e comes alone now. He arrives early in his brown three-piece tweed, in through the revolving doors squeaking like a mischief of mice. He pats at his white laurel of hair and moustache, but nothing can tame them now. He can’t work the automated teller and he always buys his ticket with change, counts it out to the penny, even though they don’t take those anymore.
He doesn’t tip the greasy concession kid, whose pimples are the distant ancestors of the colony of acne that has lurked in the concession stand for generations.
He takes the stairs one at a time, holding on to the brass banister with all the might left in him. He’s Sir Edmund Hillary making his final ascent, but there is no ticket-taker to greet him at the summit, no torch-bearing Sherpa to usher him to his seat. He’s on his own.
He follows in the footsteps of others, etched into the carpet through years of pilgrimages to see opera singers, magicians, monologists and burlesque dancers. He stands at the top of the stairs to catch his breath. He feels the concrete blooming through the threadbare carpet. There’s no one to nag him on. He pushes through a veil of mothball and velvet and emerges onto the balcony.
He settles into his seat with grunts and groans like an old house in winter. The springs are busted and the fabric torn. The chair beside him sits empty.
He can barely see over the gold filigree edge. The theatre below is empty, except for a man snoozing in the front row and a pair of teenagers necking and fondling near the back. The stage has been surgically removed, a white screen stretched across where it used to be like a death shroud. They lobotomized the place and turned it into a picture house.
He looks down, but he can’t read his ticket no matter how close he brings it to his face. He doesn’t know why he comes here or what he’s here to see. Something loud. Something to fill in two hours of his day, like the first snow on darkened street. And when the thing’s over he’ll still be here. Still alone. No one will hear his complaints. Just an empty chair next to him, empty on the cab ride home, empty at the dinner table. A cavalcade of barren chairs parading past him. Left to wither like a joke without the punch line.
ating disorder, the vet says. Legs up on the desk, hands behind her head. Real common, you could try it on a different food.
Tried that, doc.
You could try switching up mealtimes, she says picking her teeth. Feed it at night instead of mornings.
Can’t do that, doc.
Early riser, eh? Happens to men as they get older.
It’s not that. I can’t sleep a damn anyway. But I got to keep him on a schedule.
Okay then, she says spreading her hands on the desk in surrender. You could take it to a psychologist. They have those for pets now, you know. Cost you a fortune.
No thanks, he stands in the doorway. Say, doc, what do you call those animals that don’t reproduce. Like the normal way.
She leans forward, What kind of animal you say this was again?
Exotic. He tips his ballcap, Thanks, doc.
Parthenogenesis, she says as the door swings closed.
He does the rounds, emptying the dehumidifiers in each room and setting them to high. It was a hot one outside, these early days of summer. But you’d never know it in here. There’s a certain kind of smell that the black garbage bags taped to the windows give off as they cook in the sun.
In the kitchen, he checks the clock on the stove, an old habit, as he dumps some kibble into the red plastic bowl and heads up to the attic.
Over the years his eyes have adjusted to the dark. He finds the door to the cage and opens it. At the back he can just make out the wet circles of its eyes. Come on, buddy, he says, You got to eat.
It crawls forward, gives the food a sniff and then pushes the bowl away. Its hair has come out in patches, and now it looks like a pink little ragdoll. Its ears droop like butterfly wings.
Don’t look at me like that, he says, It’s not my fault.
He stomps back downstairs with the bowl. Dumps it in the trash. But maybe it is his fault. He’s broken all the rules. There were just so many. Don’t do this, don’t do that. When you look too hard at any of it you go cross-eyed.
He hears something upstairs. A song? No. The house has been silent for years. It didn’t sing to him anymore. Not because of the rules, at all. He knows the truth. It was just lonely.
He starts to cook. Chicken drumsticks, the way his mom used to do them. He watches the clock on the stove crawl toward midnight. They were both just so lonely.
irch and bird call, mossy green, rocky stream and escarpment. If the hike had a soundtrack it would be the twang, twang of a jaw harp. It is the kind of day that he would call perfect. If he weren’t perfectly lost. It started with the goat shit back in the pasture. An omen he tried to wash off in the old swimming hole, but the brown froth there stank worse than the shit.
He sits on a boulder here, dumps his rucksack and drains the last of his water bottle. He knows these woods like the back of his hand. Knew them, once. But his hands are looking less familiar every day, too. Wrinkled, hair silvering down the wrist. Yahoos on ATVs have wrecked the old trails and a fire ran through at some point. Probably lit by the same yahoos at some Pabst infused campsite.
He scans the trees. Nothing looks the way he remembers. He can’t find it.
Something itches at his palm and he turns it over. A stripe of orange. Furred and shivering in a slow procession across his skin. Caterpillar.
He reaches out to pet it. The fur soft against his fingertip, feeling this instant of connection. This tie to mother nature. We’re all one, he thinks. His finger there on the single spine like a tuning fork. He feels at peace.
Then he feels pain. A lot of it.
Hornet sting pain. Root canal pain. Miniature hydrogen bomb pain.
He knocks the caterpillar off and pinwheels back, falling onto a soft green cushion. Poison ivy, he thinks. Giant hogweed. It starts to rain.
But it’s there, from his prone position, he spots it. Pushing back tamarack and vine to uncover it.
The log. Running back into dense wood, rock and darkness.
He puts his head into the opening. He can barely make out the pinhole of light at the other end. The sweet sick smell of decay.
He eases in. It’s tighter than he remembers it. Shrinking, like people do as they age. Or maybe he’s let himself go. He has to tuck his arms in at his sides, stretch his legs out straight. He wriggles forward. The slime on the inside of the log helps him. It’s maybe eight feet to the eye of light, opening wider ahead of him. Just a little farther. A little more. Why didn’t he exercise more? Why did he eat so much? A little more. The smell is oppressive. Marching up his nostrils. Not decay, death. He tries to move his arm, but they’re both pinned now, his head jammed against the roof. Stuck. So close. Nobody knows he’s here. They wouldn’t find him for days. Years, even. He panics. His body convulsing.
His head pops through a membrane of cobweb and he tastes fresh air. Sunlight. His arms are still trapped but he can move his head.
The secret glade. His place. Like a time capsule. There, under the rocky shelf, right where he left it, his guitar in its case. Probably perfectly in tune, too. Tweet tweet a bird says above him. I’m not lost anymore, he whistles back. It may have started with shit, but he won’t let that be the word of the day.
Something hits him in the back of the head. Flap flap of wings and caw caw overhead. The something runs down his neck and drip drips onto the rock below. But he doesn’t squirm. He doesn’t fight. If he just doesn’t move things can still be perfect.
ix months living second to second, hoarding weekly allowances, shouldering extra chores like Atlas, scavenging for bottles in the greenbelt until the sun bursts like an ostrich egg on the hills and the hound up the street bellows him home to dinner.
Day after day, week after week for six months of hard labour, time and pennies funneling down into a treasure trove he packs into a plastic bag from Mr. Grocer and ducks by his parents screaming to hop a bus striped orange like a creamsicle, heart cracking ribs with each pothole, in through the doors of Consumers Distributing, up to the counter, standing on tiptoes to jab a finger at page one forty-six of the catalogue, the clerk nodding like a priest at Vespers, disappearing through a passageway, returning an eternity of seconds later with a cardboard rectangle, money swapped, treasure for treasure, then the long ride home, the box cradled like a baby on his lap, deciphering the hieroglyphs, secret words and hidden meanings, this crossing only a psychopomp could love, finally home, past his parents howling, up the stairs, to dump the cardboard on the rainbow shag carpet, cutting the tape with a box cutter like he’s defusing a bomb, and out it comes in a rainfall of foam and plastic, the sum of fifteen million seven hundred and sixty-eight thousand grains of sand rattling and piling and crumbling through the hourglass. Him, here, now.
Black and grey rubber. Four fingers and a thumb. A glove.
It slides on easy. Made for him. Crafted and tempered in some factory in the far east. He plugs it into the grey slab and hits the power stub. He makes a fist, strikes a pose, like in the advertisements plastered all over his walls. His parents shriek like the Furies downstairs. He plays with power. For two minutes. Stretching into five. Reaching for six. Then, he takes the glove off, drops it on the bed. Disappointment wells up inside him like blood. Half a year gone, and his parents will roar straight on to Christmas.
e drags the bike up to the edge. It’s about twenty feet down. Enough to end it if you wanted it bad enough. The sun’s a bloody thumbprint. Smearing down, down.
Rooftops now where there used to be trees.
He drops the bike in the dirt. A child’s toy, even then. A museum piece, now. The frame barnacled in rust, the milk crate cracked with age. His kids had never bothered with it much. But he had never bothered much with them either. Even less as they got older. Drifting like icebergs or galaxies. He held them in his hands, swaddled in blankets, kissed their skin. But he could never feel close enough.
People make promises they can’t keep. Politicians, presidents and prime ministers. Human beings, too. I love you. I will never leave you.
Afterwards, it was all science and misunderstandings. We would never hurt a boy, they said. All we had were walkie-talkies. But he remembers looking down the barrel of a gun. Monsters in plastic suits. A child’s imagination, they said.
The promises broken.
I’ll be right here. That’s what it had said. The man in the moon. It had pointed at his head. Right here. And then it left him anyway. Never came back. Never phoned.
For years, every time he got sick he wondered. When a pain would hit him out of nowhere. Were they still connected like two tin cans and a string of twine. When he was lonesome. When he farted.
But then he saw the scans. The doctor didn’t notice. She slipped out of the room to take a call and he flipped the file open. Held the glossy sheets up to the light. There in the center of his brain: another small planet in orbit. Growing.
The moon is rising. He picks up the bike and sits on the seat, rocking back and forth on the wheels, kicking dirt down on the rocks below. He pulls the red sweatshirt down over his gut, puts his feet on the pedals. His knees are so high he’s practically fetal.
For years he’s dreamed of flying through the sky, swimming through the milk of the moon. Now he’s falling through space. That glowing finger jabbing at his head. Not a lie, a threat. An invasion. I’ll be right here.
t had taken three quarters of a bottle of champagne for her to break the first one upstairs. Swinging the heel of a particularly nasty open-toed Louboutin. Cracks spidering out over the surface before the first slab fell. Tell me, tell me, tell me, do.
Seven years, just like that. Then another seven. And seven more. And seven. A personal equation of ruin stretching from the master suite to the mudroom.
Slumped on the terrazzo, the tile smeared with blood. The heel had snapped and she’d been using her fist. Or what was left of it. This last one, a hand mirror, wood frame spackled with fake verdigris, had been a gift. It shattered like all the rest.
The house was quiet now. The lights were out. There was nothing left to break. Tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play.
She tried to count. Had there been ten? Eleven? More. Each one now multiplied. A thousand thousand mirrors, scattered like breadcrumbs behind her. She picked up the hand mirror, knocking the last piece out of it. She held it up. I can see... I can see… But there was nothing on the other side. Just the same old world. She was alone.
fter two weeks, the yelling had stopped. The fight had settled into a low, slow radioactive cloud. Meals were taken in silence. Eye contact, when made, left third degree burns. Obscenities, no longer spoken, were still telegraphed by the banging of doors, the rolling of eyes. They no longer slept. Sleep was for the dead and the forgiven.
The original insult went unremembered. A careless word. A missed date. It didn’t matter. The event had only been a money laundering operation for the real crime: their hearts were broken.
The days mounted. The fight was a kidney stone that would not pass. The pressure built like the marshalling of infantry at the borders, until one Saturday morning at the breakfast table, someone sighed at an ill-advised moment. Offense was taken. Violence seemed imminent.
At that precise moment, their front door was kicked in and a pantheon of garishly coloured bears entered the kitchen. Small bears, walking upright. Their stomachs were painted with strange symbols, like gang tattoos.
She screamed, he shrieked. They ran through the house, tossing chairs and bookshelves behind them, scrambling upstairs. But the bears pursued them relentlessly.
They cowered on the bed, together, as the knob rotated one way and back the other and the door swung inward slowly, whining on hinges. The bears filled the doorway. They seemed to glow, like the phosphorescence of deep underground caves and unspoken things. They thrust their distended bellies forward and beams of light exploded from them, washing over the two people on the bed. Burning their clothes, ruffling the sheets.
When they awoke hours later, naked and entangled, they were alone. The house was quiet. He pulled her close, she burrowed up under his chin. They were so close. Like the universe before the bang. Waiting to drift.
e was thinking about better days when the mower bucked in his hands and died, down at the far end of the big lawn, where the brush was stalking in, reclaiming territory. He pulled off the red sweatshirt he wore for yard work and gave the cord a pull. The engine coughed, the blade spun once and then stuck on something. There was the cry of a bird or a child. He looked toward the house. Nothing on fire.
He needed to replace those shingles. And the siding. And a new coat of stain on the deck. Inside, the kids would be playing with their toys. Making believe, she called it. Making a mess was all he saw. They were old enough to start taking on responsibilities. He gave the lawnmower a kick. Life was not all skipping and tra-la-la.
He pushed. He pushed some more. But it wouldn’t move. Mired in the deep. She’d have a field day with this. She’d told him he’d let the grass get too long. He strained. He struggled. He leaned into the mower with sisyphean commitment and quixotic tenacity. He just wanted the best for them, that was all. Wanted more for them than head in the clouds, feet in the shit.
He flirted with strokes, coronaries and aneurysms. He pushed and with a final tearing sound, the mower moved a few inches.
On the ground where it had been were the scattered chunks of red spotted mushrooms. Maybe some kind of fungus in the sod he’d laid down last fall. He’d bought it cheap off a shifty looking fellow with an ugly cat and a penchant for black cloaks. Always cutting corners, she said.
He went down on one knee, searching through the grass. The shreds of some white fabric, like a tiny pair of pants from one of the kids’ dolls. He looked back at the lawnmower. Where the bag bulged, there was a dark liquid seeping onto the grass, staining it the colour of midnight and old dreams and ocean and blue, blue, blue.
He’d clean the mess up quick. They wouldn’t have to see.
n here, one of the men said, stumbling into the darkness of the alley. The other one, hood drawn up, hugged a plastic grocery bag to his chest. They squat down on the concrete behind the dumpster. Black trash bags piled, oozing. Stinking. Spoon. Syringe. Light. Light. Lighter. I’m going first, one of them says. Like hell, the other. The flash of metal. A splash of blood. Patter of feet like gunfire and silence.
He lay, curled up and burning like an autumn leaf, trying to hold it all in. There wasn’t going to be any final cinema reel of his life. He was just going to sputter out, like he began. Then, the sound of a bellows, breathing. A large shape from the shadows. Something reached for him. Like a lifeline cast out from a sinking ship. He grabbed hold. Warm. A long limb. Soft. Furred like Grandma’s shag carpet. Looking up into sad, sad eyes.
The shape watched the man as he died. It remembered the laughter of children like bells tripping up and down the street. You kids! yelling the old shopkeeper. But they weren’t kids anymore. They weren’t invisible. They could never stop seeing once they saw.
he holds the roll of bills bunched tight in her fist. Like a strong wind would be all it would take. Her savings gone like that, tumbling across the pasture. The address is right but the place feels wrong. Empty fields, a barn drooping like a sick dog, the paint on the farmhouse left or leaving. Not the kind of place to start a family. She shuts the door on the sedan and walks up the humpbacked drive.
The doorbell chimes like a death rattle through the house. Nobody answers. Nobody ever answers. Eyes shut at night, all of her bunched up into hoping. She has enough stored inside her to bring this whole place to life. She bangs on the door, ready to cave it in if she has to. Somebody yells for her to come round the back.
She follows a trail of busted and broken paving stones around the side of the house. A fat man sits in the shade of the porch. He pours her a glass of lemonade and smiles. He has a small black tooth and she tries not to look at it.
They say a few nice things and when he asks for the money she gives him it to him. The bills wadded with the sweat from her hands. The quiet desperation of last resorts and rites. He takes a long time filling out the certificate. He waves it when he’s done, to dry the ink. It even looks legitimate. The more she stares at his tooth, the more she feels like she’s tumbling backward into darkness.
He leads her through the furrows. The field not fallow here. The soil rich and dark. Fronds of cabbage, still young, the leaves curled inward, keeping things hidden.
At the far end of the field, he leans down and grabs hold of an iron ring set in the ground. The door comes open with a puff of dust. Concrete steps leading down into darkness. The stink of cabbage. And then the sound of crying. Small forms wriggling down there in the darkness. Potato faces, dabs of eyes. All of them reaching out. Pick me, pick me.
Remember when you were a minipop, and you saw that film, you know, the one you loved that never had a sequel? Well, let's say it did. And it was just like you imagined it, only a little bit worse.