Budh

John and Saint Vincent were standing in line at the grocery store. It was 7:30 on a Thursday, but apparently that was prime time for people getting cheese and ice cream. In front of them was a black man with great cologne, about 50, and in front of him was a father and young son, also black. The father drifted off into an aisle to get something, and John mentally expended his usual ire for those who join the grocery line before they are fully groceried.

The line moved, but the boy, waiting on his father, did not advance his cart. There was at least a cart and a half, maybe two carts worth of distance to be traveled, and while John knew that in reality his place in line and the time he would spend in it in no way depended on, where he stood, he still ached for the boy to advance, so that he could prove to the world he wasn’t as far behind as they thought he was.

I could ask this boy to move his cart forward, he thought, if I hadn’t recently read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. John in fact had read the book in public as often as he had the chance to, and while he would deny that he did so to use it as a kind of talisman–“I am liberal; don’t mug me”–he also would not deny that he wouldn’t mind such an effect, should it happen.

In case you are not woke and have not read this book, know that there is a section where Coates describes his anger at a white woman who pushes his young son forward in line while exiting a movie theater.

I will not be this white woman, John thought, no matter how much I can tell Saint Vincent is staring at me and judging me.

Luckily, the black man in front of them said something kind to the boy, who with large eyes then pushed the cart forward.

Meanwhile, a white guy came toward the line from the opposite direction, and nudged his way through the line to enter the wine section. When we say nudge, we mean that there was not enough room for a body to pass through, but he just sort of started and expected that those in line would make way for them. Which they did. A white man. And not even a handsome one.

“If that was you, you wouldn’t have nudged, would you?” Saint Vincent asked quietly.

“No.”

“You would have gone around. You would have gone around the whole end of the line just to not bother anybody.”

“Yes.”

“That’s because you are a taint.”

“I’m a taint?”

“I won’t insult the pussy, a fine organ, by associating it with you. You’re a tiny no man’s land, praying that you can keep your precious square inches and not get crowded out by the balls or sucked into your own asshole.”

John thought, I don’t remember the grocery store always being this complicated.

“There are two forces in this world, John. Forces that push things in, and forces that push things out. And you, you are not a force. You are a canvas of flesh onto which these two things expel their perspiration. You are the evidence of force. Nothing more.”

In the truck–Saint Vincent had made John trade in his Honda–on the way back, John carefully balanced two dozen eggs on his lap while driving. He resisted the urge to scratch his stabbed hand. He took his mind off it by thinking about what he had learned at private school that day, but he can’t tell you about any of that.

“Possum, John.”

“I’m not a possum.”

Thud. Thud.

John had just driven over a possum, twice.

“Oh my god.”

“How are the eggs?”

“The eggs are–” John stopped the car. Kept it running. “Fine. The eggs are fine.”

“How do you feel, John?”

“Opossum.”

“What?”

“It’s an opossum. Not a possum.”

“Opossums are in Australia, John. Here we have possums.”

“You have it backwards.”

“Oh yeah?”

John looked at him. “I couldn’t tell the kid in front of us to move his cart because I’m trying to be woke.”

“You’re trying to be what?”

“Woke. I’m trying to be woke.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“It means I’m awake to the struggle. I also have been listening to Kendrick Lamar. Some of it’s too intense for me but some of it I really like.”

“Because you’re woke.”

“I’m trying to be.”

“Well that opossum’s unwoke as a doornail, John. Get out of the car. Go see what you’ve done.”

John went and stood by the opossum. Its eyes were open. He crouched down to see if it was smiling. Saint Vincent slid over to the driver seat. He revved the engine.

“Joan of Arc is dead,” Saint Vincent shouted at the window, over the engine. “And so is everyone who ever saw her. What if someone ran you over right now, John? What if that?”

John stood back up. Saint Vincent’s daughter had been run over by her own car. Or pinned, and coma’d, and killed. John had never quite been sure how it worked, just mechanically. The girl had been home for vacation from college. She was starting the drive back to campus. She realized she’d forgotten to tell her parents she loved them. She put the car in neutral, or was it reverse, and she–

“Do you think you’re the only person in this world trying to get some eggs?”

“No, I don’t think that.”

“You think you’re the only person ever got home and found the eggs cracked?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Even when you checked them at the store?”

“No.”

“You think you’re the only person ever had to make an omelet that cut your gums to pieces?”

“No.”

“Fyodor Dostoevsky, John.”

“Fyodor Dostoevsky.”

“He was dragged out to his execution pit. Blindfolded. With the other Russian dipshits in his little literary circle. And the guns were raised. And just before “FIRE!” the message came that saved their lives. And then he went and wrote the greatest novels of all time.”

“Alright.”

“I’m saying. Are you the possum, or are you the great Russian novelist?”

John looked down at the opossum. It wasn’t smiling. That was clear. You could see that from here. No stooping required.

“You woke yet, John?”

John shivered. That’s when his house exploded in flames.

 

The people have the power

This was found on a napkin in the hospital cafeteria where John had the maggots applied to his stab wound:

If corporations are people, I want one to bend me over the waiting room table so that the last thing I see before being thrusted into oblivion is the smiling face of Carrie Underwood on an out of date issue of People.

Found, and shared. And shared again. And shared some more, until Gladys found her phone ringing the following Friday.

“Hello?”

“Is this Mrs. Lake?”

“I think so.”

“I’ve got Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for you.”

A click.

“Mrs. Lake?”

“I think so.”

“I’m sure glad to have found you. I have someone who’d like to meet you.”

The doorbell rang. “Just a second,” she said to Rex, and opened the door. It was a jumbo drone, on her front lawn.

“There’s whiskey in the cooler,” Rex said over the phone. “And Sprite, if you’re into that.”

The drone took Gladys to an underground bunker just below Mar-a-Lago. Rex Tillerson wiped his hand on his jacket before shaking hers.

“Can I have your promise that you won’t say anything about what I’m about to show you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Good. Otherwise, we’ll kill you.”

“Promise?”

He laughed. Then he pulled his steely silver hair off of his head, and turned around.

Where the back of his head should be, there was another face. Or the contours of one, pushing through his fleshy bulb. They weren’t unattractive contours, really. The nose was a bit too aquiline, but Gladys didn’t know what aquiline meant, so that was alright.

“Hello, Gladys,” said the contours. “My name is Exxon.”

His full name was ExxonMobil, but he said that made him sound too much like his father. Gladys chuckled. Exxon was cute.

They talked for about two hours while Rex signed some papers and fired up the samovar. Exxon mostly wanted to know what it means to be human.

“You go to the grocery store a lot,” Gladys said. “Sometimes twice in one day.”

“Because you forgot something?”

“Sure. Or maybe you just want to look at the magazines.” She paused. “I may not be the best person to give you advice on this.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure I’m human.”

“What else could you be?”

“I guess I’m not sure I like being human.”

“It’s no picnic pushing yourself through the amniotic sac of a CEO’s backhead, let me tell you.”

“I hear that. I bet some books have nice lives. Old books in old libraries. Or new books in new libraries. I might like to be torn apart by a preschooler.”

That relit the bulb in Rex’s bulb and he turned around, putting his hair back in place.

“He can’t hear us now,” Rex said. “So you can be candid. Was that true, what you wrote about the waiting room table?”

“I’m not sure emotions can be classified as true. But I wrote it, yes.”

“Well he’s clearly not ready for that yet. But we think if you were to…offer him some kind of gesture…he might get stronger.”

Rex turned around and popped his hair off.

“What were you two talking about?” Exxon had the most innocent ways.

By way of answer, Gladys pecked Exxon on his contour cheek.

The next thing she knew, she was waking up in her own bed. Clothes untouched. A note next to her pillow:

He’s almost ready for you. Sorry we had to wipe part of your memory, but if we let just anyone know the secrets of how corporations become people, then we might have to start treating people as people too.

Sexy Rexy

Gladys went downstairs, where John and Saint Vincent were having breakfast.

“You don’t like eggs,” she said to John.

“You think Nazis liked getting punched in the mouth?” Saint Vincent asked.

“No.”

“No. But they’re still here, aren’t they?”

“I’m just going to have bran flakes.”

“That’s fine. We’re on our way out anyway.”

“Where are you going?”

“First day of school.”

“You’re going to school?” Gladys said to her husband.

“Now, now: he can’t tell you anything about it,” Saint Vincent replied. John’s mouth was full of eggs, and so were his eyes.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a private school.”

Cava brut

Gladys and the hygienist sat down for chat. Gladys chainsmoked candy cigarettes through the whole thing. The hygienist thought about a burrito from time to time, but neither ate nor drank.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you here tonight.”

“I imagine it has to do with my showing up to your house with your husband.”

Gladys ashed her candy. “You were kind. Right?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You must have been kind to John. Whenever someone is kind to John, he has one of two impulses. He either wants to kill himself, because he knows he is not kind. This happened recently when he was waiting at a red light and a man in front of him leaned out of his window and gestured to John, for a fair amount of time, because John can sink into himself like a snail, to turn his headlights on. Like this.”

Gladys twisted her fingers like you do.

“And John figured it out, eventually, the semaphore, and turned his lights on. And the guy waved at him happily. And the light turned green.”

Gladys took a drag.

“You know what John told me?”

Of course she didn’t.

“He said, ‘If it had been me, I would have just seen the guy behind me and thought, look at this asshole without his lights on.’ He might also have wondered if the person was an undercover cop, because John worries about that kind of thing. He feels very guilty, and that’s understandable.”

She paused.

“What’s the other impulse?”

“If you’re an attractive woman, or close enough to it, he assumes that your being kind to him means you must be in love with him. It doesn’t matter if you just met. In fact it doesn’t matter if you never meet.”

“You can’t be kind to someone you never meet.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course you can. What did you tell him about his gums?”

“His gums?”

“Did you say anything about them? Or did you just hover over his open mouth with an air of disdain? He can feel that. We all can.”

“I think I said they looked fine.”

“There you have it. He had gingivitis once. It wrecked him. Always caring too much what other people think, but that’s his godfather’s influence.”

“I don’t care what other people think,” Saint Vincent said at that very moment, to John, sitting across from him in the dining room. “They say groundhog is too gamey to make a fine meal. I say tell that to my mouth.”

Saint Vincent deposited a steaming groundhog flank onto John’s plate. He flicked the skin off his very sharp knife. “You’ll want that part too. Happy Groundhog Day, Johnny.”

“Couldn’t you, feel, what this, hog, went through, when you…well…”

“Killed it?”

“Yes.”

“Sure. Like I said, I can feel everything I see. That started when I was a kid. Used to go to the movies, well, back then it only cost thirty dollars, so you could go more often.”

“Sure.”

“And I wanted to be in the movies. I don’t mean an actor. I mean in them. So one time I went, I saw the same movie three hundred and forty-nine times.”

“What movie?”

Norma Rae. Sally Field as this factory worker, cute as a button. Anyway the choice of movie was kind of arbitrary. The guy who owned the theater in my town kept it running for years because he, well, took pleasure in it. If you know what I mean. Every night. Reel three.”

“What happens in reel three?”

“Oh, nothing blue, nothing like that. She learns about collective bargaining, is all. Some people have different pleasures than you do or I do. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Well, it happened. All of a sudden, after I watched it enough and knew it enough, it all started to happen to me. I mean I felt it as it happened. I lived that movie. I was Norma Rae. I was the factory owner, too. I was the whole thing. And then it was just a matter of time before that picked up in every aspect of my life. And that was a good thing. Made me tough.”

He removed a piece of buckshot from his mouth, without breaking his chew.

“Are you tough, John?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so. I saw you step out of that car and I knew it. That’s why I think this is gonna be good for you, that I’m stuck here now that my kids are all dead. That which does not kill you makes you stronger. And the more ‘that’s you have, the stronger you get. So a man who is constantly empathizing is constantly exercising. You see?”

“Sure.”

It was then that Saint Vincent stabbed John through the hand with his knife. Effectively pinning him to the dining table.

“I’m not sure you do. But you will.”

The scream hadn’t happened yet.

“No cavities?”

“Sorry?”

“John has no cavities? That’s what you told him?”

Burrito. “That’s correct.”

Gladys eyed her. She ate her next cigarette whole.

“Did he make you sign a certificate that says as much?”

“Yes. I could see it meant a lot to him.”

“Yes. He put it on the refrigerator just after he brought you into our home. It’s a lie. Right?”

“Well…technically it’s true. John does not have any cavities. Because a cavity is not something you can have, really. I mean, if you have something, you can give it away. Like love. But a cavity cannot be given away, so you don’t really have it. It just is. Inside you. Him. Inside John. There is a cavity. Yes. I mean beyond the regular ones, like his mouth or ear canals.”

“I knew it.”

“And it will grow. Until it has him. And he has nothing. Unless…”

“The Lorax ending.”

“Unless he finds something to fill it.”

“Yes.”

“Or someone.”

“Or someone.”

That’s when the scream happened.

Saint Vincent poked his head in. “Dolls,” he said, picking his teeth, “we’re going to need an ambulance.”

Back

John was sitting in the dentist’s chair. He called it that in his mind, even though he was the one sitting in it, and the dentist sat in another chair; a stool, really.

In the dental cavern next to him, a woman was having her teeth cleaned. Or John assumed that was what she was doing; he couldn’t see her, but he could hear her. She was the kind of woman you hope has holiday-themed earrings, even for Flag Day. Her hygienist, from what he could hear, was a hygienist.

Q: “Would you like us to send you a text reminder for your next visit?”

A: “You can send it. But I won’t get it. I don’t text. I wish it had never been invented.”

<                 >

A: “Texting is a vice. My vices are Coke, Dr. Pepper, and chocolate, leave me alone!”

<                 >

Q: “Okay, we’ll email you.”

John had not had such a memorable interaction with his hygienist, although they had gotten close when she asked him if he had done anything big over the holidays.

“No.”

“New Year’s?”

“Some friends over,” he lied.

“That’s so much better than schlepping around, isn’t it? Having people over. I schlepped around.” She giggled. “That sounds funny, doesn’t it? I schlepped around. Ever schlepped around?”

“Only in college.”

But now it was raining and he just looked at the window, waiting for the dentist to roll in. John hadn’t been to the dentist in years. “No insurance,” he always planned on telling them if they asked. They never asked. It was a lie anyway.

It was raining and the wind was blowing hard, the trees were waving like some kind of old cartoon, where the trees wave. You have to have seen the one John has seen to know what it meant to him.

Three days ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated President. Gladys, John’s wife, had voted for him. John understood, without her telling him, that this was because she wanted to be killed. She didn’t want the world to end: that had already happened, and she was still here. She didn’t want to move to Canada: she had already gone to the moon, with John, which is like the ultimate Canada, and she was still here. You’re here on the moon like you’re here anywhere else, and you don’t get as many channels, so they came back. She didn’t want to kill herself: John had done that, and he was still here. So she wanted to be killed. So she voted accordingly.

John didn’t vote. In order to cancel her vote, he planned on telling her if she asked. She never asked.

The reason she wanted to be killed is because their son Albert had died some time ago, and in the intervening days and weeks and eras neither of them had come up with a really good reason for life. Not for living, but for life. It wasn’t because they fell to pieces remembering bouncy chairs and ultrasounds. It was because something, the thing that kept their interest in the world, had fractured like a milkless collar bone, split, a hair, and would not fuse back together.

So he went to the dentist. To cancel your vote, he planned on telling her if she asked.

“John your teeth could live to be a hundred and twelve,” his dentist told him. “Golf much?”

“Only in college.”

The hygienist laughed like John had just cracked a joke in church. She had a little gray around the temples and it was unclear if she was alone.

John was driving the dental hygienist back to his house a few minutes later, after he paid for his cleaning and the receptionist handed him a cookie and he said, “What are you trying to do, KILL ME?”

<                 >

“We’ll text you.”

On the drive with the hygienist he said, “Do you like Laurie Anderson?”

She said, “Was she Aunt Jackie on Roseanne?”

No.

John had liked Laurie Anderson in college. “She was married to Lou Reed,” he said. “Or they were partners, or whatever it is free people do. People who aren’t, I mean…people who live in New York. And maybe you read, you know, Lou Reed, he died, I think she was holding his head in her lap, and they were chanting Buddhist mantras. I think that’s what I read. And it was just this wonderful thing. I mean to read about. A real nice death. Maybe the best. The best of all possible deaths.”

The hygienist drank some of her Dr. Pepper.

“I just worry, sometimes, that I won’t live up to that. Which is dumb. Like, Lou Reed didn’t bequeath his death to me, to continue and passing on, like some wedding suit.”

He turned onto the driveway.

“But still sometimes I can’t help thinking, when I’m lying in my twin bed at night: maybe he did?”

They looked at each other. Gladys tapped on the driver window. John rolled it down.

“Your godfather’s here.”

“My godfather?”

“John, please don’t make me confirm what you’ve clearly heard.”

“I have a godfather?”

“Hi, John!”

A man in a flecked gray overcoat extended a gloved hand to John. “You may not remember me. My name is Saint Vincent. That’s Saint spelled out, you see, like a name. Anyway I’m your godfather. My children died last week. Sorry: not together. The last of them died. Manny. Cancer. Stomach. So you have to take care of me now.”

Then he burped. “Sorry. Carbonation makes me gassy. I mean just seeing other people imbibe it. I have a very thin skin. What I see you do, I feel.”

John looked at Gladys. “Is that how it works?”

“You mean godfathers or carbonation?”

“Godfathers.”

“I think so,” she said.

U is for Ultra

When John awoke to look into the eyes of Hitler, and Pol Pot next to him, he had two thoughts:

1. Dead.

2. I was a worse person than I thought.

The first was not true. The second, maybe.

“He’s back,” said Hitler, who had come to prefer English a long time ago. Pol Pot went back to his crossword puzzle.

It was Sara, the Jessica Chastain lookalike who sometimes pals with Linda Hunt and kills terrorists, who had taken John down from his improvised hanging. John had in fact died, no one’s cheating on that, but Sara had brought him back to life. And now she pushed the former dictators out of the way to break the news that he was alive.

“How?” was John’s third question, directly after “Is that Hitler?” (Yes) and “Is that peanut butter?” (Yes). He meant the smell of her breath.

Sara blushed. “I got some of those orange crackers while I was waiting for you, but I made the boys keep watch so you wouldn’t be alone.”

“No, no, I meant–wait, what are you doing?”

“I have to hold your hands for a while. To readjust you back into the land of living. That sounds a little hokey, but, if the shoe fits…”

“You’re being shifty.”

“I am not.”

“Listen, I’ve been dead, I know what I’m talking about.”

“Okay, I’ve heard the whole ‘I’m dead and I’m wise’ act about a thousand times, so you can just check that little piece of designer luggage it won’t fit in the overhead.”

They held hands and looked into each other’s eyes for a moment. Sara looked away first. “So, what do you want for your first meal? All we have is orange crackers.”

“How am I alive?”

“Oh you know, mouth to mouth, a little spit and a polish.”

“Sara,” said Pol Pot, in that infuriating superior tone he had sometimes. Sara looked at Hitler, but Hitler was not making his view on the matter known.

“Okay look!” She held up a vial. “This is water from the Flood. This is aqua vitae. Literally. This stuff, it’s God’s mistake, you know? I mean, he never used the m-word, but he’s a man, so…at least he was back then. I’m getting off the point. God promised to never do it again, and this is the artifact of that. Somehow, when God changed his mind, the water changed its purpose. It became life-giving instead of ending. Noah found out about it after his wife tried to drown herself–that’s not in the book, of course, and I think she was just being dramatic, but she went full out Virginia Woolf on him on day forty-one when they all stepped onto dry land and she found out he had forgotten to pack the dodos. They were her favorite. But she just couldn’t stay underwater, even with pocket rocks, she kept bobbing back up. The whole thing just made her feel very well-rested. Cracker?”

She had big nervous eyes like a bush baby.

“Sara, what’s wrong?”

“Two things. First, Noah saved some of that water before it reentered the rain cycle and lost its power. He saved boatloads of it. He didn’t tell God, even though God already knows. It’s like an open secret between the two of them, like a parent who knows his teen is fingerbanging in the basement but never brings it up. I don’t understand it. I understand fingerbanging, that’s not what I meant. Although I’m not sure I agree with it. The point is, Noah’s been using this stuff for thousands of years to bring certain people back to life. Sorry people. Or, people who he thinks might be taught to be sorry.”

Hitler pointed to Pol Pot. “Eat me,” said the latter.

“Boys, please. Noah brings certain people back so that one day he can reveal them all and, um, prove that, I don’t know, nobody is unredeemable and so we should all get along. Boy my heart is just not in the elevator speech right now but you should hear the man explain it at a fundraiser. Pin drop stuff, really.”

“Wow. Huh. So Noah brought me back to life. Is it because I’m as bad as Hitler?”

Hitler ignored that. He was used to it.

“Not exactly. Well, you might be on the inside, I don’t know.”

“But he clearly thought I was important enough in some way for resurrection.”

“No he didn’t.”

“Nine letters: to throw out of order.”

“Distemper.” Sara pushed some hair behind her ear. “I did.”

Eye contact. She looked away. “That’s the second wrong thing. Noah doesn’t know. You went off his radar when you failed his test. He thinks you don’t really know what it means to be sorry.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s why I think we need you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorry sorry sorry. That’s not what’s going to get us out of this mess.”

Thunder rumbled on cue.

“And that’s not regular rain,” she said. “Come on.”

She took John to Sorry Hall, where the many miscreants of history shuffled around, playing checkers or just waiting for dinner. It was a little bit like the part at the end of Titanic where dead Rose goes back onboard and all the dead passengers are dressed real nice to see her and dead Leo offers his dead hand to dead her, but it was much creepier because of the rampant sadism.

“That’s Osama bin Laden.”

“Yes.”

“I thought you killed him.”

“I did.”

“Why would you kill him in order to bring him back?”

“We killed him to teach him a lesson. It’s like why adulterers get stoned, so they won’t do it again. I grant you it’s a little Old Testament, but that’s Noah. We’re trying to bring him into the twenty-first century but it’s a process. He has started to DVR Modern Family though and he finds it compelling, at least the first two seasons. Speaking of I’m going to go find him. I can’t keep you hidden forever and I think you can really help me get through to him. The whole thing’s gotten out of control. They’re serving chicken fingers in a few minutes.” She was gone.

John surveyed the dirty dozens, and chose to wait in a corner where a man and a woman sat with their guitars.

JG2 44

“Not sure I would come over here, brother. We’re a couple of drunks and I’ve heard it’s catching.”

“That’s cool: I’m a problem drinker. I think maybe it’s a newish term, so I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. Mostly it means if I could take the amount of time and energy I spend wondering about whether I’m going to drink on any particular night, and then how much I’m going to drink, and then how much I’m going to beat myself up about how much I decided to drink, and then channel that into something productive, I would be making a lot more money. And I’d be thinner. My name’s John Lake. I didn’t kill anyone or anything, but I’m here.” He stuck out his hand.

“I’m Gerry Rafferty.”

“Sandy Denny.”

They passed a flask.

“So um, what are you two in for?”

Sandy and Gerry looked at each other.

“Music.”

They shared a little laugh.

“Music? What’s so bad about that?”

“Nothing, brother. Music’s not why we’re sorry. It’s why he brought us back. He’s hoping we might turn sorry, but…”

They laughed again. Passed the flask.

John looked around the room. Jeffrey Dahmer was watching Jeopardy with the sound turned off. “How exactly does Noah go about getting people to…you know…repent?”

“He sits with.”

“…With what?”

“With you. With ‘it.’ With time, I guess. He sits with. Sometimes he lies with. Not in the Biblical sense, but next to. Sometimes he stands with. Mostly it’s with. Mostly it’s silent.”

“I see.”

For reasons passing his understanding John was thrown into the memories of the brief period during which he had been obliged by his nut-shrinking company’s pro bono policy to be the coach of the fifth grade baseball team they sponsored. The lads were known as the Swinging Nuts, and they lost a lot. Like always.

So John would sit with them at Cici’s. They ate their cardboard with cheese in relative silence. The boys didn’t care about losing but they sensed that John did, so they were quiet for his sake. And he did care. He sat with the loss they didn’t feel, and it sat like slick liver in his gut. As did the pizza.

A series of letters to the editor ended John’s tenure. They were ghostwritten by one Braxton Hinchcliff, a colleague who was tired of his pro bono work running the American Legion bingo game and wanted John’s more presumably plum gig. The letters mused openly whether it wouldn’t be quite the coup if the terrorists could infiltrate the ranks of our little league coaches in the hopes of releasing America’s stranglehold on baseball mastery and so ending our freedoms. The ensuing uproar prompted an investigation. Authorities gained access to John’s computer and found he had Googled

How to coach baseball

How to coach young people baseball

and the nail in the coffin

How to play baseball

It was generally agreed upon that John was not a terrorist, but was probably a moron, athletically speaking at the very least. Still it had been a worthwhile experience for him, as it brought the realization that each sports contest, or at least each season, is a complete emotional life in miniature. The elation and anxiety and rage and despair were a full workout and each was necessary in its own way. The necessity in losing was not because it made victories taste sweeter, but because it made you feel bad, because it kicked the shit out of you, and that in itself was good.

He told that to the boys on their final trip to Cici’s together, when everyone knew the end had come and nobody ate the cinnamon pizza because it didn’t feel right. But the Swingers didn’t understand. He knew that was part of it too.

The other time John really sat with was at the Gulf County Health Department. He was in town for a beach vacation and went one morning to get tested for STDs. There was a kid in the waiting room screaming about some shot he’d just had, and this fat Florida woman without all of her teeth cackled and said, “The pains of life is just started for him!” It was a line she was so pleased with that she repeated it to anyone who would give her the time of day and a few who wouldn’t. The doctor told John he could find out if he had AIDS in two weeks, but he’d have to come get the results in person. John said he would be gone after two more days. The doctor said, “Why did you come here, and not where you live?” And John said, “It just felt like it was time.” The doctor stuck in the needle. John still doesn’t know if he has AIDS. But he knows you can’t go through life feeling you are better than people who go to malls.

Well you could, but you’d never make it through Gulf County Public Health, and sooner or later we all stop there.

“He’s really in it,” Gerry told Sandy. They laughed and had a drink. The rain pounded and the wind wounded.

“Sorry,” said John, and shook the space-out from behind his eyes.

“S’alright. More important than talking to us. Whatever’s written in your heart, brother. You’ll say it someday.” Gerry laughed. “It’s writing that song got me on Noah’s list. Made him think given a second chance I might repair the mess I made of things. Or Sandy here, might make it down the stairs without falling. And I still believe it. The song. I do. It’s just that, comes a time in your life, it’s harder to change what’s written in your heart than it used to be. Maybe impossible.” He took a long drink.

Sandy looked longingly at the flask, then turned to John. “Worried?”

John thought about it.

“Yes.”

“You don’t have to be. No one needs to sit with you to see it. It’s in your blood, love, it runs through you like water. Yeah.” She nodded, plucked the guitar. “It carries you, though you can’t tell if it’s taking you to joy or sorrow. That’s the nature of this particular donkey ride. But what you have to figure out, John Lake, or maybe what you get to decide, is whether, in the face of that uncertainty, the love in you is an ocean or only a stream.”

She patted his face sadly, then looked out the window at the flood. “Someone’s drowning out there,” she said, but looking in John’s eyes. “This donkey only goes one way you know, Pancho. No matter what the man says.” She sighed, and looked down at her dress. “Not to worry though. The whole thing will be dry by tomorrow. You’ll see.”

At that point the roof crashed in and killed her instantly. Gerry too. John narrowly avoided a crushed skull and was carried away by the cascading water, two minutes before chicken fingers.

He sped out a shattered window into the maelstrom where, luckily, an ark was afloat. It was the right number of cubits and everything.

“JOHN!” Sara threw a knotted rope over the side, like in gym class.

“I’m an athletic moron!” John said. “I’ll never make it!”

Sara couldn’t understand the words but figured the tone. “LISTEN MISTER. DON’T YOU THINK IT’S TIME YOU SAVED YOUR OWN LIFE?”

What Mrs. Noah didn’t know, despite how her husband tried to tell her, was that the dodos, along with the moitles and the jabols and the yellow kneffers, simply chose not to get on the boat when the time came. They had their reasons, and their reasons weren’t the same, and their reasons would be hard to translate across species.

JG2 45

The truth is sometimes you get on the ark and sometimes you don’t.

This time John did.

S T is for Straight Talk

It was raining in Ubania too, though Gladys couldn’t tell, imprisoned as she was in an underground cave. She was in the UTI, the Ubanian Terror Institute, in the capital city of Through. She could see no things, and hear two things. One was a slow dripping carefully designed to drive her insane. The other was the snoring of her cavemate. In the sixth hour of this sonic pairing, she began to personify the sounds, believing that they were speaking to each other, fighting with each other, reconciling with each other. In the fifteenth hour, they had blended and become one sound. In the thirty-second hour, she could no longer hear that sound.

Who sleeps for thirty-two hours? she wondered, and said “Wake up!” but of course it fell on deaf ears because if you can’t hear yourself no one else can hear you, and if you hear no one else you can’t hear yourself, and that’s just true and we all know it.

Gladys was alone so long she no longer remembered what it was to be with. Parts of her sealed over again, wax on an envelope. But it was an aloneness without shame, since there was no one to see it, or at least since she was allowed to believe that she was the only one left, the only one ever, and the only task in life, in the life of the universe, had something to do with her mind. That if she had the right thought, an egg would crack open, and out of it would come a beautiful white bird-horse which she would ride right into the yellow yolk of the sun which would burn around her and through her and as her forever.

She tried to have the thought. She thought, “Peace.” But that wasn’t it. She thought, “Love.” She thought of John and wished him well, wished him even a better life than her own. She thought of Albert, the child born to die growing within her. But she knew she was doing it wrong. It was too expected to wish for the ones you love, even if you also hate them. So she tried to imagine someone she did not love, but it was impossible, because as soon as she imagined them, she loved them. Then she thought maybe it was not people, but animals. Then, maybe a desk. To love a desk. A cluttered desk. A clean desk. She began to cry, thinking about a desk, the very word poked around her entrails, doing something to her.

Desk.

The smoothness of the word and its form made her think next of lake. John was a lake, and she was a lake, because he had made her one. Can you love a lake? Beyond wanting the lake to be pristine, beyond tree-hugging. Can you love a lake? How do you hold a lake’s hand?

She thought of the joke John liked. Two men looking at a lake: “That’s a lot of water.” “Yeah, and that’s just the top of it!”

To love the top of the thing was simple, if for nothing else than the reflection. To love perhaps even the bottom, the way the mud shocked your toes, posed no threat. But to love the whole inner body of the body of water, huge and invisible until you submerge in it; to love the part that could kill you, without a chance of it loving you back; to love never being able to hold the entirety of it at once; to love a thing without color or sound, only the taste if you let it in, different from drinking, and realize, this is not me, this is not of me, this is not the same as me, this will never be me, this was here first, this is here after, this is hereafter–

Unless the lake dries up.

In school Gladys was taught, as we all were, of the legendary Lake Bifrost, which the residents of Fingerbone, Wisconsin were surprised to find one morning had vanished from the outskirts of their town. The case remained open for exactly fifty-three hours, at which point Moreland Buxbee, a distant cousin of Fingerbonian Gertrude Fishkill, called (collect, as usual) from Yellowhair, New Hampshire, to relay the news that a lake had opened up there some two days prior. Out of the blue, as they say.

Being tied up at the mill as Moreland was you know he had only that morning had a chance to visit the wonder, and as he breathed in the newly brackish air, he detected, on the breeze, a soft lavender soap smell which evoked cousin Gert, and especially the summer walk they had taken during a family reunion some decades gone now, when Gert had pertly allowed herself to be kissed. Alas, that had not been meant to be. Though it was pretty to think so.

Only three residents of Fingerbone made the trek to Yellowhair to pay their last respects to the departed lake. Gertrude Fishkill was not in their number, which included

1. Sir Robert Brownhaven (the title was self-bestowed, but not begrudged by the town, which was grateful for his general gallantry while delivering mail),

2. Edie Wishington, for whom this was the first and last time she set foot outside of the ten mile radius God had thought to born her in, and

3. Edgar Lee Husbands, the young poet who went to the lake solely to drown in it, and who among historians is widely regarded to be the only one who truly loved it for what it was.

It was the same lake, Gladys thought, no matter where it opened. Which meant really a lake was no different from any other lake, connected as they were under the earth, and that further there was no difference to the rivers and the brooks and the seas and oceans, the same water, if we could only scrape back the asphalt and dirt and seagull shit that keeps them locked in their manmade borders.

It seemed to her now, as she conjured the face of Edgar Lee before her, seen so many times in her seventh grade history book, that the trick of existence was not a thought at all, but a way of seeing, of perceiving the single lake which is the lake of all things.

JG2

There was a sudden explosion, high above, which shook the cave like giant’s steps. And then, fire.

It was a torch.

“Gladys?” The accent betrayed Jean before the light did. He looked and sounded frazzled, a decidedly un-French condition.

“What was that?”

“In order for me to answer that, there is much you must know. Listen close; there is not much time. Gladys, you are a thinking person. Did you not ever wonder why you never heard that Ubania was the cradle of civilization until I told you it was?”

“Well I haven’t heard a lot of things. Like why Holland and the Netherlands are two names for the same place.”

“That is a complicated issue.”

“So it isn’t true, about Ubania?”

“Oh it’s true. Absolument. They found cave paintings here, right where you stand, nearly twice as old as any others on record. But all of the evidence of this place being the genesis of humanity was deliberately destroyed by an international panel of scientists.”

“Why?”

“Because of what they found here. Voila.” He illuminated a cave painting with his torch. Throughout the story he told, he showed her more and more paintings which depicted the tale.

“In the beginning the Ubanians were as confused as the rest of us as to where they had come from and why they were here. They tried diving deeper and deeper into the water, to see if perhaps they could get in touch with what had made them. Meanwhile on land they lived a peaceful and cooperative life, each according to his needs and abilities. Finally one day there was a young champion named Dardareefellavillagepeople, and he was able to dive deeper than anyone before. That’s when he encountered the Giant Squid.

“He knew the squid was an ancient creature that must have many answers, so he wrestled with it to bring it to land. It was a tiresome struggle between two evenly matched foes, but finally Dardareefellavillagepeople brought the Giant Squid to the delta where the river meets the sea.

“‘Now you will answer to me, Giant Squid,’ he said. ‘Where did we come from and why are we here?'”

JG2 43

“And the Squid said, well, something complicated in Ubanian which means fuck me I don’t know! And the hero said, ‘Oh,’ and felt a terrible flatness in his heart. So the squid took pity and said, ‘Look. All I can tell you is this. Man is mortal, which means his days are numbered. It’s going to feel to you like there aren’t enough of them. And so as you age a struggle will emerge among you to try and enjoy those few days as well as you possibly can. This will lead to bloodshed.’

“And the Giant Squid blessed him with a prophetic vision. Dardareefellavillagepeople saw heaps of bodies churned under by the tractor of history. He saw a vast inequality widening like a growing chasm between the haves and havenots. In short, he saw the future, and he was afraid. The Squid returned to the waters and Dardareefellavillagepeople warned his people of everything he had learned.

“They all agreed that this was a serious matter. They debated for many hours until the sun came out, suddenly. It was then that the decision was reached. The people would live on in cooperation and shared success. Everyone would have the same life. To ensure this, the knowledge of the fate of man would be painted onto these walls and told to children as a bedtime story. This way they were scared straight into socialism. Then, once a generation of Ubanians had lived the best parts of life and no longer took real joy in anything, in other words at the age of thirty-eight and a quarter, they would make the trek here, remind themselves of the potential horrible future, and to avoid it, they would simultaneously shoot themselves in the face.”

Jean paused here for effect. Gladys said nothing.

“Unfortunately, one year a man named Gramalkintyaxlrose accidentally survived the gunshot, but damaged the part of his brain that promotes empathy. He emerged from the cave and assumed control of all Ubania. He used force to enslave the majority of the population in back-breaking labor in order to prop up the luxurious lives of his family and friends. He lived to be one hundred and four and passed on all his wealth to his eldest son. The rest, comme on dit, is the history of this sorry species homo sapiens.”

There was another explosion.

“Are they blowing themselves up up there?” Gladys asked.

“No. They have stopped doing that. You stopped them. Through acknowledging the value of the man you fell on and crushed to death, you have inspired them.”

“Oh. Well, good for me I guess.”

“But bad for them. The new slogan which they chant is ‘kawamidinglefootbiggiebiggiebiggie.’ That means, ‘You’re nobody till somebody kills you.’ And so they are killing each other because they believe it is a great act of recognition. At least, they did that for the first day. On the second day, they started to do things worse than killing.”

“What’s worse than killing?”

A third explosion, the loudest, rocked the cave and awakened the snoring cavemate. She made a sound of displeasure. Gladys went to her, but the woman spoke no English. So Jean translated as best he could, though he had never deigned to really learn the Ubanian tongue.

“She is here because of what happened to her,” he explained. “Usually the Ubanian Terror Institute is not used for criminals, but for the criminized, as a dark place to go and sleep and forget about the terrible things.”

“What happened to her?”

Jean asked and the woman spoke. “Ah, she goes too quickly,” he said. “Something something husband. Something something set on fire. Something something soldiers. Something something baby. Something something bayonet.”

“…neerytarayraymichaeljackson,” the woman said, finishing.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“No, Gladys. That is the worst. But that is what Ubanians do when they aren’t suicidal. They find the worst and they force each other into it. They do things to children, and make children do things to their own parents which you cannot fathom. You should not fathom. There is nothing to which they will not stoop. What we are faced with here is a race peering into the heart of its own darkness, and unable to stop themselves falling in. That is why we must act.”

He produced a vial, glowing with some bluish solution.

“In its desire to know the origin of life, the exiled French monarchy sponsored many different projects, one of which mapped the entire human genome. We gave to the public only the official version we wanted you to know. The private genome was much more detailed. Gladys. We found the gay gene.”

“Sorry?”

“The gay gene. The gene that turns you gay. And then we isolated it. And then we turned it into a chemical weapon.” He waved the vial in her face. “All we need to do is introduce this to the water supply and the Ubanians will turn gay and thus die out after a generation. Tabula rasa. We can start again here, a new people, in a real garden of Eden.”

He touched her belly. She gasped.

“I am the heir of the king who was the sun. And you…l’etat c’est toi, cherie. It’s you who understands love and hate and all the difficulties and sufferings therein. It’s you who perceives the lake of all things. It’s you who has within you the capacity to raise a wise and noble race. We can do it. Together.”

“First, I don’t know how you know about the lake because I only now just figured that out, and anyway I can’t see it all the time sometimes it’s too fuzzy or I forget about it completely.  Second, I tend to not trust anyone who wants to build a new race. I guess that’s just me being prejudiced but what can I say.”

Another explosion. Two stalactites fell, one right on top of the cavemate, who smiled and said “Oh thank God” and died.

“We must leave this place.”

Jean and Gladys ran through the cave and crawled through the tunnels and made it out of the Ubanian Terror Institute. The rain extinguished his torch, so he used the gay gene as a lantern. “Come,” he said, “we must go to the river and drop this in.”

“Jean, I want you to know that I only use the word I’m about to use rarely, and carefully. But you are crazy. I have to find the Saints.”

Find them she did, or most of them.

“They ate Grigio,” Bosco told her.

“Somebody ate that scrawny fleabag?” Agatha said.

“Hang on,” she said. “Let’s not rush to judgment. Maybe a coyote or something ate Grigio. I mean how can you know?

“There was a picture of Sissy Spacek on his carcass with a sign that said ‘We ate Grigio.'”

“Okay, well. Assumption confirmed then. Where’s Alex?”

Everyone looked around in that way people look around when they realize someone is missing.

“Give me your flashlight,” Gladys told Jude. He signed his concern to her.

“Yes I can handle whatever’s out there. I’m a mother. Motherhood starts at conception so I’m already one. And that means I have special powers: I can lift a whole car if I need to and I always know where to find lost things. Also I’m pregnant and not in the mood to be fucked around with.”

He gave her the light. She went out into the violence, Jean running after to keep up. But moms on missions have strong powerwalk game.

“Alex?”

But instead she had found Ubanian Lisa, bloodied.

“Lisa! Are you alright?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you hurt?”

“I am not hurt.”

“Oh.”

“This is the blood of my father.”

“Oh God, I’m sorry Lisa, where is he we can–”

“He is dead. He was a dirty Spacek. I killed him.”

“But. What about empathy?”

“I feel empathy. Perfect empathy. You cannot feel it for everyone in the world, for then it will be stretched like a piece of gum that can no longer blow bubbles. I choose to feel it for the victims of the dirty Spaceks. For Saint Alex.”

“You’ve seen Alex?”

“Yes. I felt what they did to her down to my bones and it gave me strength to fight back.”

“Where is she?”

For an answer, Ubanian Lisa kissed Gladys. “Thank you, Gladys. You made this happen.”

She disappeared. Gladys began to run.

“Wait!” Jean cried. “You are not prepared for what you are about to see!”

But she ran far past the power of Jean to stop her, until she tripped and her flashlight went out. Then she heard…it was a barely human sound.

“Alex?”

“Sorry,” the girl managed to get out.

“What? Where are–”

“I made you trip.”

Gladys found her outlines, and cradled Alex in the darkness.

“Oh shit. Oh, Alex, are you–oh Christ.”

“Gladys.”

“What, what happened to you?”

“It’s a little foggy. Something something group of men. Something something broomstick.”

“Broomstick?”

“You can see it if you want. A piece of it broke off and it’s still inside me. I think.”

Nothing but the rain for a moment.

“Gladys?”

Nothing more, then… “Yes?”

“I think I’d like to leave the circus.”

“Sure, baby.”

“Okay. I think I’d like to work in a Sunglass Hut.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I’ve wanted to do that since I was little, but I knew I wasn’t ready. People are different people when they wear sunglasses, just like when they wear hats, chew gum, and get naked. At Sunglass Hut you have to have a good eye for the right different people they ought to be so you can recommend the right sunglasses.”

“Sure.”

“The first time I saw you, I knew I was ready. Because I could see the different person you ought to be.”

“What kind of different person is that?”

Only now did Alex sound scared. “Don’t you know?”

Silence. “Yes, I guess I do.”

“Good. I was afraid I’d seen it wrong.”

“No.”

“I think you should take the hate out of your act. If you don’t come leave the circus with me I mean.”

“I will.”

“Good. I’m a saint now.”

“Yes you are.”

“Can I have some water?”

“I don’t, I’m sorry baby I don’t have any.”

“That’s alright. I’m just going to close my eyes.”

“No don’t go to sleep, Alex, you’ve got to, Alex! Alex!”

The rain.

Jean stood behind her.

Gladys was impossibly still. She spoke without moving.

“Do you have it with you right now?”

“Yes.”

“Do it.”

He did it.

There was a big gay explosion.

R is for Robin

For twenty minutes every other day, John and Paloma Palumbo would lie down on her bed next to each other without quite touching. Sometimes she would scratch his back, although he had to balance the pleasure of this against the distaste he had for reciprocating. It wasn’t the broadness of her back or the smell of her embroidered sweatshirts; mostly it was just the boredom that set in after thirty seconds of being the scratcher not the scratchee.

Because after a while you either have to keep saying, “Over here? There? That good? Yeah? Like that?” or you have to trace out different shapes or patterns with your hands to keep things interesting. With Paloma John usually avoided the former technique for being overly sexual, so he often found himself broadly tracing out the letters of the alphabet on her back, which was in fact the same method behind his cunnilingus technique, learned from some movie or something.

Speaking of cunnilingus, which is Latin for “vulva lick,” in case you were wondering, John was reminded, on this gray day of Thanksgiving, several months into his Paloma sanctuary with the lead in his toes having crept up to his mid-calves, of a time when he was sorry.

“I should have told Noah,” he said to himself, though he spoke it aloud as he no longer heard the distinction anymore, “of the time my freshman year of college when I went over to that girl’s room with my roommate’s VHS copy of Cruel Intentions. And she gave me a really truly great blow job, top three all time top one at the time, and when she crept back up all I could say was, ‘I’d love to return the favor, but I have no idea how to do that.'”

“That sounds less about being sorry and more about being scared, at the time, and embarrassed, now.”

John leapt up from the bed. “You know WHAT Palumbo? I have had it up to HERE with your linguistic DISTINCTIONS!”

The only other one Paloma could think of was the time she’d made John some ziti and he had said thank you for the penne and she had corrected him and he had snapped her plastic fork in half, but by now she was well-versed in his occasional need to reclaim some sense of masculinity and she smiled and said, “Okay,” but he was already out the door, the weight in his legs no obstacle to his current determination.

She looked at the clock. He had shorted her three minutes of back-scratching. Some people just aren’t givers, she thought, and reached around to finish herself off.

It took John six hours to get the VHS and another eight to find himself in front of a strange door. He knocked. It opened. A young woman. John squinted, then held up a picture for comparison. Satisfied, he explained: “I’m John Lake.”

She squinted. “You’re fatter in the face than you used to be.”

“Yeah, yep, thank you. Anyway. Eight years ago you gave me a blow job – ”

“Top three all time,” she said.

“How did you know that? I mean, most of them hadn’t happened yet.”

“I could feel it.”

“Okay, well. Yes.” He cleared his throat. “So, as you also know, I never, well, you know what I never did.”

“Uh huh.”

He held up the VHS. “So I thought we could fix this real quick.”

“Is this some sort of My Name is Earl thing?”

“I don’t know what that means. I can assure you I’ve done this like three or four times now so I have a much better sense of it and am a little less afraid of it, but if you want give instructions, or call me Earl, that’s cool.”

“Honey? Who is it?” A man called from behind.

“John Lake,” she called back.

The man came to the door. Wedding rings. “You’re John Lake,” he said.

“Hi.”

“My wife gave you a top three all time and you never paid her back.”

“How nice we all know the story.”

“You’ve sure made it hell on us mister, these last eight years.”

“…Really?”

“Oh sure. It’s like her ability to trust men with erections was the city of Atlanta, and you were General Sherman.”

“Luckily he stepped in with his johnson, who we named President Johnson.”

“Because it led the delicate and sometimes racially divisive process of Reconstruction.”

JG2 39

“And now I have a huge airport and CNN and great tax incentives but what price glory, John? What price glory?”

“I have no answer to that.”

A pause.

She shifted. “You know what they started calling me, in college, thanks to you?”

John figured this was rhetorical, and waited.

“The Giving Tree.”

Pause.

“They, they called you The Giving Tree?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.” John nodded, made little lip-pursing movements of empathy.

“But it’s okay,” her husband said. “Because I’m the old man who sits on her stump.”

Pause.

“You know, like in the book. The old man comes and sits on the stump because he’s tired, John. He’s tired of dicks.”

“Yes. Well. This has been very enlightening for me.”

“Look, he’s doing it again.”

“Taking what he needs from us and leaving.”

“No no, no. I…offer’s still good here, but uh…even if that doesn’t…tickle your, you know. I guess I want to say, obviously…I’m sorry.”

Thunder, ominous, but in the distance. Finally, she spoke. “We don’t have a VHS player.”

“That’s okay,” her husband said. “I know it by heart.”

Cut to John leadenly walk home, sucking on Altoids. “It is finished,” he said aloud, surprising himself. He looked up at the clouds. He felt lighter with that sorriness gone from him. He looked at his house. It seemed flat and two-dimensional to him. So did the trees, like they were cut out of black paper for some shadow puppetry. So did his hands. He began to wonder, too late, if it was being sorry which kept him alive. This made him particularly susceptible to what was about to happen.

First he saw the can of trash perched on top of his car. Again.

“Seriously?! COME ON!”

He knocked on the door of the steely-haired man who had done this before.

The door opened, and a hand grabbed John by his collar, jerked him inside.

“What?”

The door closed. Darkness, but John could see himself in the man’s wide wild eyes.

“Shh,” he said. “The ceremony’s starting.”

Some chanting began.

“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”
“Cause you know I know baby. I don’t wanna go.”

The wild man spoke. “From the seventeenth chapter of the book of Genesis, as written by Saint Phil of Collins. Throwing it all away, children. Throwing it all Away.”

Flashlights turned on. John saw that everyone was wearing clothes made out of trash. Elaborate headdresses with shoebox bases, pants made out of pizza boxes. And they each had a garbage bag with them.

“Communion,” the man said. Each person blindly put a hand in their bag and pulled something out. Whatever it was, they ate it.

“Don’t eat that,” John said to a man chewing a K-cup.

“He must, John. He must. It is how we remind ourselves of our connection to the great Away.”

“Uh huh.”

The wild man put a plastic bag over John’s head.

“What are you doing?!”

“You are still full of confusion, my son. We must sweat the false thoughts out of you.”

He held the bag over John’s head and others held John’s arms down until he became light-headed. As things went black, he saw Gladys, holding a baby.

The wild man removed the bag. John sucked air.

“John Lake. Ask yourself something. Where is Away?”

“What?”

“When you throw something Away, where does it go?”

John looked at the other trash people. They looked back at him expectantly.

“The trash.”

“And where does the trash go?”

“The…trash place. The landfill?”

This brought excited whispers. “The son, the son, the son.”

The wild man slapped a tattered piece of paper into John’s hand. “The son,” he said. “Freshkills. Formerly the largest landfill on the planet. Now, they’re making it a park.”

The paper was a pamphlet on the new park. Which is real PS.

“But the son will rise!”

“We have faith, John, that someday the trash will come back, the son will rise up out of the earth, the body triumphant, to join the other members of the trinity, the Father – ”

Here he gave John another piece of paper, with information about all the trash floating around in space. Also real.

“And the Spirit.”

A third piece, about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

JG2 40
(Real.)

“This trash is eaten by birds and fish, and birds and fish is eaten by us. The Spirit is already inside us, John. It is inside you. It is strong in you. You have thrown Away so much already. This is why I have given you the mark, three times, with the trash. Now you are prepared to answer.”

Two trash people began walking ceremoniously toward John, carefully holding something in their outstretched hands. The wild man took this thing from them, and wrapped it around John’s neck.

“This is an infinity scarf, John.”

“World without end,” the others whispered.

“I found it one day, in some trash. In a way, I found it in Away. It was a sign. You see, John, the infinity scarf has no end.”

The wild man fiddled with the scarf. “I still have no fucking idea how they made this thing.”

He snapped back to prophet mode. “This was the burning bush. No end. Just as trash has no end. And if trash has no end, nothing has no end. It goes Away, and Away is never nowhere. To you it may be out of sight, but to the poor people getting asthma from living next to your waste, or the poor people breaking their backs picking through your trash for rags and scraps, it’s as present as can be. Away, John, is always somewhere.”

He wrapped the scarf tighter around John’s neck.

“You are the one. Lead us out of our fear that this is all there is. Find life everlasting. Reduce, reuse, recycle yourself. Throw it all Away, John. Lives are thrown away every day what does it matter? She went Away, didn’t she? Maybe you’ll meet her again there.”

The others chanted, “Throw it Away, throw it Away” over and over as the Wild Man pushed John back through the house and out the door. Which he then slammed, leaving John in the cold, with the scarf.

Suddenly the door opened again. “Wait,” said the wild man. “Have you already apologized for the top three blowjob?”

“Yes.”

“Okay just making sure. You don’t want that on your soul in case God is real and he judges you and sends you to hell. Thumbs up, Ace. Now go Away.”

Door slammed.

Back at the house, John could smell Paloma upstairs making her microwaveable Thanksgiving. The whole thing came in a box, including relatives.

“John is that you?” she called through the floor. “Uncle Albert’s asking for you.”

“Fuck Uncle Albert,” John muttered.

“What was that John??”

“I said, tell him SORRY! Sorry if I caused him any PAIN!”

He listened. Uncle Albert didn’t say a word. Which was so like him. John went to the fridge where he had a piece of pie he’d gotten from the diner special for today.

“Dessert first and last. No one can stop me.”

He ate the pie, remembering what it was like to eat one of his grandmother’s pies. “Johnny,” she called him, “likes my pies.”

In point of fact, he didn’t. But he ate the pies, one time two in a single weekend, because she made them for him.

“I’ve eaten a lot of things I didn’t want to eat,” he said aloud. He used to have to stay at the dinner table for endless stretches, cold food in front of him. But that was so far Away it seemed like a movie.

John walked to his closet. He opened the door. He pulled open the little folded step stool. Stood on it. Slipped one end of the infinity scarf over the hook at the top of the door. Then he kicked the stool away.

This time things didn’t go black. They went white. And a man stepped out of that whiteness.

“Hello,” he said, very calmly.

“Robin Williams!”

The man cocked his head. “Yes.” He smiled. “That is what they used to call me.” He started to float.

“Are you leading me Away?”

“No. I’m a figment of your oxygen-deprived brain, John. It’ll all be over in two shakes. Unless you think about why your brain might have summoned me, of all possible figments, in this your last moment of existence.”

Robin slowly began to fly, all over the house. “Look, John! I can fly! I forgot I could do that.”

John spoke weakly. “You remembered to fly when you remembered how to never grow up.”

Robin was backstroking through the air. “That’s right. I remember that. Do you remember how I did it, John?”

It came out in a whisper. “Happy…thought.” John’s eyes closed.

“But what was it? What was my happy thought?”

John’s eyes opened. He remembered Robin’s happy thought. Robin looked in his eyes; then he did too.

“That’s right. That’s what it was.”

Robin flew right up to John’s face. “John. My happy thought didn’t save me. But it can still save you. Don’t be afraid, John. Love is simple.”

John saw Gladys and the baby again. And then he saw the baby in his arms. And then he wished he had never kicked that stool away. And then John died.

Outside the rain started.

P and Q is for Peas and Queues

JG2 36

Gladys and the other Saints set off to go dancing at Fist City, the only Ubanian nightclub still in existence. The place was named after an infamous Loretta Lynn song. In it, the speaker challenges an unnamed other woman to “lay off” her man if she doesn’t want to take a one-way trip to “Fist City.” So to get into the club, you had to fist the bouncer.

And by that we mean punch the bouncer in the face. It was a more innocent time when Loretta penned her ballads.

Regardless, Gladys balked at pretty much any kind of fisting.

“I tell you, he is grateful,” said Ubanian Lisa, acting as their local chaperone for the evening. “It keeps him from blowing himself up.”

“How?”

“Because it fills him full of blind rage, mostly toward foreigners, who are the only people to come here. And so he has something to live for, which is to tell everyone how he is going to exact revenge one day.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“But he will never do this.”

“Why?”

“Because he has been punched in the face too many times.”

Jude threw a surprisingly strong left for such an old man, walked into the joint, hopped on a stool which was actually a short Ubanian, and ordered the only cocktail offered, the Ubanian Teardrop. The bartender nodded and went to the bathroom to slap himself in the face a few times.

The rest of the Saints more or less reluctantly followed suit, except for Alex, who was too weak from malnutrition to punch anyone and asked Gladys if she wouldn’t mind double dipping. Naturally Gladys hesitated, but Alex had been so excited about dancing and now looked so nervous about missing out that some maternal thing kicked in and Gladys delivered a quick 1-2 combination that knocked one of the bouncer’s dogteeth loose.

“Thank you,” he said, quite sincerely. “One day I am going to put your head on a spike.” This sent him into a smiley slumber.

Inside the club the Saints sat at the bar while Alex popped wheelies. “Gladys, come dance!” But after slamming her third Teardrop, Gladys did more than that. She sang.

“I want to thank the people of Ubania for having us,” Gladys said as she put on the requisite cowgirl hat. “We did eight shows this week, and they tell us that there were two fewer self-explosions than last week. So even though that may just be because there are getting to be fewer and fewer people here, I’d like to follow the philosophy of Loretta Lynn, who once said, ‘If you don’t pat yourself on the back every now and then, your hand might fall off.'”

This was a misquotation, since as any fan knows the only time Loretta specifically referenced limbs falling off was in relation to her husband Doo’s diabetes. But Gladys had done two performances that day and was a bit befuzzled so we’ll allow it.

She took another shot, for luck. “And speaking of things falling off.” She punched F-2 into the Ubanian karaoke machine, which was a guy named Ubanian Eugene who hummed the tune as best he could for you while his wife wrote the lyrics on his belly. In this case, he started humming “I Wanna Be Free,” and Gladys waved the wife away.

Anyone who’d been to Ubania long knew all the words to this song because in Ubanian bathrooms, which were ditches, there was always an attendant paid by the government to stand there and sing it in an effort to liberate your bowels of whatever choleroidal muck might be trapped in there. These were highly sought after positions in Ubania, to the extent that anything was sought, which as extents go is pretty modest.

When Loretta got the part about taking the chain from off your finger, Gladys dramatically held up her left hand. Her wedding ring sparkled. The next line was about taking the chain from your finger and throwing it as far as you can “sling ‘er,” so Gladys made to take off her ring and fling. Only it wouldn’t come off, so she had to tug and twist all through the part about the bluebird singing and restoring the speaker’s faith in life, and when she finally got it off with a final jerk she was so frustrated she threw it harder than she meant and knocked out another of the bouncer’s dog teeth. To be fair they were pretty loose already, from the rickets.

The Ubanian secret policeman who had been trailing her waited politely until the song was over and the smattering of applause died out before getting off his stool (coincidentally his cousin) and producing his handcuffs.

“Gladys Lake,” he said, “I am a secret policeman. I didn’t know that until just now. Before then, it was a secret. But now I know. And so you’re coming with me.”

“Michikagazeroonancyreagan?” Ubanian Lisa asked the man, which roughly translated means “why are you hassling this sad white lady?”

“She has to appear before the grand jury,” he said. “The grand jury has to decide whether or not to charge her with a crime.”

“But I didn’t do anything!” Gladys said.

“You fell on a Ubanian and crushed him.”

“Oh I did do that.”

“But she already got her slap on the wrist,” Ubanian Lisa said.

“Yes, well, this case has now drawn the attention of the Secretorney General of the United Notions.”

The United Notions was a group of people from around the world who debated for a long time and then issued Notions about what was right and wrong. No one really felt the need to follow the Notions, because all the UN could do to enforce them was send out a group called the Peaskeepers. The Peaskeepers would come to your country with exactly one hundred peas. If something bad happened and they lost some of the peas, they reported back to the Notions, and the Notions wrote down in a big book just how many peas had been lost. And then the book was put in a big warehouse and sometimes people came to look at it.

“Why would the Secretorney General care about one little Ubanian?”

“There are a number of members of the Notions who care about Ubanian lives because their countries sell arms to the Ubanians.”

“Yes, arms we’re blowing ourselves up with!”

“Yes, well they also send us arms to replace the arms people lose when they stand too close to someone blowing up. And we need those. But they can’t afford to send those arms unless we prop up their economy by buying the other arms.” The secret policeman cuffed Gladys.

“I knew I should have studied economics.”

“Don’t worry, Gladys. This is just for show.” Lisa patted her shoulder. “Lolajazeezeegeorgemichael. That means, chin up, and don’t drop the soap.”

They brought Gladys to the secret courtroom, which until half an hour ago everyone thought was just an enormous broom closet. The grand jury members tittered – literally – when they saw her. Out of the blue, Jean appeared and took her bound hand. He kissed it.

“My dear, this is an outrage.”

“No, it’s probably justice. I did kill a guy.”

“Well you do not have to worry about that. It took some pulling of string, but I found a very special special prosecutor.”

A woman with a terrible perm stepped forward to shake hands.

JG2 37

“I’m Marcia Clark,” she said. “I lost the O.J. Simpson trial. So don’t worry. I’ve got this. And by that I mean you’ve got this. I’ll lose this thing faster than you can say wifebeater.”

“Why?”

“Because it hurts less, for me, to try to lose and be good at it, than to try to win and fail. For the last twenty years I’ve been losing every case I possibly can. You know what it’s like. When you’re a woman, and a loser, you have to do it twice as well as a man to be taken half as seriously.”

“I think we’re conflating a couple of different issues here.”

“Hey don’t act like I’m the first prosecutor to throw a case. I mean look at that black kid who got shot by that cop.”

“Which one?”

“Oh I like you. Yep.”

Marcia Clark took her place at the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury, I think you know what this is.” She held up a piece of white paper with this on it:

JG2 38

A hush fell over the room. Marcia Clark then walked slowly to the jury box, and placed the paper on the floor in front of them. Everyone gasped.

“What just happened?” Gladys whispered to Jean.

“She has just played the race card.”

“This case is about race. Yes. Here we have a hare,” she gestured to Gladys. “Look at her. She’s the product of a culture that has instilled in her a sense of entitlement so strong, she believes she can do anything. And so, she can! She can hail a cab, and go somewhere and buy something. She can get a loan, and start a business. She can go to college, and spend four years studying William Blake if she wants to. You sir,” she pointed to one of the grand jury members, “do you know who William Blake is?”

He shook his head.

“Exactly! Thank God we have this woman to tell us who William Blake is. She is a real hare.”

Marcia Clark presented a picture of the man Gladys crushed when she fell to earth. The picture was taken with a Ubanian camera, which means they hired someone who looked kind of like the guy and put a frame around his face. “Here we have a tortoise. I have real sympathy for his family. I do. He too, in time, might have managed to walk the eighteen miles in the sun to make it to Ubania’s only cabstand, and if he didn’t faint, he too might have endured the three and a half day wait to make it to the front of the line. And then he might have climbed on the shoulders of whoever was the cab that day, and the two of them, with the aid of a miracle or two, might have made it to the border without getting shot.

“And he too might have eventually been chosen by a microfinance group to get a loan of ten cents to go door to door selling nickels for a two percent mark-up. And if he did that for about forty years, he might have had enough to buy a small wagon he could use to sell potato chips. And if his son and grandson had carried on that work, they might eventually have had enough to buy a larger wagon to sell shampoo, too, or seasonal stickers. And if they had – you see where this is going here. This main was a tortoise among tortoises.”

She stood behind Gladys. “Don’t slow the hare down, ladies and gentlemen. Let her go on and win the race. The human race.”

The jury applauded. “You can go,” Marcia Clark said to the picture. The picture held out his hand for a nickel. She shook her head. “Teach a man to fish,” she said.

Gladys gave the picture a nickel. Then she stood up. “The tortoise wins the race,” she said.

Marcia Clark’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”

“Well it’s true. The tortoise wins the race. Because the hare is too sure of himself.”

“They don’t know that! They don’t have books!”

“Look,” she addressed the grand jury. “Maybe I know who William Blake is, and actually I don’t, though he sounds nice enough, but who’s to say that’s better than shitting yourself to death in a ditch in a slum?”

Six jury members raised their hands, signifying that they believed it was better to know William Blake than to shit to death, but Gladys was looking down at her bare ring finger and could not see them.

“Last night I followed the advice of Loretta Lynn, and freed myself. But of course her lyrics, balanced against her life, are full of a delicious, if painful irony. See, I went to college so I make up sentences like that. Sorry. Okay. My point is Loretta wrote song after song about leaving her man, but she never found a way to leave the actual SOB. I think she didn’t want to be free. I think freedom was too scary for her. Sort of like it’s scary to know how a tortoise can beat a hare. Or scary like asking ourselves how will we measure a race if the key factor isn’t speed? Or scary like how will we measure a race if there isn’t even, can’t even, be a winner. Or scary like having a seven pound screaming phlegm-covered junior human kick its way out of your ladyhole, I don’t know.”

She picked the race card up. Everyone gasped, again. She handed it to Marcia Clarke. “I want to be held responsible for the things I’ve done. My kid needs an example of that, and God knows it won’t be his father. Although to be fair I punched holes in his condoms and went off birth control without telling anyone including myself. But I had to.”

“Why?” The jury asked this as one.

“I don’t know. I didn’t know I felt that way until just now. But I had to. I had to have this child. I mean not in a hormonal way. I mean there’s a reason for him. Maybe…maybe it’s that – ”

The foreman of the jury stood up. “We indict her for murder!” he cried. The rest of the jury cheered. They’d never indicted anyone before and found it very exciting. “Take her to the UTI!”

Two secret bailiffs were told they were bailiffs and started dragging Gladys away.

“Gladys! What have you done?” Jean cried. Then he sneezed.

“It’s alright, Jean. I’ve had a UTI before. Painful, sure, and a little shameful, but if treated properly – ”

“No, no, sacre bleu! The UTI is the Ubanian Terror Institute!”

“Oh, well. That’s different. That sounds worse.”

Marcia stopped the bailiffs. She looked Gladys in the eye. “Kid, I like the cut of your jib.” She tore the race card in half.

“Go win another one,” Gladys said.

“Hmm yeah the social conscience thing is tempting but I think I’ll just get a lot of plastic surgery and write mystery books instead. There’s only one life. Hey, just so you know, in the Ubanian justice system, an indictment is the equivalent of a conviction, and the punishment for all crimes is exactly the same.”

“What is it?”

“Death by explosion. I’ll see you around.”

They took Gladys away.

O is for O No

Something terrible had happened.

There is John and Gladys, and there is Ur-John and Ur-Gladys. Just as the play Hamlet is believed by some to be preceded by another play involving a man with the same name (which scholars call Ur-Hamlet), so these two fictional characters – yes, this is a fiction – are or were or are preceded (and succeeded? depends on how well the book endures) by two real people, whom we will call Ur-John and Ur-Gladys, but you may as well know that Ur-John is me.

Ur-John started writing this chronicle at the dawn of a New Year. He was unsure about a number of things, like how he really felt about being estranged from Ur-Gladys. This was going to be a book with 26 entries, one for every two weeks of the year. He wouldn’t plan it very much beforehand, but he had a sense that it was going to be called John and Gladys and The Year the World Started, and that it would be about John growing up and deciding that having a child was something he could handle.

A small part, perhaps, of why the Urs split had to do with one of them being militantly against having children. You might guess which.

Something happened as the winter finally thawed, which is that Ur-John and Ur-Gladys got back in touch with each other, and started wondering if maybe this thing could work out after all.

But it didn’t.

There were some very romantic moments – at one point one of them ran after the other one on the street – and those moments should have culminated in a beach trip the two took together, but they didn’t. They fizzled.

Ur-John found himself at the beach house with a woman, the kind of woman who would text you even after you’d grumpily gone to your (separate) bed to try and get you to come out and look at the stars. But Ur-John could not find it in himself to get out of bed. In fact the more she described their beauty the more he didn’t want to see the stars, maybe ever. Spite. He thought it might be similar to the way they say God hardened Pharaoh’s heart when Moses and Co. wanted out of that raw deal. It was like someone had pushed through his chest and put the kung fu grip on a heart which just two months ago during hours-long phone calls had been beating, softly, again.

Unfortunately, the truth is God does not have to do that. The truth is that for some reason Ur-John, and he is not alone in this, hardens his own heart. Maybe it is for the best, and maybe it is not. There’s no way of knowing except feeling, and his feelings change so often because of the hardening and unhardening that he goes through, seemingly at all the wrong times. He was hard when he was around her and he was unhard when he was in bed listening to the cars whir by thinking, Now would be a good time to die. Yes normally it’s a good thing to be hard when you’re with the woman but this is a different category so that joke does not apply.

In his hardness he pushed her away, again, and then a depression sank into Ur-John, and while he went through the motions of smiling at people and picking up tabs and asking “So which shows do YOU binge watch?”, really he could not imagine having the energy to go through all of that again when he knew that at any moment his heart might and probably would go kung fu and then he would have to deal with the pain of causing someone pain, again.

Ur-John was pretty sure something was wrong with him. He began simultaneously to find little pleasure in life and also obsess about his health. He found this ironic, as in the old joke: “the food here is terrible; and such small portions!” Mostly he obsessed over his weight. He felt like the years of his life were bringing him no wisdom but just accumulating like rings around his midsection, and before too long they would congeal into a squishy inner tube of life, growing bigger and bigger around his tummy, that would keep him from really getting too close to anyone anymore.

Most of all, and most relevant to our current writer/reader relationship, Ur-John did not have it in him to continue this particular saga of John and Gladys. Something about it felt dead.

Because he had ended up planning, though he said he wouldn’t. He had these notes, these wonderful – he thought – romantic notes about how the story was going to evolve. It was going to be epic, and it was going to be life-affirming, since that tends to be more marketable than the opposite. But Ur-John no longer felt qualified to affirm life.

Plus, he had a lot of work to do. John works at shrinking nuts, but Ur-John, post-beach house, was given a job offer by some crazy people who actually want to make nuts bigger. They actually want to give more value, more protein, more calories to go out and live life. It’s a really nice idea, and sometimes seeing the little nuts grow made Ur-John click his heels with pleasure. But sometimes his heart wasn’t in it. You have to believe there’s a good reason for nuts to be bigger; if you can’t think of one, you just look at the little nuts and think about adolescent nuts and nuts in their twenties and you get exhausted thinking about how much there is for those nuts to go through, and for what?

Sometimes Ur-John daydreamed at his desk about creating a Giant Nut. A Nut so big that Everyone would Take Notice. A nut so huge that it would be written about As Long As People Write. And Ur-John’s name would be underneath the photo, Forever.

But he had a feeling this was unlikely. Probably if anyone in his lab made The Big One it would be Jerry, who always got up at 5:30 and went to spin class before work because he really is a go-getter. Most likely no one would make The Big One, or it would be someone in Taiwan, and then a year later there would be another big nut to erase the last and eventually Ur-John would be dead.

No one ever eats one nut, by the way. We always eat like a handful of nuts and don’t think twice about it. But that nut was the center of its own universe in its day.

Ur-John knew he should be satisfied making small nuts slightly bigger, even if the changes couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. He knew he should be content to be an ordinary person living an ordinary life. He knew he ought to be able to settle down with one person and explore the special work that brings. But there was too much Ur-John the Conqueror in him, this sweaty swarthy Spanish fellow with a giant helmeted hard-on.

One night Ur-John came home from work, thinking as he often did about the big beer he was going to drink while watching an Arnold Schwarzeneggar movie. But on this particular night Bill Cosby was outside the door of his apartment.

“Hey!” Bill Cosby said. “Can I use your apartment for like, sixteen minutes?”

John blinked.

“Maybe seventeen. Maybe eighteen minutes.”

Ur-John didn’t have much of a reason to say no. Bill Cosby looked a little shifty, but then Ur-John realized it was just him rolling his eyes like he rolls his eyes when he’s got a big hoagie or something he’s about to eat and he’s so excited, and Ur-John giggled, and Bill Cosby acted like he was a robot “beep boop boop Jell-o pud-ding”, and Bill Cosby acted like he was a popsicle “oh dear I am so GRAPE beep boop boop,” and Bill Cosby acted like he couldn’t say the letters T or D “how are you oing o-ay beep boop boop,” and Ur-John giggled and gave him the key.

Eighteen minutes later, Ur-John knocked on the door. Bill Cosby opened it.

“You need some more bread,” Cosby said. “I just ate the shit out of some hoagies. I ate the shit out of fifteen or sixteen hoagies, so you need more bread.”

He handed Ur-John the key. Ur-John smelled the oil and vinegar on the man’s breath and said to him, “I wish you had died, and Robin Williams had lived.”

Cosby patted him on the shoulder and left, wiping his mouth.

Ur-John realized that wasn’t it, really. What he really wanted was for Robin Williams to have died, because the grieving felt good, in its own way, and then be resurrected, Robin the White, free of shitty movies and tired jokes.

He went inside his apartment and opened the beer and turned on Arnold. And then he put down the beer and left Arnold on and ran out the door down the stairs out the door to the street where’d he go where’s Bill I miss Bill I miss Bill Cosby come back I’m sorry let’s have a hoagie together.

Bill Cosby was gone.

The Arnold movie, which Ur-John watched alone as beer went into the top of his heart and out the bottom of it, was Total Recall. Without spoiling too much – like how Sharon Stone takes a bullet to the forehead, finally – he can tell you that the movie involves a man who believes he is a good man finding out that he is, in fact, a bad one – that the good man was a fiction created by brainwashing. Well, Arnold being Arnold, he refuses to accept this, and uses his muscles to actually beCOME the good man by force. He just decides his own narrative. Ur-John didn’t realize the spiritual dimension of this until the next morning, brushing his teeth looking into the mirror.

So Ur-John set about the first day of the rest of his life, and because he was open to enlightenment he received it, in traffic listening to a podcast. The podcast told the story of the kilogram. There is one kilogram in France which is the ur-kilogram, the kilogram from which all others are measured. It is made mostly of platinum. It is kept in a secure place and cleaned periodically.

Then, in 1989, the ur-kilo was weighed against a copy of itself, and they did not match. The ur-kilo was shrinking. Technically it still weighed a kilogram, since it is THE kilogram, but untechnically it no longer weighed a kilogram.

Panic ensued. Ur-John could see why. A world without a sure kilogram was a world of people walking around with unequal loaves of bread, with potato chip bags more and more full of air, shells and no nuts at all.

Then there would naturally be an emotional factor. Without a kilogram there would be no pound of flesh, without a pound of flesh we could not weigh out our debts, without weighing our debts we could not weigh our love, and without weighing our love we could not take the measure of our lives. At least not uniformly.

Which meant that there would be some people walking around normally, grounded in themselves, smiling and frowning at regular intervals, breeding and dying; and there would be others walking around two feet off the ground, certain of nothing. Ur-John stepped out of his car after listening to this podcast and bounced up eight inches in the air. He tried to jump down but he could no sooner do this than he could have plunged into the earth the day before.

He floated into his office.

“There’s an international crisis going on,” he informed Jerry. “Someone snuck into the French place where they keep all the measurements, and they filled the kilogram with sawdust. This happened in 1989, when I was four, which makes sense because that’s when I had to start going to school all day long and I cried because I wanted to stay home and have lunch with my mother. Things were never right after that, and it’s just taken time for us to get to this point – ”

He noticed with no little chagrin that Jerry was standing on the ground.

“I have to go.”

Ur-John tried to drive home but his feet would not rest on the pedals. So he floated. At his building, he closed his eyes and thought of Ur-Gladys, and this lifted him up to his bedroom window on the second floor. He always left this window open in case succubi were real, so he went in and drifted to the fridge and drank a beer, but this just got him higher to the point where his head kept bumping into the ceiling.

He used the walls to propel himself back to the bedroom, and found that with a good push-off he could flip and hang upside down in front of his laptop like Tom Cruise in the first (best) Mission: Impossible movie. So he did this and turned the thing on and pulled up the notes he had for the John and Gladys book, and looked through them, and decided some he might keep, and some he might not, and that the story could go wherever he wanted to now, actually, and that was kind of exciting, so he started to type.

They tell me I am not who I am. They tell me that was just something they put in my brain. But I get to decide who I am, just like I decide how much a thing will weigh, on my mind and my soul, or if the hole in my heart is to let things in or drip them out. I choose. Right now. And always.

And if they don’t recognize me, or tell me this is not who I am, I will shoot them in the forehead like I did Sharon Stone. And then I will turn on this reactor left here by the aliens. It might explode. It might not. There’s a chance it will do its work so that all God’s children on Mars will finally have enough air to fill their lungs.

At least until the Colin Farrell reboot and the whole mess starts over. After all, nothing lasts forever.

N is for Nexus

Paloma Palumbo made John some eggs while she prepared to tell the story of how her right leg became an anchor. She had an uncanny ability to get what she needed in the kitchen while hardly moving, as if somehow she curved the space around her, so that the skillet in the cupboard under the counter came to her hand without stooping.

“Practice,” she said, since John was staring a little. He returned to perusing the mail she had brought. There was a lot of it. Many catalogs offered many sales and many bills asked for many monies.

“One day, when it was raining very heavily, I took shelter under the Gateway Arch. I still got rained on, as the top of the arch was too far above me to do me much good, but at least I had the comfort of knowing I was being rained on under the world’s tallest arch, which isn’t nothing. While I was under there, a priest and a woodcutter came along.”

“A woodcutter?”

“They looked a little grim, even more than a priest and a woodcutter normally do, so I asked what was wrong. When you’re under an arch with someone, you can’t help but want the best for them. Well, they told me a terrible story:

“One morning Diane woke up and it was time to go home. They’d had a nice time at the campground but one of her nieces had rehearsal to get to and there were in general a lot of those little Sunday errands to tackle. So she and her son and her baby girl and her one two three nieces climbed into the SUV and headed for home. Her husband followed in the truck with the dog. Well, the clock struck twelve and hubby was home and doggy was home but there was no sign of Diane. And there wasn’t a sign of her until her SUV exploded in flames on the highway and sent up thick smoke like an offer to Zeus. She had driven the wrong way on the parkway at 70 miles an hour for 1.7 miles, you see, and crashed into a right-way-driving car filled with three men on their way to family funday. Everyone died, everyone died, except the little boy.”

She served him the eggs, without really moving.

“Her blood alcohol level, it turned out, was .18, ten drinks at least, and there was cannabis all up and down her airways. On a Sunday morning.”

Now Paloma sat down.

“When asked to testify, her husband told of a supermom, who rarely had a drink, who made six figures and volunteered and scrapbooked and had years’ worth of Christmas presents pre-wrapped in the attic in ascending sizes for the kids as they grew. He showed medical records of a tooth abscess, never properly treated, which must have caused a medical event, perhaps a stroke, to distort the levels in the blood.

“When asked to testify, her ex-BFF told of a supermom, damaged by the abandonment of her own mother at the age of eight, who struggled with weight and the need to be boss, who could carry a grudge and correct GPS – ‘that’s wrong, it’s a right turn’ – who could miss your first born’s christening and be out of your life forever.

“When asked to testify, her empty vodka bottle told of a supermom, who held her, and nuzzled her, and made her feel loved. Who whispered her dreams to her during commercial breaks. Who occasionally neglected her, cursed her, hated her cried over her. Who always came back. Who was so hard on herself. Who had such hope. Who could make you feel, just with her eyes, that you’re the only bottle in the world.

“When asked to testify, Diane’s spirit, channeled through Miss Cleo the estranged TV psychic, told of Superman, of a dream she had had the night before, where Johnny Manziel, her crush through all of tenth grade, held her hand under the blanket while they watched Christopher Reeve turn back time to save Lois Lane. Of the world spinning back and her head leaning back and Johnny’s tongue making the first penetration of her mouth that wasn’t food or a toothbrush or a dentist’s thumb. Of how nice it was until the ratmaggots started pouring out of the hole in her tooth. Of how they ran up Johnny’s tongue and into his mouth and his eyes went wide and she knew he was asking, ‘How did I get here?’ Of waking up and packing the car and seeing the sun and is that a bird or a plane and how did I get here the children in the back making their children song and Johnny Manziel, if he only knew she hadn’t meant to maggot him like that and the idea, the idea came to her clean and smooth like a little girl’s ponytail ribbon: if going West (like the pioneers my arch was made for) means you get back an hour, then two, then three (you can’t call Mimi and Pawpaw yet honey they live in Disneyland and it’s too early there), if Superman can spin the world back to yesterday then I can go fast enough into the past and tell Johnny the truth and close up this hole in my mouth that never fills up no matter what I pour in.”

She took John’s plate. She ran the water.

“The rain stopped and I saw the sun come out, only the steel of the arch reflected so that it burned but I couldn’t stop looking. The sun has all four testimonies inside it all the time, good evil sappy and strange, busting and combusting in and out of each other, and we can’t see them all at once, our eyes aren’t made for that. We have to pick and choose.”

She sat down.

“I had a hard time after hearing that story. I thought if I couldn’t see the sun, really see it, all four parts of it, that there wasn’t any point. Everything else is just a flashlight, or a lightbulb, or a firefly, by comparison. And let’s face it: you can’t really do shit with a firefly except pull off its thing and stick it on your nose until it fades or else catch and release it over and over and over. Both options lose their thrill over time.

“I entered a second infancy. I had to call grown-upsitters to come over and make sure I didn’t stick a penny in a socket to become part of the sun. Grown-upsitters are a strange crowd. I went through them pretty fast, until I met Ruth. Ruth was fat. Ruth was really fat. Ruth ate all the time. At first I was disgusted. Her chomping away, rustling candy wrappers. Then one day, while feeding her a banana and daydreaming about self-immolation, it suddenly dawned on me: Ruth isn’t dead. Ruth is alive, and Ruth doesn’t need anyone to watch her not kill herself.”

Paloma shrugged.

“So the eating – who cares? And all the foibles of all my grown-upsitters past – the little vanities, the bad jokes, the catchphrases and cliches, the fishing for compliments, the repeated stories, the maudlin social media posts, the Angry Birds, the Michael Bay movies, the hardened arteries of everyone’s constantly calcifying personality, all those things, disgusting as they may be, well, I couldn’t be disgusted anymore, not about any of them, because I realized they were all…”

She swung her anchor up on the table. It knocked the table over.

“Oh, shit.”

John reset the table and she gingerly rested her anchor on it this time. She pointed to it. For illustration purposes.

“They keep us here, so we don’t go to the sun or the past. And keeping us here is better than the alternative, because if we weren’t here, we couldn’t grown-upsit for each other and keep us here. Could we?”

“Okay, but…this still does not explain how your leg actually became an anchor.”

She shrugged. “I’ve always been a more literal person than my peers.”

She stood up. Clang. “By the way,” she said, “it’s better to choose one of these that can’t possibly put you in a state where you get so fucked up you accidentally kill your children. So you know, like whittling or something.”

Paloma went back upstairs. John went back to his catalogs and bills. It took a long time to figure out which polos he wanted to order, and what to write on all the different checks, and while you’re reading the catalogs more catalogs come, you know, same with bills, and before he knew it (and he didn’t really know it because he wasn’t paying attention) eighteen days had gone by. In fact the only thing that brought the passage of his time to his attention was one day when he was making the short trip to the kitchen to recycle a catalog he noticed a limp in his step. He tried to think back to any time he might have kicked a piece of furniture in the recent past and couldn’t remember any. So he looked down at his right leg and it looked in good order. So he took of his shoe and his foot seemed alright. So he took off his sock and nothing unusual there except for the fact that the tips of his toes had turned into iron.

And the iron was spreading.

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