Wave it Like a Towel

Wet grass reminded him of something from his childhood, but Scott didn’t know what. He considered that maybe it reminded him of something from somebody else’s childhood, or a TV commercial from when he was young. New York City didn’t have many places for him to walk barefoot through wet grass. The more he considered it, the less it reminded him of anything, and was more a foreign smell and feeling. He practically grew up in rock clubs, not on farms with the roosters that wake you up with their indignant crowing and you know the animal you’re eating on a first name basis.

It was barely 7 o’clock in the morning and the sun was rising in slow motion, an effect he attributed it to the molasses pace of Southern life. She was waiting for him in the barn, where they met two nights ago after her parents fell asleep. At first a clandestine rendezvous at the age of 31 seemed unnecessary and childish, but making love in the straw and the fecund air felt invigorating; taking her with the horses’ black pupils looking on and the pitchforks hanging on the walls was like some kind of pastoral porn in real life. Looking down at his bodies on hers, his tattoos seemed like a violation, a trampling.

He’s had many women before, but this was the first he ever felt a twinge of something more than just flesh on flesh, bones grinding on bones. It’s been awhile since he was excited about the act. More specifically, the person on the other end.

Sandy was wearing a cream dress that went down to her calves and an apron with strawberries on it, absolutely perfect-looking he thought, standing in the doorway with a dimpled smile and pear-shaped breasts. Freckles dotted her nose. A burnt cinnamon color in her hair caught the morning light so that it looked aflame.

“Hey, sleepy head,” she greeted him.

He mumbled a reply and she laughed. He noted she didn’t give him a hug although her parents weren’t around. She was 26. Back in New York, dried lavender framed her doorway.  She was a writer, but then again, all his ex-girlfriend’s were writers, at least they called themselves writers, or photographers. They hardly ever wrote or took pictures though. He was a musician. All of his friends were musicians. He was attracted to opposites. He was loud, she was quiet. That kind of thing.

He craved a joint but didn’t bring any down with him. He thought of that White Stripes line, “My left brain knows all love is fleeting/ She’s just looking for something new/ and I said it once before/ but it bears repeating.”

Sandy’s face beamed and her voice sung out, “Ready to catch a chicken?” She was as warm and American as fresh apple pie sitting on a window sil in the noonday sun. God, he wanted to throw her down and kiss her till she couldn’t breathe.

He laughed. “Not quite.”

“Chores ain’t gonna do themselves, silly monster.”

Silly monster, Scott thought, that’s exactly what I am. His mind flashed through a series of memories: post-concert parties, drugs and women, loud fights with bandmates, cops showing up in hotel rooms, pizza at 4 in the morning, singing in the subway….

“Follow me,” Sandy beckoned.

They went around to the chicken coop fenced in with wire. The chickens spilled out of a simple red structure in the middle of it and clucked loudly, reacting to the idea of being fed, dizzying themselves in a tornado of endless hunger and senseless fidgeting.

“Go grab one,” she commanded in a stern yet playful voice.

“What?”

“Go!”

Scott stood there in a meek expression of ineptitude. “I don’t think you understand what my true talents are in this world.”

“Ha… like Panties of the Funeral?” She joked.

It was his least favorite tune, but the most popular one at their concerts. The one that frat boys shouted out to be played in between songs, and always the one they played for a finale or encore; because after all, it’s the music business. You keep the audience waiting, but always give them what they want in the end. Kind of like women.

He rapped, “Come and suck my death pop, succubus, I wanna feel my breath stop, fuck you the best, carnival carnivore, life’s a bore, I don’t know what you came here for, I don’t know what you came here for.”

When he finished he flapped his lips in a disgruntled little neigh. She grinned at him in her pitying way that made him feel like maybe he could settle down and raise chickens, that maybe there was a different dimension where he wore overalls, and not in an ironic way, where he went to sleep before midnight and woke up clear-headed and grateful.

Yeah, maybe — but their names! Sandy and Scott. He hated the sound of it. Like they’re part of a cast for some teenage melodrama where there’s an alcoholic dad and somber conversations overlooking the ocean while Arcade Fire plays in the background. Damn, he hated Arcade Fire.

She pushed him in the back. “Get in there.”

He climbed over the wire and found himself in a tempest of feathers and beaks. He looked down, trying to figure out which one to go for, presumably the slowest, but this made him feel like a cruel little lord; so he chose one that seemed strong but not dangerous — a medium-sized chicken. This would be the one that will die tonight. If this chicken were a human it would be a man who went to work everyday and made a decent income, one that could afford a vacation once a year for the family, but nowhere lavish, who had a wife who tolerated him lovingly, but never adored him, whose kids were embarrassed of him but still respected him. He didn’t want to kill a drunk chicken or a millionaire chicken. He wanted to kill an all-American chicken.

Standing there, contemplating all this, a large insect dive-bombed into his mouth. It flapped around, hitting the walls of his mouth.  Was it a mosquito? Would it soon be probing his tongue, draining him of blood, lyrics? He reflectively closed his mouth and accidentally caught it between his teeth; like chewing on gravel, it crunched and he tasted wings and exoskeleton. He spat it out, disgusted. She laughed. “What, you swallow a bug?”

“Yeah, a big one,” he replied.

“Don’t be a wuss. That’s protein.”

“How do you live like this?”

“You’re such a baby,” she told him.

An image came over him. An idea.  “Wait! What if it’s not a bug, but a tiny angel who came to protect us, but got caught in a draft and was pushed into my mouth?” He asked, “And now that I ate it, I’m going to shit angel bits into your pop’s toilet in an hour?” The lyrics ‘angel wings in my teeth – they taste something sweet’ came to him but he didn’t know what to do with them.

She shook her head. “You’re so morbid and crude.”

“Is it sexy?”

She turned her eyes down. “Sometimes.” Scott approached her, reaching out to pull her closer. “But not right now,” she amended, stepping back. “Go catch me a chicken. That’s sexy.”

“You’re such a brute.”

She told him, “Somebody’s got to put you in your place.”

There was no reply he could give. She was right.

Scott turned and plodded deeper into the pen. His boots squished as he walked. Looking down, he realized he was stepping on tons of chicken shit. Tiny pellets that formed a layer of earth. It grossed him out, but he concluded that they would soon kill one of those birds and so the tradeoff was only fair.

“You little fuckers!” He cursed.

She laughed. He loved her laugh. Something stirred. A realization. It wasn’t until just now that he felt the distance they had driven, how far from New York they were, and far from his life, and far he was from… what?

The next concert?

No… safety.

The next thing happened like a bumbling slow motion montage. He bent low, his middle class chicken darted, flapped its wings, he adjusted, sidestepped to his right, it went between his legs, he jerked over to catch it, his feet slipped behind him, then he fell face first into the ground. Splat! The chicken flapped and kicked around. Talons slashed his face. Wings slapped him all over.

“Are you okay?” She asked, half-stifling a snicker. “Them chickens can be hard to catch.”

“Yeah, yea… I see that now.” He pushed himself back onto his feet. “Fuckin’-A.” His vintage Steve Miller Band t-shirt that cost him 50 dollars in the village was ripped and stained. His jeans were stained also. His cheek was festooned with a fresh line of bright red blood. He displayed himself to her, his hands outstretched like a vandalized Christ the Redeemer. Gloriously damaged.

She told him, “You’ll survive. I’ve seen you in worse shape.”

“I guess you have.” He laughed. Now it was personal. “Alright, let’s catch a fucking chicken.”

It wasn’t easy. Scott didn’t think it would be.  It took maybe ten, fifteen minutes to finally corner his chicken and wrap it up in both hands. When he did though, he was surprised that it didn’t put up much of a fight. Why wouldn’t it fight back? Doesn’t it have any sense of danger? If some much larger creature came up and grabbed me, Scott thought, I’d go down kicking and screaming. I wouldn’t just hold still and let myself be carried off, but that’s what he did with the chicken, carried it off to Sandy like a present. He felt like the chicken was trusting him, and that made this grisly task particularly unnerving.

He realized, while stepping over the chicken wire, that he was grinning like a fool, from a weird mixture of guilt and glee — like a silly monster — and the ultra vibrant violet headband in her hair made him happier than he had a right to be. Like it was sending gamma waves straight to his dopamine.

He told her, “Here’s your chicken, motherfucker.”

“Oh, really? It only took you twenty minutes,” she shot back, dimples like watermarks on her cheeks. “Now you have to fucking kill it.” Curse words in her mouth look like screws when there should be nails.

He scoffed, “I’m punk, but I’m not that punk. Let your pops do it.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It’s a test,” she said.

“You’re testing me?”

“I’m not.”

“Who is?”

“Pops.”

“Fuuuuck,” he groaned.

Scott didn’t want to do it. He had rage. Rage because his mom was an alcoholic and his dad was a ghost on a Harley Davidson somewhere in Arizona. Rage because he was small in size and never got attention until he started singing in a band. Rage because it seems like the world rewards the rich and beautiful and ignores the ugly and awkward and those without platinum credit cards. He was full of rage, but not against chickens. Not against things he held in his hands, not when he felt the soft down of their feathers as they stayed docile like a faithful pet. He looked down at the chicken and it peered up at him, asking, ‘what? what? I’m a chicken. I don’t understand. What are you doing with me?’

She told him, “If you do this, we can meet in the barn tonight.” Then she pulled down the top of her apron and dress and exposed her right breast to him. The nipple was dark and surprisingly erect. Mysterious. He wondered if she could control that by some sort of mind power.

He was helpless…

“Baby, I’ll murder this chicken for a piece of you,” he growled. “The whole fucking flock. Murdered!”

She corrected him. “It’s not murder, it’s food.”

“Tell Morrissey that.”

“Fuck Morrissey!” She said with a smile.

“God, I love you,” he blurted out. But he said it the wrong way. He said it like he meant it. Not like teasing banter. It oozed out like pus from a pimple.

Her smile faded. Her eyebrows turned in a ‘V’ toward her nose. There was a silence that enveloped them. A terrifyingly delicious, uneasy knowing-ness wrapped them up in a shawl of no-turning-back. They stared at each other in a confused, ethereal haze.

He’d never said anything like that before — not in a way that was earnest — and even though it came out at this weird time, covered in mud, with blood thickening on his cheek, a live chicken dumbly staring on, they both knew that a truth slipped out.

Fuck!

She spoke delicately. “Just take its neck in your hand, and swing it like a towel. You know, like you were waving it at a basketball game.”

Scott didn’t turn away. He kept eye contact with her. They were locked in the moment. Words jammed up in his throat. Finally, he broke the link.

“Okay,” he said, meaning something other than ‘yes, now I understand how to kill a chicken.’

“Okay,” she repeated, understanding what he meant and meaning the same thing.

chicken

Hand Drip

You’re like hand-dripped coffee, expensive and time consuming, eyes blooming like night jasmine, your hand on my thigh wakes me up. We met at an art opening, your arms folded across your breasts, leather jacket, Michael Kors watch – the best in the catalogue – a part in your hair every guy wanted to stroke. I watched from across the room as advances bounced off you. I zoomed in, said something cheeky and laughed as your iris responded to my summer breeze.

The first night we went to The Bazaar and had Tapas, the next day you were topless. I confessed I was a mess and vulnerable, you laughed and said, ‘stop it.’ It was the wine speaking, but you told me you loved me. You’re crazy, I replied.

Two moons later The Killers were playing on my stereo. You made fun of me because I used the word stereo. You chew on your lip when you drink too much, and make random grocery lists. I tell tales like the salt-worn wood of beach cottages. You’re gluten-free but drink whiskey. My mindless mind-tint at midnight scribbles odes to Heath Ledger. You bought me moisturizer with SPF, told me to use it when my face is damp. I stood in the doorway listening to you talk to your agent. You don’t want to play a mother. “Babies aren’t sexy.”

I’m a Scrabble tile fallen to the floor. You’re on Sunset Boulevard, illuminated on a billboard.

Poetry pages in the sheets. Farmer Market Sundays, with your wide brim hat and glasses; still, everybody sees behind the lens, past your rutabaga and your waxy air of sensuality, to the droll doll you dragged on the floor when you were young you’d one day become. Nights extolling the virtue of collapsed galaxies, as we peer into the endless abyss of our drifting conversations, each one expanding farther away from the day we met. Farther/further, father/fuhrer.

There was that modeling shoot and then the three-day movie role in Vancouver. I stayed to work on that article I hated. We barbecued endangered fish. We swam in quicksand. I got a tattoo of a viking on my inner arm. You flew first class, batted your eyelash like a pro. There were fireflies in an old jar of spaghetti sauce, random texts from co-stars, sandwiches with crunchy bread that cut the roof of our mouths. Los Angeles devoured us in extravagant pleasures, high-end demons masticating the masquerading marionettes like dapper termites. We paraded ourselves like a Woody Woodpecker balloon in front of Macy’s as everybody around us shot darts at us.

We were beautiful and terrifying. Like a flood.

We hurled ourselves into the play. We had no director. We were winging our lines. We were our own audience and critics and when the curtain went down we were alone, together, two high pressure weather systems colliding over Kansas.

You told me I made sense for a while, we did, until we no longer. I replied, your fickleness is your most attractive quality. I told you the red carpet is to cover the blood. You joked that my wit never ceased to make you cringe.

I’m always planning the end before the middle. Like a good writer should. That way nothing can take you by surprise.

You walked off scene into a blizzard of flashbulbs. The nation applauds. I don’t answer your calls.

I’m with my keyboard, talking to the screen. The hottest fires burn the quickest. You’re nothing but a character now, a made-up antagonist. Everybody’s dream lover.

There are lessons from the leaving: I don’t drink enough water.

DSC_1808

Eyes Never Been so Happy

Where will the wild places go when we tame them all? Will they hide inside of us? A Grand Canyon in my stomach. A Yosemite behind your eyes. You try so hard to figure everything out, all the while it’s changing on you. It’s like racing a car on a one-lane road that’s traveling the other direction. Eventually we’ll meet again, but only to crash.

The party was letting out and we were still making eyes. I tried to manage a smile as she ducked into a waiting Uber car. I tried to act like a man with something to offer, yet, when I searched the bottom of my glass, I only found a Trademark sign.

I iron my shirt. I pay my phone bill. I lift 25 pound weights. I use eye cream. I cheer for the home team. I call my mom on Mother’s Day.  I walk into the forest and lose myself in the trees. I recite poetry in my head when the sun burns through the clouds. I am a living, breathing sparrow king.

Two suits were hanging in my closet. One navy. One black. One for weddings. One for funerals. I was naked except for a spray of $200 Italian cologne. I stood a long time, trying to decide which one to put on. My skin was white as the walls. Eventually I chose the one that matched your eyes.

Everybody knows what a mushroom cloud looks like, but not everybody knows what debilitating doubt looks like. Except for me. It’s a street sign. It’s an apple core on the sidewalk. It’s a lavender plant leaning over the steps. It’s the doorbell. It’s the slow creak of the door. It’s those eyes, flashing at me with pity.

The bully walked up, chest pumped up like wheels on a tractor. He snatched my football and pushed me face first into the mud. A lion momentarily roared in my gut. I stood up. I shouted, “You can’t do that to me.” He laughed. He handed me back my football. I looked at it in disbelief, staring like a dumb child. I never even saw his fist, although he landed it square in my eye.

We jumped off a bridge into a cold river. The snowmelt coming from Wyoming. The wind was pushing the trees around. When I came up there was something in my eyes. Everything was blurry. I looked at the mountains and they looked like charred bodies lying on their side. You were shouting my name.  It was so pretty I almost let myself drift downstream.

water nymp
photo by Julie Trotti

Doughnuts and Trout

It was Tuesday, so I went down to the Farmer’s Market. Like I do on Tuesdays.

The wind was blowing, dropping leaves and creating shifting patterns of light on the tables. There was something kinetic in the air.  I sat down with a hot coffee and a doughnut. People were coming and going, oblivious to me, to each other.

I was about to take my first bite when a man dressed in black, with a bowler hat and a tattoo of a trout on his hand, dragged back a chair, making a strident, ear-splitting sound, and sat down at the table. His nose was long and had a pronounced bump in the middle. There was a chain around his neck with a lock hanging from it.

“Can I help you?” I asked, not friendly but not reticent.

“Please don’t act like you don’t know me.”

“I’ve never seen you before,” I told him. The wind stopped and the air congealed between us.

He told me, “That may be true, but you know me.”

“Well…”

“Let me explain.” He put his hands together in the shape of a prayer and touched them to his lips thoughtfully. I tried to take a bit of my doughnut but he put his hand out and stopped me. “Don’t eat that just yet,” he said. Instead I took a sip of coffee and waited. He went on. “You see, you know that is a doughnut because your brain can connect that word to the information your eyes feed you. But your eyes are just giving you data, symbols for what your mind puts together. I’m kinda like that doughnut. I mean, can you really tell me the difference between a doughnut and a cupcake? Right? Can you explain doughnut-ness to me?”

I was confused. I mean, I understood what he was saying, but it was also confusing. Like, in my mind it’s nonsense, but going back to a deeper level, he’s right. Still, I like to live in the world of logic. “Sure. It’s a morning pastry.”

He laughed. “What’s morning? What’s pastry?” He showed me his tattoo. “I mean, what’s this? Is it a fish? Is it a tattoo? Is it my hand? Is it the Berlin Wall coming down?”

“I don’t think anybody would think that,” I said.

“Ah, but I was there. I saw men long-oppressed take to it with sledgehammers, chunks of graffiti and concrete falling. Then I went and I got this tattoo. So yes, when I look at this I see the Berlin Wall coming down. This is a symbol to me. Just like you see a doughnut and think, ‘ah, that’s a doughnut’.”

“Okay, I’ll buy that.”

He laughed. “I’m not selling it. I’m giving it to you. Okay, okay, okay,” he said excitedly. “We think old men are tough because they have leathery faces, but they have leathery faces because men didn’t use moisturizer back in the day. We see leather skin and think ‘tough,’ but it’s not tough, it’s just poor skin care. Symbols. False computations.”

“That makes sense, but why are you telling me this?”

He looked around him and leaned forward as if he were going to impart a secret. “Some people think it’s morbid to think about your own death, but what’s wrong with thinking about peace, relief? Life is tough, it’s long and cruel. That’s why I have this.” He rolled up his sleeve and there was a tattoo of the grim reaper holding a bouquet of roses.

Something stirred in me. “Life is beautiful, too,” I argued. I’m not sure why I was suddenly pensive, why I cared. What was I even doing engaging with this strange man instead of enjoying my doughnut? “There is a spot I go, when I’m sad, where the whole city is spread out like a blanket at a picnic, and I think about all the beautiful people there, living their beautiful lives. It makes me happy. To know that this all exists,” I explained. “There are beautiful moments, when you know how to look for them.”

“Ah, yes. I agree, but only because of death. If we lived forever, it would be a drag.” He abruptly changed the subject. “How’s your love life?” He asked.

The question made me squirm, but I answered as truthfully as I could. “Well, I get coffee and doughnuts three times a week. Occasionally I go for a swim in the ocean.”

He grinned. A look of compassion flashed across his face like a paparazzi snapped a photo of us. “It’s funny. Some people dedicate their whole lives to things like love, heaven… country. Just words. Even worse symbols. You can’t ever hold heaven like you can hold that doughnut.”

I noticed the people around us looking at me strangely. I became very self-conscious. Why were they looking at me like that?

He continued. “Have you ever been here before?”

I lowered my voice. “Yeah. I told you, I get doughnuts three times a week.”

“No. Have you ever been here? This place and time, with me. This shared space? Have you ever been to this moment?”

I looked at the uneaten doughnut sitting in front of me. It looked very odd, like it was no longer a doughnut but a tank knocking down a concrete wall. I saw her in the doughnut. I saw pixels, data. He was disassembling my world and I was letting it happen.

“Well, I suppose not. But that’s life,” I said. “It’s always moving, always creating a new moment.”

He smiled big. His teeth shone like a billboard at night. “That’s right. And when you look backward, you look into a pit of nothingness. The past is a black hole. It captures all light.  Because everything is right now, and it’s all doughnuts, and it’s all leaves falling on the table.”

I hadn’t noticed before, but we were covered in leaves. Birds were trilling overhead and the boughs were shaking.  The wind was whipping like a blender, but we were perfectly still, statues in a vacuum. There was a deep layer of leaves covering the table. I brushed them aside, exposing my untouched doughnut: a twist with a sugary, glistening veneer.

“When you stop and think about it,” he continued, “our lives are not ours. They’re our mothers, our bosses, our landlords, our lovers. Everybody’s lives belong to everybody. Your life belongs to me, as long as I’m here in your ear.”

I thought about what he said and it was startling, but accurate. I thought about everything I’ve lost and how I keep losing it by thinking about it. By not being able to let go. But it’s just corrupting symbols, about as healthy for me as the doughnut I haven’t yet touched. I thought about walls and fish. I thought about being surrounded by strangers, and loving every single one of them — whether they cared or not. I thought about black holes and about not flying into them anymore. I thought about that beach in Costa Rica and how the ocean, with the help of time, is erasing it sand particle by sand particle.

I wanted to tell him thank you, but when I looked up he was gone; all that was in front of me was a half-eaten doughnut.

face

Million Little Holes

The past is just a mirror.
It’s not even facing your direction.
Stop looking in it.

We talked of holiday lights in the trees.
We were going to plant vegetables.
Now there’s nothing but dirt.
Our best plans were best laid to rest.

Reach for the alarm clock.
It has teeth.
They are red and glowing.
It’s not your friend.
Throw it at the wall and live your life.

She met me on the corner with a beanie.
Her hair was blonde and peeking out like a cat.
She told me her name was Joanne.
I knew that was a lie because I knew it was Suzanne.
We kissed because we both had nothing better to do.
And because we’ve both been hurt.

Thunder comes after the light.
You stomp your feet and I come running.
Where the horses throw their manes to the wind,
and the wine spills on my new white couch,
and my Lamborghini pops its tire;
this is the place I come undone,
as you slowly kiss my belly button.

Stick this fork into my side.
Throw away the leftovers.
Take the dinner mint
and smear it on the mirror.
Tell the Maitre ‘d we’re leaving,
but not together. Not ever.

Push pins in the map.
They stab the places you’ve been.
Like my flesh, with its million pores.
Bite your tongue,
all it does is bleed.

Dishes in the sink,
her lipstick on the glass.
Remnants of her in a tray of ash.
I try all the time not to rhyme.

The past is a garbage compactor.
Take it, smash it up.
Throw it away.

love
…the look of love

The Sound of the Breeze

Shoe on the highway. Just one. A kid’s shoe. Where did it come from?
There’s a red stain. But that could be from paint. Right?
Like: a kid is tagging a wall. The cops come. The kid takes off.
His shoe flies away. The shoe he dripped red spray paint on.
Does he get away? Yes, because this is not a sad story,
and the cops would have stopped and picked up his shoe
if they’d caught him. Right?

There was a restaurant on the beach. A beautiful beach.
The tables plopped right down in the sand, the tide almost
licking our toes. The fish was pulled right out of that ocean,
put on plates and served to us fresh. Candles flickered, the stars
mirrored them. It was the most romantic place I’ve ever been.
I told her I loved her. She yelled at me for talking too loud.

There’s a crow on the telephone wire. Smart motherfucker.
Crows can figure out incredible things. Like how to crack a nut,
and how to get inserted into this story. It looks at me with those
smug eyes. This crow knows how intelligent it is. More importantly,
it knows how stupid I am: that I don’t look very far past
my telephone wire for inspiration. Smart motherfucker.

crow

We were walking through a field of flowers. This was in Montana.
I was 20. She was 19. She had freckles and I had a weird
sense of humor. We were on a road trip from Los Angeles
all the way to Boston. There was a river somewhere. We could
hear it, gurgling in the distance. Somehow, although we hiked
for more than an hour, we never found it. Now, I’m almost 40,
when I think of this story I don’t think about her freckles,
I think about the sound we heard, the sound of the river,
and I think it was actually the sound of the breeze.

I’m cutting pineapple into little chunks — you know what they say
about pineapple. And if you do, then you probably already went there.
If you know what they say about pineapple, your mind goes a million
different places. Actually, maybe just one place. A dirty, sweet place.

pineapple

There’s a long line of people waiting on the sidewalk. I ask them what
they’re doing. They’re lined up in chairs and sleeping bags.  There’s a new sneaker coming out in the morning. Limited Edition. This is the only
place in the country you can buy it. The only place in the entire world.
Not everybody will get a chance to buy it. One guy shows me a picture
of the sneaker. It costs 300 dollars. It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.
I tell him good luck and walk away. I don’t understand. It’s so ugly.
This makes me feel very alone.

She tells me, “call me Sleeping Beauty.” But I’ve never
seen her sleep. I don’t think she does. It’s 3 in the morning.
She’s now telling me about the time she accidentally shoplifted.
She tried on a hat and walked out, forgetting it was there.
It’s not a bad story, there are humorous bits, it’s just not a 3am story.

I saw a falling star and instead of thinking about the Universe
and its overwhelming unfathomable beauty — the whole time/space
thing — I thought: ‘how unfortunate I didn’t capture it with my phone.
I missed out on all those Instagram Likes.’ A second or two went by.
‘What does this say about me?’ I thought next.  And then: ‘I can turn
this series of thoughts into a blog post?’ You know: how we exploit our experiences for fleeting validation from those we barely know, and we’re
never happy with the results; so like addicts, we throw more meaningless
wood on a pointless fire that is burning us, destroying us, slowly from the
inside on out. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. I can’t escape it either, despite being aware of it. Like a three-time junky with the needle plunging
into his arm. Follow me @artofstarving.wordpress.com

star

I’m alive and breathing. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.

Ammo for Annabelle

The swamp was waist deep. A rank miasma occupied the air. We trudged through algae, ducked vines that hung down like Garden of Eden snakes, and brushed against things that could kill us. At least bombs were no longer falling out of nowhere, replacing soldiers with craters and filling the air with fire. The enemy decided it wasn’t crazy enough to follow us in here. It seemed like the whole war was a competition to see who was crazier; like a bunch of 13 year olds playing Dare.

I was the ammo-carrier, bringing up the rear. On my back was a satchel of bullets and clips, instruments of death.

The day was only half over when we heard a wheezing and choking behind us. We turned and saw Scallop foaming at his mouth, with blisters and pustules raging across his face. A gigantic convulsion shook his whole body. He fell forward into the swamp. Everybody retreated a few steps. They whistled for a medic who came treading over, not in much of a hurry if you ask me. He put on gloves and a mask and lifted Scallop’s lifeless body out of the swamp. Water drained from his flesh like through a spaghetti strainer. The medic felt for a pulse. He gave it ten seconds then yelled to the generals up ahead that the man was dead.

The second-in-command came over. Even through his thick, bristly beard we could see him scowling at us, like it’s our fault.

“We can’t bring him with us,” he barked.

“What do you want me to do?” The medic asked.

The second-in-command looked at me. “You, find a rock and tie it to him. Make it so they can’t find this corpse.”

He’d only been dead less than a minute, already Scallop had become a thing you’d give to a bunch of student doctors to play with. How long do you have to be dead to be a corpse?

“Sir?”

“What?”

I looked around. “We’re in a swamp. There are no rocks.”

“Find something, asshole.”

There was nothing but lily pads and peat moss and angry soldiers around me. Peter swam over, the only one to acknowledge my predicament. Peter is the biggest soldier in the troop, but also the gentlest. Peter was kind to all. Maybe when there is nobody to be afraid of you start to see the good in everybody – that was his only weakness as a soldier. I certainly don’t see it. Some people are just rotten to the core. I can’t find the good in them with the Hubble telescope.

“Come on, let’s do this. It’s not pretty, but it needs to be done,” Peter told me.

He was right.

We felt with our hands for something heavy. Einhart joined in. Einhart was the type of guy who dated girls just because they were pretty and kept books by his bed he never read to impress these same pretty girls. “He was a tank mechanic, what good is that without tanks,” Einhart announced. “Rumor is they’re running out of food. Better stay useful, boys.”

“Shut up, Hart. Be respectful,” Peter told him, looking down at the dead man.

Einhart asked, “Why’d they call him Scallop anyway?”

I guessed, “Because he used to be a fisherman, right? Do you catch scallops?” I thought about it some more. “Is a scallop a fish or a bivalve?”

“Fuck if I know,” Peter said.

“What’s a bivalve?” Einhart asked.

“Fuck if I know,” Peter repeated.

“Something with a shell,” I explained. “Like an oyster.”

“Oh.” Einhart said, “I thought it was because of his face.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. Because of all of his zits.”

We looked down at Scallop and went quiet for a second. Chirping broke the silence followed by the wop-wop of gunfire. A parrot, bright blue and green, fell dead from a tree.  A group of soldiers cackled. The bird bobbed for a few seconds and then stopped. It’s rainbow colors looked like an oil stain on the black water. None of the generals scolded them for wasting ammo.

Peter looked at me. “How much is left?” He asked.

I checked the pack. “About a quarter,” I told him.

He gave me a partial grin.

“I think I feel something,” Einhart yelped. He kicked the swamp floor with his foot. “Yep. Feels heavy. Like a big log or something.”

We all reached down and groped whatever it was.  “Okay, on three, lift it up. One. Two. Three,” Peter counted.

It wasn’t that heavy but it would definitely keep Scallop from floating away. When we got it to the surface we could see scales and a long snout. It wasn’t a log but a dead crocodile. “The dead for the dead, huh?” Einhart noted, and he was right.

We tied Scallop to the crocodile without much fanfare and let them both drop. Almost immediately they disappeared in the murky dark water. Soldier and crocodile. We turned around and plowed through the swamp to catch up, nobody talking about what just happened. Moving on.

Is that how quickly I’ll be forgotten?

I came to the dead parrot that was still floating in the brackish water. An explosion of tropical color on the torpid swamp. While the others weren’t looking, I took it and stuffed it in the pack with the ammo. I don’t know why. I guess I couldn’t stand to see something so beautiful left behind. I wanted this march to mean something.

“I really hope we get out of this fucking swamp. I think I’m turning into a toad.”

“You’re already a toad, Hart,” Peter joked. “Let’s just get back.”

We caught up just as day was slipping into night and Autumnal colors churned in the pregnant sky. A swirl of pink and pumpkin paint masquerading as clouds. The swamp dried out into solid ground but our boots still squished as we walked. The generals told us not to rest. They said the enemy was still following us and we had to keep going. Nobody knew what to believe anymore.

Three hours later, the night sky was cut in half by a blazing, arching orange light. The light from a star burning out, a million years in the past, just reaching us now? A rocket shot from a ship, thundering into a village, scattering body parts like seeds in a field? God’s ironic smile revealed in an amber parabola?

For no reason, they started shooting into the treetops, like they were going to hit a missile miles away. I silently urged the generals to stop them, but they just laughed at it. They enjoyed this display of unwarranted aggression.

The second-in-command finally spoke. “Alright. Alright. Put your dicks back in, boys.”

The soldiers who did the firing came over, laughing. “Fill us up, ammo boy.”

I took out some cartridges and handed them over, feeling my pack getting lighter, which wasn’t a good thing as far as staying alive and all that.

We kept marching, through forest and exhaustion. The only thing that kept my feet moving forward was the picture of Annabelle I pulled from my breast pocket every mile or so, like the plastic rabbit in front of greyhounds, I was chasing after it. It reminded me there’s a place where the trees don’t explode and the land doesn’t turn into soup. Where the women don’t pull knives out of their privates.

In it, Annabelle is half smiling/half laughing at something off-camera. There’s a monkey cage in the background so I’m guessing I took the picture at a zoo somewhere. It’s just a picture, but it’s like I can feel her when I look at it, like I’m transported back to that day.  I don’t recall that zoo, just her. It’s been so long, though. I wonder how much else I’ve forgotten.

I can’t quite remember her voice, either, or the way she entered a room, but there’s this feeling instilled in me that her unbridled joy fixed my chronic discontent, her touch could cure whatever blues enveloped me. She was like aloe. A corner puzzle piece. A crumpled-up bill found in the laundry.  I might not recall the sound of her laughter, but I know it would always make everything right, and it will unfailingly make this right once I get back.

I searched the ground and found a pile of rocks. They were arranged into some sort of small gravestone marker. I picked them up and stuffed them in the pack. The buried don’t need them as much as I do right now. You can’t shoot a gun with rocks, but at least it might buy me the time to get to Annabelle again.

A gunshot cracked the silence. We all froze, looked around. The second-in-command held up his arm, nonplussed. “Hold your fire,” he shouted. General #1 came striding out of the trees, smoking the stub of a cigar and brandishing a smug grin.

“It’s okay,” General #1 announced. “Keep walking.”

We obeyed, bee-lining through the trees. I did a count. There was somebody missing.

Peter was in front of me. I could see his head swivel as well, doing his own count. We knew better than to ask questions.

All night we walked while the stars sizzled overhead. Our eyes adjusted to the dark and you could see the depth and dementia of the war in the burned outlines of the forest. In what was missing.

We came to a clearing. It was now dawn. We hadn’t slept. There was a small structure in the clearing. Delirium seasoned the air. We gathered around it, deciding whether to investigate, considering the possibility it was a trap.

“It could have ammunition in it,” Peter suggested. I had the feeling he was looking out for me. “Or food,” he added.

Everything was running out.

The second-in-command walked down the line, observing our rank, making grim calculations. He settled on Thompson, an army journalist. “You’re going in,” he told him. “Hey, this could be something to write about,” he said, chuckling, avoiding any attempt at sincerity.

Thompson looked worried. “With all due respect, that is not my role here, sir.”

The second-in-command tilted his head back and forth and pursed his lips in a mocking display of considering Thompson’s words. His hand gently massaged his gun. “Well, then the way I see it, you really don’t have a role at all.”

Thompson emitted a defeated, heavy sigh. The next words dropped from his mouth like icicles off a warming roof. “Okay. Give me a gun.”

“That’s the can-do spirit,” the second-in-command told him, clapping him hard on his back. “Give this brave writer a gun. He’s a soldier now.” He laughed. So did others.

We all backed up and watched Thompson enter the structure, his hand with the gun shaking like a dry alcoholic’s. I stood behind a tree and crouched, just in case, others did the same. He wasn’t in there for more than a minute. When he emerged he was carrying a pile of bones across his chest like firewood. He dropped them on the ground. “Bones. It’s just bones.”

The second-in-command bristled. “What do you mean: just bones?”

“Bones, like, what holds us together. That’s it.”

I wasn’t sure he was right about that: about what holds us together.

We rushed in to take a look. I don’t know why I followed. Probably just not to stand out. Maybe I was curious. Maybe that’s the thing about me: maybe I’m no better than the rest. The room was only about 100 square feet but every one of them was covered with bleached white human remains.

I thought of Annabelle, lying naked in chalky moonlight.

“Are they ours?” Someone asked.

Peter answered, “How can you tell? Bones are bones.”

Einhart joked, “If they get up and try to shoot at us, you know they’re theirs.”

“I think we’re safe with this group,” I replied.

Einhart picked up a humerus. “I’m going to make a flute out of this one.”

Peter stuck his meaty jaw two inches from Einhart’s forehead.  “You do that and I’m going to make a flute out of you!”

Einhart shriveled up. “What’s your problem?”

“That could be one of our men.”

“If you haven’t noticed, we’re shooting our men too.”

The room went silent. Neither of them budged. I didn’t know if I should say something or let them fight about it. The other men closed in, smelling violence. Someone knocked over a pile of bones, they rattled like wooden wind chimes. This caused me to laugh, but also gave me an idea.

“Hey, you can use this.” I pulled the dead parrot out of my sack and handed it to him. He gave it a strange look. We all looked at the clump of feathers and beak in Einhart’s hands with similar expressions.

Einhart looked unsure. “Bird bone flute, huh?”

“Sweet sounds, man,” I told him, though I had no idea what they sounded like.

Peter shrugged. “The ancients did it.”

I could see Einhart struggling with his decision. “It’ll do,” he finally said.

I exhaled. I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t breathing. I wondered if it was possible to voluntarily suffocate yourself, just hold your breath until your face is blue. If things ever got that bad? Other soldiers looked disappointed, they wanted the fight.

Peter put his hand on Einhart’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here, man.” We followed, leaving the bones behind us.

Explorations of Beauty and Decay

Once we were outside, the generals told us when we reach the sea there would be boats waiting. Then they instructed us to keep marching. It’s been two straight days now on our feet.

The others talked about the boats as if they signaled the end of this madness. The generals didn’t tell us where the boats would take us, just that they’d be waiting. I figured they would probably take us to a worse place, probably a desert or a tundra, some awful place people are incomprehensibly willing to die over, but at least we would be out from under this canopy of disease and death.

We walked until the moon replaced the sun and satellites carved up the bruised sky.

That night the generals handed out a packet of white ambrosia pills with instructions that we needed to take one every 12 hours. There was also one green pill, in case we were captured by the enemy. They said one pill would make us fearless, two would make us delirious and see things that weren’t there; so only take one at a time. They were real specific.

I took two. After what I’ve seen I wasn’t worried about the things that weren’t there. Immediately angels appeared in the treetops and I felt the ground tingling under my boots. I heard music in the susurrus of the breeze. There was beauty again. It was painful.

For some time, I forgot I was carrying 40 pounds of ammunition, I forgot where I was, I forgot about the forward movement of time, even, until Einhart hit me on my shoulder. “You’re holding up the line,” he complained. I turned and saw thirty children with scared faces staring at me. I saw their eyes pooled with dread.

I shouldn’t have taken two.

I marched on because that’s what we do. I don’t know for how long or where. The Earth rotated, it’s only goal to tip me forward. There was a constant hum in my ears that made them melt. I felt my lips fall off my face. Everything slowly seemed to be crumbling. There was a heavy fog. It felt like the entire world was made of it.

Out of the ether, Annabelle appeared, nervous, biting on her lip. “Annabelle?” I whispered, afraid if I made too much noise she’d run away. What was she doing here?

“Who are you?” She asked, confused.

“It’s me. Your love.”

She shook her head. I reached out for her hand, but she withdrew it. She continued to stare at me like I was abstract art before dissipating back to vapor. I felt her in the fog all around me, but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. I couldn’t shake it. It was like touching ice that was so frozen your finger sticks to it, so cold it burns.

I was walking around in a daze. I hit something in the dark. A soldier shouted, “Kick me again and I’m going to shoot you in the dick!”

We were camped out, apparently… finally. I was sleepwalking. Or else dreaming. Or maybe I was a ghost that came back for one more night on this wretched Earth. I don’t know. The ambrosia did funny things to me. There were no answers, just questions. That’s what this life does to you as an ammo-carrier. I don’t fire the guns, I just load them, and whenever my load is light it means a lot of people have died.

It means I may be next.

We were up and walking again. The double dose of ambrosia wore off and there was something different. Things were changing. The sky was more exposed, the trees less tightly packed, the clouds filled with sodium grit, the air shifted from sweat to sweet. One letter that changes everything, like God to sod, help to hell.

The generals announced that we were getting close. This made our coterie of killers nearly squirm with delight. It made me nervous. I was getting closer to Annabelle, but at the same time, further away. Would she remember me? Would she still love me?

Peter came up to me. For the first time since I’ve known him he didn’t look strong. “Do you think we’re really going home?” He asked.

“I don’t know. They won’t say.”

“What are you talking about? They told us last night the boats were going to take us home. It’s over.”

It must have happened when I was marooned on the double ambrosia effect.

“Really?” I asked.

“Dude, where are you?”

There were numerous ways I could have answered this question. Physical. Metaphysical. Emotional. Like Confucius. Like Stephen Hawking. Like John Wayne Gacy. The question, although I’m confident it was rhetorical, made me stop in the mud and think. The soldier behind me crashed into my back and shouted, “What the fuck, man?” That question, too, led me down a labyrinth of twisted answers… like, yeah, what the fuck?

“Come on,” Peter said, and I followed. Because that’s what I do: I follow.

When the trees turned to shrubs and then that turned into grassland, the excitement became unbearable, we became like noisy mosquitoes, buzzing and biting. Then the ocean appeared, glinting and vast. The light was like from a dream, golden and fine. I thought everybody was going to run and dive right in the water, like little kids, but then I realized that there weren’t any boats. This had everybody quiet, scanning the empty sea, pondering. Despair is too sunny a word. Picture a group of children finding their favorite stuffed animal ripped to shreds, their new puppy the culprit, laying lifeless next to it, choked to death from the stuffing. Yeah, like that.

We looked to the generals who themselves were looking at the sea with disappointed expressions. The fact that they didn’t know what was going on was worse than the feeling that they were lying to us. At least when you’re misled there is somebody in control.

I plopped down on the sand and took out my picture of Annabelle. My eyes went misty. Would I ever see her again?

Peter sat down next to me. “Is that your girl?” He asked, staring ahead.

“Yeah.” I handed him the picture.

He took it and furrowed his brow. His jaw hung open like a ransacked drawer.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“What’s your girl’s name?”

“Annabelle.”

“Annabelle?” He repeated.

“Yeah.”

“And you’re from Ohio, right?”

“Yes. What is it?”

Peter removed a picture from his breast pocket. “This is Christy,” he told me, handing me the photo. “We’re from Oregon… supposedly.”

I looked at it. It was a picture of Annabelle. Annabelle in front of an elephant. Or Christy in front of an elephant. They were identical, the girls, the pictures, all except for which part of the zoo they were taken in front of.

“I don’t understand.”

Peter shook his head. “I don’t either.”

“But…” I couldn’t finish the thought.

We sat in the sand, holding the pictures of our loves. I looked back and forth between them. In each picture, she was wearing the same outfit: a black tank top with a long purple skirt, a Navajo opal necklace draped across her chest. The light was consistent in each. They had to have been taken on the same day.

There was a biting ache I had to dislodge from my chest. “I don’t know why you have a picture of Annabelle, but if you’re doing this to fuck with me, then…”

“Calm down. I’m not fucking with you. Think about it. Where did you meet Annabelle?” He asked.

My mouth was open to speak but nothing came out. I tried to answer his question, but my tongue couldn’t push out any words. I don’t really remember a time before the war. All I know is I’ve been holding this picture of Annabelle next to my heart for what seemed like forever. When you’re in love, the details don’t matter, right? I just know Annabelle has always been waiting at home for me; if she’s not real, then maybe home isn’t either? Maybe that’s why the boats aren’t here? There’s nowhere to go?

The second-in-command stood in the foaming tide. Fellow soldiers flanked him on either side, peering into the horizon. Nobody knew what to do. My thoughts were so loud they cancelled everything else. I thought about the green pill. It was the size of a shirt button, but seemed bigger than this whole world. They say the Universe started from a hot, dense pin-sized mass. Then the Big Bang happened and sent everything speeding through time. Everything: every galaxy, every planet, every tree, every mountain, every woman and every man, every atom in you and me started from the same small thing.

What if the enemy is us? What do we do then?

I still wanted to salvage this war, save something. “How do we know which one is real?”

Peter looked at me like: ‘come on, idiot.’

Out in the ocean, just beyond the waves, a dolphin crested the water, pure muscle and sleek, grey skin. Water spouted six feet out of its blowhole. Three more dolphins followed, lobbing their bodies out of the ocean, twisting in the air. They were swimming north, away from the war. We watched them approach, speechless. When they got even with us, the sunlight reflected off their shiny bodies and hit us on shore. It was like the light in the hospital room when you emerged from your mother’s womb, blinding and terrifying. They kept swimming, playfully leaping in and out of the water, oblivious to the soldiers on the beach.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

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