducing radishes to Baltic Europe, as well as a fake porn name you made up for yourself, when you were really supposed to use the name of your first pet combined with the name of the first street you lived on, but Carl Smith didn't really have the same ring to it. Just about no one believed you lived on Slutter Street.

GABRIEL WINSTON was the only person you could convince that you once lived on Slutter Street.

MINNIE XIAO-WEI is the undefeated World under-35s Speed Dominoes Champion and the person who told you Santa wasn't real.

EMMETT ZAMORA is a twice-divorced, clinically depressed former army chaplain now living on the streets. And he once gave you a hug, right when you really needed it.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

A LIMERICK HISTORY OF JAZZ

A jazzman, Thelonious Monk
Went into a terrible funk
When young Johnny Griffin
Took offence to his riffin'
And said all his solos were junk.

A drummer who went by Art Blakey
Became, as he aged, oh so flaky
Though his drumming was tight
Night after night
The control of his bowels got quite shaky.

A saxophonist, name of Stan Getz
Committed all thought to cassettes
But then Lester Young
Told him tapes were no fun
And instead he should smoke cigarettes.

She called herself Ella Fitzgerald
To any who heeded her herald
Not many ignored her
For ignorance floored her
And soon, those who dissed her? Imperiled.

Friday, July 4, 2008

DAS BELEIDIGT MEIN AUGE

The Third Reich was in turmoil. All through the corridors of the Parteikanzlei that morning something was afoot. Bormann paced the cold floor of his office, muttering endless streams of invective. His hands wrung themselves constantly behind his back, a habit he had not remembered starting. When Frick and Himmler finally arrived, he had worked himself up into a serious kinetic fret, jiggling like a crazed sparrow.

"So what is it?" hummed Frick. He had put on his suit rather too quickly, and it had yet to settle around his shoulders. He seemed to be constantly shrugging, and maybe he was.

Bormann spun on his heel, whipping a sheaf of paper from his desk and brandishing it in the air before him. "This," he said fervently, "is the matter!"

Himmler, whose suit was well-pressed and spotless, even at the early hour, approached Bormann. He did not take them, however, and so Bormann found himself lifting the pages the better for Himmler to see.

Bormann watched Himmler's face as he read the words on the paper, waiting for a reaction. Himmler's cheek twitched slightly, his tiny scar turning slightly with his skin, but then his face resumed its usual unnerving calm.

"What is it?" demanded Frick, the tall man whacking the back of one hand into the other palm.

Himmler waved him away, his eyes never moving from the page. "Turn, please," he said calmly to Bormann, who dutifully shuffled the paper over. When he had finished reading, Himmler removed his wire glasses and rubbed them against his lapel. "What we have here, gentlemen," he said, "Is a serious threat to Nazi Germany."

Motioning impatiently, Frick grabbed the papers hungrily from Bormann's hands. While he read, Himmler paced the room, and Bormann's fingers resumed their manic twitch.

Frick swore loudly. Reading from the page, he said, "Ein Volk, ein F├╝hrer, zwei Rieche?!" He stormed towards Bormann. "What is the meaning of this?"

Bormann held out his hands passively. "Don't shoot the messenger."

"He wants to split the empire? Preposterous!"

"Careful, Doktor," said Himmler. "There is infinite wisdom in new thinking."

"But a Fourth Reich?"

Himmler replaced his glasses. "It is unusual," he agreed. "But there is already letterhead."

"He apparently has talked of this for some time," said Bormann.

"We must act!" said Frick.

"We must talk," said Himmler.

"Yes," agreed Bormann. "We must."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

BADLANDS

She had let the boiling water run straight onto the back of the spoon. She had felt the spray hit her, and it felt good. All up her wrist, all the next day, was a pink and pleasant mottled pattern. She spent most of the afternoon bent over the drinks fridge, testing her arm against the different cans and bottles. The thick squat glass of ginger beer was best.

Around three-thirty, the bell above the door clattered: kids rolling in from school, all impossibly ruffled, in that summer way. She blinked at them with squinted, baby eyes. The light had changed since last she'd noticed, the sun now humming peach behind the blinds.

One of the kids had a radio pressed to his shoulder. Reedy music sprung out around the shop. The kids' voices clattered like dropped coins, spilling everywhere. She went back behind the counter, watching their young bodies move, in packs of twos and threes, clustered together in identical blue shirts. One of them came up to her and held out his fist. Grubby fingers, impossibly ingrained with dirt, held fast onto a bunch of jelly snakes.

You gotta use a bag
, she told him.

Weren't any left.

She sighed. Maybe there weren't. Fifty cents.

Don't I get a discount? He clamped his teeth on the head of a snake, stretching it and tearing it off with a savage flick of his head.

Why would I give you a discount?

He chewed the head. How'm I supposed to carry these snakes home without a bag?

She felt her wrist chafe, like a hot wind was blowing on it. The boy's friends had stopped what they were doing and lolled towards the counter.

Something tells me, she said, You'll've finished them snakes before you're halfway home.

The boy smiled. A half-sneer. Well, that's just poor customer service, isn't it. He talked like he was on TV now. All confident. His mates—two other boys and a girl—all congealed around him. Their faces were full of sour, empty hopes.

You can take your business elsewhere then, can't you. She realised they were all only five or six years younger than she was. Just pay me for them snakes you've eaten.

The boy put another snake in his mouth. Fuck you, he said carefully, between bites.

She cracked out her hand faster than she could think about it. The feel of his soft skin on her palm came first, holding itself in her mind far longer than the sharp sound of a smack. The boy shook his head, as if shaking out a thought. His cheek was birth-pink. Fuck, he said. Jesus. His friends had stepped back, a certain reality settling in their startled eyes. Let's go, said one. Just fucken pay her.

The boy looked at her for a moment, words poised at his throat. His hand shot reflexively to his cheek, rubbing it roughly. Here's yer money, he said through trembling lips, sliding a fifty cent coin across the counter.

The door jangled again and they left. She stayed behind the counter, picking up the boy's fifty cent piece, closing her hand around it. The sun shuffled shadows across the floor, and she stared at the light left behind.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

CHEKHOV FOR THREE

The way he held his head. That was the secret. Still like a duck's breast above water. From this state of pure calm, Chekhov commanded the court. He was always three steps ahead of anyone else: his opponents, his team-mates, even the expert observers who sat high in their expensive catered boxes, mapping out the players' moves on tiny blackboards. Tonight, as ever, Chekhov is in control. The final seconds: Gorky threw him the ball. Chekhov simply slid two steps to his left, outside the three-point line, and before his opposite number could even react, he rose onto his toes, his two cramped arms releasing into fluid lines, the snap of his right wrist powerfully sending the ball spinning into the air. The ball carried a perfect parabola—all anyone could hear was its rotating fizz—before dropping straight through the basket. There was that satisfying flip of the net. Chekhov bounced on his toes. Another game was won.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

THE UNLOVED

It isn't as though they don't understand. I know they do. It's that they can't handle any new thoughts in their heads. They are all tiny. Sparrow waisted waifs. Lips gripped in frosty shades of don't care and never did. One of them, the leader, leans into my face. Her nametag (Cyndeigh) threatens to topple her with a tenuous stilleto fulcrum, bringing her to the floor.

"We sell clothes," she says to me. "That's it."

I rub my hands against my forehead for the fortieth time. "I'll pay you two hundred."

Cyndiegh pinches her face. She tries to arch her perfectly painted brows. Her real ones—ghostly browned-out apparitions—twitch below. "This is highly unregular," she tells me.


*

I get him in the car eventually, after a fair battle with geometry. He spends the twenty minutes home with his feet sticking out the back driver's side window. I can't stand to have his head anywhere but by my side. They let me keep a pair of old underpants on him–perhaps out of modesty, perhaps out of pity. When I get home, I unload him carefully and stand him up in my small driveway. He looks even stronger in the dusk-light. Wait here, I tell him. I have to take care of my cat.

I open the door and scoop up Archie before he can bolt out between my legs. He looks startled as I pick him up, his bug-eyes pleading against the unfairness of the world. He has assumed my hands will be shopping bag loaded. Not so, little cat, for this is a new woman stroking you between the ears.

With Archie safely stashed in the laundry, I return to the bottom step, to find that fine dark figure waiting. I stand and admire the shadows of his shoulders. Brown razorblade muscles. A few cars go past, and I let them wonder at the logistics of this curbside arrangement. My $200 man, my love bargain. I take him upstairs, cook us a small meal, and we fall asleep. He will put up with the couch, just this first night.

*

The next day is the weekend. Saturday morning is shopping. We drive to the FiveWays. He wants to stay in the car, and I have to agree that this is for the best, as Archie has slept on his head and his cornrows are slightly scratched. No matter: I will repaint them tonight. I will buy acrylic paint and a tiny brush. Through the aisles of the 7Eleven, my limbs unfold with a new, relaxed grace. I bask for some minutes by the gentle cool hum of the cheese cabinet. Above me, in a small television set, a happy girl in a yellow tracksuit top beams her pixelated face. She knows her man waits for her, back in the carpark, counting the minutes until she returns.

When we're back home, I suddenly want to redecorate. He sits on my couch, wearing brand new boxer shorts from the back of my drawer (an unbearable rayon fragment of another time in my life) and all of a sudden I want to please him. I want to fill those hard, beautiful black eyes with tenderness and I want you-ness. I want him to smile. And so I roll up my sleeves and kick up dust. I drag my furniture around, all of it around, mercilessly, like a fairground ride, rearranging and re-imagining. He stays on the couch. Somehow, he's fallen as I've moved the chair beneath him, those awful boxer shorts hitched up high against his hard smooth lump of pelvis. His sideways eyes still bore into me: that unforgiving, petrol-dense gaze.

I sneeze, over and over, with the dust. I lie on the floor. I talk to him. I say, What else is there?

He just looks at me.

Devotion, I say, idolisation. This is all I have. Can't you see that?

We lie there in silence, waiting, Saturday night ebbing our edges.

*

I shoot awake. Archie's soft shape tucks and purrs in the crook of my elbow. I'm lying on floorboards, cold with dried sweat. It's still night, or early morning—the walls dark, scarred by street-light. When I turn my head, though, I can see the empty couch clearly. He's gone. My mannequin man.

He's left an impression on the fabric, a gentle negative of his body. I go over and sit there, where Archie follows, jumping up against me to lick my tears, when they begin to fall.