1) Russell sat in the driver’s seat after saying goodbye to his father for the last time. The idling engine sputtered out curls of exhaust fumes that wafted like ghosts through the tunnels of the hospital parking structure. He punched the steering wheel four times and feared a fifth might cause the airbag to deploy, which would probably break his nose, definitely his glasses. He waited until all the other cars were gone before he cried.
2) Demolition of The Berlin Wall started this morning and best friends Ben and Kristi decide to celebrate. Tonight, Ben parks his car on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan, just north of Navy Pier. The beige car is nearly hidden in the hairy spine of sand dunes and fireweed. They listen to coverage of the destruction on the radio. Ben pulls a flask from his coat pocket, raises it as high the car’s roof will allow and toasts, “To the death of communism.” He takes a quick drink, winces tightly, then passes the flask to Kristi. She drinks without making a toast. The radio continues: crowds shouting We want out! and the thunderous boom of brick turning to dust. Kristi looks out at the ships rising and falling on the water. Like shooting stars, the lights bloom then disappear into the darkness. She thinks about all the families and estranged lovers of East and West Germany reuniting in one another’s arms. She looks at Ben and smiles. She thinks there is hope.
3) You’re alone in your car, speeding out of your neighborhood. Your mother is having him over again, and walking downstairs to that used piece of bubblegum wrapping his doughy arms around her is about the last thing you need right now. You wonder if you should drive to your dad’s house, but immediately you decide not to. It’s already dark and the drive from Waukegan to Cicero is almost two hours. Nearly crying, you pull up to a stoplight and rummage through your backpack for your cigarettes. You think you get your hands around the pack and pull them out, only to find it’s not your cigarettes. It’s a cassette-tape case. Jules, play me. ♥ James. You open the case and put the tape into the car’s player, still mildly concerned that you are unaware of the contents of your own backpack. “Julia” by The Beatles begins to whisper through the speakers. You push the seat back and close your eyes, pretending John Lennon is stroking your hair and singing you to sleep. The light turns green and cars start honking behind you. But you won’t move, not until the mixed tape winds to an end.
4) “Christ, Evelyn, the whole world is changing without us,” Carl grumbled as he threw this morning’s copy of the Tribune down on the coffee table. Evelyn saw the headline and mouthed words Chicago’s – Oldest – Drive-In – Closed – Permanently. “It’s like I told you. First they change the Sears Tower to the ‘Willis Tower.’ Then they close our drive-in. Next they’ll be wanting to change the name Chicago to ‘Idiotsville.’
“I’d like to go there, Carl.”
“The River-Walk,” Evelyn said, looking at her husband with sad eyes. Carl nodded silently, as if out of respect, and they left.
Their Corolla rolled to a stop in front of the large white wall of the River-Walk Drive-In. Only days after its final showing and already the cracked grey asphalt had given way to invading knotweed and peppergrass. There were still buckets of half-eaten popcorn strewn about the parking lot with a few lucky pigeons getting their fill.
“It’s a damn shame.” Carl tugged on the hair below his bottom lip, making a suction sound like sticky feet from a hardwood floor.
“Do you remember our first date?” Evelyn asked with a smile.
“You bet little lady. It’ll be 40 years this summer, God smiled down on this lucky sailor and gave him a trip to the drive-in with a gal prettier than Sophia Loren.” They both laughed.
With the sun going down and the world slowly becoming a sad mystery, Evelyn laid her head on her husband’s shoulder and they both stared at the wall in front of them, as if it were show time.
Michael Fournier we met on tour last fall with our All Hands On anthology, at the Amherst event. You may remember him for his contribution to the 33 1/3 series of books about records — he authored the tome for Double Nickels on the Dime, by the Minutemen, and for 1980s/early 1990s punk culture and history and its place in the American arts pantheon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who gets it more. He’s touring with a new novel, Hidden Wheel (click through the cover image to order at Three Rooms Press’ site, or better yet, pick up a copy at the show!), after the classic Rites of Spring song of the same name, and will be joined in Nashville by local T2H editor Todd Dills and Clarksville, Tenn.-based master-in-waiting Quincy Rhoads and Nashville-based art-book maker and writer Amelia Garretson-Persans (check out the stop-motion animation she completed recently for Nashville’s “By Lightnin” band in the vid below), among others TBA:
@Portland Brew, 1921 Eastland, Nashville
June 6, 6 p.m.
Here’s a great description of the new novel from the 33 1/3 series blog:
The novel focuses on the art and punk scenes of the Midwestern city Freedom Springs, where an opportunistic trustfunder named Ben Wilfork starts an all-ages art/show space names Hidden Wheel. Max Caughin, who tags under the name Faze, gets famous quick with a series of paintings on CD covers. His buddy Bernie Reese donates sperm to raise money for a new drum kit so his two-piece noiserock band Stonecipher can record. Bernie’s romantic interest (and former chess prodigy) Rhonda Barrett does dominatrix work by day and paints her life, sixty words at a time, on giant canvases by night. Their fates intertwine in a story reconstructed by William Molyneux, a 24th Century scholar reconstructing the Hidden Wheel scene after a solar flare erases all digital data in his era.
Dead Trend started as a fictional band in Hidden Wheel, Freedom Springs’ biggest musical export. As I wrote the book, I also wrote Dead Trend songs — short blasts of punk focusing on 1986 topics like Reagan, the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl. Some friends and I put the band together this summer, with me playing drums and doing backing vocals. We have a 7″ coming out soon on Baltimore’s Save vs. Poison Records. In the meantime, our music is available via cassette tape — demo versions of our songs recorded this summer, as well as a live set recorded in Orono, Maine.
“Last Orchard” is a short noir that began its life as a Peck short story, published via THE2NDHAND’s pre-txt online magazine — it’s now being serialized in one installment per week via THE2NDHAND txt here. Keep your eyes open for future installments. Peck lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. Find more from him in THE2NDHAND archives or in our 10th-anniversary book anthology, All Hands On, released in 2011.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — file will be updated as new installments become available)
Let us practice every imaginable grimace. –Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
Let me begin before everything got all cockeyed and deadly and confused. Before Sue Longtree and Daddy Longtree and the orchard and Cowper and that bridge out of this despicable city. I blame a lot of this on my tailor, especially on that suave suit he never did finish.
But I suppose if I wanted to go back before any of this began I’d end up starting just after the dinosaurs were hacked to death by the wind and the earth and rotted away into fuel and dirt.
And where do you begin a story, anyway? Do you select some random point, or is there a tangible place that can be flipped over and fingered? “This is where everything started,” you would like to say. But any moment is random. There’s not a definite beginning to anything. The idea of a beginning is a turgid con. There can’t be a beginning when everything is at an end.
I’m not a writer; I’m something more like a transcriber of degeneracy and hatred. Had I any poetic talents I would be talking about something better: Birds in migration, the pleasantries of intoxicated guests at a cottage on the Cape, beautiful women having a picnic on a rooftop, flowers peeling back to let in the morning.
Instead, I’m talking about rotting dinosaurs and wretched people who have built this city with their capricious greed and startling cynicism.
I should say that nothing about this makes any kind of sense: there’s no solution, I don’t really know who’s responsible, whether anything criminal has been committed by others, what my involvement in the Longtree situation really consisted of, or even if it consisted of anything other than a psychotic redhead’s unquenchable love of her own self. And what I remember about Sue Longtree: the wave of her red hair, a smile that had in parted lips a riddle with no punchline, a scent, a stupid hope, a hand grasping my arm at a symphony performance.
“Why’d you do it, Jome?” Cowper says.
I say, “I haven’t slept too well lately.”
And that should have been enough but it wasn’t and it isn’t.
The river is down below like a dark, wavering sheet and the men are closing in for the big squeeze, Cowper leading them, his face a featureless blank in relief against the massive spotlight behind him. I swing a leg over the metal railing, and then the other leg, balancing on the parapet like some mad acrobatic fool. The men’s hard-bottomed shoes pound the concrete behind me and they’re breathing heavily and I can almost feel their arms pulling me back.
It’s funny, but the water below is so flat it looks like I could bounce right off the surface and carom back onto the bridge and find it empty of these animals in uniforms, replaced by daylight and a view of the city that has been erased by the rain. And maybe that’s exactly what I will do, when I am ready.
The river is getting closer, its contours in the night like an approximation of what I imagine the afterlife to be like: black, trembling and not nearly deep enough. I put a foot out and my shoe drops off. I don’t hear it plop into the river.
So where do I begin when there’s nowhere to begin?
The morning I found Sue Longtree in my office I’d spent listening to a record of the adagio from a Mozart piano concerto, and I’d thought to myself that it was the simplest interpretation of innocence I’d ever pried out of the world. That sound — a soft piano fading — would be a halfway decent beginning, except that I’ve forgotten the tune it belonged to.
But anywhere, any place, anybody is at least a halfway good beginning, if such things exist.
I was at the window looking out over the intersecting bridges spanning the city. Great hulking sculptures of metal and steel, able to withstand the fleeing and the returning with equal ease, layered on top of one another like a crazy staircase. Bridges are the strangest of modern conveniences, a street with no land underneath, a nowhere boulevard that can carry you across seas and lakes and rivers, transporting you to the elsewhere you yearn so vaguely to be. A bridge is the beginning and the end of any journey.
The river beneath the the webwork of bridges was sleek and consoling in its dangerous malaise, condemned to thrash, like all good rivers, against the encroachment of civilization.
A drop of rain struck the glass and eased down reluctantly. A siren yearned and careened three stories below in the street for a while, found its miserable destination and became a loose, fragile memory among a thousand others that one soon forgets. Then another siren joined in from somewhere beyond the first and the duet spun off to opposite fringes of the city, a cacophony of parting goodbyes in a town that is built of them.
It had just begun to rain and the buildings out the window were becoming coated in a slick mirror of water that reflected the fading sky and the buildings within reach. I studied a calendar on my desk, trying to intuit what day it was, but the calendar was from last year and I’d never been keen on math. Or anything else. I sat back in my chair and grimaced at the ceiling.
I yawned, trying to surprise myself.
There was a blue and white marble on my desk that I began to roll back and forth on the uncluttered surface. The ninth or tenth time I was too slow and it bounced against a copy of a dog-eared Dominic Early novel and that I’d been meaning to read. The marble dribbled onto the floor like any other sad, useless thing. I peered closely at the little round speck dreamily, urging it to keep rolling, but my momentary optimism wouldn’t take. I left myself alone.
Sitting in the same position for hours, romanticizing the days you wasted in the gutter, you tend to disremember that the street exists, that there is something beyond the flicking wall clock in the berserk simplicity of a familiar room. That maybe you’re a self-propelling organism with the nerve to feel all right; your body an urban development project and the brain a ticket-window to a carnival that is always vacant, though some silly bastard keeps the hallucinatory rides well oiled and moving along.
I was coming down with the initial chills of a cold is what I’m trying to spell out. Lousiness doesn’t achieve much more in one day.
That morning a middle-aged woman visited my office and offered me $400 to investigate the death of her husband. She was a babbling matron, barely able to subvert a speech defect that slurred her words, with the physique of a sack and lips purpled by wine. The husband was decapitated by a train as he attempted to switch the tracks at some remote outpost beyond the suburbs.
“It was mysterious,” the woman said. “In a week he was going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union and some people — and by that I mean some people — didn’t like the idea much. And so you can imagine what I think.”
“Why was he going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union?” I asked, and the woman must have heard my stultified tone, because she looked like she was going to spit on my desk.
“Roger said something about,” the woman paused, recalling, “black market goods being loaded onto freighters by certain squalid switchmen.”
“What kind of black market goods?”
“He never mentioned.”
She gave a harrowing account of the switchman’s life, replete with dinner routine, the hour his alarm sounded each morning, his Sunday yard work. Finished and breathing hard, gray hair clinging to her forehead, she expostulated some more and fell silent. Perspiration slithered on her exposed skin like she’d just enjoyed a bath of turgid lake water. It was disgusting to me.
“Any witnesses?” I asked.
“Just the engineer.”
“What does he say?”
“He was asleep.”
“So he wasn’t really a witness.”
“He was there,” she spat.
As bluntly as I could I told her that her personal grief was not a good enough reason to suspect assassination. People get in the way of trains sometimes. “Basically I don’t like or trust people who sweat profusely,” I said aloud without really meaning to.
“You have the mouth of a dog,” she said.
“Not every freak death is a conspiracy,” I said. She tore into a plastic bag of tissues. “Stupidity is extremely under-appreciated as a transport to the afterlife.”
“Roger wasn’t stupid.”
“I’m sorry, but anybody who gets his head knocked off by a slow-moving train is challenged in some special way. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I could have taken her dollars and done nothing but sit around and stare at it for a week, then report to her that I’d been unable to uncover anything conclusive. Maybe I was feeling lazy; possibly, I simply did not care. From Malthus one learns that the cause of all evil and crime is overpopulation, and ever since Pinkerton it has been good private policy for someone in my line of work never to meddle with unions.
“I thought you did this kind of thing,” she said, rising with tissues clasped in each hand.
“Honestly, I don’t know what it is I do anymore. It’s not your fault. I’m disillusioned, is all.”
“And it certainly isn’t mine,” she hissed.
She sobbed out to the hallway. As the elevator descended her whelps grew distant and stopped altogether, then resumed through the open window. I watched her hustle across the street against the light.
The office was chilly but I left the window open a crack. I tucked in my once-white dress shirt and propped a suit coat on my shoulders. A year and a half ago I’d nailed a portrait mirror to the backside of the door. Intended as security to inspect every angle of a client, it served mainly to distribute my deflation of vanity. Not a handsome man, perhaps, rather plump and grim under the eyes, the kind of looks certain women appreciate from a distance and realize, on closer scrutiny, they are very mistaken. But I wasn’t out for any woman. I’m sure they’d had enough of me, too.
Well, Harry Jome, I said to myself, stepping into the plank-floored corridor, whose walls were painted in indignant swipes. Let’s you and me get a couple of eggs. It’s about time we had some excitement.
May was humid so far.
The people walking the streets were dressed too warmly, and a collective grimace was growing wider by the inch, not at all helped by the pattering rain. Maybe it wasn’t the weather but the fact that unhappy people were steadily coming to understand their condition. But at least in the city you don’t have to be yourself 24 hours a day. Crowds of nobodies surge and swallow you in a great gulp, hustle you along to their nowhere, suck you into a civilization of aimless people attempting to appear busy. If I ever decided to long for friendship I could start talking to god or get a membership in a secret society.
At the 12th Street diner all the booths were taken. Eager employees and unperturbed excecutives were hunched together feasting on over-told stories about a certain cubicle, a shady bookkeeper, hoary bosses with a penchant for meanness. Beside me at the counter was a midget in a mustard yellow cardigan with a guitar case leaning on his leg, so that whenever he shifted, which was perpetually, he had to keep a hand on the case to straighten it.
The waitress was a mild teenager with braces and rubber bands in her shortish black hair, long unpainted fingernails and a demeanor so shy it would have made a pimp blush. She got my whole order wrong: the eggs were sunny-side up, the meat was ham. To her credit it was a highly unorthodox order. The coffee, at least, wasn’t ginseng tea.
Next to me the midget had his head in a newspaper and I found myself contorting to read the headlines as I ate. Suddenly he shot me an eye and hopped off the stool, taking the paper as he jumped away. There was nothing so attractive in the headlines anyway: death, mutilation, disease, an escalating crime rate, the subtle menace of germs and defeat, rape, pillage, genocide. It was too dirty to look at.
“I come here every day,” the midget said to me, folding the paper twice. “I sit in the same place and I don’t trouble anybody.”
I chewed my ham, watching him shake his head.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just in the mood for talking. You want to talk?” he asked.
“Talk about what?”
“You know what’s funny?” he said, and answered his question, “Nothing. I can’t think of a single thing that’s funny.” He straightened the guitar case. “Isn’t that funny?”
Depressive inclinations arose as I shoveled sopping egg onto unbuttered toast. At the end of the week I would be losing my office and shortly thereafter my apartment on a sunny avenue in the 4800 block. Letters had arrived from the respective invisible landlords, warning ungrammatically that I was three months behind. If I did not pay by May 15 I would be dragged into a courtroom and divested of my car and whatever else was reputed to have some value.
I was planning to leave town as soon as I could pay for gas. Now I wished I’d accepted the railroad widow’s money and fled, which wasn’t too chivalrous, but poverty isn’t chivalrous either. I scraped the plate clean and dusted off the driblets of food on the formica countertop.
“I mean,” the midget went on. “That’s only the funniest thing anymore. People are different everywhere, though. Some people think I’m funny just sitting here. I don’t know. I guess I am. But everybody’s funny in some way. Do you agree with that?”
“I’ll nod to that,” I said.
“Well, see you later if you come by again.” He grabbed his guitar case. “I’m here every day, so if you’re around I’ll be around.”
Another cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. I watched the waitress open a rotating glass case, cut the pie, balance it on a plate, rush it over, slam it down, hurry back, close the glass case, wipe her hands on a dishtowel, start the process anew for some other tired louse.
Before I had a second to lift the fork someone sidled in between the stools, touching my forearm with a bony elbow. In a churlish, clear voice, a woman asked the harried waitress where she could find Harry Jome. I was so taken aback at overhearing my name that I almost fainted.
Brilliant red hair was the first thing I noticed. The questioner was a slightly attractive, narrow-faced woman of around 35 or 40. Big dark sunglasses covered what were purportedly her eyes. In profile she had slightly masculine features that lend themselves gracefully to women of a particular attitude, and she certainly had that attitude. She was in black slacks and a matching turtleneck; the pinkish tint of her skin indicated that she hadn’t been in the sun for a few decades. By her subtle perfume, plush leather tote and air of astute arrogance, she was either wealthy or very wealthy. “Do you know where the office of a Mr. Jome would be? I believe it’s Henry Jome?” she said.
“Who?” the waitress said over the head of a customer at the end of the counter.
“Harry Jome,” I corrected.
“I’m sure it’s Henry Jome,” the red-head repeated. “He apparently has an office nearby.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
The redhead squinted at me from the corner of her frames and said, pouting her lips, “I was speaking to her if you don’t mind much.”
“Yes, and I’m talking to you if it’s not an inconvenience.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You’re asking about Harry Jome?” I said.
“I was asking the girl about Henry Jome.”
“I’m doing you a favor, lady.”
“Well, stop it.”
Once again she tried to flag the waitress’ attention, but the young girl was too busy arguing with the cook to notice. The waitress screamed at the beefy man in white and blushed; she pulled the apron off and hurled it onto the grill. The stench of charred cotton brought scowls among the patrons. The former waitress took advantage of the furor in the kitchen to calmly open the register and clean out the contents.
It was my first smile in nearly three weeks.
“You see what you did?” I said to the redhead.
“I thought maybe you’d like a job.” She was backing away.
“Everybody knows Harry Jome,” I said incredulously. “Try the Santos Building. 3rd floor. If he isn’t in just wait a minute.”
“You his agent or something?” she asked.
“Harry is the kind of guy who doesn’t even need an agent,” I said.
She was out the door. Behind me two paunchy men in matching suits and porkpies were close behind her, pointing and hushing each other. One of them turned and winked.
The chef was cursing madly, his staff wreaking chaos and the diners all filing out in search of another diner. My coffee was drained but for a splatter of half-and-half at the bottom of the cup. I felt lonely.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.
Kate Duva (pictured, with chinchilla) performed this piece, with considerable laughter as part, alongside Jonathan Messinger, Jill Summers and THE2NDHAND editor Todd Dills‘ own “They Were Gods” riffs, published as a unit here. The performance was on the occasion of release of All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10, where you can find more of Duva’s work.
They were gods. King Tut. Genghis Khan. Crazy Horse. Erik the Red. Bootsy Collins, Elvis Presley, the Backstreet Boys. And I slept with them all.
It all opened up for me shortly after my 969th birthday. I was still active in my local singles’ adventure club, where a swing dance or a mystery dinner theater or haunted hay ride inevitably ended in a love marathon — but — I just burned out on the physical demands of it all, not to mention the danger of modern day cooties.
And then the perfect solution to the hassles of dating hit me — virtual sex. No technology involved — I’m talking séances. Ethical séances! — lest you think I raped Genghis Khan. I’m not a succubus. If anything, Mr. Khan had his way with me, but I can’t say I didn’t have fun. I always ask for permission, and I always get it.
Seances aren’t limited to the dead, I call in the spirit of my neighbor, the guy with a wife and newborn triplets and a dog that squirts its way around the block four times a day, and believe me, he’s always ready for a little action.
On September 3, 1988, Little Richard made an announcement that he had seen the light of the Lord and could proclaim himself a proud ex-gay — and you’d best believe I was in his bedroom the night of September 2.
My man-journeys do go beyond the strictly erotic. I don’t do it just to get my rocks off anymore. I had big plans when I seduced Donald Rumsfeld, for example, or when I appeared in Karl Rove’s secret chamber — those were genuine missions to dig up the dirt we need exposed to set America back on track, but I have to admit I found myself getting a little sidetracked by the humanity I found lurking under the surface both in Karlitos and Donny Boy.
I’m a bleedin’ heart. I’ll give a demon my breast. In fact, when I lived in Kathmandu I had a volunteer job doing just that. That is one culture in which they’ve recognized that it’s more cost-effective to suckle demons than to lock them up.
I did — get — a temporary case of gonorrhea when I slept with (God, I have selective amnesia when it comes to certain tortured souls) the vice president who shot someone and had the lesbian romance novelist wife — Cheney! Dick Cheney gave me the clap, a full-blown case of it, then POOF! It disappeared. No antibiotics. Just prayer, and a little shamanic healing from my meerkat guides. Clearly that was a psychic illness that manifested, ever so briefly, on a physical level.
It taught me that I can use that physical level wisely for erotic multi-tasking. I call in the spirits of men to help me open jars, or show me how to use tools — take a peek at my engine, check my oil — and one thing leads to another. Just think about who you could call in to check your oil. Ramses. Sun Ra. Alexander the Great. Homer. Rumi. Poseidon. Jesus. Vlad the Impaler.
So — moving along! What I’d like to do this evening is share some of my techniques in seductive séance with all of you so that you too can benefit from this sustainable technology of safe and pleasurable lovem– did you hear that? Whoa, did you feel that? Hahaha. Yeah, I actually need to get going now. It’s Genghis paging me. Ladies and gentlemen — I think I have a booty call.
King lives and writes in Nashville.
long lost pals:
here’s how they roll.
they will call you up right
out of the blue, on a Tuesday
morning at 5 a.m., and
before you can breathe,
oodles of exciting
developments to report.
all they required was a little
time and distance away
from you, and their lives
transformed from uneventful,
at best, into
underwear parties with
fine young girls and in-ground
pools and 10-lb. bass in
sprawling new reservoirs of
crystalline supremacy on
acres of land.
although you’re terribly skeptical, a
trip will be arranged as to
witness for yourself the
newfound paradise of
long lost pals, these
grandiose lives assembled
like swing sets or timeless
no one is looking, and
here’s the reality:
one overweight girlfriend, one
rug rat from wedlock;
an above-ground pool inflated with
it’s rubber and intriguing since
you never really knew
such pools existed; one
doublewide trailer, and a catfish
mudhole drying in the
yard with frogs and turtles and
billions of neurotic and soon-to-be
homeless water skimmers.
Robinson lives and writes in Alabama.
She didn’t drop her big basket of laundry or scream when she saw the man sitting in her living room, on her couch. Later, when she explains what happened, that will strike her as odd. When she saw him sitting there — very good-looking, really, crisp shirt, tidy creases in pinstriped pants legs, smoking a cigarette — she probably should have dropped it, letting all the white sheets and soft, warm pillowcases tumble onto the carpet without worrying about them getting rumpled or dirty. She was shocked, of course. Her eyes got round and wide, her mouth was a little round hole, and her nostrils flared a little. Her tidy, childlike face, five circles all at once. She supposed it just wasn’t in her nature to drop things.
Then she went to the bedroom, where she saw his underclothes in their little heap at the foot of the bed. She opened the hamper and with delicate fingers separated his wrinkled white shirts and her white panties from her printed skirts and his black socks. She stripped the bed and shook the pillows out of their cases.
Scooping the pale mound into the king-size sheet, she hoisted it into the washing machine, emptied a cup of detergent and a little extra bleach, and set the knob to Normal Wash. In the spring and summer, after the clothes finished their spin — and this was the thing, the crucial, unequivocal thing for her — she put the soft, damp mass into a basket and took it outside to the backyard, where she had strung three lines from the high wooden fence that surrounded their small yard and rigged them to the edge of their small patio. She was the only person in her neighborhood who line-dried her clothes, ever.
On this Tuesday, it had rained the night before, so the grass was wet and the ground was still a little muddy. She was barefoot, and the mud squished under her feet and between her toes. The sun warmed her forearms and intensified the clean, damp smell from the laundry. She slung the clothes over the line until her hands and arms were slick and sore.
When she finished her routine, she usually spent a few minutes between the clotheslines, looking at her work, letting her mind wander. This Tuesday, she was outside for quite a while after she had hung up the sheets and pillowcases and underwear. The grass was a deep, vibrant green, wet and very shiny. Even the mud looked rich. The clothes looked especially white, bone white, brilliant white, and she pressed her nose into them and inhaled deeply. She smelled sunshine and electricity, and also something else, a whiff of rich smoke that faded almost before she noticed it. She looked at the sun through the clothes. From far away, she heard a crow caw. Feeling strangely childlike, she spent the next 30 minutes in between the lines of laundry, just touching, imagining that the sheets were the sails of a ship, the inside of a circus tent, the fluid white walls of an undersea castle. Then she started to feel silly and went inside to dust the furniture.
It was after she took the clothes off the line, folded them up and brought them inside that she first saw the man on her couch, the man in the button-down shirt who had folded his suit jacket neatly on the arm of the couch and loosened his tie, the man who was smoking a cigarette and casually tapping the ash into his palm — no one in the house smoked, so there were no ashtrays. All the doors were locked except for the sliding door that led to the backyard, so she had to assume that he had somehow slipped inside while she was out with the laundry. But that made no sense. The yard was tiny and surrounded on all sides by the fence. There was a gate, but surely she would have noticed if he’d opened it, snuck into the yard and walked right into her house, wouldn’t she? The man smiled.
“Oh,” he said, cupping his hand to catch the ash from his cigarette. “I see I’ve caught you in the middle of something.”
He closed his fingers around the ash and slid his fist inside the pocket of his jacket. His voice was soothing and deep, just a little timid.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said as he took his hand out of his jacket. The ash was gone. He smiled agreeably.
“I promise you, and I’m not saying this to frighten you or anything, I really don’t plan on hurting you, truly,” he said, “but I promise if you scream, it will have absolutely no effect whatsoever.”
Lying on her coffee table where a nice bowl of flowers had once been was a black gun. She stared at him as she held the basket of laundry and, after a long minute, made a noise in the back of her throat.
He was down to the end of his cigarette. Holding the smoking butt between his thumb and forefinger, he glanced around the room. After a moment, he picked up the pistol and turned it upside-down, which made her put down her laundry. She backed herself against the wall, and he smiled reassuringly as he carefully pressed the cigarette tip against the butt of the gun, stubbing it out. He slipped what was left of the cigarette into the pocket of his jacket and, still holding the gun, stood up. He was quite tall, she thought.“There now,” he said. “I think it’s time for us to be going. We’re both very busy people.”
What could she do? She had never seen a gun up close before, and she was sure that if she tried to run outside or into the kitchen to dial 911, he would easily shoot her. By the time she had given it any thought, he was already holding the front door open for her, jacket on, gun tucked away somewhere. Still barefoot, with her hair in a knot and no purse, she left her house. They walked down the little path that she had lined with moss rose and lavender a few weeks before, and he held the door of his pretty blue Mercedes open as she slid inside and buckled her safety belt. She stared at her front door as he started the engine and backed out.
She didn’t really know much about cars, but she could tell this one handled like a dream. As they glided along her street, she noticed the world seemed different, richer somehow, when she was riding inside a nice car. The houses looked dainty and quiet, and the trees curved regally over the road.
He coughed. “You know, I grew up not too far from here,” he said. “I think your husband did too, didn’t he? I remember him, from grammar school. He was a little older than me. I’m sure he wouldn’t remember who I was.”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t spend a lot of time watching the news or reading the paper, but she scoured her memory for his face — surely there were warnings about him, a this-just-in bulletin about a strange, handsome, perfectly pleasant man, a local, who also carried a gun and kidnapped women. He drove expertly, she noticed, just a hair over the speed limit with one hand on the wheel and the other resting lightly on the gearshift. He had a tranquil smile on his face, and even whistled a little.
They were riding through a part of town she knew of but never visited. They passed through a neighborhood, and then a business district. The miles slid by underneath them, and the office buildings and stores grew farther and farther apart.
He cleared his throat. “It’s hard sometimes, to remember so much.” He glanced at her. “I remember everything. Everything. Can you imagine what that’s like? Everything I do and see has its own separate memory. Every single day a new batch, all of them, into the old storage bin.” He tapped the side of his head.
She smoothed her hands over her skirt. She knew she was supposed to say something or ask something. But what? She didn’t know. It was too late for Do I know you? Where are you taking me? Maybe, What are you going to do to me?
Did it matter? She smoothed her hands over her skirt and licked her lips.
“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” she whispered. Her voice was almost lost in the soft purr of the engine. He brightened.
“Nobody can,” he said. “It’s really strange. I ask other people what they remember all the time. They give me a handful of childhood stories, tell me about a few great or terrible moments, and that’s it. And that’s the thing, you see? Those memories shape them. Me though, I have too many memories. Can you see? I’m completely shapeless.”
He rubbed the steering wheel and let out a long, low whistle. He laughed.
“It’s OK if you don’t understand,” he said. “It’s just the way I’m different, I guess.”
The road had turned to dirt now. She was completely lost. He stopped the car along the side of the road. He looked at his hands and spoke in a hesitant voice. “There’s a place I like to go, not too far from here,” he said. “I found it once and never forgot it. Barely a few minutes’ walk.” He got out of the car and opened her door.
He walked in front of her, so that she could see the faint outline of the gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. They walked through the dirt, and into grass and a young forest, where the trees were small and barely budding.
After a few minutes the trees opened and, looking around him, she saw a pond, pale green and hardly 20 feet across. He sat on the ground near the edge of the pond and motioned for her to sit next to him. When she sat, tucking her skirt around her legs, he patted her knee and smiled at her.
“I think it’s almost finished, though,” he said. “I celebrated my 31st birthday just a few weeks ago, and I think I’m finally starting to forget.”
She looked out at the water.
“Memories fade as you get older,” she said in a low voice.“Fade? No, not quite,” he said. “No, it’s more like a party. This room,” — he tapped his head — “is full of people, and more keep piling in. Soon, the room gets so packed that for every person that comes in, another one has to leave. Can you imagine?
“Take today, for instance, or this week. What do you think you’ll remember about it in 10 years? Not much, that’s what. But not me. I’ll remember every great and awful and boring thing from here on out.
“I would get so depressed. Sometimes, I could barely take it, when I was a younger man. It was so hard to just live,” he said.
Her eyes got wide. She thought about the gun in his waistband.
“But I’ve accepted it. I’m a memory man.” He laughed. “And now, at least, I have a little control. I can’t control what I lose, of course, but the new memories, those I can create. It’s a power I haven’t had before.”
He rested his head in his hands, rubbing his scalp. When he looked at her, he didn’t smile.“And let’s say something terrible, something completely unforeseen happens. Let’s just say I end up with a new, horrible memory. So what, who cares? It all just ends up in the old file anyway.”
She stared into his eyes, his dark, bottomless eyes. He seemed so very old, and she wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before.
The pond shimmered in front of them as they sat together, side by side, not moving and not speaking. After what seemed to be the right amount of time, she snuck a peek at his face. He looked peaceful again, smiling. She pictured the roomful of memories crowded in his mind, always loud, always moving, always threatening to invade the present. She really couldn’t imagine.
She stood up and walked to the edge of the water, waded in up to her ankles. Her feet looked large and bloated. She took a deep breath.
“When I was little, I used to look for places like this,” she said. “We lived in a suburb, but I always liked forests and creeks and things like that. I’d ride my bike for hours, out into the country, just to find places like this.” She laughed. “My parents would be so worried about me.”
“That’s a nice memory,” he said. “You’re lucky.”
She looked at her reflection in the water, at her quivering lips and eyes and hair. The light was fading.
“I need to go home,” she said quietly.
He sighed and stood up, brushing the dirt off his rumpled pants. He smiled, and his face reminded her of a dishcloth that had been wrung out one too many times.“I guess I’ll be arrested,” he said. “You’ll have to tell the police, you know. It’s the only thing you can do.”
The sun had set by the time they pulled into the driveway. She was relieved to see her husband wasn’t home yet.
He lurched the car to a stop, and she stepped out gingerly, feeling the cold, hard cement under her toes. She turned, trying to catch his eye, but he won’t look at her. Wordlessly, without unbuckling his seatbelt, he reached over, closed the passenger door and sped away. Sudden as he came.
The smell of exhaust mingled with the scent of lavender and night air. When she opened the door, the first thing she saw was the basket of laundry, glowing in the darkness. The sliding door was wide open, yawning, calling her outside. She shut it and locked it.
She wandered upstairs, trailing her fingers on the banister, into the bedroom. The lump of dark dirty laundry was still on the floor where she left it, crouched and crumpled, like a sleeping dog. She perched on the bed, staring at the lump, until she heard the hum and cough of her husband’s car in the driveway. She got down on her knees and picked through the pile, pulling out a pair of shorts and her husband’s navy t-shirt. She stripped in the darkness and slid into the clothes. After slipping her cold feet into a pair of tennis shoes, she jogged down the stairs as her husband opened the door.
“I’m going for a run,” she said. She kissed him on the mouth, squeezing his butt. He laughed. She was out the door before he could ask any questions.
Tonight, she ran, listening to the slap-slap of her shoes and the night birds — weightless, like a sheet in the breeze.
Amanda, a Hyde Parker at heart, now lives and writes in THE2NDHAND’s birthplace off the Blue Line in Chicago.
At the marble countertop, she is struggling to find the words.
“Welcome to the Hotel Grand Royale,” announces a well-pressed, well-groomed clerk. She says she’s here to meet her husband and that he’ll be there soon.
She’s not sure why she’s lying.
“Ah yes,” the clerk is saying, and there is a key in her hand, and she is on the elevator, and her finger is pressing 16 till it lights up, and she looks at her watch, again, and there are maybe twenty minutes.
In the room, there is a narrow rectangular window looking down onto the street, to the café below, the newsstand, the subway station, a woman walking her dog, some teenagers on the corner smoking. She could be anywhere, she thinks, but she’s not.
The door key still in her hand.
Slipping off her sandals, her shorts, her sweater, bra, underwear, she jumps into the shower, gasping silently at the shock of cold before the hot.
For a second, she closes her eyes, thinks: this could be my eternity, like Sartre said. But there’s no time for that: eight minutes already gone, and there is so much to do.
Looking out the window, towel wrapped around her, hair beginning to curl in the hot humid air; a man on a bicycle rides by, unsteadily; two girls run on, followed by an old woman (their grandmother?); a boy, alone, sits on the fountain, earphones on — and does she imagine it? — looks up, at the window, sullenly.
Shit, she thinks. No one was supposed to see her.
There is lotion to slather on her newly shaven legs, another for her face, arms (it smells like rosewater), chamomile deodorant, perfume. The room is suddenly filled with flowers. She sings a song to herself, a Gershwin tune.
“There’s a somebody I’m longing to see…”
At the window again, wearing her black lace bra and underwear, the street is as empty as it was full earlier. Except for that forlorn boy, still sitting there, eyes squinting, looking up at something in the sky.
In front of the mirror, she pulls the pencil hard over her eyelids, patting on foundation, brushing blush onto her cheeks, curling eyelashes, threading inky mascara through each one, coloring in her lips a darkish red, wondering if she’s created a believable rendition of her face, if she’s recognizable anymore, the scar still showing — always showing — bifurcating her symmetrical face, disrupting her geography.
Staring at the watch, only a minute or two left, she sinks onto the floor, back pressed against the bed, kisses its face gently, closes her eyes.
“Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed … follow my lead–”
Rifling through her suitcase, which lies prostrate on the ground, she grabs a dress, pulling it over her head as she stands before the window. It’s blue, silky, hanging loose on her small frame.
It takes all of her to stand upright: she holds onto the window ledge, just in case.
She is looking for that head, the one that bobs a little to the left when excited — needing to get to her as fast as possible, because time is running out, there are no minutes left, only seconds, growing fewer all the while — and this is her forever.
Waiting before the window as the sunlight perishes, molecule by molecule, these maybe 20 minutes in room 163B; that boy smiling up at her, reminding her it’s not a dream, that she is here (not somewhere else); and this version of herself (the one so young, hopeful, humming that song) will stay like this, eyes steady, waiting in ghostly anticipation long after all of this is gone — through the death of this love, and others, marriages, children — there will always be a room locked tight inside her with a narrow window, a wristwatch, and a pain that precedes its own articulation.
Hess is the genius behind the following blurb for THE2NDHAND’s All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 collection: “It is painfully accurate to call Todd Dills ‘Tony Hollywood, New York Screenwriter.’ That said, Dills’ collection offers a comment on modern life. The narrators within this collection of stories may bring to mind a more youthful Holden Caulfield, or Toni Morrison being incredibly shaky, or Richard Ford faking it. You know. Because the book came from a collective of well-regarded idiots. They’re nice. They’re compassionate people. But idiots, oh my God.” Mickey happens to be featured in the book. Enjoy his latest below, and find more from him here.
On the farm, my first day of work consisted of hog-tying. I had tie-dyed flannels on. “Deliver a lasso throw,” my employer recited. Jack Estes was his name, a rustic guy who expected us to take pride in the lasso, but when I ventured a toss, he ground his teeth. “Hog-tying’s a tradition, my friend,” he arched his back and intoned. “Out here we wear rustic shirts.” My colleagues looked at my tie-dye. One fellow was a black belt in aikido. Jack Estes was cracking his knuckles.
Then we stopped for the afternoon, famished from hurling lassos. We saw a belly-dancer, a Middle-Eastern original. Farmers rubbed her hips for good luck.
Sidetracked, we sauntered along the sidewalk on the outside of the nightclub, and Jack Estes laughed. I could have sworn he’d made a restroom stop in the bar, but he leaned against a street sign and pissed like a cement truck. He was Jack Estes, after all, and he was also our lasso employer.
Though it wasn’t all fun and Biblical references, we were shocked nonetheless when the truth emerged: after all he promised us townsfolk, Estes went pacificist when it came right down to it, like with Vietnam or belief in the rights of others.
King is an Army veteran, visual artist and creative writer. His poems have appeared in Number One, The Chiron Review, and other publications. He enjoys sports, the outdoors and almost anything associated with the arts in and around Nashville.
The Army is usually a man’s plan B or C or D — that’s the first thing I learned through military service.
I believe Michael Stewart to be a model example of the caliber of person who matriculates there: A habitual liar to a poetic extent, Stewart was supposedly a starting tailback at a Texas college and he also played baseball in the minor leagues. These were a couple of his lesser fibs. He was 5-foot-6, about 125 pounds, and he resembled a leprechaun both in voice and persona — not exactly a vision of athletic domination, needless to say. For any fool who believed a single word he had to say, the Army was definitely Stewart’s plan B, as a blown-out kneecap had ended his journey to NFL stardom and The Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Yet the Army was thrilled by his busted kneecap, and they jumped at the chance to acquire his services: Therein lies the eternal rub, even one the great Stewart could not wholly explain.
I hated his guts when I first met him — mildly insane and completely annoying as he was — but one day I saw him in a different light. He was fairly drunk and in a truth-telling mood and finally confessed that he was merely a loser — 25 in the Army was a “loser” to him, and I was shocked to have witnessed the truth behind his lies: deep-down he possessed the spirit of greatness. He wanted more but did not know exactly where greatness could be found, or the form in which it may reside within himself.
I tried to console him, to assure him that he wasn’t a loser, but he would have none of it: He was certain of his plight. He was also certain he was going to hell for his lies, and I saw a man broken, beaten down by life. I was a dopey nineteen-year-old who harbored his own illusion of greatness, and I felt horrible for Stewart and what he believed.
Yet the very next day he was bouncing from the walls — Stewart had returned from the precipice of hell just as brazen as ever, and I learned to accept him for who he was. We even became half-ass friends or something of the like.
I inherited that same bravado, an alcohol problem, and a tangible madness from Stewart and the U.S. Army. He’s lost somewhere in Texas combing the deserts on LSD or just whacked on Guinness — spinning grandiose tales in suicide taverns to the half-ass cowboys and the haggard drifters. They’ll consume his bait fucking hook-line-and-sinker. Michael Stewart, now 41, could put Twain to shame as far as timeless yarns.
Alabama-based writer Van Newell teaches at the University of AL in Tuscaloosa. He did an MFA at Columbia University.
I was twisting my hair, the ends of it, because I couldn’t find my hairband, and even though he’s the assistant manager, Doug called in sick, saying that he would be late getting in, being hung over from dollar margaritas at Sabor Latino. So I was stuck watching the store and with school letting out for the afternoon it was going to be Shoplifters ahoy, come ye who are heavy burdened with being broke come yon unto thy mall and unto Hot Topic. Our key demographic wears trench coats in early June because it’s hot and they want to show how me against the world they are.
Girlfriend comes in, more-goth-than-thou skin, hair cooked black and I thought to myself I bet she has The Craft on blue ray and DVD. But there is no one else in the store, and thusly a totally wrong time to boost anything, so she walks through our 400-square-foot store and no one else comes in the next twenty minutes and I’m almost to the point of telling her to just take something under five bucks because I was tired of scoping her. Then I reached that point. “Just take the bacon flavored mints over in the clearance section and go,” I said.
To further induce the lifting of shop, I bend down on one knee to tie my shoe so she can finagle something and she snaps forward, grabbing a pewter Insane Clown Posse necklace hanging from a stand and for dessert she takes my purse there on the glass counter.
But I’m after her.
Girlfriend hangs a right out of the store towards the food court and she’s quicker than I gave her credit. Rentacop Rob is standing there and I yell at him that my purse has been stolen and he takes flight after her, his poor man’s state trooper hat flying off, and we chase her down to the exit doors and there’s a dented Suzuki with the engine running that she hops into. The riceburner guns it and is gone before I can read the plate. I put my hands on my knees because I’m overweight and I haven’t run that hard since I had to for the Presidential Fitness test in eighth grade. Rob goes around the corner to see if he can somehow get a look at the plates from a distance.
It didn’t hit me until I passed the Sabarro that what really sucks is not that my purse was stolen but that the contents of said purse were gone. Have to call the credit card company and cancel that. Go to the DMV. Go get another social security card. Oi, this was starting to suck and then I come back to the store and I find it in the act of being ransacked. It was a total setup, the girl had been the bait and I had been the mark.
Three metalhead kids are in there and I go after the smallest and push him onto the ground. He wiggles away, but the other two are still there and I reach into my pocket and take my keys and arrange them in between my fingers like the YWCA self-defense class showed me and I start punching away because I know these unwashed losers, vaguely, cause they go to my high school and they’re too cool for school to give me the time of day but apparently they are not above thefting a Slipknot t-shirt.
And I get to draw blood, scratches on their forearms as they try to defend themselves. Rentacop Rob shows back up and tries to stretch his body out like a sumo wrestler to keep the rest of them running and tells me he’s got it under control. Call the cops, he says, as if he was waiting his whole life to say that. And I talk to the 9-1-1 lady who asks if I know her granddaughter because I sound like one of her friends and that’s West Memphis, Arkansas, for you and I tell her I’ve got to go.
Then Girlfriend shows back up and with something that looks like an electric shaver in her hand and she plants it right in Rentacop’s back and I hear a buzz and the poor jerk falls onto his stomach. She tells me to stay back, bitch, and I’m sure corporate’s policy is for bitches to, in fact, stay back, and I don’t own this stuff in the store and I don’t own a share of stock in the company but I want to have some fun and I throw a crystal Super Mario figurine right at her forehead and if it doesn’t get lodged into said forehead. She screams and goes cross-eyed but pulls it out and she starts to cry and charge at me and by now there’s a billion people around and then Doug shows up with a shopping bag from Foot Locker and he pulls her off of me. He barges in with his dick-a-swingin’ to save the day and bends over to tell all three of them there on the floor that they are under arrest.
Girlfriend does the right thing and she tases Doug and I feel my eyes grow large and bark out a laugh and I make a note to myself to write her a thank-you note while she is in juvenile detention. If she can get over the whole bloody figurine in the forehead, I bet we could become fast friends when she gets out.