Imaginary Mountains

 

The_American_Apocaly_Cover_for_KindleImaginary Mountains
By Israfel Sivad

There’s so little of my life that I want to remember and so little of it that I can’t forget, but you can never escape your memories. They prey upon the deepest recesses of your mind. They’re the monster that you can’t outrun in a nightmare. You pump your legs, but your limbs are waterlogged with the past’s disease. You try to close the door, but you move too slowly. A claw reaches through and catches hold of you. You cry out. You wake up, and there the past confronts you in reality. In the darkness, with pale moonlight streaming through an open window onto your mattress, lighting a swath across your eyes, your face contorts and you pound your hands against your skull. You retch from wretchedness. Your memories feed upon you whether awake or asleep, dead or alive, talking or dreaming. These monsters have devoured me.

It was in Baltimore, right after I graduated from college, that they first bested me. I was starving and struggling, living on ramen noodles and water. The roaches had taken over my apartment. It was summertime, and I spent the hot nights sweating, listening to classical music as I attempted to write and my body dried out more and more until I wound up constipated from the dehydration. Then, I sat on my toilet until well past midnight killing the roaches, listening to them crunch beneath the toilet paper in my fingers as they scampered around my feet. The bugs were nothing but babies just like me, fledgling critters dead as soon as they’d hatched. They were my only friends, and I both loved and despised the hovel we had created together.

My nights were spent dredging my memories in the attempt to devise short stories. Childhood held me rapt. I couldn’t get past it. More interesting things had happened since, but to think about that…

Finally, one night, I threw my pen into the binding of a notebook that I kept back then, and I left the fetid place to wander Baltimore’s humid, mangled streets. In the darkness, I wanted to see the inner harbor, the moonlight glowing upon the water. It was an image I’d often contemplated four years before when I’d first moved to that gray and red, brick and concrete, economically depressed city. There was a girl, one girl, a vision of whom wouldn’t let my thoughts be. Imaginings of her hair wrapped around my neck. The strands strangled me. I was willing to do anything to forget her, anything to return to some previous incarnation of myself. On the way, my attention was arrested.

East Baltimore Street is quite an interesting place. As I strolled in and out of streetlamps, chain smoking cigarettes, its vibrancy sang to me. I’d passed it on a number of occasions during my stay in Charm City, but never before had its lustful promises seemed so fulfilling. The strip cubs that dotted that block beckoned with a notion I’d never been aware of before, one of complete and total immersion in a world of forgetting. I didn’t drink at that point in my life, and God, I needed something, some semblance of connecting, some vision to provide a fantasy, anything other than reality. I turned and headed down the block in search of fleshy wares.

The street, an unrequited ocean of masculine desire, was thick with drunken, stumbling men. They swerved in and out of clubs, shouting at and dragging along their fellows. They poured down side streets and their catcalls bellowed out the open doors. Female and she-male prostitutes dotted the corners. In short skirts with their breasts bunched close together, they waved at the passing cars, and they ran in their high heels to open windows. They giggled and laughed with one another, and they harassed the bums tripping along with forties in brown bags. The bums slurred to every man who passed – Buddy, could you spare a quarter? Stumbling over their falling apart shoes, they collected nothing. Desire left them bereft. The men were deaf. Whatever was in their pockets was paper gold saved only to drape across a dancer’s naked thigh. I passed a corner club with a doorman who invited me inside to view the merchandise, and I acquiesced.

The lighting lay dark and truculent across the white trash remnants downing their drinks. I was the youngest customer by ten years. Kid Rock blared through the stereo – Baw-diddy-bah. Soft, rhythmic Christmas lights flashed swaths of color on the walls of mirrors. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a coke. Dollar bills were piled across the stage-front.

Like a prowling cat, a hunting lioness, a dancer, on her hands and knees, slinked across the stage. She reached the pole, fluidly slid up its length, and twirled a ballet-like pirouette. With her back rigid, she collapsed to the ground, spread her legs, and rolled onto her chest. She slid through a yoga posture, prayed to the sun, and rose to her feet again. She had blond hair cut to the nape of her neck, a smile on her face, thick legs, a tight stomach, and full handfuls of breasts.

A sickly, heroin addict seeming dancer quickly slid into place next to me. She shivered from her nudity. Her fingers trembled as they brushed against my arm. “Wanna buy me a drink?” she asked. Her teeth were crooked and mangled. Her skin was blotchy and translucent. I choked a sip through my straw.

I glanced from her back to the dancer on stage. “I’d rather buy her a drink,” I said, nodding to my performing choice. The girl on stage was shrouded in the beauty of perfection and mystery. She was healthy and full – something that could fulfill my deep-seated need for a pure evening of fantasy.

“Suit yourself,” the heroin addict said, and she stood up. “Heather, you got a customer,” she shouted at the stage. Heather turned her head, looked right at me, and smiled. I melted. The memory that had been strangling me since before I’d left my apartment melded quietly into the nightclub’s bright silence. I could breathe again. Like the ghost of a murdered child, my memory stared at me from the corner of the room, but I hid from its angry, judgmental gaze. As long as I could see Heather, she expanded to personify every moment of my current reality. I sipped my coke and for the first time in months really felt quite happy. I closed my eyes and basked in the forgotten sensation.

Warm breath breathed across my neck: “Hello.” I opened my eyes. Sitting down next to me, in a tight, black top and black skirt cut high upon her thighs, Heather was smiling. I smiled back at her. She ran her hand behind my neck, tickled me with her painted nails, slipped her fingers through my hair, leaned forward, and kissed me on the lips.

The sensation was kinetic. Life pulsed through her lips into mine. My eyes exploded a wave of colors into my brain. My capillaries carried her sensation through my arteries and into my very blood stream where it warmed my stomach and filled my heart. My fingers tingled against her back and ribcage. Her soft, milky flesh lit my hands afire. The flames consumed my body and overpowered my soul. To further feel her burgeoning electricity, I ran one hand across her warm chin and neck. She purred, a pussy cat, and leaned closer to me. Her tongue darted between my lips. Our saliva commingled. Our tongues writhed as Chinese dragons in a fight. New Year’s fireworks exploded across my taste buds. For that brief moment, every thought that had tormented me for so long now that I couldn’t even remember a time without them vanished in death’s blinding, white light. It had been months since I’d been kissed.

“Wow,” she said when we were done. “That was great.”

My eyes glowed. My hair was out of place. An inner warmth crept through my cheeks to heat my face. “Yeah, it was,” I agreed, still tasting her snap and pop amid my emptiness.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

I told her.

“So you wanna buy me a drink?”

I nodded. Of course I did. It cost me twenty-five dollars, and according to the rules of the club, she was my property until it was done.

Heather led us to a table in the back of the club. The lighting here was even softer than that up front. The newfound darkness added dimensions to our tryst. Somehow, this all seemed more legitimate. Low-lying jazz should have been playing. A candle could have been lit. It was as if we were pretending that we’d met at a normal bar on a normal night, that I hadn’t already seen her naked, that the future might be opening up instead of closing in on us, and that somehow this might evolve into something incorporating dates and moving in together, a wedding and children. Instead, because of our falsity, I enjoyed the change of scenery and the chance to focus all my attention upon this woman I had paid for. I needed to get my money’s worth. What that was, I wasn’t quite sure. Heather nestled into my shoulder. We kissed again. I rubbed my hands up and down her smooth legs. Her skin warmed my touch. It warmed me so much, I shivered. “So what do you do?” she asked me when our lips parted from one another’s. She tilted her head back on her neck. A smile curled the corners of her lips.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Really? Have you published anything?”

“I just started. I just graduated from college. I’m working on a collection of short stories.”

“What are they about?”

“Real life. Divorces, drugs, fights… Someday, maybe this.”

“I read a lot. My favorite writer’s J.D. Salinger. Have you ever read Franny and Zooey?”

“No, but I just finished Nine Stories.

“What did you think?”

A Perfect Day for Bananafish is one of the best things I’ve ever read. If I ever get famous and get to put together one of those anthologies, I’ll definitely put it in. Along with A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Hemingway, A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver.”

“You aren’t crazy like Salinger, are you?” Her eyes opened wide as she said it. Her gaze glassed over to nothing but the present. It was almost impossible to believe that less than ten minutes before, she’d been writhing like a suffocating fish for two dozen jeering men.

“Not that I know of.”

“You wouldn’t ever want to run away from the world?”

I smiled a smile that died somewhere between my cheeks and my eyes. “I’m already trying to do that,” I answered.

“That’s okay,” Heather said. “Let me tell you a secret.”  Breathing into my ear, she whispered: “I want to, too. I want to run away to the mountains and leave all this far away behind me. I want to be a little girl again.”

Something opened inside of me, something like a flower in spring, one of the many-petaled denizens of a great trap door to the source of all my nightmares and dreams. Like a hummingbird overdosed on nectar, a thought tickled the back of my throat and died. I choked on it and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I pulled Heather closer to me. Curling her hands up to her neck, she nestled snugly into my chest. Our bodies fit together so well. My emotions swelled from the scent of the sweat from her dance. I said, “Let’s go to the mountains together.”

Heather pulled back so that she could look me in the face and judge my sincerity. Beneath the somber gleam of the lights glowing in the front, her eyes sparkled. Her lips twirled into a full grin, and she said, “Have you seen Life is Beautiful yet?”

I told her I hadn’t.

“First, you need to take me to see that. You’ll love it. It’s perfect for our first date, if you don’t count this.”

“I don’t count this.”

“Good. I don’t either. You can’t count a date at a place like this. We’ll pretend like I’m a waitress and you met me at the restaurant where I work. You ordered a hamburger, and I left you my phone number on the check.” That sounded like a good idea.

A few minutes later, the club’s lone waitress approached us. She was middle aged and sallow. Pudge trickled over the top of her jeans, but her flamboyant mannerisms implied that at one point in time, years ago, she very well may have been one of the girls twirling around the pole. “Heather, are you done with your drink yet?” she asked, a certain persistence in her tone, an admonishing glint in her eyes.

“Almost.”

“Is he going to buy you another one?”

Heather looked at me. I nodded to say I would. “Amelia,” Heather said, “Could you bring me a pen, too, and be discrete about it. Whatever you do, don’t let Jimmy see you.” When Amelia left, Heather turned back to me. “We aren’t supposed to give our phone numbers out to anybody,” she explained. “But you’re different. I’m glad I met you.”

Amelia returned with the drink and a pen. Heather grabbed a cocktail napkin. In a flowery hand reminiscent of all the notes the girls had delivered to me in high school, she scribbled across it. Her “H” had trills to it. Her “t” had a flowing tail at the end. The crosshatch squiggled across the page. To set them off from everything else, the numbers had hearts around them. She slid the napkin across the table to me. “Thank you,” I said. I slipped it into my pocket, and we kissed to confirm our need to see one another again.

I bought Heather two more drinks before I left… one hundred dollars. I’d only spent that much money one other time in my life: the first time I ever went to a strip club in LA. My shoes, which by that point had holes in the toes, didn’t even cost that much. But that was the going rate in Baltimore to spend an hour running away from your memories. Even without any alcohol, her scent and her smile, her breasts and her eyes were inebriating. Every time our lips touched I tasted wine. Every rustle of her nails through my hair distorted my mind. She buried reality in a tomb of its own design.

We cuddled and kissed between minute sips off her drink. She tried to make every glass last. But Amelia kept her eye on us, and as soon as Heather started swirling her ice, she was upon us again, breathing into our faces, disturbing our embrace, forcing me to ante up and hold onto my place in the club. There was a hint in her mannerisms of us doing something vaguely illegal. It must have been against the rules, some sort of unknown sin, for us to enjoy one another’s company, to simply talk as I held gingerly onto Heather’s fingertips. I fumbled through my weekly allowance and forked over the bills I didn’t want to part with. Heather and I discussed everything from art to movies to literature to our dreams for the future. All around us, the rest of the customers were getting lap dances. Faceless girls ground their hips into unknown men’s crotches. Hidden in the corner, my heroin addict from earlier had her hands down an old man’s pants. His eyes were closed, and he held his head tilted back towards the ceiling. Spittle spouted from his lips. Heather wanted to be a preschool teacher because she loved children. We decided she could do that somewhere far away in our imaginary mountains.

We said goodbye slowly. Grins toyed with both of our faces. My hand slid down her arm to end with a light touch on the tips of her fingers. Her eyes sparkled with delight as I promised I’d call her the very next night. “I’d like that very much,” she said. I leaned down and kissed her one last time. She bit her upper lip as she told me, “Good night.”

Outside, on the street, the heat was suffocating. I could already feel myself dehydrating. The doorman asked me if I had a good time. I said, “Yeah,” in order to be polite. I reached into my pocket and felt the cocktail napkin with Heather’s number on it. Its rough edges were comforting and nice. Then, something shifted around inside of me. In the glare of the streetlights, with a barrage of honking horns, fantasy gave way to reality. My facial expression collapsed. The trap door that I’d been dreading opened up. I fell headlong into a black hole descending into my gut.

I pulled the cocktail napkin from my pocket, and I dropped it – hearts, squiggles, and all. It twirled in the stagnant air and fell into the empty gutter as I walked back along the vacant streets to return to greet the roaches who ruled my apartment while I was out, to spend all night sweating into and writhing across my lonely sheets. I never made it to the inner harbor.

Click here for more stories from Israfel Sivad’s collection The American Apocalypse.

Crossroads Blues

 

Crossroads_Blues_Cover_for_KindleFrom the novel Crossroads Blues
By Israfel Sivad

From the observation deck of The Empire State Building, 86 stories above the teeming mass of humans gawking and mumbling and screaming and shouting and talking and walking and running, the streets and lights of New York City spread like veins and cells, a spiderwebbed body, many-headed like the Hydra, covered in eyes like Mithra, animate in its grandeur, breathing as a spreading amoeba, breeding with itself, consuming the flies, the demons: Beelzebub – their lord, their savior. To one side, the shores of New Jersey are visible. On the other side, Brooklyn spreads out across the East River. Queens is in the distance, one skyscraper rising, phallus-like out of the duplex plane. The flat and pointed roofs of the buildings that, from the ground, rise so high, blocking the sky, encasing their victims in alleys and walkways, lie a multitude of feet below, a mini-metropolis from heaven’s perch. Unlike anywhere else in the city, the sky expands and shines with the radiance of stars, a seeming reflection in the water’s above the firmament. Manhattan’s grid of streets and avenues is a Euclidean map with one imperfection: Broadway, the defect built into the mosque, slices across the mathematical precision, scarring the earth. At the end of the island, the Twin Towers rise, glittering, glorious boxes dwarfing the financial district, a brother and a sister, fraternal lovers giving birth to all that lies beneath, morphing from SoHo and the Village into Midtown’s masculine monument, falling off to the demure Chrysler Building, descending back into Harlem, Washington Heights, and the river that borders the Bronx.

“Do you ever feel like you’re living the skyline?” Michelle asks.

Andrew pauses for a moment to think about her question. He stares out through the grates in the fence that encloses the observation deck, that discourages the suicidal from plunging from the dream of infinity to the reality of quantified concrete below. He’s distracted by a vision of the fall, the wind, the freedom, the thought of death being so close. Milton’s Lucifer. He blinks and looks back at the skyline spreading out all around him. He – in the midst of it all, in one of the anchors – gazes across the gulfs and ridges that have framed the aspirations of so many actors, brokers, musicians, writers, bankers, lawyers, painters, directors, models, entrepreneurs, immigrants from every continent on the globe, dreamers the world over – artists all. “I’m living the skyline right now,” he says.

“Really? Look at it. Are you sure you’re living everything that that horizon promised you before you showed up here?”

The warmth of the alcohol consumed with Charlie in Midtown and with Michelle at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge colors Andrew’s thoughts and feelings. Over the course of the subway ride, while waiting downstairs in line, the mellowness of its glow in his bloodstream has faded, but it has given way to a subtler sort of contentment. He exhales thoughtfully, “Maybe not everything, but pretty close. Think about it. I’ve been here for a year, and today I spent my lunch hour talking to an old friend about being in a show that I wrote, that one of my friends is producing and directing. Over the course of that conversation, I finally figured out how to start my screenplay. Tomorrow, I’m going to begin writing it. I live in a rundown, railroad apartment with a gay actor in one of the hippest neighborhoods in the world. My bedroom window has a perfect view of the same skyline you’re talking about. It’s a little after ten o’clock on a Friday night, and I’ve already been at two bars tonight, talking about things that interest me, putting together a schedule for that same show. And now, here I am, standing mildly drunk on top of the Empire State Building, surrounded by tourists, with you asking me whether or not I’m living my fantasy. Look at the city all around you. This is the skyline. This is my dream.”

Michelle isn’t so sure. Her forehead and eyebrows crease in a way that one of her ex-boyfriend’s found irresistible. She purses her lips and stares through that same grate without the thought of the fall. She feels the swirling presence of the tourists around her filling the landing they’re standing on. She hears the laughs and shouts of playing children excited to reach the heights that, previously, only their fantasies had imagined. She says, “I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’ve found the skyline, and other times, well, New York is New York, you know.”

“I’m not sure if I do know. What do you mean?”

“Think about the city. No matter what you do, you can never get on top of it. Sure, there are people, who, for a moment, think they might have beaten it, but sure enough, the city will come along and spin their whole world upside down. I guess the skyline means different things to different people.”

“What does it mean to you?”

“Fame. That’s what it meant when I showed up as a little, lost freshman at NYU. I guess it’s never really changed.”

“Well, you never know. You might be becoming that.”

“Becoming what?”

“Famous.”

“Fame isn’t so important to me anymore. All I really care about is getting by and having a chance to do the best I can with the things that are important to me.”

“You know, sometimes I wonder who out of all the people I know here is going to wind up famous. Next to me, you’re in the lead, girl.”

Michelle laughs a laugh that ends in a smile that radiates through her face, crawls up her cheeks, creases her eyes, shines an aura that reaches out and tickles the inside of Andrew’s stomach. She spins her head to send her wavy hair tumbling back over her shoulder. With her hair out of the way, her profile is sharp. Framed by the lights in the distance, she’s a poster, an album cover, a frozen moment embodying Andrew’s dreams. She is his skyline. He’s inspired. He says, “Think about it, Michelle. In, what, four days? You’re going to be riding an elevator up in one of those towers to something like the 90th floor…”

“Something like that. Can you imagine what the city will look like from up there?”

“Tell me that’s not living the skyline.”

Michelle’s smile spreads even farther. “Yeah, maybe that is something.”

“You know, I think it’s in Mao II, Don DeLillo says something about the World Trade Center being the hermaphroditic god of the city.” The two pieces – the rook and the bishop – glow in leopard print dress. Off the bishop’s crown, a thousand points of light, Jacob’s ladder, penetrate heaven.

“I can see that. I guess the one with the antenna is the male part?”

“Something like that.”

“A god, huh?”

“It makes sense. If you think about it, ancient people worshipped the gods of the earth, deities that were place-specific. They lived in their cities. There’s definitely something very primal about New York. In the subway, it feels alive to me, and the World Trade Center is kind of like New York’s monument to itself.”

“More so than the Empire State?”

“Well, the World Trade is more directly connected to our mythology.”

“And what’s that?”

“Money.” Andrew smiles contagiously. Michelle is infected. “Our Bible is The Wealth of Nations. Our faceless god: The Invisible Hand. The Twin Towers are our idol.  You’ve been in the city long enough to know that.”

Michelle nods. She stops suddenly. She tilts her head to the side. Her eyebrows crease again. Her gaze cuts through the night, slicing the air, dissecting the words hidden in it. “I don’t know,” she says, “The Empire State is an idol – New York’s hard-on. I think a hermaphrodite is a little more than that.”

“In what way?”

“Well, I remember this acid trip when I was a freshman. We went down to the World Trade Center to lie down and stare up at the lights. I can still see its shape kind of stepping out of the night and flying off above me, its foundation seeming to reach out beneath and support me… Anyways. When I was down there, I remember thinking about the same thing you were just talking about, how the city feels kind of alive, especially in the subways, and I remember thinking about how the World Trade Center starts down there underground and winds up going up – God knows how many feet, I don’t, and how many thousands and thousands of people go in and out, underneath, and all around it every day. I could feel it, you know…”

“I can imagine.”

“The electricity was coursing though me. Being down there, for a second, it was like the whole city shot through me. I could feel the souls of ten million people refined into one single point, one place – the forms of those two buildings I was staring at. At that moment, I knew that the energy of those buildings, the mental energy of designing them, the physical energy of building them, the psychic energy that’s contained in them, and the spiritual energy of the dreams directed towards them has made them into something much more than simply the physical shapes that we see. They have a presence that, now that you mention it, must be something like what people felt when they first came to believe in god…”  Michelle laughs at the intensity of her monologue. “I don’t know. I guess I was tripping pretty hard, but I’ll be honest, ever since then, anytime I pray, I picture myself praying to the force that I felt surging out of the Twin Towers that night.”

“That’s pretty intense, Michelle. Now you’re making me feel like a real ass for making my joke about capitalism.”

“Yeah. I like the idea of New York’s god being a hermaphrodite, too.”

“Why’s that?’

“It fits the city better than this monstrosity of masculinity that we’re standing on.”

“You don’t think New York’s masculine?”

“Not entirely. London is masculine. Paris is feminine. New York is a hermaphrodite.”

“Some of the most ancient conceptions of God are as a hermaphrodite.”

“As they should still be.”

“I figured you’d want God to be a woman.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a woman…”

“You forget. Women are more giving than men. I don’t have to own all of God. Only men need that. Besides, if God’s a woman, who would I make love to when I die?”

“You could try angels.”

“Why settle for second best?”

Andrew pauses to think about what Michelle has said. He stares at the curve of her lips. They tremble ever so slightly, as they always do when she’s made a point after a few drinks. He has to agree with her. He nods. He laughs. “I’d expect that from you,” he says.

“What?”

Looking into Michelle’s eyes, he whispers, “You’re a perfectionist. That’s what’ll make you famous.” Michelle shakes her head proudly. They start walking around the perimeter of the landing, Michelle next to the fence. They walk slowly, gazing out at the expanse of the city as they go.

“Okay, perfectionist. If you could choose the perfect way to die, what would that be?” Andrew asks.

“That’s a pretty morbid question,” Michelle says.

“I know, but you’re the one who wants to make love to God, so just answer it.”

“Do you think about this sort of stuff a lot?”

“Every once in a while,” Andrew laughs. “Answer the question.”

Michelle thinks for a moment. The wind blows her hair. She gives herself a hug. “Nuclear explosion, right in the epicenter.”

“That’s original. Why?”

“So that I can see something that nobody else ever gets to see. The splitting of the atom, and all that…  It’s probably the closest any living person ever gets to seeing God, right? That way if there’s no God after I die, I won’t die disappointed. How about you?”

“Ripped apart by wolves.”

“That’s gruesome. Why would you want that?”

“So that I’m fighting to stay alive until the very last minute…”

“Interesting view.”

They pass Brooklyn. They pause for a moment to point out their neighborhood to each other (“Right there. There’s the Williamsburg Bridge. That’s Queens. There’s Brooklyn. That’s right where Greenpoint is.”)  They start walking again, brushing shoulders every once in a while, the invisible shields that they have on the streets, the ones that somehow manage to always keep urbanites at a constant distance from their neighbors, disappearing. Andrew cocks his head to the side. He asks, “But who says God would be the best?”

“The best at what?”

“Making love.”

“I can’t imagine that anybody could be better.”

“What about the devil?”

“I don’t believe in him.”

“Neither do I, but as long as we’re speaking mythically, if I were you, I’d take Lucifer. Seems to me he’d know a little bit more about the whole thing.”

“Hmmm…  You could be right about that. No. Maybe if I was younger – still in my rock star phase – I’d want the devil, but at twenty-four, I’ll take God.”

“Why’s that?”

“Sensuality of course.”

“Lucifer seems extremely sensual.”

“Not the way I see him.”

“Maybe you just don’t know him like I do.”

“All right. Now, you’re scaring me.” Michelle laughs. Along with her, Andrew laughs at himself. They’ve strolled half-way around the building, spun half a rotation atop the unmoved mover at the center of their world, reached the summer solstice of their journey. To their left side, the lights of Times Square, the eternally vigilant, virulent, beating heart of the city that never sleeps, shine the white glow of daylight in night – the sun imprisoned on earth. The monstrous advertisements in the pulsing atrium of capitalism are visible even from their distance.

“Can you imagine what New York would look like after a war,” Michelle says, “The depth of the rubble from all these buildings?”

“It’s mind boggling,” Andrew says.

In front of them, a little to the right, the Chrysler Building, decorated in a pleated skirt of lights, rises to the Empire State’s shoulder.

“See, even Midtown has a feminine part,” Michelle says, nodding at the Chrysler.

Andrew looks. “I never thought of it that way.”

“I guess, if the World Trade Center is New York’s hermaphroditic god, then the Empire State and the Chrysler Building are the city’s king and queen.”

“And the rest of the skyline is pawns.”

“Maybe it’s a giant chess game: Midtown versus Downtown.”

“The spiritual versus the temporal. God’s kingdom versus man’s.”

“You’re taking it too far again.”

“Oh, come on, Michelle. Can’t you see it? The financial district is powered by the faceless god. Midtown is the custodian of the riches. It’s the church and the state lined up to do battle once and for all, to determine who will rule mankind – God or Caesar, papal doctrine or human law, the stock market or hard cash, theoretical economics or practical business? And the war is being fought all across New York City, with the lower classes as cannon fodder – you and me, moving back and forth, captured by opposing sides, sent back to the front with a new suit, a different face, making one wealthier to spite the other until it all spins back around.”

Michelle grabs Andrew’s arm. Her fingers are a shock. Andrew’s excitement rises. She bursts in excitedly, joking, “Maybe it’s not a chess game. Maybe they’re really working together, the hermaphrodite, the king, and the queen. The posture of the game is just an act to keep us from rising up and going to war with both of them.”

“Yes. Yes. The financiers and the entrepreneurs, the church and the state determining our American Dream: a new opiate for the masses. You’re probably right about that. Capitalist scum…  ‘They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers. Gonna win, yeah we’re takin over. Come on!’  Worldwide revolution of the proletariat! That’s what I’m calling for, and it’s going to start right here in Gotham, with me and you, Catwoman, robbing the Chase Manhattan Bank in Times Square.”

Michelle shakes her head. “What the hell are you talking about, robbing a bank?”

“My screenplay.”

“What screenplay?”

“The one I’m going to start writing tomorrow. I didn’t tell you about it yet?”

“No.”

“It’s about this writer – me – who needs to come up with an idea that’s going to sell, so he comes up with an idea about a writer who needs to come up with an idea that’s going to sell so he comes up with a plot for a bank robbery, but as the original writer’s writing the story, he realizes that the robbery could work. So he gets the help of this friend of his who runs a theater company – that’s you – and they enlist the help of a bunch of actors – that’s Michael and Carey for starters – and they do the whole thing like a play, with a stage manager and a director and everybody having their roles. We still need to figure out all those parts, plus how to rob the bank…”

“That’s a really cool idea. I can’t believe you never told me about it before.”

“I wasn’t sure if you’d be in to robbing a bank. Besides, you might steal the plot and take all the money for yourself.”

“Andrew, I don’t write. I direct. Somebody else has to give me the words, and I make sure that people see them right.”

Michelle’s arm is still wrapped around Andrew’s. Her hand is resting on his thin bicep. His face is turned to hers. She’s smiling. Her lips are soft and pliable. Her glassy eyes sparkle with a scintillation of heaven. She blinks. Her eyelashes hold together for a moment and pull apart. Her halo expands to encompass his still liquored brain. It contracts and pulls him down towards her. He closes his eyes. She closes hers and reaches up on tippy-toes.

They know the future, the next moment, perfectly.

Their tingling lips meet. Their mouths open. Their heads spin and lock. Andrew caresses Michelle’s cheek, his palm cupping her chin. Michelle runs her fingers down Andrew’s arm, up his back, nestling the tips into his hair. Their tongues extend to wrap around one another’s, tasting each other’s breath, merging two bodies into one in the simplest, the purest, of pleasurable practices.

Above them, the Empire State blinks. Beyond them, New York glitters. Around them, children laugh and couples nuzzle. Inside of them, a seed shoots out roots planted in the other’s stomach.

Shared, conjoined, they step back, Andrew’s hands resting on Michelle’s arms, Michelle’s fingers at Andrew’s waist. In awe, they gaze into one another’s once familiar, now brand-new eyes.

“How come that’s never happened before?” Andrew asks.

“Because we’ve never been together on top of the Empire State Building before,” Michelle answers.

Click here for the whole story.

The Hallowed Halls of Academia

 

The_Tree_Outside_My__Cover_for_KindleThe Hallowed Halls of Academia
By Israfel Sivad

What did you say,
you hallowed halls of academia?
That our questions were mere
blasphemies?

Is that what you would say to us,

teach to us, your servants,
faithful and true, respecting
you and the order
you would teach?

Our reply is to challenge.

And if you reject us
yet again, we will move
our operation
underground.

Listen to me. All of you listen:

There are two people
who write for me,
but I can’t tell
you their names.

They are my secret yin and yang.

There are two people
who sleep with me.
They are my Lilith
and my Eve,

to me, Adam, the serpent, the man, Satan.

I thought I was alone,
but there is a harem,
a lion’s den of
men and women

reclining against my breast.

We are cultural aberrations,
hermaphrodites if
we chose to be.
Blasphemy?

We have not yet begun to blaspheme.

From Israfel Sivad’s collection of poems The Tree Outside My Window, available here: http://www.amazon.com/Tree-Outside-Window-Andrews-Songs/dp/1477448489

 

A Day in the Life

 

The_Cars_Behind_Bes_Cover_for_KindleA Day in the Life
By Israfel Sivad

I wake up in the morning, and I lie in bed, listening to my alarm, waiting for it to stop ringing.

I think about my dreams. I had one the other night that I want to remember as vividly as possible. I hadn’t had anything to drink that night (I’d gone straight home from my café). And the lack of alcohol always lends a certain clarity and twistedness to my nocturnal wanderings.

The dream began in various odd pool halls and bars and strip clubs where I was simply wandering around with somebody who was my friend, and we kept winding up in all these situations talking to these sort of animé looking people with very sharp features and unusually dark hair…  Men and women touching my arms and laughing with me but somehow always winding up laughing at me. And then they began threatening me with some sort of suffering that they were planning on inflicting upon me. I was trying to treat their threats as jokes, but the knowledge they had of my inner life terrified me and led me to believe that perhaps they really could hurt me.

And then one of the people who were constantly tormenting me directed me into a room. Inside the room was a woman with short, black hair and a lithe, cat-like body, and she was hardly wearing anything at all. There was a bed against the wall, and an eerie sensation, like being in a haunted house, permeated my psyche. She slinked around and smiled at me, and I realized that I’d slept with her before. She asked me if I wanted her right then, and I told her that I knew who she was now.

And then the person who brought me there wasn’t a person anymore. He was a demon with horns and a cape, but not in a Hollywood way. He was a terrifying figure standing in the corner, staring at us.

The woman approached me, and the door closed, and I was locked in the room with the woman and the demon. She embraced me, and we spun around, and I saw the monster standing silently in the corner.

I tried to disentangle myself from her, but I couldn’t. Some sort of narcotic began clouding my world as she described the various sexual acts I could orchestrate upon her. I was getting turned on, but I knew that there was something very wicked about that woman and that place, that all of the people who were tormenting me before had led me to her, and that if I slept with her again, I was going to unleash something horrible upon the world. Somehow, I extracted myself from the embrace, but I couldn’t get her arms completely off my neck. I told her I was leaving. I was scared to pass the demon, but he stepped aside and opened the door

But that beautiful and powerful woman was whispering things in my ear about how much we’d enjoyed each other before, and right before I stepped out of the room, the demon put his hand on my chest, not trying to stop me, just asking me to reconsider for a moment.

I turned to take one last look at the succubus, the enchantress, and I realized I was in love. I asked her if I would ever be able to leave if I made love to her again. She said that I might… someday. I embraced her again. We kissed. I bit her neck, felt her shoulders, licked her stomach. She leaned back in my arms. The demon put his hand on my back, and a red mist swirled around us. Black smoke mixed in, and I told her how much I loved her.

As the mist increased, so did the narcotic that was working on my senses. My thoughts were becoming cloudy. My limbs were heavy. Every time I touched the woman’s lips, I knew I was getting closer and closer to never being able to come back to any sort of goodness and purity because I knew those creatures were evil and that they wanted me to partake of and be an equal in all the destruction and depravity that they were capable of.

I said something to her about how I was going to impregnate her, and she said that was the whole point, that we were going to give birth to a king. I asked her if they were going to kidnap me forever, and she said, “Not forever. We will let you go.”

I was ready to lose myself until I heard the demon behind me mumble that only before they let me go, they would inflict upon me sufferings and torments and pains that I could never conceive of even in my most twisted thoughts. Somehow that made it into my brain, and I pulled away from the woman, laughing nonchalantly as if I’d always known what they’d had planned for me, but knowing that I’d almost lost.

I stumbled to the door and opened it and told them I was leaving.

As soon as I was out of the room, the red and black mist was gone. My mind didn’t feel drugged, but I was fucking terrified. I needed to make it to a car so that I could get away from that place.

I was outside of a castle, and I was walking with the woman again. She had the keys to a car that she was offering to drive me away in. We weren’t touching each other, but I was still in love with her. I told her that, and she said that would make sense since we were the same person coming from different sides. And I said that seemed true and that I hoped we could learn to be friends, that we were meant for each other in some sort of weird way. “That is,” I added, “If you are capable of being anybody’s friend.”

She gave me a very tempting look, and I added, “I often wonder if I am capable of being anybody’s friend.”

She told me that I wasn’t, but I got in the car with this woman who was suddenly saying she wanted to be my friend, and we were driving away. I woke up.

I was sweating. I was shaking. I was terrified. I got out of bed and smoked a cigarette. I tried going back to sleep, but I had to pray to God to send St. Michael to watch over my soul because my sleep-addled, dehydrated mind couldn’t shake the idea that all of that was real, that I had just gone head to head with a fucking demon, and that if I was overcome by her, the pain and the suffering that her demon was talking about would infiltrate the real world…

It’s not until my alarm clock finally stops ringing that I bother lifting myself off the sheets. I always double-check the time even though I know it’s too late for me to take a shower. I put on my pants. I find a tie, and I tie that noose, that yoke around my neck before I walk downstairs, down the block and around the corner to the subway.

The G train always takes forever at that time of the morning. It runs okay between eight and nine, but once the city figures everybody’s gotten to work, they cut the service.

That’s one of my favorite times of the day though, when I can crouch down against the wall of the station and read my book for about twenty minutes straight, when I can lean against the concrete, in the depths of the earth and be alone no matter how many people walk by me.

There’s a blond girl who comes down there every day. I call her the girl with the ass because her ass is so perfect. It bubbles out beneath the fabric of her pants. She has a mole on the left side of her chin. It’s the only blemish on her skin, but it makes her a little more beautiful. I try not to stare at her, but I can’t help myself. I stop concentrating on my book, and I glance up at her. I glance back down at my book, and then the whole train of thought is lost and I have to close my book and stare.

I want to talk to her. I’d like to say hello to her, to have a conversation with her, but I can’t. I can’t stroll up to her nonchalantly and say, “Hi, I see you here everyday, and I was just wondering what your name was because I’m sick of thinking of you as the girl with the ass, and I’d like you to have a real name and be a real person and not just a body.” But I can’t do that.

Here’s the thing. I remember the day, walking down the boardwalk in Laguna Beach, when suddenly it hit me. I had to sit down it was so hard for me to take. I pulled my journal out of my bag, and I lit a cigarette, but I couldn’t write. I could barely even smoke. Because I realized that there was absolutely no way that I was ever going to be able to spend the night at least once with every woman who’s alive. God, that hurt. I watched this girl walk past, and she wasn’t beautiful, but there was this thing about the way the straps of her sandals wrapped around her calves. And another girl walked past, and she was actually kind of ugly, but there was this quality to her skin color. And another girl went by, and she was kind of pretty, but she had these lips that made me…  I hung my head. I was ready to cry.

I can never stop wondering what it would be like to have sex with the woman I’m looking at or talking to. Sometimes I’m simply wondering what it would be like to touch the groove in her back, like that girl on the subway the other day, the groove right around her spine where the muscles come together. Or what it would feel like to run my hands through her hair, like this girl who I see in the elevator at work every day. Because her hair is purple like midnight, and it always smells so soft, and there are these little curls waving through it, and I’ve touched that sort of hair before, and it always feels so nice, especially as it spills over my shoulder or tickles my stomach. Or what it would look like to unzip those tight pants that zip right up the back on the girl with the ass because I know that for a moment, as I unzipped them and watched her body slide out of them that that would be as beautiful as any sculpture I’d ever marveled at.

And sometimes I just wonder what sort of kinks a person’s mind is going to devise. Would she bite or not? Would she scream and claw, or would she lie there and moan? What does she like? Giving or receiving oral sex? What’s her favorite position? Has she maybe done something I haven’t tried yet?

What’s her kink, and how the hell did that one get into her head? Is it because of her daddy or her ex-boyfriend or her financial situation when she was growing up?

With the women I used to date, there are these flashes of moments, these memories of somebody reclining on my bed, melting an ice cube across her breasts in front of an open refrigerator, arching her back up off the floor, her eyes sparkling in a cab, holding my head against her chest, dancing for me in the lonely shadows of a building, drenched in champagne and rain, that makes it seem like everybody has at least one of those moments in them.

At this strip club one night, I remember thinking to myself how amazing it was that I could sit somewhere and have living art move around on every side, have the Venus de Milo come to life and slink across the stage with the same tone to her legs and her shoulders, the same perfect breasts and back. I could watch Cleopatra twirl around a pole and pucker her lips like she was kissing the snake that would eventually suck her nipple. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness could open up and spill out every bit of beauty that Marlowe ever tried hiding his eyes from. For that little while, the entire world disappeared. And God did I need that. Because my world of roaches and rats and stench and filth was unbearable. I was lost in the rapture of a moment of beauty, but bodies alone can’t do that for me anymore. They hurt too bad.

I can never figure out how to get one of those moments to stick around forever, as futile as I know the attempt will always be. I don’t want the moment to stop because as soon as that happens, everything comes crashing back down on me, work and life and lost loves and broken dreams and nightmares and violence and pain and shattered hearts (mine and everybody else’s) and death and loneliness and frustration. It’s my ability to descend so low that lets me fly so high, and I know that all of it, the highs and the lows, are all in my head, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they are real for me, but I’d be willing to trade that ability to see the world in such conflicting grandiosity and despair to just for once live with it as something that simply is: no more, no less, nothing beautiful, but nothing horrible either.

But the girl with the ass is beautiful. So I don’t say anything to her. I just stare at her and love having her near me.

The train comes. I never get to sit down. I stand there, holding the pole, smelling the stench of all the sick breath that everybody’s been breathing into the car, and I stare at the girl with the ass. We transfer at Court Square, and I follow her down the long hallway, between the bustling bodies, using her as my beacon to propel me to where I don’t want to go: the F train.

I never get to sit down on the F either, but sometimes I can get close enough to the girl with the ass that the scent of her shampoo will overpower the stench of the trains. She gets off at Rockefeller Center.

By the time I get to 42nd Street, I’ve already had a thousand arguments with myself about whether or not I should walk the two and a half blocks to work or not, but I always do. There was a time in my life when the mere thought of not going to work would have been enough to keep me from going there, but now I keep thinking about my options.

I know that I have a lease, and for some reason, I’m scared to lose that apartment. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I’ve tried really hard to make it mine. I’ve put up pictures and curtains. I’ve bought furniture and dishes. They’re all second hand, but they’re mine. It’s been a long time since something was mine.

9:30, I show up at work. I turn myself off inside. I avoid eye contact with my co-workers. I don’t engage them in any conversation. Not because I’m late again, but because my interactions with them are so frustrating to me. There’s nothing for me to say to them. They don’t know anything about me. They don’t know about what I’ve already put myself through that morning. And I don’t know anything about them. All I know is what they talk about with each other. And I can’t stand listening to them talk about all the new temp applicants. I’m a temp too.

I’ve been temping for three years, but I just started working at my agency three months ago. It hurts me to listen to the way they talk about the people because I know it’s the same thing all of these agencies said about me: He expects us to place him! Where did he go to school? Might as well throw that resume away. He has absolutely no skills. No, it doesn’t matter how smart he is. Is he polished? That’s the question.

But the silence is killing me. I sit here, and I think about all the mistakes I’ve made, and it tears me up inside. I think about how alone I am these days, and I remember that it’s my fault. I’m the one who leaves my girlfriends. I’m the one who never calls my friends. I think about how broke I am and that that’s my fault too. I’ve made plenty of money this year, but somehow I always manage to spend it all. On what? I used to have experiences, and I still do. But now they usually involve something that leaves me dead inside or terrified for months or weeks or days. I’m scared of STDs. Every blemish that shows up near my lip has me counting the seconds until I find out if it’s herpes.

I check my email every ten minutes (sometimes even more) just to see whether or not a magazine has accepted one of my stories or whether an old friend I’ve abandoned has tried getting back in touch with me. I think that when I go home, I’ll put a résumé together so that I can start finding a real job that might give my life some semblance of meaning. I never believed that a person could or should be defined by his or her work, but this world is slowly beating me.

5:00, I go home. I don’t read on the way home. I’m too sad, too depressed, too drained. I look everywhere for the girl with the ass, promising myself that I’ll introduce myself to her, that I’ll find out her name, and that I’ll ask her out on a date. But she’s not on any of the trains. She’s not at the station. Somehow, some day, I need to figure out what time she gets off of work because I know that my day would end differently if I saw her then.

When I check my mail, I always pray that today will be the day there will be a letter of acceptance from a magazine. I always pray that when I listen to my answering machine, a magazine will have called to say they want to publish one of my stories. But nobody ever calls. There’s never any letters other than bills and the occasional self-addressed return envelope with a story inside and a slip of paper that says:  Thank you for sending your submission to (insert name of magazine here), but it does not suit our needs at this particular time. We regret that the volume of submissions we receive makes a personal reply impossible. We hope you will continue your interest in (insert name of magazine here).

The other week, I went straight out after work and started drinking whiskey. That night when I got home, one of those return envelopes was in my mailbox. I couldn’t take it anymore. I threw the envelope across the room, ran to the wall, picked it up from where it fell, and started struggling to rip through the stack of pages. I ran into my bedroom, pulled out all the stories I’d ever written (there were a lot of them too), and started ripping them into the smallest pieces that I could, scattering them across my apartment, from my bedroom to the kitchen, dotting the floor in an avalanche of white paper. I might have been crying, but I don’t think I was. I was just angry.

When I woke up the next morning, my head swimming and the world fluid, it was all gone, not the scraps, just the stories. Four years of work, gone, just like that, because I didn’t think anybody liked it. I swept the scraps into a pile and threw the pile into the garbage. Those stories are at a dump somewhere outside the city now. Maybe they were incinerated on a garbage barge somewhere. Either way, they’re gone. Nobody’s ever going to read them. I had to start all over from scratch. New stories that nobody still likes, but I’m not getting rid of them this time. Sorry, I don’t care anymore.

Because even if I do get published, my money problems aren’t going to go away. I’ll still be poor. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to New York. It hurts to be so close to everything but so far away from it at the same time. It hurts to talk to people who make their money doing what they want to do, when I still spend every day…

When I open the door to my apartment with all my second hand furnishings, I know that I’m a loser, but I don’t know why. I’m smart. I’m attractive. I’m conversational until I twist all up inside. How can you love being alive but hate life? How does that make any sense?

It’s easy to believe in yourself when you don’t have to. It’s a lot harder to do that when the belief is all you have.

I throw the story and the slip of paper away as soon as I walk in the door, and I wish that at the very least, a personal reply would have been possible. I wonder if they know how much that would have meant to me?

I sit down, and I smoke a cigarette. Outside my window, across the East River, the World Trade Center looms up, blocking the sunset. Sometimes the towers rise as a monument. Other times, they’re a deformity on the sky. And sometimes, they’re built from a child’s erector set.

The other day, a fog rolled across the river, and they disappeared completely. Manhattan vanished like the mirage that it is.

I open up a notebook.

There’s so much I want to say. So much I want to look at, to tell people about. So much I want to admit to myself but that I’m too scared to deal with. There’s drinking and violence and strip clubs and prostitutes and one-night stands and jobs. There’s the pain that I’ve caused the women I care about, and then there are the women that I’ve never called back even once. There are the ways I’ve hurt myself: not sleeping, not eating, smoking and drinking and drugs. I want to pull my life together a little better.

I close the notebook. I’m going to go work on my résumé. That’s what other people do, I think, but for them, it’s easy because they don’t have a dream. They don’t have a passion. They don’t have something that means more to them than food or love or happiness. They find a job they can be content with. They find a life that is stable and purposeful and allows them to fall asleep at night.

I don’t care about sleeping because I don’t care about comfort or purpose. I care about meaning. And I’ve made it my goal to create that meaning. I believe in my dream when nobody else does. I have a career. I’m a writer, goddamnit!

I decide that maybe I should take a shower instead. After the shower, I put on different clothes. I put on my clothes, not the stiff shirt and dress pants and black socks that I wore for eight hours, but jeans and a tee shirt and a pair of white socks that slide into my boots.

Sometimes I smoke a little weed, and sometimes I don’t. I decide that I’m feeling a little better and that it would be nice to get some coffee and to read and write. So I do that. I love that.

I love sitting in cafés and listening to people’s conversations. I love the subtle ways that people check each other out in cafés, never too overt, never anything to initiate contact, just enough to make everybody feel a little better about themselves.

I love living in Brooklyn. There’s a very strange thing about Brooklyn because the artists’ community is so young, the neighborhoods have a strange texture of the children and old folks who have never left and the under thirty gentrifying crowd. I often wonder if there really is anything going on in these little neighborhoods across the river. We don’t have the vibrancy and vitality of the city. Our neighborhoods are spread out. We stretch all the way across the waterfront. We can’t afford the city, but we don’t have a neighborhood. Everything is the new SoHo, the new Village, but those are as close as Williamsburg and Greenpoint. We’re as far away from each other as Harlem and Chinatown (and we’ve been known to pop up there as well). We aren’t a neighborhood of artists. We’re an entire city of them.

I blow my mind out on a book and my own stories, and I decide I should go to the bar to shoot some pool, to clear my head.

Around the corner to my regular bar. I sit down and wonder whether or not the bartender feels bad for me, coming in alone every day, even on weekends. It’s not that I don’t have any friends, I want to tell him. It’s just that I never call them.

I order a beer and set my cigarettes up on the bar. The game is on TV. If the Yanks are winning, it’s a good night. If they aren’t, well, who knows.

After my first beer, I pull a pen out of my bag and start writing on a napkin. By the time I finish my second beer, I’m ready to switch to whiskey. I move to the back of the bar to shoot some pool. I decide that this makes me feel good, drinking and shooting pool, not thinking about sex, not thinking about writing, not thinking about the girl with the ass, not thinking about anything. For those moments, I think that maybe I am just like everybody else.

New York’s a big city, and there’s always a girl in my bar who I don’t know. I always see her looking at me, and I always say that tonight there’s no reason for me to try to get laid because there’s the girl with the ass who I promise myself I’ll talk to tomorrow, and besides, there are more important things in the world than sex.

For me, through most of my life, even when I hardly ever did it, human interaction always revolved around sex. That was my motivation for everything: for going out, making money, writing, everything. I need to learn how to know people, to care about them, but I don’t know if I’m capable of that. That’s why I’m so terrified of herpes. They’d kill who I am.

But time goes on. The drinks keep flowing, and somehow, before I know it, I’m not the guy at the bar with the pen and the napkin anymore. I’m the guy who shows up at the bar every night and every night winds up talking to the girl that everybody else wanted to talk to as soon as she walked in. That’s why nobody ever talks to me when I show up. I’m that guy.

Before I know it, we’re heading to her place. Always to her place. We might not have sex, we might just drink or smoke pot and make out, but even if we do fuck that night, I rarely bother sleeping with the girl anymore.

I go home around two or three or four or five or six depending on when I get bored of her, when she gets bored of me. I go home thinking that it sure would be nice to fall in love and maybe she could have been the one, if only I had bothered getting to know her…

What the fuck was her name again anyway? Did I keep her number or did I throw it away as soon as she closed the door? I hope I don’t bump into her again. I wonder if she gave me a disease. I wonder if I gave her a disease that I don’t know I have. How much money did I wind up spending tonight after all? Why doesn’t anybody like my stories? Why didn’t I put together that résumé so I could be going to a different job tomorrow? Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask the girl with the ass what her name is…

Back to my bed, to dream and wait for the alarm to ring again in the morning.

Click here for more stories from Israfel Sivad’s collection The Cars Behind, Beside Us.

The Last Thing We Ever Do

 

Welcome_to_the_Moder_Cover_for_Kindle (1)The Last Thing We Ever Do
By Israfel Sivad

“Byron, are you smoking too?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah,” Byron answered. He nodded even though she couldn’t see him, and he moved the phone a bit so he could flick his cigarette in the ashtray.

“That’s nice,” she said. For a moment, she sounded like herself again. “Maybe I can just close my eyes and pretend like we’re smoking together here.”

Byron smiled sadly. He set his cigarettes and his lighter beside himself on the bed, and he leaned back to rest his head against the wall.

Sarah started talking again, “Do you remember when you used to call me every night so we could watch TV together?”

Byron smiled. His throat was dry. His mouth was hollow, but he managed to say, “Yeah.”

“Well, this is just like that,” she said.

“Yeah,” he laughed sadly, “Just like that.”

Sarah whispered, “I’m glad you’re my friend.” He could picture her puffy eyes and her stained cheeks lifting into a timid smile. He didn’t answer her.

Sitting there, listening to one another inhale and exhale smoke, they were silent for a little while.

Sarah said, “Byron, what do you think it feels like to die?”

A weird mix of sadness and anger contorted Byron’s face. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know.”

“Do you think it feels better than being alive?”

His bed creaked as he sat up on it. He pulled his hands down his cheeks, but he left his fingertips on his chin. “Yeah, it probably does.”

“I think so too.”

From the background, a woman’s muffled voice yelled Sarah’s name. “My mom’s home. I’m not supposed to be on the phone,” she sniffled.

“Are you gonna tell her?” he asked.

“Hell no,” she almost laughed. “The common bastard will deny it anyway.” Then, Sarah whispered his name again, and her voice got even softer, “You’re my best friend.”

Byron didn’t answer.

Getting closer, the woman yelled again. He pictured Sarah cup her hand around her mouth. “I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too,” Byron said. The other end of the phone clicked. The line went dead. Byron hung up.

Sitting still on his bed, he lit another cigarette. His room was the bowl of an ashtray. The smoke lay thick and heavy with nowhere to escape. It swirled and congealed in a heavy cloud near the ceiling. Byron stood up and stepped over the jeans and black tee shirts on his floor to open the window next to the messy dresser across from his bed. He took a deep breath of the humid air bursting in on him. Even in the night, the heat was almost unbearable, but it was preferable to the choking smoke.

The air conditioner hanging on the window next to the open one rumbled sharply beneath the light shining on it. Liquid ran down its side and dripped into a muddy puddle beneath it. The air conditioner smelled of mildew. It blew the stench into his house, and Byron hated it. He hated the way his house and his clothes and his hair stank from that machine that was supposed to make him pleasant.

He stood, leaning against the window frame, staring at the black woods beyond the shadows of pick-ups jacked up in the backyard. Sarah’s house was on the other side of all that. He stretched his spine. The vertebrae cracked, and he loosely twisted his stiff neck. In the driveway to the left, the sharp outline of the rig of his dad’s truck was waiting for the next job. The dark shapes of its stacks were the horns of a great beast. Its gaping grill formed the long teeth of a wired mouth. Byron pursed his lips and shook his head. “Get back on the road, old man,” he whispered. He angrily flicked his cigarette into the darkness. It spun a scattering of sparks, and it dove into the ground to burn away on the grass.

Byron turned around. He ran his hands through his hair. Grabbing hold of the long, black strands, he pulled at his scalp. He wanted to scream something, but the rumble of the air conditioner and the distant crickets wouldn’t be enough to bury his voice, and he knew that if he shouted anything, his dad would come in with a belt whipping through the sticky air.

A large, oval mirror was set on top of his battered dresser. In its finger printed glass, Byron’s reflection was a little distorted, even longer and sharper than he actually was. His bare chest and arms were lankier than his sinewy body should have been. His pointed features seemed to stick out even more than usual from his dark, sunken eyes, but it was still him, with his scarred body and his long hair.

Running his hands down his legs, he leaned toward his reflection. Blowing the hair off his forehead, he set his hands on the edge of the dresser. He stared into his black eyes. “What am I supposed to do, huh?” he whispered. “Why you tell me about that?” He slammed his hand against the hard wood of his dresser.

With a thud, it rocked back into the wall. Byron glanced over his shoulder to wait with tense breath to see whether or not his dad would come thundering into his room, but his door stayed closed. He exhaled and turned back to his eyes. As he started speaking again, he lost himself in their darkness. He spat at the mirror as if it were someone else, “How you think you can do that? What’s your problem, man?” He stepped back and straightened up. The long muscles beneath the scars on his chest flexed and relaxed, “I’ll kill you, man. You know that? I’ll fuckin’ kill you.” His eyes grew wide. His head went numb, “If I ever find you, I’m gonna slit your goddamn throat.” Crossing his arms and leaning toward the mirror, he ended by launching a wad of phlegm onto his reflection. The white mucus stuck then streaked down the glass. Byron turned around.

His room stank of stale sweat and smoke and fetid air. The air was too hot, too humid. The air conditioner was too loud and too monotonous. The night was too long. Byron walked over to a little, black boombox on the floor next to his bed. Cracking his knees, he crouched down to dig through a pile of tapes next to it. Picking each one up and flinging it aside with a plastic crash, scattering them across the carpet, he finally found the one he wanted to listen to. He stuck it in the boombox, pressed rewind, listened to it whir and stick, and then he stepped away and let it play.

The droning guitar filled his bedroom’s sticky heat. Byron lit another cigarette that he didn’t want. A deep voice swirled around him, thickly drawling about how he could feel it move him, feel it shove him, that it cut the numbness, and he came alive.

Walking tiny circles around his room, running his hands through his hair, Byron closed his eyes. Above the music’s chant, the air conditioner still rattled his window. Byron’s eyes snapped open. An old baseball trophy was on his dresser, a little figurine in a cap with a bat above his shoulder: Little League 1986. He hadn’t won it for doing anything special, just for playing, and its dull color and diminutive size proved that. He snatched it off the dresser. He curled his arm back and flung the trophy out the window at the metal box. Weighted by its base, the trophy spun awkwardly through the air. A loud clank sounded as it struck the air conditioner. Leaving a dent, the batter’s head snapped off, and the trophy thudded into the muddy earth. The rumble skipped a beat, knocked a bit, then grumbled even deeper than it had before.

Byron stood still, staring blankly and panting a little from the outburst. With a click and a whoosh and a slam as it hit the wall, his door flew open. Startled, he spun around.

His dad stepped into the room. “What the hell was that noise?”

Byron stayed still.

Beneath his small forehead, his dad’s thick eyebrows were bunched up. His huge shoulders were hunched over his beer fed frame. His legs were sticks poking out of his shorts. As he swayed forward a little bit from the liquor, his legs looked like they might snap beneath the body they were supporting. “I asked you a question.”

“Somethin’ fell outside,” Byron answered.

His dad’s bloodshot eyes shot toward the window. He knit his eyebrows closer together. He looked back at Byron. He darted his fat tongue out to lick his penciled lips. “Whad you break, boy?”

“Nothin’. I told you it was outside.”

His dad stepped forward and searched the room for signs of violence. He stared at the streaked mirror. Curling his lips, he said, “Don’t lie to me, boy. I tell your P.O., and you ain’t gonna have to worry ‘bout this house arrest. You be locked up again.”

“It was nothin’. Somethin’ fell outside.”

His dad wobbled there for a little while. He narrowed his eyes. He cocked his head to the side. “Turn that damn noise down,” he said. “People are tryin’ to sleep.”

Byron nodded.

His dad turned around and slammed the door behind himself.

Byron turned the radio down. The air conditioner’s racket drowned it out almost completely. Pulling at his hair and staring at the floor, Byron walked back to the mirror.

His face was pale. His heart was thumping. His breath was shaking. His palms were sweating like he was sick. Rubbing his greasy hands together, he stared in the mirror at the scars across his chest.

He traced his fingertips down their thick lines. Then, he frowned and moved one step closer to the dresser.

Opening the top drawer and pushing his underwear aside, he pulled out a piece of black metal about the length of his hand.

The metal was warm and sticky, thick and moist with either the air’s or his hand’s condensation. Byron pushed up on a little, silver button near the top. With a snap, a metal blade flew out the side to stick and lock when it came straight with the handle.

Lightly holding the switchblade in his right hand, Byron rubbed his thumb across the blade. The grooves in his skin caught on the sharpened metal. He blew his hair off his forehead. Cocking his head to the side, he tightened his fingers around the grip. He curled his arm to bring the blade up to touch the point against his shoulder.

He turned back to the mirror and stared at himself for a moment. The streak of mucus down his reflection looked like a tear, and he scowled. He looked back at his arm, inhaled deeply, held his breath, grit his teeth, and popped the point into his skin.

He had to close his eyes. A tiny rip followed the knife point. Easily cutting through his flesh, the metal slid smoothly down his arm. Byron winced. His eyes teared. A small whine escaped his lips. When he glanced at the mirror, a ridge of flesh around his newly made wound puffed up pink. A trickle of deep red splotches dotted the two inch long, vertical incision.

But Byron didn’t look for long. He moved the knife’s point. He twisted the angle of his hand. Closing his eyes and holding his breath again, he pushed the knife into his skin just a little bit to the side of the first slice that was piling blood in its groove. He grunted as he pulled the blade horizontally through his arm. Its point stuck in the first incision, and he cried out softly. “Bleed,” he whispered, flexing his forearm to rip the metal through the drips of blood to continue slicing his shoulder. Byron pulled the blade out of himself. With his head alive from the pain, he opened his eyes.

The little dots of blood from the first slice had pooled and overflowed. A lake of sticky red was running down his bicep. The second slice was still fresh and pink and beginning to drip just a little bit. Byron twisted his torso to get a better look at his work. He could almost see what he had carved. Then, the horizontal incision filled and spilled another ocean.

The blood ran down his forearm and onto his hand. It dripped through the air and spilled to stain the carpet. Byron quickly dropped the knife back in the drawer. He pulled out a pair of underwear. He rubbed the cotton up his arm. Red streaks smeared across his skin, but for a moment, when he slapped the sopping fabric around his incisions, he saw the reflection of the inverted cross that he had carved into himself. But the wound quickly filled and overflowed again.

The first pair of underpants became saturated, and Byron dropped them. He grabbed another pair, but the blood flowed faster than he could clean, and he had to toss the soaked cotton aside and grab another pair. His face paled. He picked a dirty sock up off the ground. He used his hand and his teeth to tie it tight around his shoulder to try and stem the flow.

When the blood finally stopped running, Byron calmly used his last pair of underpants to wipe up what was left. His head felt light. His shoulder throbbed. The stiff sock scratched his skin. His arm felt sticky. The deep fluid had stained his flesh. Stepping backwards, he landed on his bed.

Lighting another cigarette, he leaned back and exhaled vigorously. He strained to hear the music hidden beneath the air conditioner’s noise. He thought about calling Sarah back, but he knew that if her mom hadn’t passed out yet, then all he’d do was get her in trouble. “If she can talk, she’ll call me,” he whispered.

He lay still for a little while, just smoking and staring at the ceiling and feeling his mind empty out. Glancing toward the dresser, he frowned at the missing trophy. His gaze grew bleary and indistinct when he stared at the bloodstain on his carpet and the soaked underpants scattered across his floor. He twisted his neck to check the sock. Smeared red, his arm was trembling. No more blood was flowing down his limb, but the sock was beginning to get a little soggy. He thought that maybe he should go to the bathroom to try washing himself off and finding a real dressing for his wound.

He left the stereo on. Quietly opening and closing his door, he stepped into the hallway. In the long, narrow corridor, the air conditioner was only a distant knocking. Byron glanced to his right. A TV’s blue tint lit the darkness at that end. The murmur of speakered voices added a touch of life to the otherwise dismal house. He heard the heavy creak of his dad’s chair and the distant tinkle of ice cubes knocking against glass. Byron turned in the other direction to head toward the bathroom.

“Byron?” a timid voice asked. He turned back around.

His little brother was standing there, wearing the pajamas that he always seemed to wear. His hair was a mess from tossing around in his sleep. Byron didn’t say anything. The little boy shuffled a little bit closer. “Byron, are you okay?”

The child’s eyes were wide and terrified. Dropping down almost to his level, Byron leaned closer to his brother. The older brother blew his hair off his forehead. He whispered, “Go back to bed, Michael. You shouldn’t be up right now.”

“I heard a noise earlier. It woke me up.”

“Everything’s okay,” Byron whispered. “Go back to bed before dad sees you’re still up.”

The little boy pulled nervously at his ear. “I had a bad dream.”

Byron nodded. He straightened back up. “Just go back to bed.”

Michael’s mouth dropped open. Terrified, he whispered, “What happened to your arm?”

Byron shrugged, “Don’t worry about it.” He turned around to try and make it to the bathroom before his dad heard them whispering.

But before he had even taken a step, he heard the heavy swing of his dad’s chair and the thud of the man’s feet. Byron dropped his head. Then, the shout came, “Michael! Get your ass back in that room, boy! What the hell you still doin’ up?”

The pitter-patter of Michael running along the carpet led to the click and slam of the little boy’s bedroom door. Byron turned around just in time to see his brother reaching up to fumblingly grab the handle and pull it back toward his scared face.

His dad flicked the hall light on. Blinded, Byron squinted at its yellow brilliance. “I told you people were tryin’ to sleep, boy,” his dad slurred and stumbled forward, bracing himself against the hallway.

Careful to keep his shoulder out of the old man’s sight, Byron tried heading off to the bathroom. “Goddamnit! Look at me when I’m…”  His dad stopped talking as Byron turned back to face him. The man’s gaze steamed. His eyebrows fumed. “What the hell you do to yourself?”

Byron glanced at his shoulder. Turning back to his dad, he slowly answered, “I caught my arm on a nail.”

His dad thudded toward him. At sixteen, Byron was about an inch taller than him, but the man’s shoulders seemed almost as broad as the hall. His chest was as solid as the grill of his truck. Byron wondered for a moment if his own long build would ever puff out like his father’s. A spasm of disgust passed over his face.

“That’s bull shit, boy.” He reached out and yanked on Byron’s arm. Pain shot from Byron’s shoulder to his brain. He winced, but his dad didn’t notice. He swayed a little bit, taking in the dark shadow of stained skin, staring at the sock growing dark and moist. Flinging his son’s arm away from himself, he shouted, “Jesus Christ! What the hell is wrong with you?”

Byron gently rubbed his throbbing shoulder. He shrugged and turned around.

“Where you think you’re goin’?”

“To clean myself up.”

“It don’t matter how clean you get yourself. You be back in that detention center ‘fore you can spit.”

Hiding his eyes behind his hair, Byron glared over his shoulder, but his dad had already turned to head back to the TV’s glow.

Shaking his head, Byron walked to the bathroom. Beneath the quivering light, the walls’ peeling paint and the sink’s dirty basin seemed like post apocalyptic remnants of some ancient, once habitable society. The exposed pipes knocked as Byron turned the grimy faucet.

He ran the water into his cupped hands, leaned down, and splashed it across his face. A few strands of hair stuck to his forehead. The drips glistened on his pale skin. His lips quivered in time to the seemingly dying light. The sock around his shoulder was scratching him less and less as it grew damper.

Byron splashed some more water onto his forearm. As he massaged it across his skin, it dripped back into the sink, pink. He turned off the faucet. Feeling a little light-headed, he leaned against the wall opposite the sink and the mirror.

Dotted by months of stray spray, the mirror reflected a pointillist portrait of him. Exhaling, Byron glanced up and blew the hair off his eyes. The movement of air agitated the house’s stench. Byron clenched his fist. In a tight, barely forceful arc, he swung it back into the wall. “Oh God, I hate this shit,” he whispered.

Leaning over to his left, he turned the faucet on in the bathtub. A thick downpour of water splashed against the porcelain. Byron slipped out of his tight jeans. He leaned over to check the tub’s temperature. Drawing the stained shower curtain, he flipped the little switch between the knobs on the faucet. Sputtering, the shower started up. Byron stepped out of his underwear, kicked it to the side, and stepped into the shower.

The tub’s floor was slick and slimy. The water didn’t drain quite right. It pooled in an almost gray puddle streaked with strands of long hair. Curling his lips back and closing his eyes, Byron touched his toes against the puddle so that he could step beneath the spray. Slick and hot, the water drenched his makeshift bandage. It pounded the smeared blood off Byron’s arm to leave a light pool of pink that ran to the drain and swirled in with the grayness and the hair. In the middle of the shower’s torrent, running his hands through his hair, slicking its strands onto his back and neck, without moving his lips, Byron whispered, so softly that even if anybody had been there they wouldn’t have heard, “Why can’t it just end?”

There was a crash and a thud and a curse. Byron’s eyes popped open. He jumped just a little bit. The soap slipped out of his hands, but before he could lean down to pick it up, the rattling rings on the shower curtain slid across the rusted rod. With a whoosh, the curtain billowed back. Byron caught a glimpse of his father before a whir sliced through the air to end in a wet smack that stung his ribs.

Byron whimpered slightly. He slipped and stumbled backward into the tiles, but before he fell, the belt flew through the air again to lash his shoulder and leave a long, red welt. “What is your problem, boy!” his dad shouted, and the belt struck him again.

Byron banged his elbow against the tub. He breathed a pathetic sound. His feet splashed in the puddle as he tried regaining his breath and sense. Scurrying in every direction, he scrambled into the tub’s corner, balling his legs up to his chest, instinctively trying to protect himself as his stunned mind tried to understand what was going on.

Trying to get closer to his son, his dad put one foot in the tub. The steaming water drenched his shorts and his thin, hairy legs. The belt came at Byron again. He brought his hands up to protect his face. The leather smacked his palms. It whirred around his head to slap his ear. For a moment, Byron couldn’t hear anything on his right side, but his left ear still heard what his dad was saying. Each word was punctuated by the motion of the belt. Each slap of the belt ended in Byron’s gasps. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Why’s there blood all over your goddamn room?” Byron tried dodging and blocking the belt. His mind was coming back to him. As he grew used to them, the stings from the whips weren’t hurting quite so bad. He narrowed his eyes. He clenched his teeth. He stopped recoiling into the corner. He just listened to the belt smack his skin.

“And tell your little whore people are tryin’ to sleep here!” With his features on fire, Byron turned his head up to stare blankly at his old man. His dad brought the belt back again. It whirred through the air above his head, but when his arm came straight, the belt stopped for a moment. It wrapped and slapped around the curtain rod. His dad looked up, grunted, and pulled. The rod came loose from the wall. Tangling around the man’s pudgy hands, the curtain crashed into the tub.

With both hands in front of himself, Byron jumped up. He used the extra force from his spring to ram his palms into his dad’s chest. Stumbling backward, his dad knocked his heel against the tub. Beneath the falling, billowing shower curtain, the top-heavy man crashed to the floor. He braced himself with his arms and drunkenly mumbled something. Then, his hands twisted out from underneath him. His head slammed into the tiles.

Byron slipped a little, but he quickly steadied himself. The water was pounding across his naked frame. His pulse was racing, and his arm was trembling. He looked down at his dad. The man’s eyes were closed. He was moving his jaw in heavy, drunken breaths. He was slowly rolling his head as if his numbed mind were having a bad dream and it was trying to figure out what was happening. But Byron didn’t wait. He leaped out of the tub and skidded across the tiles to the door.

Michael was standing still in the hallway, still in his pajamas, still with his hair a mess. His lips were trembling. His eyes were puffy, and he was sniffling. He blubbered something when his brother came out of the bathroom, but Byron wasn’t listening. “Get outta here,” he whispered, stumbling past him.

The door to his bedroom was open. Off the hook and beeping, the phone was lying on his bed. The stereo was still droning beneath the air conditioner’s rattle. The voice was breathing, palpitating: “Carve a hole in your distorted world. I’m here to bang it!” And then with a crunch, the music rushed in again.

Still naked, staring at the bloody underwear, Byron walked a few small circles. His entire body was shaking. His breath was jagged. He ran his hand through his sopping hair. “Sarah,” he whispered, and he quickly reached down to wriggle his wet legs into a skin-tight pair of faded, ripped up jeans. The denim clung to the moisture. It scratched his skin.

Hurriedly sitting down on the floor, he slipped on a pair of black high tops. Standing back up, he squashed his soaking feet into the soles. He grabbed a black tee shirt and ran over to the dresser.

From the mirror, he caught a glimpse of his reflection. His face was as white as a sun-bleached skull. Water drained like a deluge from his long hair. The sock around his arm was soaked a deep red color. Raised welts were slashed across his wet, dripping neck, arms, shoulders, and chest. One stripe even skidded around the right side of his face. Byron twisted his lips. Screaming, he reached out, grabbed the mirror, and toppled it onto the floor where the glass crashed and splintered into myriad little slivers.

He slipped the shirt over his scarred torso. The sleeve puffed out around the sock on his shoulder. Reaching into the top drawer, he grabbed the switchblade, closed and locked it, and fumblingly shoved it into his back pocket.

He slipped his hands through his hair to slick it back out of his eyes, and he walked over to the window. The air conditioner stank and grumbled at him. Byron flung the glass up hard enough to make it rattle in its frame. He threw one leg over the sill. The distant sound of his father grumbling reached his ear. Byron ducked out into the night.

He landed in mud, on the base of the trophy. He stumbled a little bit, and his ankle twisted. A few of the mildewed drops from the air conditioner landed on him, but soon he was running, limping as if he had a clubfoot, past the jacked-up pick up trucks. His dad’s rig glared at his back, but it couldn’t catch him now. Byron breathed heavily and pumped his arms as he headed toward the woods. Sarah lived on the other side.

Taken from Israfel Sivad’s collection of short stories Welcome to the Modern World, Charlie available here.

Long Trip Home

 

Notes_from_the_Idle__Cover_for_KindleLong Trip Home
By Israfel Sivad

Sun slipped through every cracked opening of the concrete structure to outline a solitary, homeless body lying on the hard cement. Haloing his head and tracing his feet and legs, pieces of broken glass shimmered reflected light into the parking garage’s somewhat enclosed air. Within the barely illuminated darkness, the sounds of an engine rumbled through the amplified silence to wake that sleeping dreamer whose head rested on his blue sweatshirt. Attempting to clarify his surroundings, Eric looked up from his rigid bed to watch a black Nissan pull into a space a few places down from where he had collapsed the night before. A man stepped out, shook his uncovered legs, pulled slightly on his tee shirt, closed the door, and pressed something on his key ring. A sharp “beep, beep” echoed in answer from the machine to that magic wand as the locks clicked closed. Eric scratched the shaven scraggles of his once blond hair. That tiny motion of his scratching hand pulled the middle aged man’s attention away from his beautiful property to look in the waking boy’s direction. Eric yawned and stretched. A look of disgust that his polished sunglasses couldn’t hide sneered through the distant man’s lips as he noticed, for a brief second, that tired youth.

They stared at each other for only a moment. Eric smacked his tongue against his mouth and sleepily wondered where that guy thought he was going. The man rubbed his hands together as if washing grime from his palms, then dropped his hands to his sides and shook his head as he turned his back on the boy to walk into California’s blinding light.

“Whatever, man,” Eric whispered to nobody. He grabbed his pillow, slipped it over his head, and stood up without any intentions of following the path the man had blazed across the white lines painted by someone else a long time ago for cars that hadn’t yet arrived.

Tired and circling aimlessly on the black concrete, the nineteen year old was trying to figure out if he could sleep in that environment for any longer. He shuffled his feet as he examined the barely lit darkness consuming that huge garage. “What am I doin’ here?” he whispered to the silent air…  I don’t remember, he answered himself. “How’d I get here?” he yawned between slight shuffles of his feet. But the only answer was that he was there and he had nowhere else to go. Using both of his hands to rub his face, Eric knew that soon more and more people like that last guy would park their cars and stare from between unapproving brows at his disheveled appearance. “I gotta get outta this place.” Disoriented, he put one tennis shoe in front of the other, walked past the black Nissan, and soon exited that structure from the same entrance through which the man had just left.

Out of the garage onto a thick street. Squinting beneath the bright sun, Eric’s shadow silently followed every step its master took on his plunge towards the beach. His tired thoughts simply wanted to see somebody he knew, someone he could speak to. So Eric was heading towards the only place where he could be certain people existed. As he shuffled past a short, quickly disappearing block, each step brought Main Street’s noise closer and louder. The electricity of all the people who walked down a road that ended at a pier dropping into the ocean sucked the silence from the still, waiting winds. Eric rounded a corner and faced the realities of life.

Flesh and freaks assaulted his eyes as Eric stepped onto that sun drenched strip. Conversations, honking horns, and whirring engines exploded through the air. Pulling up his sweatshirt’s hood to hide his face from the wandering eyes, Eric blinked and stared at tattoos, piercings, and bikinied bodies that walked bare foot through that atmosphere of retro trash. Everybody was silently shouting, “Look at me!” but nobody looked at anybody other than themselves even though their invisible clamor added to the din of the already noisy streets.

Blinded by the screaming echoes of the unnoticed voices, Eric barely escaped a guy whose biceps blocked the sun and felt that gave him the right not to move his shoulders. Stepping to the side and tripping off the walkway, Eric almost bumped into two girls who seemed to want you to notice their young bodies as they leaned forward with their blond hair and black bikinis to giggle into the window of a car stopped in the traffic. “Sorry,” Eric whispered, but the two Beach Barbies neither heard nor noticed him. As he stepped back onto the sidewalk, some kids who were skating skillfully through the flood of humanity – their baggy pants and loose tee shirts fluttering in the breeze their speed created – nearly ran into him. Shocked by the near collisions, Eric placed his hand on his forehead to cup his shaking thoughts between his fingers. He took another step then stopped. Bewildered by the afternoon commotion during his still early morning, he rested for a second beside an outdoor café where teen-agers chatted and laughed about what they would do that night. The talk of their high school lives nauseated their slightly older peer. Why dontcha try ta be me? Eric silently asked before he continued to walk with downcast eyes amid the surfers who wandered in and out of the shops that sold their style.

There were so many people, too many people to notice, but Eric kept moving towards the beach with the hope that he might recognize some face that sweat beneath bleached hair. He wanted to tell someone about last night and that guy who woke him up. He wanted to tell someone how tired he was. He wanted to tell someone how much he hated all these people who hid themselves by being so conspicuous. He just wanted to talk to someone who was homeless like he was. Maybe then he would remember why he could never go home.

After crossing the startling traffic that sped along Pacific Coast Highway amid a mass of people who moved only when a little, green figure appeared on a sign before them, Eric stepped off the sidewalk past the pier and felt his shoes melt into the sand that swirled around other people’s toes. Out of place in his thick clothing, Eric stared at the sweat refracting a reflection of an endless, oiled tarmac of bodies. He pulled the hood tighter around his face, and he continued searching for one of his few acquaintances.

As Eric tripped through the thick, uneven ground, stumbled awkwardly between the sun bathing couples and surfboards, and searched the beach and the sea, finally, in the water in the distance, a familiar figure bobbed between the crashing waves. Eric strolled heavily through the remaining terrain of human sand and took a seat on a tiny dune that protruded near where the closest thing he had to a friend played in the ocean.

Silent, thinking, Eric pulled his legs up near his chest. The sun shined hot, baking through his clothes. The waves rushed their crashing sounds up from the screaming sands. The gulls squawked displeasure at each other while they fought for scraps of food. Kinda like us, Eric thought as he watched them make tiny, three toed prints on the soft sand before the water sucked those remnants of their existence out to sea. A drop of sweat dripped down his armpit to cool his unexposed ribs. Some young girls behind him were pointing and laughing at that guy who was sitting on their beach in a sweatshirt and jeans, but Eric couldn’t hear them. He simply stared forward at the eternal sea and another young face that hadn’t yet noticed him.

“It goes on forever,” he whispered aloud, mesmerized by the two shades of blue that met to create a horizon. “Man, if I could lose myself in that forever, I could get outta here…”  His head fell down to his knees. “I wanna go home,” he almost cried.

“Hey Eric!” a distant voice yelled, disappearing in the sea’s shouts. Eric lifted his head as tiny tears began to lose themselves in the sweat on his face.

Rising up and down with the currents, a hand waved semicircles above its head in a greeting that seemed farther away than it actually was. “What’s up!” Eric called out as he tried inconspicuously to wipe the tears from his face.

“Why dontcha come out here, bro, play in the waves for a while.”

“Don’t have any shorts,” Eric responded, and he could barely see a slight disappointment cross the Trash-Boy’s face before he turned back around to confront a set that was silently rolling in. A smile’s slithering signs crossed Eric’s lips.

Eric had just shown up in that beach city and was moving slowly along the nighttime streets when he first saw a boy of medium height with a thick build asking, “Can you contribute to the Trash’s anti-sobriety fund?” A few people stopped (mostly college kids and young adults), laughed, and handed over some of what they had; most simply looked violated and continued strolling. Eric was walking with his face towards the ground when he crossed into the streetlight that Trash occupied. The spare changer’s cadence broke his lonely thoughts of loss and Eric whispered shyly, “Man, you probably got more than I do,” before he continued to walk along. A strong, callused hand caught him by the arm. Locking his fists, turning to see if this was another fight…  “Call myself the Trash-Boy,” the words seeped out from between thick, unshaven whiskers covering a young countenance, “Cuz I was thrown out like all the other trash.” Eric stood still. The pressure loosened on his arm. He was mesmerized by the cracked, sun burnt face that seemed to know what it meant to live in the modern world. Relaxing his broken knuckles and fingers but still unsure as to what significance lay in this encounter, Eric stared into blue eyes that looked so much softer than their words. The throaty voice continued, “But I’ll tell ya what, trash loves streets…  It gets kicked around, stepped on, spit on, but every once in a while, a pretty girl might see somethin’ she likes and pick it up ta take home.” With a wink, the blond beard and mustache stretched into a wild grin…

Eric watched him now, fighting the ocean’s nature. A wave rolled in; Trash ducked and disappeared. Then, his long hair shot back up. He shook the water from his locks, and suddenly, unexpected white foam exploded around his head to suck him back down to the depths. The ocean’s face calmed, but beneath that smooth façade, Trash’s body twirled in an underwater prison before its jailer allowed it the respite of returning to breathable air.

A shout of momentary triumph exploded from that soldier who struggled against a powerful adversary. He turned, paddled a few strokes, then caught a ride from his enemy and came tumbling back to land. Trash stood up and pulled seaweed off his naked shoulders. Lost in those stringy remnants of his experience, he stepped slowly towards Eric. “Ya got a smoke, bro?” he asked while sitting down slowly and flinging away the last reminders of his struggle.

Some sand that Eric held between his fingers trickled away to return home. “Naw, man…  I woke up in some garage today, and I ain’t got nothin’.”

“Which garage?”

“Ya know, that one down there… right off Main Street…” Eric pointed back behind his head.

“Oh yeah, I slept there the other night.” Trash wiped his gritty palms across the cut-off, camouflage pants whose wandering, straying strings fell down to his knees. “Whydja stay there? That place gets cold as hell at night.”

Eric stared across the ocean’s distance. He wanted to fly away to whatever lay on the other side. “I don’t know, man…  I was talkin’ to this old guy last night, some old fat guy. Said he’d go get me some beer, and he did,” Eric paused to pick up more sand and let it scatter, “So I drank one and then got all like light-headed and stuff.” He slowly shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, “Kinda felt like I’d pass out, man… off one beer… ya know he put somethin’ in that.” Trash nodded. “So I got all light-headed, and I was like, ‘Man, I gotta go,’ but he just smiled, and he was all like, ‘Ya sure ya don’t wanna go for a ride or somethin’…  I got a car right over there,’ and I was just like, ‘Naw, I gotta go…’”  Eric paused to turn his head and look around at all those bodies of people stretching out beneath the sun that they didn’t care was silently killing them. When he continued, his voice had a quiet edge hidden in it, “So this fat guy’s just talkin’, he’s like pleadin’ with me, he’s all like, ‘Come on, dontcha wanna go for a ride or somethin’, we could go ta L.A. I’ll take ya ta a couple clubs.’  And man, that drink was makin’ me feel weirder and weirder every second. So I just said, ‘Naw, I don’t think so, man… I gotta go…’  So I split and was kinda like stumblin’ like I was all drunk and stuff, and he yelled somethin’ about knowin’ I wasn’t goin’ home cuz I didn’t have a home, but I kept walkin’, and then the next thing I know, I wake up in that garage.” Eric dropped his head, shook it slightly, and whispered, “I just don’t go for stuff like that, ya know.”

Trash was bouncing his head to the side, letting water drip from his ears, but he managed to respond, “Yeah bro, I know…”

“So then I wake up today,” Eric inhaled quickly through his nostrils as if it had been a mistake to make these thoughts real, and now, he wanted to pull the words back into himself, “And there’s this old guy wearin’ some shiny sunglasses, and he’s just like starin’ at me, ya know…  He’s just starin’ and shakin’ his head like I’m some kinda freak or like I’m some kinda disease…”

Trash stopped bobbing his head. “Naw man, just trash…  Just trash like everyone else, and nobody else wants ta know they’re trash so they don’t wanna see you cuz, see, they look at you and they see themselves, and they don’t wanna see that…  They wanna stare through shiny sunglasses at their shiny car and pretend like they ain’t some homeless kid that doesn’t know where he’s at cuz some freak just put somethin’ in his drink.” Trash laughed a soft, serious laugh. He turned towards Eric. “And then, man, if they see you, they’re gonna throw you out, turn their back on you and run, bro. That’s just the way it is…  That’s just the way we are…”

“I don’t know, man,” Eric turned back towards the eternal stretch of blue, wishing some sort of reassurance could float in from out there on the whistling winds that cooled his hot body. “I’m just sick of all this, man. I’m just tired…”  He was tired, been tired a long time. “I just wanna go home…” (maybe a cloud could carry me to some home across the sea… but there’s no clouds in the California sky) “Wherever that is. Whatever that is.”

Trash clapped his hand onto Eric’s blue sweatshirt. He laughed. “Man, ya gotta lighten up…  It’s just life. It doesn’t matter. See me, bro,” he pointed a finger at his quickly drying chest, “I know I’m trash. So I just wait around and watch all of ‘em, let ‘em kick me if they wanna, but since I know I’m trash, when they ain’t lookin’ or when they ain’t thinkin’, since I don’t care anymore, I can take what I can get…  That’s all you’ll ever get.”

Trash’s words didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel like they could be true.  That’s not all ya can get, Eric thought silently as he picked up a small shell and threw it towards the water. My dad had more than that. He dropped his eyes from their sea view. The sweatshirt’s hood darkened his view. The sand stretched out to meet its maker. Lying placidly on the ground, it looked so soft. Eric wanted to bury himself in it, stare at it until it cut his eyes, plug its grains into his ears, swallow it as it filled his lungs, let it seep into all his senses and suffocate them.

Trash broke the sand’s soft, silent spell, “Come on, bro, let’s go to the pier and see if we can get some smokes from someone…  We can take a look at all the ladies.” He grinned, stood up, and strutted off towards the people that Eric needed to escape.

As Eric stood once again on a sidewalk, staring at the traffic on the Coast Highway, Trash took a seat on a concrete ledge running next to the pier. Aren’t ya sick of all these bodies? Eric wanted to ask his acquaintance. Aren’t ya sick of all these people starin’ at themselves and what they got? But Trash simply appeared lost in the scenery until some cute high school girls walked by smoking, and he jumped down from his perch to ask them for a cigarette. “Sure,” one who looked about 15 said, and she took a pack out of her tight, short shorts to hand a cigarette to the begging, homeless kid. Trash asked if she would give him another for his friend. Her fingers flipped back inside the pack, but Eric waved his hand in front of himself to indicate that he didn’t want anything she had to offer. Ya don’t get it, he thought as he shook his head and kicked a loose piece of concrete. I’m not trash, and I’m sick of beggin’ for whatever I can get.

The girls walked away while Trash waved a slight goodbye and told them how beautiful they were, didn’t they want to hang out for a little while… just a little while? Their figures faded down the pier. Unsure how to respond, they simply giggled and turned their attention back to each other.

“Man… those girls looked good.”

Eric didn’t say anything. The kids on the skateboards, the ones who’d almost run into Eric when he’d walked down the street, were kicking and flipping those little pieces of plastic and painted wood against and over the opposite concrete embankment. Crash, smash, plastic thud, and then a whirring grind as the kids skated away simply to get speed for their return. I used ta be able ta do that, Eric said to himself. I used ta do that all the time, beneath his blue hood, he smiled. Man, that was fun, his smile broadened. When I was a little kid, when I had a home, that was fun.

“Didn’t those girls look good, bro…”

Eric’s lips inverted, and his smile disappeared. He turned back to Trash. “They looked like everybody else.”

“Aw, whatever bro, they looked good.” Trash’s face stretched into a crazy smile, “Everybody looks good.”

The light on the Highway turned red, that little, green figure appeared again, and a large group of people crossed from Main Street to the pier while staying tightly confined between little, white lines. Pieces of conversations floated through the sweltering air. Laughter lit the world in brief bursts. The group of nobodys who didn’t know each other reached Eric, and the homeless kid could smell their thick scent of suntan lotion. One skinny figure broke away from the crowd to approach Eric and Trash.

“Hey, you two guys wanna come over here for a second,” the words came out of a thin face wrinkled by too much sun that spoke from between a frame of long, stringy, brown hair. An arm, extending from a tie-dyed tee shirt, motioned slowly in the direction its body was going. Looking at each other for a brief moment, but knowing that they had nothing better to do, the two drifters followed that worn out legacy.

A slight distance away from the human traffic, the man stopped. The two homeless kids faced his back. Neither spoke; they turned their necks slightly to look at the other’s lost expressions. Cars sped past on the Highway; occasional bathing suits paraded in every direction; a sea gull spoke overhead. But on that tiny patch of faded concrete, the man those two kids had followed turned to face them. The pungent stench of patchouli’s gripping tendrils invaded their nostrils. With his long nails, the man wiped wisps of hair from in front of his vision. With a giggle, the refugee from 1968 dribbled forth words, “So you guys don’t know me, but, ya see, I just pulled up in town… ya can see my van parked down there…” he pointed towards Main Street, but neither Eric nor Trash looked, “And ya see (I’m hopin’ I can trust ya guys), but ya see,” with a short sniff, his wandering fingers brushed beneath his nose, “I’m just walkin’ along here, and I see you two guys, and I’m thinkin’, ‘See, there’s some kids that’re hip, ya know…’”  Not wanting to be hip, Eric pursed his lips and looked towards the traffic. Trash leaned closer to his possible benefactor, not caring what he was so long as he got something for being it, “So I’m sayin’ to myself, ‘Marty, Marty, man,’” – softly stifled giggle – “‘Ya got all this stuff ta unload, man,’” his wasted body shrugged with a knowledgeable nod, “‘And there’s the two that can help ya,’” Marty looked around. He whispered, “Ya see what I’m sayin’?”

Trash cocked his head to the side. He narrowed his eyes slightly. His lips’ grins and grimaces quickly exchanged places, “What’re you talkin’ about?”

The man laughed as deep a laugh as his thin frame could muster. Then, he turned that farce into a dry cough, “If ya don’t know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, then ya ain’t the one I’m lookin’ for.”

Eric turned to the ground. He reached up to pull the hood tightly around his head. “Whatcha got?” he whispered amid the cars screaming past.

From the depths of Marty’s face, a heavy eye turned on him, “Everything, man, everything.”

Leaning forward, even closer to the oily odor dripping through his nose hairs, Trash looked around. His breath tripped out, “So you’re lookin’ for us ta getchou connections?”

Another laugh, “Whaddaya think I’m talkin’ ‘bout?”

Disgusted with another presentation of everything he didn’t want to be, Eric shook his head back and forth. The grizzled laughter stopped. “I don’t get it,” Eric whispered, almost to himself, “Whydja pick us?”

Marty frowned, “Ya look the part, man. Ya look like ya ain’t got a thing other than what I can give ya. Whaddaya want me ta say, man, ‘You’re just like me,’?” Marty quickly ran a bony finger through his greasy hair. One of his legs started vibrating rapidly, “Look, do ya want to or not?”

“Yeah, man… definitely,” Trash said as he stood solidly and crossed his arms, satisfied with what he could get.

Eric stayed silent. I don’t wanna be here, he said to himself since nobody else would have listened. I’m sick of bodies… sick of trash… sick of people bein’ disgusted by me… sick of people tellin’ me I ain’t got a home… sick of people offerin’ to help me forget… I’m sick of bein’ like you… a sob echoed inside his lonely head, I was never like any of you. He closed his eyes upon that vision of the world because his own darkness seemed like the only thing that wouldn’t reflect reality’s blinding sun. At a slight distance, the sounds of those kids skating could still be heard. Trash and Marty talked at each other, but Eric didn’t hear their cluttering chatter. He listened to the skateboards and to himself, That’s what I wanna do, man. I wanna be a kid. I wanna be a kid, have my dad take care of me and keep me away from all of you.

As the sun’s rays penetrated his clothes and the echoes of an unwanted business deal filtered through his hooded ears, something clicked inside Eric’s brain. The skateboards churned, and that lost refugee from American culture turned his back on the cross-generational conversation to walk towards childhood.  I can go back, not home, but I can be a kid, and that’s close enough.

Marty lifted his gaze to watch his disciple leave. “Where’s your buddy goin’?” his non-existent lips accusingly questioned Trash.

“Hm… What?” Trash briefly wrested himself from a counter cultural fantasy to watch his alter ego escape. “I don’t know, man… Eric!” No response from the back of Eric’s blank sweatshirt. Trash took a step towards the bright body, “Eric!” No response from Eric’s covered head. Trash turned back towards Marty, laughing, “Whatever, man. If he doesn’t want whatchou got… let him suffer,” and Trash grinned his insane grin one more time.

Eric slowly approached the four kids on skateboards. Just let me be a kid again… please let me be a kid… let me go home, I wanna go home. The pavement slid back beneath his feet. People walked past to block the view of the skaters who undulated in and out of sight. Whir, slap, crash – the skateboards continued moving. Eric closed his eyes. Let me be a kid. He opened his eyes. A board slammed against the embankment. Its twelve year old owner cursed then turned. Eric spoke aloud, “What’s up?”

“What’s up?” The younger kid kicked down to lift the board into his hand.

“Could… um… could I… uh,” just ask him, “Could I see your board for a second?”

With his white tee shirt flapping loosely around his skinny arms, the kid whose chin had never been shaved narrowed his eyes. “Whatcha want it for?”

“I just wanna skate for a little bit,” I need ta skate forever, “Used ta skate all the time, and I just wanna see if I can still do it.”

The kid looked at his friends. All three of them shrugged their emaciated shoulders in the sun. “Alright, man. Just don’t break it… it’s all I got.”

Eric nodded. “Don’t worry, man. I know,” and convinced, trusting, young hands set the board on the ground. The kid’s worn shoes kicked the board over to his homeless peer who used to be just like him. The tips on one side of Eric’s lips turned up. A pure smile slid across his whole mouth to caress his eyes and pull them into the emotion as well.

Eric placed his right foot on the board. With his left foot, he pushed slightly on the ground, and he felt himself move. The sun still baked the earth. People still wanted people to notice what they never would. But Eric’s entire world seemed different as soon as the hard, plastic wheels turned across the cement. The borrowed piece of wood slid, and Eric felt like he was in a cul-de-sac a long way from Southern California. For a second, he thought he might hear his dad yell for him to get home before dinner. “I’m skatin’, and I’m never comin’ back,” he’d say… not realizing that soon he would never be able to skate home.

Lost in those dreams of an earlier life, Eric kicked his hind foot down. The board’s tail struck the cement. Suddenly, Eric’s whole body was in the air with the instrument of his forgotten ecstasy still attached to his feet. I can do a trick¸ Eric congratulated himself, I haven’t forgotten. His smile stretched greater than it had in nearly three years. He dropped back to the earth. The board’s nose slammed hard against the concrete. Eric’s smile immediately disappeared. His equilibrium shifted. One foot fell off the board, and the board flew clear of its rider. Guesss ya can’t go back, his suddenly frightened mind thought for a second as his body fell and scraped a hole through the sweatshirt’s elbow while ripping off a tiny piece of flesh. His nerves burned. His bones ached. Then, Eric opened his eyes to see the board drop off the curb and fly into the Highway’s confused traffic.

First, there was a screech, followed by a dull, metallic thud as one car slammed into the other that crunched the skateboard. Before Eric could blink, he saw the driver of the second car lift out of her seat and slam her fragile face into the glass of the now shattered and bleeding windshield. With that act of violence, the body stopped its ascent. The driver of the first car wrapped his hand around the back of his neck and set his head on the steering wheel. Eric closed his eyes; he had seen a mirror of home in the red, broken glass that reflected the beginnings of violence in that seemingly final scene, and now, he prayed that the beach’s sand would come and tear out his vision. Another car swerved… another screech. The traffic tried coming to a halt, tried to avoid the accident. “Oh my God… oh my God,” was all Eric could say. The whole world had suddenly ceased to spin as violence cranked between its gears. Everybody had finally escaped themselves. They stared at him – the one person who never wanted anybody to see him. The kid whose skateboard was now destroyed, a couple that had been kissing, waiting for the light to change, some surfers who were telling each other stories of the waves they rode last summer, as the seagulls settled onto the cement and sand beneath a sun that never ceased to shine, everybody stared at him… at the accident… at everything other than themselves.

“Run, Eric! Run, bro!” and he did. He scrambled onto his feet, hurled towards the highway, churned his legs between the ceasing traffic, and ran down Main Street. “Run!” Trash’s voice still shouted from somewhere behind him, but the words were fading as Eric rounded the corner to fly past the garage he had slept in last night.

With his flailing hands, he pulled the sweatshirt off and threw it on the porch of a home he passed in the hope that nobody would recognize him when he showed his unhidden face. “Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ… Oh my God… Jesus Christ…” he panted between pumps of his arms. He rounded another corner. He didn’t slow down. “Oh my God.” He rounded another corner. He was trying to get as far away as he could. “Oh God, ya can’t go back.” He rounded another corner and suddenly crashed into a bare chest that consumed the full spectrum of the sun’s rays.

“Whatcha doin’, kid!” a thick voice shouted as Eric stumbled backwards to fall onto his already bruised frame. Sitting, he heaved with his breath. His face had sweat off what little color it had. The other voice spoke again, “I asked ya whatcha was doin’.”

Eric pushed down on the cement and flung himself upright. He went to run, but a strong, black fist grappled itself around his skinny, white arm. “Whatcha runnin’ from, kid?” With a lunge, Eric tried to pull free, but the grip only tightened like a prepared trap.

“I… I’m not sure,” as if that’s any sort of answer.

“Yeah ya are, but it don’t matter.” The blurry, black head surveyed the area and tipped slightly to the side as a wailing siren cried sharply in the distance. “Ya just need a place ta hide for a while.” The head leaned closer to Eric. “Every homeless kid needs a place ta hide… I know that.” Eric glanced quickly in every direction while thinking that this guy could never know. “Follow me, I got a place… just till whatever trouble ya gotchorself into passes… then you’re on your own again. I don’t play no kid’s games… Get it?”

“Yeah, man, whatever.”

“Whatever,” the thick lips repeated with a frown. Then, the hand was removed and strong shoulders brushed past Eric. “Ya gonna follow or ya gonna wait for those sirens ta catch ya?”

Eric stood still. His thoughts bleated tiny tears to emptiness. Oh my God… what happened… I couldn’t do it… that kid’s board is ruined… I just, I just killed someone… oh my God… oh my God… ya can’t go back. He could feel his own tears building somewhere beneath his eyes. All I wanna do is go home. I don’t wanna be like Trash, takin’ what I can get. I don’t wanna be like that guy in the sunglasses, just starin’ at whatever I got that’s shiny. I don’t wanna be like Marty. I don’t wanna be like that guy last night. I just wanna go home… but I can’t. The sirens still screamed their wailing song. Eric followed the offer of respite.

The walk to the black man’s home was short, but Eric’s legs could barely support him across the entire distance. The man and the boy stepped up two long steps, opened a screen, unlocked the door to the house, and went inside its dark atmosphere. “Grab a seat on that couch, kid…  Ya want somethin’ ta drink?” Eric shook his head and stumbled – his body shaken by adrenalin – past the one armchair to sit on a worn, torn, brown couch that caught the light coming in from the window above. The man flicked the switch on a lamp that rested on a table beside the chair Eric didn’t sit in. “My name’s Henry.”

“Eric,” but the words meant nothing since his thoughts could focus on nothing other than their own horror and fear. What am I doin’ here? Eric asked himself. He turned his head in every possible direction, trying to see as much of his environment as he could, but there remained very little beyond the illumination shining in from the window and out from the lamp onto the green, 70s style carpeting. I’m stuck…  I’m so trapped, and I don’t know what this guy wants, but he wants somethin’ cuz everybody wants somethin’. His blubbering mind tried to stay alert for signs of violence, but in betrayal, it continued tripping back into the past to try and make sense out of what happened today.

“Nice ta meetcha, Eric…”  Henry sat in the oversized chair. His body was thin, his face like an inverted triangle, his nose flat, his hair short and curly. With his full, dark lips, he breathed a heavy sigh, and with his stark voice, he continued, “I seen ya spare changin’ on these streets for a while now, and I’d been thinkin’ ‘bout sayin’ somethin’ ta ya before, but I never knew if ya was scared ‘bout how you was livin’. So when I seen ya just now, I’m wonderin’ ta myself whatchor runnin’ from.” He stopped speaking, and he played with the lampshade. “So whatcha runnin’ from, kid?”

Eric shrugged his tiny shoulders, and Henry responded, “Ya don’t know… Yeah, ya probably don’t. Someone told ya ta run, and ya did, right?” Eric nodded. His attention still shifted between fear of the present and nausea at the past. Henry leaned forward, dropped his arms between his legs. “I know whatchor runnin’ from. See, ya don’t wanna think it, but I know you, man. All ya see is I’m black and you’re white, and you can’t see you’re just like me.”

Reality was flooding Eric’s conscience, and he could barely focus. Life itself felt like the pieces called last night and today, and he wanted it all to end. He wanted this guy to leave him alone so he could go back and let the beach bury him beneath its soft sand. “Whatever, man.”

“Yeah right… Whatever,” Henry laughed cynically. He leaned back into the arms of his seat, and he crossed his legs at the knees. “Ya don’t wanna believe it, but I’m just like you. In fact, most those people out there thatcha probably hate so much are probably just like you.”

The guy from last night, the guy from this morning, Trash in the ocean, the girl with the cigarettes, Marty, the kids with the skateboards, the accident, all the violence, embarrassment and disgust from two and a half years on the streets quickly projected itself across the screen of Eric’s thoughts. He whispered to the stale air, “Ya don’t know me. You’re nothin’ like me and neither is anybody else.”

“Don’t think you’re so unique, kid. I seen ya hidin’ behind that sweatshirt just like everybody else hides behind their own thing. So I’ll tell ya what… there’s a lot ya don’t know ‘bout this world we live in.”

Eric twirled the bottom of his tee shirt. “I don’t live anywhere.”

“Yeah ya do… ya live on the streets of America: land of the lost and home of the slave, and since ya white boys ain’t never been slaves, I’m gonna guess you’re just lost.”

“Whatever, man…” and with those words, Eric stood up quickly. His head spun from the sensations of his mind and his body, but he managed to curl his face into a defense of disgust. “I don’t need some whacked out line from you, man. I got my own stuff ta deal with,” and he moved towards the door.

“Ain’t whacked out, just true.” Henry brushed his hand towards the couch. “Sit back down cuz ya ain’t got no home ta go to, and those sirens gonna catch ya and arrest ya whether you’re a criminal or a victim. They don’t care. So just sit back down cuz ya made the mistake of runnin’ away inta somebody who wants ta talk to ya.” Startled by the tone of Henry’s words, embarrassed by the accusations, confused by the statements, Eric returned to his seat as his attention finally began to focus on the words filling that dark house. “When’s the last time somebody wanted ta talk to ya, huh? Must’ve been a long time cuz if things ain’t changed – and they never do – don’t nobody care ‘bout no homeless piece of trash.”

Eric shook his shaved head. He narrowed his eyes to slits. He remembered when he woke up that he’d wanted to talk to someone, but his trust had vanished years ago in a blur of trash that had whipped across everybody’s property. All Eric could say was, “Whatever, man.”

A quick flash of anger flooded Henry’s face. He snorted the words back at Eric, “‘Whatever, man,’ that all ya gonna say? Cuz I told ya I don’t play no kid’s games, and if ya wanna, then getchorself back on those streets, man, and keep runnin’. How long ya been on those streets?”

Huddled down, Eric seemed to think for a second. He was wondering what to say. He wanted to reach out from himself and finally tell somebody what he felt, but the only answer that tumbled through the thoughts that scorched his mind was, “Too long, man, way too long,” and with those words, Eric felt like he might cry tears that had been waiting to see the day for years.

Henry relaxed his posture, but his voice sounded stern and quiet, “Why dontcha go home, then… Ain’t no reason for anybody ta feel like they’re trash whether they are or not. And I know ya feel like trash, I can see it in your eyes. Your eyes’ll never lie, kid. So why dontcha getchorself off these streets and make your life worth somethin’ again.”

“Ain’t got no home ta go to.” And tears began to fill the hole that the accident’s mangled face had created.

“That true? Lemme tell ya somethin’,” Henry leaned forward as far as his chair would allow; he pointed his index finger at Eric, “Wherever ya are, man, that’s your home,” and he leaned back again.

“What do you know, man?” (Don’t let me cry, please don’t let me cry) Eric sucked his breath in hard, pulling anger in with it, hoping that would suffocate the tears.

“I know a lot, man.”

And the anger flew forward in a final attempt to spit out the water filling the holes behind his eyelids: “WHAT DO YOU KNOW!”

The room stayed silent. Slowly, Henry breathed in and out. He breathed in… and out. “I know I used ta be just like you. All ya see is skin. All ya see is I’m different. All ya see in everybody’s that they’re different, and that’s why you’re just like them. Well, check it out, ain’t no more slaves in America, kid…”  Henry stretched his arms out from his body in what was meant to be an expression of exasperation, but to Eric, it looked like a sacrifice. “So I been as lost as you are.”

The white boy’s head fell into his fists, every thought vanished in the face of this confrontation, and tears of frustrated pain and terror choked his words, “What’s that s’posed ta mean?”

“Means I used ta be a homeless, little kid, and I ain’t that way anymore. Now you the homeless kid. So I’ll tell ya what, if ya take a look at me, maybe you’d have an idea what ta do with yourself.”

The room wallowed in brief silence as Eric’s breath shook his thin body sitting awkwardly on the couch. Henry leaned forward again. “Home’s a long way away, kid… at least for all of us it is. That’s why ya gotta live where ya are.”

Eric’s bloodshot eyes looked up from his palms. With the back of his dirty hand, he wiped his nose. He sniffled. “I don’t know how ta live anywhere. So I just wanna go some place that I know is home.”

“Yeah? Then go, man.”

“I told ya, I can’t.”

“Whydja decide that, huh? What happened in your life?”

He’d never told anybody. He’d even tried to make himself forget, but the memory would never leave. It always surfaced to erode conscious thoughts and visions. It made him tired. No matter how much he slept, it made him tired; no matter what he did to forget, some memory always woke up to chase him. Today, the body in that second car had reflected that deepest, most personal secret, but even worse, it made his fears live. Reality was too real, and there was nowhere left for Eric to run or to hide. Trapped, he answered Henry, “Never knew my mom, and my dad was killed by some drunk driver ‘bout three years ago. He was killed by someone who didn’t even know what he was doin’, someone who was too lost in himself ta realize he’d destroy someone else’s life.” (now I’m that person, and I never wanted ta be like any of you)  “The state gave me ta some family but it wasn’t home. No matter what they tried ta tell me, no state could make anything a home. So I split, man. Cut all my ties and ran.”

Henry shook his head. When he spoke, his voice had softened, “That’s hard, man. That’s hard, but it don’t make ya special.” His cheeks and his lips turned back into the rocks they’d been earlier. “Tell ya what, man, this is reality, and it ain’t pretty. My dad went ta prison when I was a baby, never knew him. We lived up in L.A.” Henry clicked his tongue. “My moms was all strung out. Just me and my brother, ya know. That’s all the family I had.” He closed his dark lids on his darker eyes. “I watched him die ‘bout ten years after the state took my pops away. He got shot in the head outside a store. I sat on the concrete, held him in my arms, watched his arms and legs spasm, listened ta his breath rattle, and he died.” This was the truth. This was what made everybody wear their shiny sunglasses and stare at their shiny cars if nobody could make them forget. Stories like this were buried under all the trash in America. “I started runnin’ and didn’t stop for a long time.” For a second, Henry scowled. Then, he whispered, “But ya can only run so long ‘fore the violence catches up and it turns inta ya. Ya think you’re the only one who’s had it hard? Everybody does, man. That’s reality. That’s the way it is.” Eric stayed silent because he knew this was the truth. Henry licked his lips and stared at the ceiling as if the answer were floating down from there. “Tell ya what. Life don’t owe ya a thing. And if ya keep runnin’, you’ll wind up like all those people that walk ‘round on this beach that I’m sure ya tell yourself ya hate.”

“Yeah, I know.” And he did know. He never would have known it before today, but the tape of a skateboard flying into the middle of the street wound itself around his thoughts, and those thoughts had to agree with reality’s accusations. “But I don’t know how ta be anything else. So I guess I just gotta take what I can get cuz that’s all I’ll ever get.”

“Naw, man,” Henry said. He pursed his lips, scrunched up his nose and his eyes. “I only did that when I was a beggin’ little kid. Ya gotta live, man, cuz you’re here. Ya ain’t got a choice. Ya ain’t a kid no more. That changed for ya a while ago, and once ya know ya can’t go back, then ya gotta go forward ‘stead of wastin’ your life just takin’ whatcha can get.”

Eric turned his head to the side. He closed his eyes, and his teeth and tongue felt numb as he spoke, “I don’t know how ta do anything else.”

“Neither did I, but like I said, ya ain’t got a choice. Otherwise, ya gonna stay trash. And whether ya got somethin’ shiny ta look at or not, trash is still trash. I’m sure ya seen that on the streets.”

“Yeah… Yeah I have.”

“See, I don’t know whatcha did, but I know whatchor runnin’ from. You’re runnin’ from everything that makes ya you. And if ya wanna live, ya better stop runnin’ cuz some day ya gonna become the violence thatcha hate so much.”

“Yeah… I know.”

Henry looked around and stood up. The sirens had stopped yelling at the audience that existed so far away. “Look, I’m sick of seein’ ya beggin’, man – that’s the only reason I broughtcha here. That ain’t no way for anyone ta live, but if ya wanna keep bein’ the way you’re bein’, then stay the way ya are. If not, ya better realze that this is all ya got whether it’s whatcha want or not.”

Eric exhaled heavily. He drooped his shaved head back on his neck to let it rest on the couch. A splotch of sunlight streaked across his right eye so he closed both of them. He finally told somebody who would listen what he’d wanted to say that morning, “I don’t wanna be how I am. I been livin’ this way too long, and I’m tired. I’m sick of beggin’, and I’m sick of not havin’ a home. I just wanna bed where I can really sleep cuz I’m everything I never expected to be.”

“I’ll tell ya what, man, if you’re tired, ya can stay here and sleep. Just put the shade down and sleep on that couch. I ain’t got no answers for whatcha oughta do, every man’s different, but I’ll give ya a place ta rest for today, and tomorrow ya gonna have ta start gettin’ your life together. Don’t know how ya gonna do that, but ya gotta start.” Henry turned to walk into the darker parts of his home, but before he left, in an afterthought, he faced Eric again, “Just don’t think ‘bout takin’ nothin’ from me cuz all this stuff is mine. Ain’t that shiny (don’t need nothin’ shiny), but it’s what I got ta make myself a home. Get it?”

“I know, man.” Eric watched Henry recede down the shadowed hall. “Ya know what, man?”

“What?”

“I been waitin’ a long time for someone ta wanna talk ta me.”

“I know… cuz I did too.”

Eric pulled down the shade to finally block the blinding sun. Stretching out on that comfortable couch, he closed his swollen eyes, and he let his thoughts take him away from all the destruction of life in Southern California to a world where everything seemed like it was.

Beyond the shores of sleep, Eric found himself waist deep in a midnight ocean. The scent of salt slivered into his imagined nostrils. The crashing waves broke across his face. The moon had taken the place of the world’s sun. A strong current attacked his tired legs, but he fought hard to maintain some semblance of a sea-drenched balance. A wave crashed over his dreamed head. The water choked his lungs, but Eric escaped before they burst. The ocean calmed for a moment, and something hard bumped into Eric’s back. He moved slightly to the left, and a face wearing shiny sunglasses floated past as the tides dragged its dead body out to the ocean’s deepest depths. Another wave broke across Eric’s face, and he went below the water.

Choking and coughing, he fought back to the surface, and he turned his aching face in the direction of the land. Like a starving demon, Marty stood there. His skinny arms held tightly onto a twelve year old boy clutching a broken skateboard and who never struggled as that murderer threw him down into the water’s depths. Marty, with his aged countenance of a slightly earlier America, turned away from the ocean to look at a fat man pouring a drink down the throat of a girl wearing short shorts whose left hand held a cigarette pack. Eric tried screaming in outrage in the hope that he could save an endless line of children who waited in the darkness behind the little girl, but another wave attacked him before the sounds became audible.

Back to the surface – “Ain’t it a blast, bro!” Trash shouted from somewhere to Eric’s left. “Ain’t it a blast!” he yelled again. Eric was going to say, No, but the ocean’s towering arms embraced them both in a surge as Trash loudly laughed his crazy laugh for the last time. As he struggled up from the clinging seaweed, water burned Eric’s nostrils and eyes. He’d been dragged out even farther. “Help me,” he gurgled as his neck thrust his lips above the surface. “Help me,” but he was alone now; Trash never returned from the ocean’s floor.

Another wave, and Eric didn’t know if he was strong enough to fight any longer, but somehow, the air greeted his lungs. Above the water again, he looked desperately to his right. Henry stood there. The water broke against his powerful chest, and he didn’t move. The drowning, homeless kid wanted to shout for help, but he knew that Henry had the strength to support himself… no one else. Eric fell down beneath the water’s force one more time.

It was as if he lived beneath the ocean for an eternity, but when the blackness let him rise to the top again, he felt the moon’s bright glare upon his face. “Help me,” he whispered to that beacon in the night as the sea’s foamy hands muffled his cry. “Help me.” The moon turned the color of blood as the man on its surface, the one who people tell children stories about, suddenly existed. Eric’s dreaming eyes opened wide in surprise with the recognition that the face resembled an older version of his own. “Help me. Help me,” he whispered as one final wall of salty water swelled up to destroy his dreamed reality forever. Eric closed his eyes on a darkness denser than the night, but before the water encircled him completely, a hand of air reached down in the sea’s clinging mass to grab Eric’s tired, barely struggling body and set it above the terrifying waves.

From Israfel Sivad’s collection of short stories Notes from the Idle Mind available here.

More Than Once

At_the_Side_of_the_R_Cover_for_Kindle

More Than Once
By Israfel Sivad

Lost. A seed by chance was stolen,
blown by wind streams softly gusting,
landing lonely, to awake in
barren fields where silent dust sings.
Here, amidst a dearth of dreary,
here, the earth, for rain, begs, lusting,
here, where skies whisper with weary,
life lives only death dying slowly.
Far from home, that seed wind buried.
Desolation strains to scarcely
breed a parasitic thirsting
breathing what lives stolen only,
leaving thieves forever starving.
Now these torments plague another
helpless sapling feeling living
wrenched away…  This lifeless reservoir’s
weeds slowly strangle, bit by bit
by means of choking scavengers.
Roots reach forth in pain’s gasping fits.
Struggling towards heaven’s open land,
I choked and died.

(When I looked away to search the darkness,
I stumbled in the gravel on my downward slope.
I landed face first in sharpened mud
to scream against my own false step,
to bleed amid earthen rocks,
and you stood above me…
Like the sun to trees reaching towards it,
a beam of light caught hold of my hand.)

More than once, I’ve lost my way down different
paths of life by slipping in rock-strewn sands,
falling to live on this lifeless descent
where starving stones supply a barren field.
And more than once, I was scared, lonely, sent
to grow alone with weeds whose roots will steal
my life, now young, though stumbled, still begun –
A piece in pieces that may never heal.
But more than once, always, you’ve stood right there
to ease this starving soul who gasps for air.

From Israfel Sivad’s collection of poetry At the Side of the Road, available here.