Tuesday, September 30, 2008
2. Some anagrams that should never be used in the place of “Lovebirds” include: Vibe Lord, Bled Visor, Solid Verb, Slob Diver, and Devil Orbs.
3. The Madagascar Lovebird should not be held on or after 1990.
4. Do not attempt to teach Swindern's Lovebirds algebraic topology, as they are generally confused by the universal coefficient theorem due to their monomorphic sexuality.
5. A Lovebird must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Monday, September 29, 2008
She flipped on the television, and tried to guess whether it was to be an ad or a programme. It was an ad. Bright colours and flashes of furniture. She was annoyed by this. She wanted a challenge first up. Tonight she had to be on her game. Her fingers toyed with a closed packet of pretzels, swiping loosely at the heat-sealed pack. She wasn’t hungry, she just needed something to do with her fingers.
It was the end of the sitcom that came before her show, and she read the faces on the screen easily. They were hammy faces, acting up like this amounted to humour. Their mouths gurned shamelessly, presenting grotesquely simple visemes; reading them was like reading the fat sure strokes of a child’s painting. She knew when she could have laughed, if it had been at all funny.
But then the credits rolled, and her show began. She wriggled further down into her couch, an unashamed joy filling her deeply. The logo came up, a deep marine blue. Her show was a cop drama. The hero McGurk, was a detective with the uncanny ability to see four hours into the past, a quirk of psychology that allowed him great insight into human behaviour, but often caught the ire of his superiors. But that was not why she watched the show. She watched it for its lengthy expositions, its background scenes. For one particular part of the background.
When her uncle had come around to install the gorgeous flatscreen TV, he’d set up the supertext, so she could read what was being said on the screen. She thanked him, but as soon as he went, switched it off again. She never wanted to be insulted that much. She knew how much supertext missed, or cribbed, or got just plain wrong. She had trained to lipread, and she was not going to get better at it reading words.
She watched McGurk stride across a windblown wharf. She waited for the body to be hauled from the water, trailing seaweed and fishing nets and whatever else bodies were meant to get caught up in. She watched McGurk’s face convulse as he touched the body, as his mind sped back four hours. A flash of colour, perhaps some mis-stepped shapes, but never quite enough to tell the killer.
After the next ad break, McGurk interviewed his first suspect. The victim’s estranged boyfriend. They met in a bar, the same bar McGurk used nearly every four episodes. Normal people weren’t supposed to notice this, she thought. To confuse them, they might play a different song in the background, shoot it from a different angle. But she knew. It was the same bar, because the same extras were sitting in it. Because the same woman with the jet-black hair sat talking at the bar. This was the woman you only noticed if you just happened to suffer from acute bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, and just happened to watch a ratings-ailing police drama religiously just to catch a glimpse of one woman with the most perfect mouth in the world.
She ripped open the packet of pretzels, and focused her mind on the woman’s mouth. Every other person watching the show, she knew, would be focused on McGurk and the suspicious boyfriend, combing their speech for clues, but her eyes were fixed on one point in the background, where the action was much more exciting.
Extras in TV shows, she knew, didn’t even say anything to each other. They mouthed their words, so even the person they were talking to didn’t know what they were saying. And they said some wonderful, strange, shocking things. She had grown to like the black-haired woman, who told the world her pains and desires when she was sure no one was listening. But one person understood her silent, public confessional.
Tonight, the black-haired woman stared across the bar at a young man in a light green shirt. The man saw her, pretended they were talking, laughed along. Later, after the day’s shooting ends, the young man will ask the black-haired woman what she was mouthing, and she will say “Kombucha bitches unite!” like it’s nonsense, like she was having light fun on the job.
When in fact, it’s something else entirely. From the comfort of a couch, with a pretzel rolling salt into the cracks of her fingers, someone who reads lips says, inside her own head, “Come, take your pictures tonight.”
Sunday, September 28, 2008
The mayor answered the door eventually, dressed as she was in tracksuit pants and T-shirt, having just that minute stepped off her treadmill. She still had a walkman clipped to her waist, dragging the grey fabric of her tracksuit down so that Rev could make out the noses of tiny silver stretchmarks on the mayor’s hip.
“Rev,” she said. “To what do I owe?”
Rev stood a moment longer, hand braced against the mayor’s door. He was a man unaccustomed to running any great distances, and it was his heels that burned, for some strange reason, more than any other part of him.
“Beryl,” Rev said, catching his breath. “It’s huge. This thing.”
They mayor pushed her hair back, fastened it with a clip. “What’s the all the commotion?” she asked. “Why’s everyone moving so much on a Sabbath? Day of rest, don’t you know.” The mayor swept her eyes across the street, noting the number of people. Her smile faded. “What’s huge?”
“The Mill,” panted Rev. “Me and Vern were down there painting up some sheds and there’s this godawful noise,” Rev burst his hands together, “like trees falling over, ’cept there’s no trees around there.”
“What was it then?”
Rev’s voice dropped. “That’s the thing. I don’t know. Neither does Vern. We was just there and then there’s this noise and then we look over and there’s this hole in the side of the Mill.”
“Like I said. This hole. Right up one side of it, like someone’d swung a wrecking ball.”
“And you didn’t see anything make the hole.” The mayor felt sweat prickle her hair.
“That’s what I said. Must’ve been something awful big though. I mean, maybe.”
The mayor sighed. “Maybe it wasn’t one thing,” she said. “Anyone been inside the mill?”
“No, I mean I come right here, and Vern’s gone to the police station. But, I mean, someone might have gone to have a look. Word travelled, uh, travels fast.” Rev cast a glance at the four locals who happened to be checking their letterboxes at that particular moment.
“The Professor,” said the Mayor flatly. She saw no point in dancing around it.
Rev nodded. “Seems to be he’d have something to do with it.”
“And Vern’s rousing Constable Harris?”
Rev nodded again. “Damn nanobots,” he muttered, and a chorus of agreement rumbled up and down the street.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
When I get to Canarsie, my hands start to shake. I picture you, in the frame of your front door, head tilted, smiling in that half-surprised way you had. I picture us, hours later, out on the pier at Jamaica Bay, smoking, laughing. But I can’t picture the in between. Where you forgive me, where we touch longer than we should, where that part of our past you’ve walled up somehow crumbles.
I stop and park in a dead-end street until the sun finally rolls away, until I realise I’ve tried and failed. And I’m left alone with the presents I’ve brought you: a photo frame, The Collected Works of Shakespeare, and a humble useless apology.
Friday, September 26, 2008
This was where he slept, that was all I could think of, even as Rauf pressed his hand against my thigh. The bed groaned under our weight. The walls sang with history. This was where the thought first entered his head. The possibility, however small, that there was something summing up nothing at all.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Mother shakes salt over our potatoes. They don’t need salt, but then again, maybe they do. The golden rule in our house is that things can always get better. Mother asks me what I’m going to do today and I say that I’ll probably put the car up onto blocks and take a look at it. She nods, and she doesn’t have to say that it’s good I’m doing this because I know this is what she’s thinking. Ever since Father slipped off the road on a rainy afternoon and went down into a valley because of faulty brake cables, I have taken it as my responsibility to make sure our new car is safe. Father was one thing, but I don’t want Mother going down into a valley as well.
So we finish our breakfast, which to you might sound strange, but Mother believes that breakfast should be the big meal and besides I’ve gotten very used to eating meat and potatoes first thing in the morning so I clear away our plates and then go out to the garage with the big auto manual I borrowed from the library and start jacking up the car so I can slide underneath it on a little trolley I made and make sure everything’s running okay and is clean. Mother has her musician friends over this morning, which is why I make myself scarce, because Mother’s musician friends are also members of her jazz band, and they don’t like any “extraneous noise” interrupting them when they’re playing.
They’re a three piece. Mother on piano, one musician friend on drums, and the other on double bass. They build songs, this is what they often tell me when they finally take a break after one good long jam and come out to the garage to smoke and maybe have a cup of something. They are powerful, my Mother’s jazz band. They are pure. Like our love.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
His wife, his wife of only three months, had decided to effect changes to both their lives. Not just new bed sheets or purchase of a pet—which is what he would have settled on—but wholesale improvement of their personalities, a process that seemed to require an endless stream of 8-disc DVD sets, slogan-banded paperbacks and long inverted conversations deep into the night. It was truly horrible. But he loved her, and that was the worst part.
The sun was still up, and still had enough heat to warm the policeman’s neck. He remembered his wife’s hands, strong, thin-veined guitarist’s hands. Back when she was that exotic, black-eyed creature. Her fire, her spirit, now dulled to shoe-shine. He listened to his own breathing. Heavy. Except it wasn’t his breathing. His shoe struck it before he saw it.
The boy’s hand, still small enough that the fingers were nearly triangle shaped. The policeman had learned the smell of blood. The toddler’s face hidden by cellophane sheets of it. The bite-marks at his arm. The dog close by still, somewhere. The policeman kneeled down next to the boy, placing on hand onto his chest to calm him. Okay, he said to himself. Okay.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Monday, September 22, 2008
I was born normal, or what was begrudgingly called normal in those times. I had all my limbs in the right places, I had the correct number of holes in my head, and they appeared just where they were supposed to be. My parents looked happy in those photos I saw years later, holding Me the Tangled Newborn Mess in their arms, but in later photos, when I was cleaned up and examined, I could sense in their eyes a disappointment, that no reporters rushed to their hospital room, that no eager photographers flashed bulbs like fireworks.
I was taken home, wrapped in a blue blanket I still have to this day, my perfect green eyes peeking out the top, and put under a lamp. My parents examined me themselves, closer and closer, making sure the doctors hadn’t missed anything. They checked bones and creases, nails and folds, but nothing could be found. I was disgustingly, symmetrically, perfect. And I supposed they still loved me—as nature compelled them to—but even then I felt a distance begin to grow. It’s ridiculous to say I remember this, but sometimes memories are more than photos snapped in a mind’s eye: they can be feelings, deep down body feelings that germinate and grow. When you know those feelings fully-grown, when their roots are buried at the very start-point of your consciousness, you can easily return to where they began, and feel them again.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Saturday, September 20, 2008
In today’s helter-skelter world, isn’t it nice to know that there’s still one place you can go where you can feel truly relaxed, truly calm, truly appreciated. Here at The Kwik-Star Motor company, we value, above all else, YOU. That’s why we are delighted to introduce you to our exciting new motoring experience: The Pulsar Fiesta.
Here at Kwick-Star, we spend our lives devoted to the art of bringing you, our most valued asset, the customer, the most pleasurable and unique driving experience possible in the circumstances that we can. That’s why we are so excited to announce The Pulsar Fiesta—more than a car, it’s a concept, a vision, a dream.
The Pulsar Fiesta is the answer to a question. A question that we here at Kwik-Star have hear you, our customer—the most important voice that we hear on a day-to-day basis—ask us: can I experience a driving experience that is both pleasurable and also powerful and also eco-conscious? The answer is yes. The answer is The Pulsar Fiesta.
Due to recent breaches of the Trades Practices Act, we here at Kwick-Star are legally unable to inform you of the exact specifications—or indeed provide any physical descriptions—of The Pulsar Fiesta, but we in fact feel that to “over-define” this exciting new automotive experience would be to ruin the true aesthetic impact of seeing the car for yourself.
So why not write, email or drop in to one of the literally three Kwik-Star showrooms scattered around the country, and experience the The Pulsar Fiesta experience today! If you do drop in, though, don’t forget not to actually mention The Pulsar Fiesta by name, due to ongoing legal complications with the Ford and Nissan motor companies. But we’ll know what you mean!
The Kwik-Star Motor Company
Friday, September 19, 2008
Okay, so you see this sponsor's pen in my hand? It's a lump of coal. And sure, coal's okay. Dinosaur bones'll get your car down to TGI Friday's, but watch what happens when I add a little pressure! Oh. Okay. A little blood. Yeah, I might need a bandage there. Have you got any of that spray? That magic spray? Ow. Thanks.
So anyway, when I add pressure to a piece of coal, what happens? Um, okay, "microsurgery" is a clever answer, but who here remembers my oration on powders and liquids? Noble gases as a motivation technique? Uses of Zeno's Paradox when you're two down with three to go? Come on, people...
Okay. It's a diamond. Add pressure to something and you get a diamond. It's a metaphor. Jesus—it's not a meta for anything! I'm drawing a comparison so you'll see how pressure can bring out the best in a sporting contest. Honestly, sometimes I feel like a canary waiting for the gas. No, I won't bother explaining that one.
Okay. Just get out there and lose the game so we can all hit the showers where I'll show you how the Greeks dealt with the angst of defeat.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
He rounded the corner, letting his fingertips trace the cool marble of the countertops as he went. The Reading Room was his destination. No point delaying the inevitable, he thought. As he entered, fingers twitched at the edges of broadsheets, throats cleared, teeth clinked on whisky glasses. It was as if no time had passed at all. Phineas’s heart pounded. Of all the worst shames. It had seemed so plausible when he had boasted of it that fateful morning. The article in the newspaper. Trains going at incredibly speeds. It was so attainable, a trip around the entire world in less than a minute and a half. They said he was mad. And so he was.
Phineas bravely said, “Here I am gentlemen.”
And the white-haired heads raised, and the piercing, judging eyes met his.
One face said, “Back already?” and another grumbled something, and another nodded, and soon they were back buried deep in the newsprint, expectorating guttural melodies, and swallowing single-malt. As if they had already forgotten.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
He only ever watched movies, which was strange. No TV shows, no news or sports. Just movies. The video store down behind town had been a normal mid-sized, middle-ground place, but thanks to Donny’s persistent ordering, it now resembled some sort of national film archive. The owner of the shop, a man by the name Greg McAdamson—who had been a bit-part player in a few action films back in the early 80s before he broke his collarbone so badly it looked like his torso had been stuck on backwards— for his sins, encouraged my brother’s film obsession, and was now stuck with the movie-inhaling monster he had created.
Donny watched with headphones. He had an old TV/VCR that he kept polished and painted, like it was a vintage car. He had it under the house, which was where he watched his movies. When mum said he wouldn’t let Donny watch any more movies in the house, Donny just drilled a hole in his bedroom floor and fed a power cable through. He made me help him drag a couch he’d seen on the road from three blocks over and that was where he sat.
The problems all started because dad loved junk mail. When we moved in, the letterbox had one of those NO JUNKMAIL PLEASE signs on it that dad ripped off, leaving a hole in the letterbox, which, to his sudden joy, allowed more room for catalogues. One particular evening, after he had gone through all the mail, he’d left a few brochures lying on the table. Donny and I, who⎯due to an unfortunately short-sighted extended bedtime bargain years before—had the dubious pleasure of washing up every night, were mucking around playing whisk/spatula gladiator when one of dad’s brochures fell to the floor. It was one of those glossy catalogues full of stupid gadgets for the very rich or very bored: motorised tie racks, laser back-scratchers, that sort of thing. Except that when the catalogue fell to the floor, it just happened to open to a full page spread on a “new visual technology”. It looked just like a CD, only a dotted line joined it to a picture of a whitebread family clustered around a big screen TV watching Lethal Weapon.
Donny dropped the whisk from his hand and covered his mouth with the other. What’s up? I asked him. With a shaking finger, he pointed at the catalogue. Look, he said. Look. I glanced back down, and realised the ad continued onto the next page. It said, in bold letters: THE DEATH OF VIDEO. Donny trembled with what I imagined was fear, anger or both. Digital Video Disc, he whispered. What’s that mean?
And that’s why he’s up on the awning out the front of our house, pretending to be dead, or pretending to be what he’s seen thousands of actors do in thousands of movies, each copying the other until the end of time. Or at least until the end of video.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
It was the stillness I noticed first, a cold quiet that seemed to slip between moments of time and sew them up invisibly. Then as I watched the streets below I noticed the air had acquired a thinner resistance, tumbling paper onto the roads in scattering snowdrifts. A light mist sprang up too: half fog, maybe, half rain. I knew I was the only one who saw it. From my window I watched winter begin.
When the rest of the city awoke, a steady rain settled above the buildings, and there was no doubt now the season had changed. I still sat at my little window, my breath ghosting the glass, looking eight flights down at an unfolding morning. Tiny figures walked below, charting frugal winter pathways from doorways to cars, arms crossed and bodies bulging with hasty layers. For the first time in hours I became aware of my own body. My back had tightened like a cello string, and I stretched it out. I thought about work. I thought about a train journey with the smell of wet clothes and drops of condensation clinging to scratched Perspex.
At the back of my cupboard I found my black winter coat. I put it on, pulling up the collar, parading in bare legs in front of my mirror. In one pocket I found fragments of styrofoam and a crumpled ballet ticket. In another, a piece of water-smoothed glass. I dressed without showering and left without breakfast, combing my hair with one hand as I closed the door with another. I had cut my hair short the day before: held down at the front, layered out at the back. A cartoon explosion. Somewhere during the night I had fallen out of love with it, and cared little for what it looked like now. As I waited for the lift, a chilled wind made its way to my face. I imagined the air sweeping along the street below, riding some invisible current eight floors up, finding a chink in the crumbling armour of my building’s walls. It brought pink to my cheeks, the only colour—it seemed—anywhere in the world.
Monday, September 15, 2008
And seeing the multitudes, the goddamn multitudes of these fuckers on every corner—I’ll tell you, bro, sometimes I think it just ain’t worth it any more. Used to be that users kept their place in a line, a line. Succession and shit, like kings and queens. Respecting the guy ahead of you. No way that’s it now.
The world is very different now. This shit is multinational. It’s globalised. If a dude don’t like what he’s getting from you, he’ll just go around the corner and he’s got dealers every colour of the goddamn rainbow to choose from. How do you put up with that? Some guy comes up to me the other day, and asks for some “O-athenians”. And I’m like, “What?” then I realise the dumb-ass fool thinks I’m some other dealer. Mixing me up and shit.
I know—not O-athenians, that stuff’s been running down southeast so long it’s practically dust. And I tell the fool. I tell him, “You take O-athenians and you gonna end up with your head stuck to the front of a speeding car.” That shit’s filthy. I show him some of our good stuff. Call it Loving People. Like it’s LSD or some hippie shit, just to get his eyes open and a bit on his fingers.
My Loving People, this fool goes crazy for it, starts telling me that I’m his new God. No shit, this guy’s all praying and shouting to Allah and Jesus and every crazy-ass god there is, but then he’s pulling rolls of twenties from his pants and peeling them off like he’s a monkey with a fucking banana.
I want to thank Allah for coming down and putting this rich smackhead in my path. I’m ready to pray to anyone, long as he comes good with the green, but then he starts talking shit about the government and satellites and he’s speech is picking up speed like a goddamn Mack truck.
At long last, I’m able to say a few words on my own. I says, “Do you want this shit or not?” I say, “I’ve got plenty other people want this shit. They don’t waste my time yappin on about nothing.” But that only makes him more crazy. No shit. He’s pointing fingers and snarling like a dog. A true paranoid motherfucker.
I am the first accused, of course. He tells me I’m cheating him outta money, and he hasn’t even given me any goddamn money yet, and I’m trying to calm him down, coz I seen that look in his eye that you get to know you do this long enough. The look where shit’s about to get really serious. No shit, he flicks a lighter and starts burning his own goddamn money. That’s when I know I’m in deep. Sure enough he pulls out a piece, like a nasty-ass modified Ruger with these huge crosshairs mounted on the top, and starts waving it in my face. One hand he’s got 2K burning up, other hand a gun.
This day was meant to be the day of all our deaths. That’s just the feeling you get sometimes. Some mornings, you just wake up and think, “Is this all there motherfuckin is?” That’s sure what I felt then. Looking down that barrel, feeling the crazy just beating off this motherfucker. But that’s the world we’re in, bro. That’s why I’m still standing here now. I told him. I said, “Hold that cross high so I can see it through the flames.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
His cats died, I guess, from time to time; once in a while a green van would drive up to Old Jim’s house and drop off a new cat in a cage.
Once, the van came as I went past on my way home and when it drove on I saw a white cat in the cage and went to look at it. The cat was so small it fell over when it tried to walk. When it heard me, its eyes went open and they were red, like blood. I put my hand through the bars of the cage and the small cat licked my palm. Its tongue felt like rough bark. I’d not felt a cat’s tongue till then.
Next thing I heard a creak and then there was Old Jim, stark in a white smock, at odds with the dark gloom framed by his door. I thought then what if Old Jim was blind? What if he had no use for light? What if all his cats had huge lunch plate eyes from being so long out of sun?
“Who are you?” said Old Jim.
I don’t know why, but just then I could not think of my name. “I’m from one house down,” I said. I made a map with my hands, to show him.
“Hmm,” said Old Jim. He scratched his chin for a while, like he was on the last round of a quiz show. I liked quiz shows.
“Is this your new cat?” I asked him.
“What makes you think that?” His voice was a deep growl.
“I just thought … he was for you. He’s on your porch.”
Old Jim made a noise: half a sneeze, half a cough. Then he said, “I don’t own them. They’re not mine.”
“But you get them sent to you.”
“I just care for them for a short while. Then I give them back.”
“Why?” My school bag pinned my left hand to my neck, but I kept it there. “I thought the cats all lived with you.”
Old Jim bent down and let the latch off the cage. He picked up the white cat with one hand. The cat looked like a scoop of ice cream, it was that small. He talked to the cat now, instead of me. “These cats are runts,” he said.
“That means they’re small, right?”
“And weak. The mum cat won’t give the runt milk. She can’t waste time on a cat who’ll just die, milk or not.”
“How can she do that? To her own kid?”
“That’s just the way it is.” Old Jim stroked the white cat’s nose. “So they bring the runts to me.”
“And you help them get strong?”
“That’s right,” said Old Jim. “Then I send them back.”
“That’s … that’s really nice of you.”
Old Jim put the cat back in its cage. “What else am I going to do?” he said. “What else.”
I left Old Jim with his cat and walked home. I thought of my own mum. I thought of Old Jim. I thought of all the cats he must have seen come and go. I thought how sad it must be for Old Jim to see all those lives bloom and then pass from sight.
The next time I walk past his house, I will stop and talk. I will try that.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
It begins with a man, a young man, a 25 year-old man. He is old enough to have seen mostly everything he is ever going to see in life; he has experienced most of the emotions he is ever going to need to repeat. He has been, in other words, equipped with all the major components of a normal human existence, and all that is left now is to see how many different ways they can be put together. It starts on an ordinary weekday morning, before anything that could be accurately called a “day” has been assembled. The man—the young man/the 25 year-old man—wakes up from a night of normal sleep, in which his thoughts and memories of the day before (and a fair portion of the important parts of the days before that) have been re-configured, subconsciously speaking, into dreams.
In this instance, much of his dream has been—directly or indirectly—concerning a woman (a young woman; a 25 year-old woman) of whom he has recently come into contact. He does not know it on this particular morning, but he and the young woman were born on exactly the same day, at exactly the same hour, and within exactly same minute. The young woman, as he will discover, was in fact born 3 seconds before him in the adjacent ward of a hospital in the town and the city in which their parents resided. As such, the experiences the young man and the young woman have accumulated in their roughly equivalent time on the earth (and, one varying occasions, above it, and sometimes in its various bodies of water) have been—allowing for obvious gender-specific anomalies—almost exactly alike. That is not to say that they could be considered two parallel lines originating from and terminating at a single point—the moment we are concerned with at the present does not, in fact, find them remotely physically near each other—but as far as people can be considered alike, without one person being ever aware of the other’s existence (up until the time, of course, they meet), then the young man and the young woman could be considered to be quite a remarkable case. The fact that all the component parts of their lives had fallen in a significantly similar way meant that at the particular moment in which the young man had met the young woman, he believed himself to have experienced something which various members of the community have often been known to express as a “connection” (although there was, needless to say, much more to it than this).
He met the young woman (as would be befitting the story—although it is not by any means a convenient shuffling of the truth; it is what actually happened) in what would be viewed by any remotely cogent person a chance encounter. Due to an intolerably lengthy and complicated procession of it just so happeneds (which would really take far too much time to express in written form, insomuch as the mere attempt to follow one moment in time back to its source would be, in essence, an endless succession of causes and effects, or, to look at it another way, 25 years’ worth of chaotic collisions of individual molecules which, when you consider how many of these actually occur in one discrete human second, is a number too horrifically large to comprehend), it just so happened that the young man and the young woman were sitting within full view of one another in a rather pedestrian public bar situated on the corner of two streets that neither one of them walked particularly more or less than any other two streets, which meant that neither one of them had any particularly special reason to be sitting where they were sitting at that moment in time. In what some people of a certain generation might refer to as a quirk of fate (a generation that is generally understood to have believed in the non-deterministic notion of fate, but not so much as to deny—as a part of its modus operandi—the possibility of a “random” or unpredictable event occurring), the young man and the young woman at that moment let the thought enter their heads that they (that is, the young man independently thought this, and the young woman independently thought this also) had been sitting far too long without a drink and needed to purchase another. For whatever reason (which of course is a figure of speech; there are of course a myriad of reasons—the complexities of which have been previously explained—for these two protagonists to behave in the way that is about to be elucidated upon), both the young man and the young woman’s favourite drink—that is, the drink which they chose the most often when given a choice—was a gin and tonic. Interestingly enough (although perhaps not if you do not find it interesting), the ordinary bar in which the young man and the young woman found themselves happened to serve a gin and tonic without the traditional wedge of lemon (if indeed a tradition can be considered such just by the weight of simple statistics in similar bars in similar cities across the world: that is, more of the bars that fell within what would be considered in scientific circles to be an “acceptable” range of deviation as to consider them “similar”, served lemon wedges when serving gin and tonics). This lack of lemon would not usually strike someone as being essential information with which to propel a story’s narrative, but in this case it is imperative, for it is this fact (this piece of vital detail, if you prefer) that actually forced (or allowed, depending on which world-view you take) the young man and the young woman to interact (or, to put it in a more popular vernacular, to “cross paths”), for as they both approached the bar, they each had it in their minds to enquire of the bartender as to why this particular bar did not serve a wedge (or a slice, or a segment, for that matter—although two more variables are the last thing that needs to be considered at this already over-confused point) of lemon in their gin and tonics. The young man, as it happened, got to the bar first—mainly because his legs were longer and covered more distance in their stride, even though he and the young woman had left their chairs at more or less a similar moment—and was about to converse with the bartender as to the statistically unusual lemon wedge policy, when he happened to notice the young woman out of the corner of—as they say, ignoring the physical irrationality—his eye. The young man had been attracted to women before; he was indeed of an age where he was quite sure what his “type” was, i.e. the most successful combination of immediate physical characteristics in another person—in his particular case, a member of the opposite sex—that excited his most basic instincts to mate (a very successful mechanism for reproduction whose process, for better or worse, had been softened and poeticised, in the young man’s particular case, by popular song-writing), and it just so happened—although the young man had nor the time nor the sufficient available cognitive capacity (thanks in no small part to the two lemon wedge-less gin and tonics he had consumed) to appreciate it—it just so happened that the young woman fulfilled every single number, size and ratio of characteristics that he found the most attractive. It was a very strange experience for the young man because, although he had often imagined his “perfect woman” (a pastiche-d conglomerate of schoolboy crushes, missed chances and professional models) it was quite another thing to see her (and to process the fact that he was seeing her) right in front of him. It was an experience that, were someone to ask the young man to describe it, he would have a one hundred per cent chance of not accurately conveying it. To put it quite simply, this moment in the young man’s life was indefinable. Just as he was beginning to suspect that he was equipped for all of life’s vagaries (of which quirks, twists, random events, etc, are all branches of the same tree), he was confronted with an experience that defied any definition—either by itself or by application of two or more already understood concepts.
The young woman was, in fact, a physical expression of something the young man had always known he had wanted but had never been able to articulate, and the fact that she was right before him right now (which were exactly the words he was using in his thoughts) meant that he should have been able, at that moment, to have what he wanted most—that is, an image of his “perfect woman”. The problem was, however, that the impossibility of his want was exactly what made it so crucially imperative, so, within a split-second of attaining something so perfect, the reason for it disappeared in a whitewash of logic. It was, in point of fact, an epiphanic (people eminently under-qualified to use the phrase “life-changing” would no doubt substitute it here) moment in the young man’s life. So he looked at the young woman and, as far as he could tell, she looked back at him.
“I was going to ask,” said the young man to the young woman, “why, in this bar, they don’t put lemon wedges in their gin and tonics.”
The young woman raised, almost imperceptibly (and it would have been completely imperceptible had the young man not done precisely likewise), the empty glass she held in her hand. She replied, “So was I.”
They smiled at each other.
“Happy 25th birthday,” they said, together, at exactly the same moment in time.
Needless to say, this is what actually happened to the young man and, albeit understanding and accepting the power of the subconscious to exaggerate, amplify, and focus unconscious desires and thoughts (in short, to give us what we want), needless to say this: every detail, as he directly, consciously experienced it, appeared exactly the same in his dream (where some may express it at this stage as his “dreams”, but in this case, it was one clearly defined dream, up until the point the young man and young woman simultaneously spoke, wherein the young man woke up and found it was exactly one minute before his alarm clock was scheduled to go off).
Of course, experiencing the exact same “slice of life” both—if you will—inwardly and outwardly, troubles the young man when he wakes up: not in any sense he can actively describe, but rather in an anomalous fashion (such as if there is a particularly famous painting you often enjoy viewing but to which, without your knowledge, someone has added some small detail—an errant duck’s feather, or an extra cloud in the sky—and which causes you ineffable discomfort) which makes the young man question whether in fact his encounter with the young woman was indeed a favourable one. This type of thought is, of course, neutralised by that wonderful combination of as yet undiscovered chemicals and brain patterns called—by a vast majority of people—gut instinct. If the young man knows nothing, he tells himself, he knows that he has a “very good feeling” about the young woman. If you had cornered him at this moment and presented him with a rudimentary selection of categories encompassing the obvious scale of human emotions, the young man would no doubt have chosen the option most closely adhering to (if not exactly) love. He feels—as much as such a physical impossibility entails—in love with the young woman.
Of course, the obvious conclusion to arrive at by this point would be the fairly obvious assumption that the young man was, as it were, in love with himself, seeing as a fairly obvious link has been established between the two life experiences of the two protagonists, vis-à-vis their uncanny similarity stemming from, perhaps—it is allowable to assume—their appearance on this earth at almost exactly the same time. While without doubt a neat and compact theory, it however fails to “factor in” (as befitting the pop-psych-speak of the young man’s age) that one, ever-eternal variable: the human brain. If, as the former theory postulates, the young man’s feelings of attraction are simply a laser-focused Narcissus Complex, then it stands to reason that he should have, by now, simply been content to adore his reflection (in both the physical and metaphysical sense): enjoying his own company as company, and fulfilling any sexual desires in a complex trade of imagination and onanism.
For the young man clearly is not in love with an exact manifestation of himself—he longs, as every human does—for that part of us that we deem to be missing, i.e. something or someone that or whom completes us. In the young woman, the man has, in fact found it. She is alike him to the near perfect extent that he can identify enough familiarity in her to feel immediately comfortable and relaxed, but—the young man knows—there is enough difference (his educational and “life” experience has taught him that no distinct human can and will ever be in one whole way singular; such is the omnium gatherum of consciousness) between him and the young woman to make subsequent meetings—and he indeed hopes there will be such events—a pleasurable and worthwhile experience. He trusts, and to a certain extent he knows, that the young woman will fill in his blanks. She will make him whole.
And already, pleasingly, the day does not yet seem normal. It is a Wednesday: as a weekday, a denotation of time usually particularly abhorred by the young man, as much for its clumsy conflict between phonetics and spelling as for the more general apathy sometimes referred to in the community as “mid-week blues” (which, in fact, is regarded by the young man as an indecently oversimplified classification for an immemorial existential struggle, re: the dogmatic imperialism of “accepted” chronological measurement): but today the idea of Wednesday seems—to use the Americanised (nota bene: not so far as to insert a Z—i.e. “zed”, not “zee”—in this particular qualification where an S will do) vernacular—OK. He gets out of bed with (as you may already have guessed) a smile on his face. This is, of course, is a moment of note. For once in the 788,400,000 seconds that have made up the young man’s life, no one has any right to claim they know what will happen next. And now the young man waits, for whatever will come.
Friday, September 12, 2008
I remember my mother’s face. Her and my father, twin oval shapes in their own dark palace. Shaking their heads, smoothing down the fabric on the arms of their couches, as if all I had done was tell an unsavoury joke, something that could be willed away. We spun on our heels, my new wife and I. We sailed out the door like the rest of our life was waiting, patiently, just around the next corner. But we knew nothing, we were scared, and we were all but alone.
When we get in the lift, we realise we’ve been placed on the very top floor. Jenny takes off her shoes and holds them over her shoulder.
“Maybe it’s the Penthouse,” she says.
We stalk down the hallway with our matching trundle cases until we reach our room. There’s no key—when has there ever been a key?—and it takes me five swipes with the hotel credit card before a tiny green light lets us in. And yes, the room is dark, even with the windows wide open, and this dampens down what little hope I had brought with me.
My wife parks her suitcase neatly at the foot of the bed nearest the door. She’s already unpacking, disappearing into the bathroom with armfuls of toiletries, and I’m still standing in the middle of the room.
“How very Zen,” my wife observes as she rushes past with an armful of extra bath towels.
Jenny, who still moves with her lovely long torso bent at an angle as though resisting a strong wind. I used to watch walk past my window. Every Sunday, dressed in her bakehouse apron. She held her arms crossed everywhere she went, strong legs churning angrily beneath her, powering forward. Even as I talked to her for the first time—with courage plucked somehow from the mania of my love-struck chest—she walked quickly, as if I was just another sound. I feel now, I suppose, that I’ve always been chasing her.
The curtains are thick and nearly paisley. I flip through a small pamphlet explaining telephone codes, and start to wonder, in that middle-aged way, about fire escapes. I catch my own hand tracing the white glass of the table and I notice my skin, as if for the first time. All those bumps, all those creases, like an old memory, awoken.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
When I told people about the school years later, they assume it was for “problem” children, or had some intense religious agenda, when really, I suppose, it was just some sort of strange experiment. The government of the day had set aside significant funds for what it apparently called Phlegmatic Education. The idea was that the less you stimulate a child, the more they were prone to learn. In essence it was a knee-jerk reaction to a stream of images of sugar-fuelled, authority flouting angry children peddled by a popular current affairs show over a nearly two-year period. These children, dubbed “New Delinquents” by various talkback radio hosts, were not only the nation’s most worrying problem, but were made even more sinister by the fact no one had ever really seen one. Still, the tabloids told us, they were out there, waiting.
My parents, who were both magnetically charged to immediately attach to popular trends, began to eye me off suspiciously across the breakfast table, their smiles plastered on across giant cracks of anxiety. One morning, I found all the hoods cut off my jackets. Then I noticed CDs going missing from my collection. The final straw came one afternoon when I tried to turn on the television and nothing happened. I asked my mother if we needed to get it fixed, and she said she had fitted the television with a filter so I could only watch “proper” programming, which, it turned out, meant only current affairs shows and one other where a family of multi-coloured amoebas lives in a forest together and sings songs about inclusion. My natural anger at the curbing of my civil liberties was met with a maternal silence and a “serious talk” later that night from my father, wherein I was informed I had been enrolled in Palings College, a school at the forefront of Phlegmatic Education.
And so now, here I was, three years after my parental intervention, three years after the “New Delinquents” craze had died down, still stuck in Palings, still wondering about the pattern in my desk. We have spent the past two hours in silent study, dry ideas
digging at our brains, starched shirts scratching at our skin. Another day, more of the same, stretched out before us. But today—and this was what no one knew—today was going to be different. Today was to be the day of Pitcairn’s Mistake.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Brilliant Jarvis began his life among the angle grinder ankles of professional carers. They came and went in quick succession; at the inevitable end to their tenures they used words like alert and polite, but not one of them could tolerate his brilliance for longer than a few weeks. Moreover, he caused his carers no end of grief by constantly going missing. Despite the fact he always turned up again, unharmed, Jarvis’s parents always blamed the carer for allowing him to go missing, when, in fact, the carers never had anything to do with it.
While most parents endure their fair share of momentary skipped supermarket heartbeats and frantic funfair glances, Merle and Jolene Henry had to undergo the constant trial of their son completely disappearing from—as Jarvis himself will explain it some years later—the face of the earth. Jarvis’s vanishings were as mysterious as they were frequent. Not only could Jarvis not explain where he went or what he did while away, he would always return in a manner so unexpected as to elicit surprise from even the most stretched parental heart.
One afternoon, for instance, after a nine-day disappearance, Jarvis returns in a box delivered by a giant Bombay Indian dressed in the livery of a well-known parcel delivery service. The Indian holds the box by its ends, so Jarvis’s face can be seen poking out a handle hole on its side. Jolene looks blankly at the Indian, for this is the expression her face has become most accustomed to, and holds out a handful of crisp twenty-dollar notes. The Indian nods sagely—as if it is common for him to accept cash payment for delivery of a boxed-up errant son in order to avoid embarrassing credit trails—and hands Jarvis over.
The problem, as far as his parents saw it, was not only that Jarvis was vanishing on a regular basis, but also that he was patently misapplying his brilliance. Maverick behaviour, Merle was prone to say when Jarvis returned. Not at all right. Jarvis would tell his father that it was a societal problem, that fifty years ago no one would have minded, that it wasn’t his fault that the private fears of our unwitting collective conscience had not only caught up with society but had indeed overtaken it. His parents told him he was so brilliant that they were worried someone else might want him. He showed the an article from The Times on date rape.
Later, Jarvis will lecture about such matters. He will say a normal person can’t guiltlessly fathom having sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them. There is no pleasure, he will argue, and therefore no biological imperative. It’s the sexual repression early in the life of an individual, he will content, that really matters. Jarvis Henry will always prefer prevention to a cure.
Brilliant Jarvis was so brilliant that he was given a video camera for his first birthday. He would make nature documentaries in his parents’ extensive backyard. He was not yet tall enough to explore the heights of trees, so instead he focused on the ground. He observed, through his diamond-grinded lens, the lives of bugs and worms. Although after a day or so of filming, he became inexorably drawn to the lives of ants: he loved their faceless toils and struggles, their strength and unquestioning industrial drive. Jarvis would deeply and honestly lament the end of a day, as wide sheets of sunlight shrunk back between fractal cracks in branches of the highest trees, becoming, as ever, the soft nerves of night. Jarvis begged his parents for his own television, and he began to watch back his films after dark, kept from sleep by ants crawling their complex paths; indecipherable, beautiful.
Through the many professional carers of his childhood, Jarvis would love only one; not a homely Balkans nor a gentle Hebriedean, but, of course, his mother. After the many perceived failings on the part of hired help, Jarvis’ mother assumed responsibility for her son’s welfare, which, she told herself, she perhaps should have done a long time ago. To appease her guilt, Jolene Henry assumed the guise of another faceless carer, hoping her son would not notice. She dressed as plainly as she could, wore too much makeup, and a wig. Jarvis, of course, did recognise her, but he was brilliant enough to realised that if he stayed quiet about it, he could spend more time with his mother in one day than the had in the entire previous span of his life. So he didn’t say a word, and they were both happy.
In time, he had begun to convince himself that his mother was a professional carer, someone who had trained to be what they were not as an extension of a previous, unknown life, someone who would go home to another bed at night. His greatest joy was the new leap in his heart when he saw his carer appear at the entrance to his bedroom door, a familiar face couched in a stranger’s clothes. This was someone he was excited to see. This was unabashed, childish love.
Brilliant Jarvis soon stopped disappearing, although why he did was anyone’s guess.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Monday, September 8, 2008
The others looked at him strangely. Of all the weird things that had passed the African’s lips since they picked him up, this was probably the most weird.
Abdi’s eyes were endlessly curious globes. They seemed too big for his head. “No one knows when a carpet is clean and when it isn’t. You just need a truck and one of those hoses. Money for nothing.” He made a complex gesture with his long flat fingers, which may have meant something, or may have meant nothing at all.
Balwant, who sat in the passenger seat, turned all the way around just to get a better look at their new passenger. Abdi was weird, sure, but he was the most entertaining thing they had all seen in days. “Where did you say you were from again?”
Demail, sitting next to Abdi on the bench seat, who seemed constantly in the middle of a silent complex drum solo, turned his voice outwards: “You’re going to love it up here man.” He placed a shaking hand on Abdi’s arm. “There’s this lake, with, like, sand and everything, right in the middle of the fucking mountains. Like, thin-oxygen sunbathing and shit.”
Abdi nodded his head, but narrowed his eyes.
“He speaks the truth,” said Karin from the driver’s seat. She fixed her eyes to the rear vision mirror which, of course, was angled to look straight to the back seat. “There is a lake, but there is no waves.”
“You’ll love it,” agreed Balwant. “It’s an adventure.”
Abdi shifted in his seat. “But you have all been there already?”
“Then why go again?”
Demail scratched a red patch at his throat. “What?”
Abdi turned to him. “Why have the same adventure twice?”
“Once, back home, I’m walking down the coast and I get a toothache, so my tooth comes out, it’s pulled out red roots and all, by an old man in a beach shack. I didn’t care who pulled it out, I just needed it out. My face blows up like a balloon. That is a beach adventure. But it’s not one I’d like to have again. There are too many things to do in life to bother repeating adventures.”
Kari held fast to the steering wheel as the mountain road did its best to shake the chassis off her jeep. “It’s a little more … complicated,” she said. “We have a friend up there who we like to visit.”
“He stays up there in the mountains?” Abdi jabbed his finger out the window, pointing at the broken-glass jags of the mountain range. “By himself?”
“He runs the church,” said Balwant.
“How many people in his parish?” said Abdi, laughing. “How many people turn up on a Sunday morning? Eagles and mountain goats, praying?” Abdi had an oddly girlish giggle.
“You’d be surprised,” said Kari. “It’s quite a popular church.”
“And he’s got a helicopter,” added Balwant.
“But why is his church so popular,” said Abdi, “all the way up there?”
Demail flashed his hands into his army jacket with mongoose speed. He held his dirty fist under Abdi’s nose and opened it. A small strip of segmented blotter paper lay in his palm. There was a little drawing on each segment.
“What’s that?” said Abdi.
“Little Clintons,” grinned Demail. “See?”
“They’re all Hilary, man.”
“Like the president’s wife?” Abdi peered closer. His eyes adjusted, and there was indeed a crude picture of Hilary Clinton tattooed on each bit of paper. “And this is what your friend in the church makes?”
“Yeah, man. 900 square inches of Hilarys at a time. Pure as driven snow.” Demail wheezed out a series of coughs.
“Why would anyone drive up the side of a mountain to get little picture of Hilary Clinton?”
Demail tore off one of the tiny squares of paper. “Put it on your tongue,” he said, “and find out.”
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Your words have just left for their destination, rugged up, sugar-coated, for their journey across the room. Time sticks to me in muddy clumps. I have to gouge the minutes from my hair, scrape the seconds from my mouth.
Dust motes careen in the waffle-hatched light, still spinning from the breath you expelled. They are amoebas spinning softly in some oblivious world. I hear you. I crane my head back. You’re looking at me, still the wrong way up. If only your words would invert their meaning too. Sofie. Play it backwards. So it isn’t say it isn’t so.
Sunburn stripes, high water marks. Sand socks baking on my bare feet. Lungs dried up, forehead ready to rain. This is summer anger. I sit with your heavy gourmet ice cream. Raspberry syrup fills the crook of my thumb.
You stand with your back to me, leaning against the guardrail, your hair blowing out at the river. The city looms back from the opposite shore. These are our days out together. Taking silent hostility off its leash to let it get some sun.
You shift your weight under your dress and we both watch a ferry glide past. An optical illusion: a young girl standing on the deck waves, believing you and I are side by side. I remember the shape of your cheeks. Raspberry red pools at my feet.
My study has its moments of perfect light. Fat grey clouds chew the sun thoughtfully, leaving a muted monochrome behind. Like the mood in Renaissance paintings: soft luminosity nestled in the dark. The paper in front of me glows. I swivel my shoulders and settle down to work properly for the first time all day.
After a while, a reflection works its way across the pages: two refracted circles. A shaft on sunlight slanting through a snowglobe. You place it in my hands, smiling. On its base it says Sofie’s Holiday, and they’ve spelt your name properly, with an F. I shake the globe, and over snow-capped peaks, watery winds swirl impossible snowflakes.
You have been watching me work, with your gift. My heart swells with an old sensation: I am wanted—I am needed—by you.
From the depth of sleep I shoot awake. Your fingernails are cold, as you press them, one by one against my lips. Your dying parts pressing against my most alive. Somewhere above us, stars creak in vacuum cradles. My heart is gunpowder. Your body in an arcing bridge. Your weight, suspended above me: your hair, falling in fireworks inches from my face. I feel your heat, breaking against me. I have stepped too close to the fire. I am out of safety’s reach.
We’re locked together, joined at every point. The single focus of your eyes—on me—is what I feel more, even as we both release. My mind says this is love. This impulse of thought—this tiny synapse—is the only one in life that ever echoes in my soul.
The porch light flickers on as I walk under it. Moths hurl themselves above my head; they collide so violently I’m sure their wings must break. The sky has tied itself into indigo. A line of palms sway black silhouettes.
I leave the front door open and walk the long spine of the corridor. In the kitchen, the phone sits innocently, its cord offering me a curly noose. She’d held my fingers in hers, pressing the pen just hard enough to leave a mark. Now the back of my hand burns with her name. Strange how she spelt it. My other hand carries eight magic numbers; the ink has leached, picking out a jigsaw of skin.
I close my eyes, burning as I wet a day’s radiation. My heart bell-hammers in my chest. Hands shaking. I dial the numbers, and a distant tone burrs. I wonder where her phone rings. I wonder what it has stopped her doing.
Something starts—in the middle of a life’s beginnings and endings—with a change of air cutting through a half-open window. Nothing so momentous as an accident or an argument, just a breeze that blows its way past my glass of iced tea, disturbing the beads of condensation.
A subtle change that lifts my eyes to the other side of the café. By the window is a young woman. The sun has discovered her like a spotlight, finding its way through a crack in the clouds. Her hair wings out: orange and red. My hands play chords on the tabletop. A water-filled tip jar shimmers ribbons at the ceiling. I watch the strange fire of her hair. She sits unmoving as the strands obscure her face, weaving and wrapping in ember threads.
The breeze changes and all the moisture falls from my glass. It moves, deliberately, towards her. I surprise myself, as much as anyone, when I follow it.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
Now I’d hate to give you the wrong idea about our city. It wasn’t that we weren’t conscientious, or didn’t give a damn, it was that we weren’t a natural disaster type of place. We saw stories on the news—earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, sometimes even in the next state over—and we gave our ten bucks to the Red Cross when a celebrity asked us to, but our city was burdened more by mundanity than vengeful acts of nature. We had high taxes, bad roads, problems with pigeon flocks, but our weather was generally agreeable.
When, on Sunday, we opened our curtains on a sky tinted vilely like a bad bruise, we laughed it off, joking about horsemen riding down from the sky. But, really, our mouths were dry and our stomachs shivered. Were we supposed to fill bags with sand? Were we supposed to board up our windows? We were sure we had read somewhere that you filled your bath with fresh water, and ate tinned beans under a supporting wall. Or did you open the doors and let the wind run through?
The rain—but not really rain, it was torrents of force-fed water—slammed sideways into our thin walls and tore up streetscapes like flakes of skin. We watched helplessly as our cars reversed away from us on sheets of the new brown river that rose, rose up fast, up to the edges of our family-smudged windows.
And through it all, we heard our own voices, saying, “It’ll be okay. This never happens. Not really.”
Friday, September 5, 2008
After twenty minutes of walking, squinting up into spires and past cold cathedrals, they hailed a taxi and spent twenty minutes more winding through labyrinthine backstreets that seemed to get only smaller. Aldus threw their carefully printed itinerary out the window, cursing the travel agent’s name. Tanya, wearily, made the taxi stop and made Aldus get out to retrieve the important sheaf of stapled papers.
As they crossed the street to their hotel, Tanya’s suitcase sprung open, exploding her clothes dramatically onto the road. She bent down to pick up her things; she felt the sudden weight of another country’s sun on her back. She started to cry. Aldus made her sit down on the curb while he repacked her suitcase, ignoring the blaring horns of cars trying to get by him. She watched his face—patient, determined—and she remembered why she was here with him.
They woke in the small hours of the morning, still programmed to home time, but they felt somewhere near refreshed. Neither could sleep, so Aldus spread out their large maps on the bed. They were wrinkled from travel, each bump and fold reminding Tanya of the very mountains they planned to traverse. She had wind charts in her bag, detailed migration graphs, pertinent pages ripped at the last minute from field guides. They packed their rucksacks in the dawn light, enjoying the ritual.
They exited out to near-empty streets. Their new world had turned itself blue. A small woman sold small pockets of bread from brazier bolted to a street corner and they ate them in their hands, juggling their ludicrous heat. Even the simplest transaction dealt a language crazy-paved with complexity. They had taken an intensive two-week course before leaving, but already they felt out of their depth.
They waited for a half-hoped bus as the sun cracked its first paths up the sides of buildings. Even from here, the mountains seemed only minutes away. They were blue ghosts above the city. Soon, Tanya knew, a familiar sense would return. The high altitude of wait. The camera poised between her gloved fingers. And above, swooping in to land, a single falcon.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
It was an early burn, and Louisa waited out the first cramps with a piranha grin. She caught her reflection faintly in her bedroom window: a young girl gargoyle hunched over the end of a tiny bed. A rattle of beads, and her sister’s head appeared in the doorway.
“You still got that stomach?”
“¡Ayúdame! Like fucking fire.”
Her sister smirked. “That’s what happens when you eat shit.”
“Not like you were helping,” said Louisa, flopping back on her bed.
Her sister came in and sat down beside her. She said, “You’re old enough to look out for yourself, puta. I’ve got a life to lead.” Despite her usual insults, she began stroking Louisa’s forehead.
Louisa counted up the cracks in the ceiling. There seemed more every week. Fat Osvaldo upstairs saw to that, stomping around his flat like he was in a marching band. “We gotta buy some proper food,” said Louisa.
“Nothing’s stopping you. You coulda eaten something proper last night instead stuffing your face with 3rd Avenue calzones.”
At the thought, Louisa’s stomach wrenched. “Where else am I supposed to go?” she said. “How’m I supposed to eat something proper when there’s no proper food anywhere?”
“Ay, Bendito. How am I supposed to know?” Her sister sighed, ran her hands through her hair, bangles clacking like an old train over tracks.
Louisa gave in, knowing the conversation could go on forever. Neither of them really knew how they managed to survive. Not really. “Sorry, hermana,” she said. “I’ll try harder.”
“I know you will, Lou.” Patting her leg. “Why don’t you get some sun? Have a walk. Work off those upset guts.”
Louisa took the bus down to 1st Avenue and got off just outside the big soccer field at Thomas Jefferson Park. Usually at mid-morning on a weekday it was wonderfully empty. She liked to walk down the side of the field, marvel at the fake grass all mapped out between the white lines.
This morning, though, a team was out there on the grass. All girls, all wearing orange and white striped jerseys that shone in the sun. As Louia approached she could see the words Spanish Harlem YWCA emblazoned on their backs. She had never heard of the Spanish Harlem YWCA. Sounded like a street gang. Except street gangs didn’t wear orange jerseys and knee-socks.
She watched them run for a while. They dribbled balls around little plastic markers on the pitch, jogging in crisp zigzag patterns, each girl just missing the other. They were mostly Latinos, she noticed, but some whites, Italians probably. And the looks on all their faces—man, such grim determination, like they were going to die if the ball rolled away from their feet. Louisa rubbed her stomach, which grumbled restlessly. She was hungry, somehow, which was really fucked up.
She hadn’t noticed the lady with the ponytail until she was right up next to her. She wore an orange shirt—the same orange as the jerseys, except hers was a polo, with Spanish Harlem YWCA stitched on in white above her breasts, which drooped like dog’s ears towards her belt. She had thin blonde hair that she’d tied back with a band, and wore a whistle around her neck.
“Did you come to try out, sweetie?” she said to Louisa.
“It’s okay if you did, it’s just that we’re full up right now.” The lady gave her a smile that sat a little too high on her face.
“I’m just going for a walk,” said Louisa. The sun was getting really hot on her head. Her stomach tightened abruptly and she let out a little cry.
“You okay, sweetie?” said the lady.
“Yeah, fine. Just ate some bad food last night.”
The lady looked suddenly concerned. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
Louisa didn’t need this shit on top of gut cramps. “Told you,” she grimaced, “I’m fine.”
“Oh,” said the lady quietly. “Didn’t mean to upset you. Do you live around here?”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“Don’t you think you should let them know?”
“Not really,” said Louisa. “They’re dead.”
The lady crossed herself quickly. “Oh my sweet Jesus. You poor girl.”
Louisa remembered what YWCA stood for. Young Women’s Christian Association. They’d come to her school once—back when she still went to school—and handed out these stupid fucking pamphlets that kept using words like potential and self-worth, and had all these pictures of racial rainbow girls giving each other high-fives. “Listen,” said Louisa, rubbing her stomach hard, “I’m fine. Me and my sister, we get by great. We don’t need God or no one, okay?”
“But with no parents!” The lady seemed near to tears. “What do you do to support yourself—financially?”
“My sister works at the hospital. She’s eighteen, so it’s all legal. Housing Authority gives us money.”
“You’re in Public Housing?” The lady used the words like just saying them would make her dirty. Some of the soccer girls had stopped playing and were watching the scene unfold.
“I gotta get going,” said Louisa, turning away. “Have fun with your game.”
The lady put out her hand and took hold of Louisa’s arm. “I really wish there was something we could do,” she said. “But the team really is full up. Even our bench players. You could maybe carry some water, equipment, that sort of thing?”
Louisa wrenched her arm from the lady’s grasp. “Keep on saving the world,” she said, over her shoulder, as she walked back up 1st Street, stomach growling like a panther. She’d get food on the way back home. She’d keep going.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
“Don’t be like that, Max,” came a deep purr from behind the door.
“Sweetie,” I said, “if I knew it was you, I would’ve ordered a starter.” I poured myself a quick Jack-of-Spades and downed it in one breath.
Sheryl Fonkewski slid herself into my office. Sheryl the Peril. Old Damascus. Johnny Jim’s Lament. She wore the kind of dress that left my eyes burnt up at the bottom of my glass. I put my feet up on my desk. “What’s the straight-up, hotcakes?” I said, tilting the Trilby to a more generous angle.
Sheryl sighed. Her clavicle shifted up and down, and a weekend confessional suddenly popped into my diary. “You’re wanted down at the docks,” she told me.
“Not even time for a quick trip to deep regret?” I slid a shotglass from my sock and placed it on the desk. I was sure Sheryl was partial to an afternoon chase-the-hoop, but like all good midtown girls, never knew how to say yes.
“You’ve been warned about this, Detective Adams,” said Sheryl, crossing her arms, covering up that part of her that made angels weep from every opening. “It just isn’t appropriate.”
I laughed. This old game had been going on since Adam first found a worm in the apple. The old chase and wriggle was as natural as coffee and pecan pie.
“Seriously, Adams,” said Sheryl, “This is really tiring.”
“It can be. Especially if—”
“I’ll gladly end this in court, Adams.”
“I’ll gladly end—”
“Just go, you creep. It’s the Baby Sock Killer. Go.”
With Sheryl’s playful words ringing in my ears, I hailed a cab and headed downtown. My driver was an old plodding pony, steering down 4th and Q like a Sunday driver.
“Hey Sammy,” I told him, “how’s about we give this shoe a little shine?”
“You know, Sammy, get some mustard up that tailpipe. I need to be at the docks seven times from yesterday.”
“First up,” said Sammy, “My name’s Dwayne. Second up, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“How does a silver martini grease those axles, Sammy?” I took my badge out from my overcoat pocket and flipped him a little taste of officialdom. I could tell by his eyes that he understood.
I arrived at the docks on foot, after a slight unprovoked altercation with a taxi driver. The Chief was already there, dodging the Bulb Boys who were burning neon around John Doe’s recently departed shell.
“Baby Sock Killer, Chief?” I said as I ducked under the yellow tape.
The Chief fixed me with a glare that would’ve shot a hole through Babe Ruth. “We called this in nearly an hour ago, Adams. What kept you?”
“A little Birdy tripped me up, Chief,” I said with a wink.
The Chief ran his hands through what was left of his hair. “I can’t keep covering for you, Max,” he said. “Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, no matter how many cases you bring in.”
“You’re preaching to the perverted,” I said, clapping him on the shoulder and fixing him with a trademark grin. “Now, what’s the QT on Jimmy Cold-Bones?”
The Chief sighed. “Port Authority dragged him out around seven-thirty. Killing fits the profile. It’s the Baby Sock Killer for sure.”
I stepped into the crime scene, lighting a fat stogie to ward off the chill. Some print-chasing science boys scattered as I leant down over the body. “So what’s your story, Johnny del Muerte?” I said under my breath. The signs were the same. Shaved head, broken nostrils, and a baby’s sock slipped over the poor sap’s Howard Thomas.
The Chief settled in beside me. “Anything?”
I tipped a little ash and cleared my throat. “Well, we know one more little thing about our killer.”
“Look here,” I said, lifting the victim’s arm. “See that?” I pointed my cigar at some slight bruising in the armpit.
“So what?” said The Chief. “The Baby Sock Killer lifted him by the arms.”
“Look closer,” I said. “There. Around the bruising.”
The Chief peered in. “Looks like white powder.”
“Chalk dust,” I said. “Our killer’s either a teacher, or, more likely, a weightlifter.”
“How to you figure that?”
“No other bruising,” I said. “Our killer gives old Stiff Charlie here the clean-and-jerk and he’s dead in a second.”
“You sure, Max?”
“Think about it. Weightlifters are renowned for packing it small down in trouser town.”
“The baby socks?”
“Got it in one,” I said. “Classic case of green-eyed monster on the one-eyed monster.”
The Chief stood up. “How do you do it, Max?” he asked.
“Simple,” I told him. “You just gotta be ready for anything. You might say I’m accustomed to intrigue.”
I threw my cigar stub down and walked off in search of a fast drink and a pair of pins I could watch all the way down to Tallahassee.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
I was seven, the age where most local kids had the last drops of curiosity and imagination bored out of them and replaced with an unnerving desire to till soil or repair tractor engines, so I was desperate for what I saw as my one chance at fun and adventure. I walked out our gate and met up with Orson, who was the same age as me, and who lived the next property over. Orson had also pestered his dad into letting him out, and while Orson said his dad had agreed, I could see in his face that maybe this was an outright lie.
Nevertheless, we walked by the side of the road and breathed in the sweet air that only comes on a Saturday afternoon when the world opens its arms to all possibilities.
“What do you want to do?” Orson walked with his thumbs stuck into the loops on his jeans, and in between sentences whistled very badly.
“How should I know? Never been into town by myself before, have I?” I was acting all cool, but inside my pockets my hands were shaking. “Maybe just check it out, have a look around.”
Deep down, we both wanted to be like all the older kids who spent their weeknights having parties out past the feedlots, laughing loudly and throwing stuff onto bonfires. But really, this was as exciting as it was going to get.
“You bring any money? said Orson.
“How much you got?”
“Yeah, I’ve got seventy-five cents.”
“What are we going to buy with that?”
The service station was the first thing we’d come to, and we could’ve bought a Cool Shark or a Bubble O’Bill, but then nearly all our money would be gone and we wouldn’t even need to go into town.
So we went past the servo and made ourselves dawdle outside the co-op like we’d seen other kids do. The sun baked us on the concrete and besides all you could really do outside the co-op was push each other in trolleys or play handball against the wall, and neither of us had a tennis ball, so we moved on.
Further on into town we came up to the Salvo’s, with its weird barn roof and the mural on the side of the building that had been painted up by art students back when Hunkers had two schools. For some reason they were obsessed with eagles and rivers.
“Let’s go in here,” I said.
“Cause their stuff’s really cheap.”
“It’s really cheap.”
Orson shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head. When I pushed open the Salvo’s door, a little bell tinkled, and the sound made me feel really good for some reason. Maybe because it was me pushing the door open, not my parents.
There was hardly anyone in the shop, just a really old lady behind the counter eating a sandwich and a weird tall guy looking through a rack of jackets.
“Yeesh, this hat’s only 10 cents!” said Orson. He was rummaging through a wicker basket full of beanies and caps.
“I told you, didn’t I?” I said. “And they’ve got books and, like, couches and everything.”
“We could buy a whole new outfit.”
“Yeah.” And then it struck me. “Maybe like a superhero outfit.” My parents were making me wait a whole seven months to buy me an Aquaman suit for my birthday, and then, only with the proviso that I was “super-good” until then, which I knew was almost impossible. I had already seen some green gumboots I wanted.
“This stuff’s all really old, though,” said Orson. “Dad says it’s just dead people’s clothes anyway. What sort of superhero wants to wear that? How can you get awesome superpowers from old hats?”
“You know,” I told him, “it doesn’t have to be awesome. Just something we can afford. And own. Something that’s just ours.”
Orson held up a Sherlock Holmes cap and stuck it on his head. “I guess.”
We tried on a whole lot of glasses from a box the old lady got from under the counter, and a lot of them gave us super-vision, although mainly just a slight headache. When the weird guy left, we both went over and chose shiny jackets, mine in orange and Orson’s in red. I poked around in the furniture section, but most things were over ten dollars. Orson came over wearing a tie with wolves on it, which I had to admit was very cool.
When we got to the counter, the green gumboots turned out to be the most expensive things, and I was twenty cents short, but the old lady let me have them anyway. She made us promise to come back, and we said yes, but then we laughed at her after we’d left because she had a big glob of peanut butter stuck to her cheek.
We walked home with our new superhero outfits in plastic bags that banged rhythmically against our legs. Up above us, the sun stayed on, but we didn’t really mind.
Monday, September 1, 2008
The tradition in my family—one that goes way back to Eugenie Flannery, the first Flannery to set foot into the annuls of recorded history—is to name members of the family after other members, ones whose traits were respected, and that you wish your child to have. It must have been hard at first. Everyone was called Eugenie for a couple of generations, and I always thought that was a little sad. What if—as my great aunt Patrice continually alluded to—Eugenie was a harsh, sour woman with nothing but contempt for those around her. I always thought bad for my first ancestors, having to name their kids after someone quite horrible.
But then, time led its merry dance, and the name Eugenie disappeared, to be replaced by Carlotta, Genevieve, Francine and Terri. The strange thing about my family was that babies inevitably came out female, and that those particular females married late in life, and kept their maiden names. My grandmother, Yancy, often tells me how proud we Flannery women are. She often tells me stories of a particularly cheeky streak of Flannerys, who came about just before the First World War. One Henrietta Flannery was by all accounts the ringleader, and her gang consisted of various sisters and cousins: Louanne, Dahlia, Regina, Wilomena, Dot, Queenie, Jennifer, Xena and Olive Flannery—these are the names my grandmother can remember. They caused quite a stir in their home town, rousing out about until all hours in a time when women were supposed to be demure and unseen after dusk.
But this is not to say all Flannerys were troublemakers. You may have heard of The Flannery Singers, a whole set of my relations who toured North Africa during the Boer War to entertain the troops. The Flannery Singers were a huge success, and the members of the troupe—Carlisa, Mary, Cordelia, Rochelle, Clementine, Patsy, Barbara, Patti, Sally-Anne and Bernice, went on to great singing careers of their own after the war.
A number of Flannery women also served in the war, with no less than eight becoming decorated field nurses. Among the thirteen Flannerys who were involved in combat, ten survived to tell the tale: Pansy, Jo, Wanda, Perpetua, Liliana, Colleen, Trixie, Faye, Elizabeth and Lucinda. Luckily for me that Perpetua survived, as she turned out to be my great-grandmother. Or, more to the point, I turned out to be her great granddaughter. Perpetua was, by all accounts, a lovely woman, which certainly accounts for the 63 Perpetuas scattered through our family tree. She was also a very productive mother, giving birth to an astonishing fifteen children. Six were born before the war: Audrey, Elaine, Betty, Helen, Sharon and Kathleen. Much to everyone’s surprise, after Perpetua returned from the war, she gave birth to my grandmother, Yancy, along with Cordelia, Irene, Jeannie, Carrie, Martika, Angelina, Cora and Prunella.
My mother, Juliet, remembers her childhood fondly. Yancy had inherited an enormous mansion, and by the time my mother was eight, the mansion was filled by various Flannerys from both near and afar. On any given day, Juliet would walk out the front door and be confronted by scores of different playmates. On one day, she would find all her first cousins: Sue, Isabelle, Winifred, Nancy, Antoinette, Lorraine, Charlotte, Doris, Joan and Katarina. On another day, it could be second cousins: Phyllis, Alice, Tricia, Lou, Liliana, Florence, Danielle, Chantelle, Juanita and May.
I was the last born of ten daughters to my mother. First came Veronica, then Annette, then Suzette, then Irene, then Belle, then Mercedes, then Faye, then Yvette, then Danielle, then Marie, and then me. For some reason, my mother had immense trouble in choosing my name. I was, by all accounts, a striking child, whose eyes seemed older and wiser than they really ought to be.
At first, my mother thought I would be particularly feisty, so she tried out monikers of my wilder ancestors: she went through Hilda, Estelle, Sarah, Josephine, Rosette, Connie, Carla, Jean, Ilene and Juanita, but none seemed to fit. Then she thought I would be a born leader, so the names of the most distinguished Flannerys were tried: Zoe, Christine, Marie, Paula, even Pansy, after the famous Pansy Flannery, the first woman to trek to the South Pole unaided. But then one morning I must have become softer, more gentle, and the names of the nicest Flannerys were tried on me: Anya, Francesca, Rayleen, Lynn, Evangeline, Michelle, Elaine, Evelyn, Eunice and Kate. Evidently these didn’t fit either, and even the least-used Flannery first names were given a try: Emeline, Lulu, Pearl, Glynis, Ethel, Sheree, Jenna, Debra, Dolores and even Ronette.
Still, nothing seemed to fit. So my mother spent days and days poring over our exhaustive family records, searching for a name that seemed right. Each night she would return home with what she thought was the perfect name for me. At first, she settled on Betty, but then the next morning she was out the door before breakfast, only to return that evening shouting the name “Natasha!” at the top of her voice. Inevitably, her enthusiasm faded, and she spent all the next day on the phone with various Flannerys who were hiding in various corners of the world. The consensus, arrived at after hours of debate, was that I should be called Cosette. It was my oldest sister Veronica who shattered the family’s happiness, pointing out that a certain Cosette Flannery had been gaoled in 1976 for assault on the Mayor with an air rifle.
Hopes dashed, my mother set herself to bed, and would not come out for anyone. In a hunger-induced daze—she told us later—the name Justine appeared and went. By the fourth week of my life, I still had not received a name, and the other members of my family, not quite knowing how to refer to me, had started to ignore me completely.
It was my youngest sister Marie who solved it. She had started referring to me with a scrunched-up face and a little “hmm” sound, as if my name was rolling about in her stomach and wouldn’t come out. One afternoon, Marie had finally perfected hula hooping, something that all the rest of our sisters had already done. The only person who would be impressed, she knew, was me. So she called me: “Hey, hmm Flannery! Look at this!”
My mother, standing at the kitchen window, suddenly screamed. When we all turned to look at her, expecting blood gushing from her hand or a spider on her head, instead what we saw was her laughing. A smile had spread across her face like warm sunshine. “That’s it!” she shouted to us. “That’s it!”
And that is how I got my name. The best name of the all. Flannery. I am Flannery Flannery. Pleased to meet you.