Roadkill

Sitting and lazily swiveling in my broken leatherette desk chair, I looked around my office, searching its contents for some sense of purpose for being there, but much to no avail.  Brown bookcases lined the walls, squeezed tightly together in a uniform fashion. The shelves were concave, virtually choking on artifacts collected (hoarded, really) over my three-year tenure at the university. Many of my interests, adopted since graduate school, were also sufficiently represented: Old English textbooks, manuals on psychotherapy, stacks of literature—most of the poetry and “dirty realism” ilk—and guides that promised to convey all one could ever want to know about qualitative research methods and their ethical applications. They were more distractions and dalliances than anything, really, that—in lieu of slowing things down and actually reflecting on my life—occupied my mind and most of my free time. Despite the random bursts of clutter that, strategically, were left untouched so as to add a sense of busyness to the room, it was a pleasant space to be in, with its dark, laminate wood furniture (in their varieties of almost-matching hues) and motley knick-knacks that, while decorative, gave visitors little to no information about the inner-workings of my head, leaving them a bit disturbed and slightly off-kilter. The main culprits were a gold-leaf Ganesh statue that doubled as a paperweight; a plaster skull that served as a makeshift bookend; a worn copy of the Zohar on the console table by the door; a metal dachshund on a wooden base, peeing on a fire hydrant; an earmarked book of daily reflections on stoicism; and a vintage toaster from the 1950s that sat atop the bookcase near the office’s rear window that immediately pulled one’s attention towards the back wall, where multiple degrees were mounted like stuffed deer heads, but with no sense of pride or accomplishment attached to them. Stopping mid-swivel, I eyed the few shelves dedicated to the field that I not only currently taught, as a full-time assistant professor, but had dedicated a good portion of my adult life to, social work.

Many titles rang familiar, as I had immersed myself in the profession (clinical practice to be exact) for more years than I cared to admit, hitting heights in my career that even I had never anticipated. I smiled and nodded to myself, as I scanned book spines for titles I was particularly fond of and found most useful. Most of them centered around cognitive-behavioral therapies and developmental theories: the subjects that had lent greatly to my success as a therapist and college instructor. Other titles were observed, however, inserted willy-nilly amongst the familiar, that fell upon my consciousness with a dismally lackluster thud. I had no recollection of where they came from or even why I bought them in the first place. Their subject matters were relevant enough, spanning everything from family therapy to mindfulness-based practice to the “science of compassion” (whatever that was), but I had never handled any of them, nor flipped a single page between any of their crease-free, paperback covers.

Must have been bought last year when I still gave a shit…or at least tried to, I thought to myself, disturbingly unmoved by the assumption.

Truth be told, I was no stranger to orchestrating a life based on what I “should” do, though the origin of that narrative really was never quite clear to me. The pursuit of upward mobility and goal attainment had become second-nature, making alternate options tantamount to failure or—at the very least—proof that all the things I had been trying to convince myself that I wasn’t were, indeed—after all—true. To ponder too long upon such thoughts was unacceptable. “We don’t do that,” my father used to say to me (when we were still speaking, anyway), after any suggestion of doubt or surrender was made audibly known, as if he were speaking to one of the many faceless football players he had coached during his long, acclaimed high-school teaching career. The radio silence between the old man and me should have made things easier for me to find a way out of my current sojourn into limbo, but it didn’t. Some specters follow you no matter how much time has passed. No matter how many skins you’ve shed and brushed under dusty carpets; they stick like birthdays or the need to breathe. No, those thoughts just didn’t do. They were weak. Dangerous. After all, what would chucking it all have meant in retrospect? All those years of graduate school. The years of training. The late nights and weekends working in the ER until sun-up. My private practice. The systematic sacrificing of what little personal life I had had. All wasted? No. That wasn’t an option. From a practical standpoint, it made absolutely no sense to shift gears this late in the game—much less, start over from scratch. That meant giving up everything I had talked myself into thinking was important and that couldn’t happen, even though I—more than anything—wished it could.

As the silence of my office began to stab at my ears, I was overcome with the urge to feel tethered to something—anything. The groundlessness of what seemed like a constant free-fall was beginning to wear on me.  I was always in my head, and when I was lucky enough to be present—really present—I felt pressed by the weight of it all—my life—and hyper-conscious of the meat that burdened my leaden bones.

My work had brought me a decent amount of security over the years, opening enough doors to help me coast through life. Up until a few months prior, that had been the most important thing in my small world, but—more and more—the prospect of more years of automaton-like productivity had begun to grate on me, gradually tearing away at the illusion of my career and its once-held platinum-card appeal. Maybe it was because I never really wanted to become a social worker—and clinician—in the first place. After all, it was just a means to an end, a way to prove something; though I wasn’t sure to whom. Maybe that was what came from expecting too much, or too little, or nothing at all. Maybe it was what came from forcing a purpose in life and not letting one just unfold before me. To have expected a different outcome seemed silly. In truth, the glamour had faded and, ultimately, I was left navigating a cold world of hard edges and empty space.

Leaning my head back onto my chair’s headrest, thoughts pulled me back to the summer of 1977 when I drowned in my apartment complex’s swimming pool; I always went there when I found myself walking that thin line between depression and numbness. School was out, so my sister and I had gone down to the pool to let off some steam and cut the boredom of the day. I remembered my father was there, reading a newspaper on a nearby bench with his usual cup of black coffee. My sister, Lisa, a pretty and slightly chubby girl, was laying on her stomach in a black Woolworth’s one-piece with sash-like fuscia and turquoise stripes that wrapped around her thick waist, flipping through a then-current issue of Tiger Beat magazine with John Travolta on the cover. I aimlessly dog-paddled about the shallow end of the pool, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back and the silky coolness of the water that glided around my legs. After a while, a boy about my age—probably from another unit in the complex—entered the pool gate and headed to the patch of grass near the water. While close to the same height, the boy was much bigger than me. He threw his towel in the grass and dove in, surfacing close to where I was treading water. It wasn’t long before a friendly exchange took place, and both of us shot-the-shit, chatting about everything from Legos to what pains-in-the-ass sisters were. Eventually, a game of tag ensued, and we flopped about, darting to-and-fro, launching ourselves from the rough-surfaced pool walls in relentless, individual efforts to make the other ‘it.’ I remembered one of my ankles being grabbed and then being pulled down, hard, but not before an excited laugh escaped my lips; a moment of true, unadulterated happiness. I remembered being underwater for a long time, not being able to breathe or rise above the surface. There was thrashing and kicking. The pulling didn’t stop. I remembered the play of shimmering webs of sunlight on pool walls around me. I remembered the distorted world above the surface that seemed miles from where I was. I remembered panic and the color light-blue.

Then black.

When my eyes opened, I was on my back; the silhouette of Lisa’s head looming over me, as the noon sun beat down in a relentless assault. Instinctively, my eyes searched around for my father, but he was gone. It was just Lisa and me. She had given me CPR and saved my life; a fortuitous perk of her working part-time, as a lifeguard, at the city pool that summer.

“Oh, my God, Jacob! Are you ok? Are you ok?” Tears filled her eyes.

I was disoriented and had taken in a lot of water. I was too busy coughing up what seemed to be an endless supply of it to answer her. Each cough set off a fire in my chest, as small trickles of warm liquid splashed upon the concrete under my left cheek.  “Where is Dad? I want dad!” I cried.

“He’s getting help. You stopped breathing, Jacob. We—I couldn’t find a pulse. Oh, my God! You scared us to death! Are you ok?” Barely navigating her way through the too many emotions she was having, she pulled up my limp body from the ground and hugged me, tightly; something that had never happened before. “That fucking asshole! Was he trying to kill you?”

“What? Who?” I asked, laying back down on the warm, wet concrete, finding its hardness soothing.

“That kid. That asshole you were playing with! He pulled you down and wouldn’t let go.”  Lisa began to cry, stifling her sobs, as she continued. “I—we didn’t notice what was happening until…We saw you under the water. You weren’t moving!”

Lisa moved away to give me some air, leaving me even more muddled and blinded by the sun. I asked, “What happened to him?”

Lisa looked confused. “What are you talking about, Jacob?”

“The boy. Where is he?”

“I dove in and tried to pull you away from him, but he just wouldn’t let go. He wouldn’t stop. Asshole! That fucking asshole!”

“So, how did you—”

“I kicked the fucker in the stomach! Hard! That’s how!  He wouldn’t let you go!  I snatched you away and he took off, crying. I don’t know where. I pulled you out and…you weren’t breathing. You weren’t breathing!” She sobbed, wiping hot tears from her cheeks. “I checked after I got you out. You didn’t have a… Are you ok?” I had never seen her look at me with such care before. For a moment, it felt nice.

About a minute passed before I could speak, as I clutched the hard ground beneath me, waiting for the world to stop spinning as if I could be flung off into the blackness of space at any minute. “I think so,” I said, still in shock, shivering. I raised myself onto my elbows, slowly, with my eyes—like my chest—burning with chlorine. “Where is Dad? I want dad! Where was he? Did he see?” I asked, wishing it had been him who had saved me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the bench where he had been sitting; a newspaper was neatly folded on its surface and his coffee cup was gone.

I rarely thought of that summer day; it, essentially, remained wiped from my memory, except for when things got low—really low—which happened every so often, but still more than I cared for. I chuckled to myself at the irony of being saved only to live a life that didn’t seem like mine anymore. Guess God wasn’t done with the show yet. At times I felt like maybe things were so hard because I did come back, almost as if I wasn’t supposed to be here anymore, and the world let me know that at every turn. Or maybe I didn’t come back all the way—a jumble of remnants that couldn’t quite be properly pieced together, again. It was all so tiring, but that is what happens when you live life on a dare; the words “want” and “can’t” just don’t exist, so there is no choice but to keep moving and trying until the day you just don’t anymore. Truth be told, I longed for that day, sometimes, but that wasn’t up to me.

I could hear the custodian cleaning the office next door; he would be in my office soon.  It was almost six in the evening, according to the clock on the computer. I let out a long, drawn-out exhale and gathered a stack of ungraded papers from under my keyboard and stuffed them into my satchel, powered down the computer, and prepared to lock up for the night. I turned off the lights and took one last look around the space for anything I may have missed. Turning to leave, I slightly hesitated, noticing how peaceful the room was without the electric hums of fluorescents and a running computer. It was time to go, though.

Papers to gradeDogs to feedSleep.

The drive home was calming. The lulling, rhythmic kisses of rubber treads on the road. The random selections of my iTunes on low. The stale smell of cigarettes and sweat in my car that reminded me of my grandfather, who died forty years ago too soon, and his old, white Ford pick-up. I took the backroads home, as I always did, which took a little longer, but they were rarely used that late in the day, so I could take my time driving when the inclination hit me. I didn’t mind. I liked to drive, especially when the quiet in my life threatened to overtake me, granting license to thoughts and memories to rouse and scramble, looking for hints of light that seeped in through doors, opened ajar, hungry for recognition. I reached my right hand over towards the passenger’s seat, threw back the flap of my satchel, and dug into its contents for a Marlboro, fumbling through the sharp edges of papers and uncapped pens with determined purpose. Keeping vigilant, my eyes were fixed on the road, ahead, when I felt the edge of a cardboard box graze my fingertips. I pulled out the pack and with my thumb flipped open the top, bringing it to my lips, where I proceeded to pull out a lone cigarette with my teeth. I lit it with the lighter I had purchased that morning at 7-11; one more to add to the slew that I had, progressively, stockpiled at home in errant drawers, leather bags, and even the bathroom, where I ritualistically had my first smoke of the day, after dragging myself out of bed. I always forgot them when I left the house—too many thoughts, too early.  I took a long, crackling drag and held it in my lungs for a while, exhaled, and then wrested my wrist on top of the steering wheel. As the cigarette dangled between me and the speedometer, I eyed the yellow-grey smoke, as it streamed from its flaming cherry, lost in how it rippled and curled like a fine silk ribbon. I admired the graceful poetry of it and thought it a shame to turn it to shreds with another exhale.

A loud ruckus suddenly broke my reverie, as the car and everything in it shook and shifted.

Shit! Did I hit something?

My eyes darted forward and found nothing but open road, then I quickly looked into the rear-view mirror, noticing nothing but a blackening sky that slowly melting into asphalt that was divided by intermittent dashes of vibrant yellow. Pulling my attention back to the world outside the windshield, I noticed a shock of red among the dark hues that flooded the rear-view. I squinted and focused, intently, into the mirror, noticing a band of red that stretched in tandem along the road’s surface, while my tires intermittently jarred and sounded, as if driving over stones and wet, rolled-up newspapers. Confused, I clutched the steering wheel with my other hand—so hard I pumped the blood out of my knuckles—and scanned the road before me, noticing the same ruddy hue extending off into the distance. Clumps of black speckled the highway, disappearing into the periphery, as quickly as my tires propelled me home. Intermittent bumps and pops from the road, below, reverberated within the cabin.

What?

I tossed my cigarette out of the cracked, driver-side window.

Something got run over.

I checked the rear-view, again, and saw no cars behind me, then decelerated to better see what was going on straight-ahead.

It’s blood…and fur.

Given the distance that the length of gore had stretched and the amount of carrion on the road, it appeared as if some poor animal had been hit and dragged along for quite some time. As if in an automatic response, I turned the wheel, slightly, to adjust the position of the car within the lane, centering it directly over the deathly strip. Off to my right in the distance, I spied a motionless black mass by the side of the highway, much larger than what had then been feeding the road and my tires. I drove on and followed my “guide” until it minimized into sporadic smears and splatters that trailed off onto the side of the road, where the still thing lay. Veering off, I parked just ahead of it, turned off the ignition, and just sat there, staring at it in the rear-view.

A quiver possessed my legs, as I noticed my hands were still grasping the steering wheel.  I released them, my right hand instinctively searching for another cigarette

Damn!

Stopping myself, I remembered I had just smoked the last one.

It’s gotta be dead.  No way he could survive that.

I wondered why I had stopped. What could I do? It didn’t make sense, but something inside me knew I had to stop and take a look. Bracing myself, I released the seatbelt and opened the door. The air that night was cooler the usual—chilly, almost. I poked my head out into the dimmed light of evening and looked to the right, then left. Still no cars. I—we—were alone. I got out, closed the door, and took a deep breath. I looked ahead of me at a field of cotton that flanked the left side of the highway. The stalks looked black against the evening sky with a peppering of stark white that punctuated the—seemingly—lifeless expanse’s absence of color. It seemed colder all of a sudden—the air more humid and nipping than before.

I turned to my left and walked towards the heap, the crunching of gravel and clods of dried mud beneath my feet. With every step, splatters of crimson and bits of meat and fur marred the path ahead of me. I finally came upon it. The headless tangle of broken limbs—a dog, likely—had thick, black, wooly fur, that was stickily matted with congealing blood and gore. It was sprawled out in an almost apologetic fashion, seeming to want to edge its way towards the shallow canal just beyond its reach, past a patch of chaparral trees some forty feet away from where I stood. Looking down upon the sad lump, safely distanced from it (though safe from what I didn’t know), I stood in silence and inspected my “summoner.” Shards of bone and bloody, gray innards crept out of peeks of torn flesh. Flies and ants had already started to feast.

Doesn’t take long, does it?

The smell of carnage hung in the moist air like the odor of pennies that had been held in a sweaty fist for too long. I thought of how much it must have suffered. How long it must have taken to die.

All alone…out here.

I wondered if he belonged to anyone. If he was missed. If anyone even cared… or would.  No answers came. Just the whispering of the wind through the chaparrals and black stalks of cotton beyond.

I wanted to feel sad, but didn’t… couldn’t. Something stirred within my chest; a burning.  I thought about what I would have done if I had found the animal alive. I would have tried to save it—if I could. Stayed with it—if all was lost—so he wouldn’t have to die alone; a prospect that made the fire in my chest rage even more. I imagined it alive and what it might have looked like, a pair of pleading, brown eyes, looking up at me for comfort; a tail, furiously wagging. In my head, I heard it whining and whimpering from fear and pain.  “We don’t do that,” escaped my lips before my consciousness could ground me in the bloody place where I stood. My eyes began to sting and moisten, but no tears came. Silent and fatigued, I hung my head, as if in prayer, and watched the fading sun glistening off dampened, black fur and red-tinted bones, finding my thoughts pulling me towards the comforts of home and six dogs that were very much alive.

Before I got back into my car to leave, I pulled off the college ring I had bought myself years ago, after graduation, and tossed it onto the carcass, as if to show any passers-by that he—maybe I— wasn’t alone.

The Fissure

“The gear is missing.”

Sanford Witter cursed under his breath and then again, louder. He turned from the half-disassembled tractor, scoured the matted dirt of the barn and found nothing. Dropping to a knee, the man looked underneath the dull, grist-laden machinery and spied a enormous rat, clutching something between its hideous, oily paws.

Something circular. Something shiny.

The gear.

“Give it back, you sneakin’ sonofabitch.”

The creature let out a loathsome chittering and pranced south into a wide crevice at the base of the foundation. Whitter furrowed his brows, doubly vexed.

Why, he wondered, would a rat take a gear? How could it carry something so heavy with such unnatural ease? And where did the crack in the foundation come from? Had it always been there? No, he shook his head fractionally. Its new. It hadn’t been there last Wednesday. I’m sure of it. Sure of it…

He rose and dusted his overalls off, adjusted his hat, spat and lit up a smoke and stood starring at the darkness that had swallowed his gear.

“Who you yelling at, hon?”

He turned slowly to his wife, who stood at the doorway, arms crossed, brow furrowed; concern overshadowed by heavy wooden trusses and a rising wind from the far plain and the high, hills beyond.

“Nothing. No one,” he replied gruffly.

“Made coffee.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

“Something the matter?”

“Somethings always the matter.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Its… you’re not going to believe this… a rat. Biggest rat I ever seen. Up and took one of my gears.”

“Oh. Ok…”

“See, I told you that you weren’t going to believe it.”

“Its cold out here and you’ve been working all day. Why don’t you come inside for a while? You’re so busy all the time… we rarely just… talk anymore.”

“Whaddaya mean? We’re talking now, ain’t we?”

“That’s not it. Oh, nevermind, nevermind.”

She shook her head and left-off as a chill wind snaked between the boughs of distant trees to shake the foundations of the barn. Witter rolled his eyes and rubbed his temples, heeling the dirt.

“Always something…”

*

In the days that followed the gear-theft, more pieces of mechanical equipment vanished from the barn. More pieces from the tractor. A wrench. A screw. A toolkit. A motor. With every theft, the crack in the wall grew wider. Witter could fit his whole arm, up to his shoulder, in it, but could see nothing within.

Witter, against all the protestations of his higher judgment, suspected the rat, but spied neither hide nor hair of it; either in the barn or in the spreading crevice, which he began to examine regularly with a flashlight.

He set traps laden with peanut butter around the tractor and the fissure in the wall and checked them daily, and every day, found the traps undisturbed.

*

A month later Witter awoke and rolled to wake his wife. She was gone. The imprint of her plump body yet-retained by the soft fabric of the covers. Witter frowned and pulled on his slippers and robe and rubbed sleep from his murky eyes and ventured downstairs.

“Hon? Martha?”

Room after room reverberated with the muted patter of plastic soles heeling against carpeted wood. Room after room he found nothing. Whenever she got up she showered and made tea and smoked her hickory pipe and read the paper with the TV on. This she would do, barring periods of illness, without fail.

Where’d she get to? She ain’t supposed to be going anywhere today. Least… she didn’t tell me she’d be leaving. She’d have said something if she were. She always says something. Nagging. Complaining bout my work. No… she’d have said something.

He threw on a pair of pants and a t-shirt and made for the drive. The car was sitting where it always had. He moved to the barn and screamed at what he saw.

Martha—dragged towards the fissure by the rat, which had grown considerably in size—clawed the padded dirt floor, blood spilling from broken fingernails.

“Martha! Hold on.”

The rat stepped on to one of the traps laid before the fissure and howled, momentarily releasing the terrified woman, who, gasping, threw herself blindly toward the door.

Witter seized an adjustable wrench from the weight-bar at the front of the tractor and ran forth with the sleek hunk of metal raised and brought it down upon the rats head. The creature shrieked, a small path of blood forming in bluish pulse beneath skull’s skin.

“Die, you sonovabitch!”

He brought the wrench down, harder this time, and heard a sickening crunch and felt the beast fall still beneath him. The horrid monster’s head gushed with frothing charcoal-colored rheum which hissed upon contact with the floor and ascended to the sky like strips of charred paper.

Witter released the wrench and took a step back, eyes wide, mouth open. Trembling.

“What on earth…”

The creature’s skull cracked open, like a paper mache balloon, wider and wider, as two steely claws emerged and rent the cranial cavity like as the fissure in the wall. From the depths of the chasm, crawled a rat. The mammal grabbed the wrench and swiftly dragged it into the head-hole of the carcass and vanished within the amniotic null.

When Witter’s eyes wandered to the fissure on the wall.

It was gone.

He turned to Martha and found her lying on the floor with a bloody wound to her skull. Her left eye, distended on its stalk, crustacean-like in the kindling light, which glinted off the small, cyclical gear, tightly clutched in her stiff, right hand.

The Silence & The Howl | Part 24

§.24


After Marla returned upstairs, and his exercises were finished, Harmon showered, dressed in a plain black T and blue jeans and went for a walk. He headed for the convenience store to the north of Andy’s abode where he hoped he might obtain cigarettes, coffee, jerky and a newspaper. He felt light, relaxed and more than a little confused at the utter absence of guilt and nervousness upon a thorough re-consideration of his recent actions.

He’d put Sprawls back behind bars and brought heat on the local cartel. It was a dangerous gambit, yet Harmon felt no tinge of unease. He stretched his arms against the flooding warmth of the bright, morning sun, smiling slightly as a mild gale swirled his short, black locks. He fished out the pack containing his few remaining cigarettes, lit one and studied the building stormwall in the distance. As the man approached the shoebox-like houses, set just before the intersection that girded his destination, a unfamiliar voice rang out from the sidewalk to his immediate left.

“Well… well. Look who it is.”

Harmon shifted his head to behold the same gang of mestizo and negro toughs he’d spied many days earlier approaching him from the stoop of one of the battered tenements. They hung in a loose throng behind a mulatto with large ears, heavy brows and a shaved head and small stubbly chin. Numerous tattoos ran down the left side of his dark, porous skin, from brow to neck.

The tattooed man stopped directly before Harmon who likewise paused so as to avoid colliding with the interloper.

“Seen you before. Driving. Flicked a cigarette. Out your car.”

“Forgot an ashtray.”

“Uh huh. Well, we don’t take kindly to littering. Right?”

The three men behind the tattooed man looked one to the other and smiled wickedly.

“That’s right,” one of them ejaculated with a strange and sudden fervor, bloodshot eyes bulging dry and brittle in thin, cloud-palled light.

Harmon exhaled to his left so as to keep the smoke from the interloper’s face and then sought a rightward path round him but found his way blocked. He paused and grimaced.

“You got some kinda problem?”

“No,” the tattooed man replied, “But you do.”

“You mind moving?”

“What if I do?”

The men behind the bald man yammered like hyenas. Harmon remained impassive. His fierce emerald eyes narrowing, fixed upon the fleshy, impudent bulwark. He’d a mind to say several inflammatory things to his waylayers and would have had he not been suddenly interrupted by a security guard who wandered out from the shade of the tenement to Harmon’s immediate right. The guard was an old and weathered man, with a stooped posture, hawkish features and a beard, thick, graying and neatly trimmed.

“Whats going on here?”

The half-blooded leader turned to the guard, annoyance clear writ upon his crinkled brow.

“Nothing.”

“Then get the hell out the street.”

“It look like there’s a car comin?”

“Don’t care if there’s no car.”

The mulatto frowned. The guard’s feet remained firmly planted.

“I ain’t keen on repeating myself, young man.”

The mulatto shook his head and turned hesitantly, casting one last look at Harmon, who returned the gaze. Dual visages charged with ferine animosity. Neither said a word and shortly the toughs left out and vanished within the concrete sepulchre.

“Shambling ghouls,” Harmon muttered reflexively as he made way to the right side of the street, opposite the way the mulatto had departed. There the old security guard greeted him and pointed to the black portal where once a door had been in the tough’s two story flat.

“Those punks bothering you?”

“Much as a mosquito might.”

The man extended his veiny and surprisingly muscular left hand.

“Names Harold La’Far.”

“Harmon Kessel.”

The man’s brows shot up.

“Harmon K… say… you ain’t a writer, are you?”

“Why, yes, yes I am.”

“I recently read this story online, called ‘The Factory At The Edge Of The World.'”

“That’s one of my stories.”

“Don’t that just beat all.”

“You liked it?”

“Liked it? No. I loved it. Say, I was headed up to the corner store for lunch, you wanna join me?”

“Be happy to. I was headed that way.”

The old man smiled broadly, crinkling up his azure-blue eyes, delighted. Harmon knew that, in such a neighborhood, a literary man would be hard-pressed for likeminded company. The degenerate hoards who slipped and slithered between the dark and crumbling facades of the barton were inimical to artistry, in appearance and behavior alike, more akin to premodern savages than civilized Man.

As Harmon strode beside the old man, to his right, in between the passing, trash-stuffed alleys of the dingy, peeling projects, he wondered when a new civilization would arise from the ruins of the old, convinced that such a eventuality was not a question of ‘if’ but only of ‘when’ and ‘how.’ His futurism subsided when they reached the graffittied corner store, which sat to the right side of the street. The duo passed within and ordered two cups of coffee to which Harmon added a new pack of cigarettes, beef jerky, and a paperback novel whose narrative remained opaque despite a thorough reading of its back-jacket synopsis.

The two men sat in the back of the stucco and linoleum box and drank their coffee in silence as a plain-faced woman mopped the floor beside them. She looked familiar. Harmon couldn’t see her face. La’Far cast his gaze over the paperback which peeked out from the confines of the plastic bag, which lay upon the right of the scratched and arm-worn table.

“Whatcha pick up?”

“Not sure. Synopsis was pretty vague. Had just been a while since I’d read anything new. Especially fiction.”

“Sometimes its good to just spin the wheel and see where it lands.”

Harmon nodded and sipped the aromatic brew as the cleaning lady moved past them with a forced smile and set down the sandwich that La’Far had ordered. He thanked her and fished out the pickle.

“I hope its a naturalist work.”

“Why is that?”

“All the journalists have become novelists, so its only fitting that the novelists should become journalists.”

The old guard straightened and sipped his coffee, “Maybe we never needed journalists to begin with.”

“Someone needs to swiftly disseminate pertinent information to the public.”

“Reckon so. Just get to thinking we’ve got too many people in the yappin trade. Too many people talking, not enough thinkin.”

“A consequence of aesthetic diffidence. Or rather, a diffidence towards a shared cultural aesthetic.”

“You mean like the national anthem, flag and so forth?”

“Rather more than that. But it doesn’t matter. Not in the present climate. To take art seriously, outside of the academy, is looked down upon. Art today is not thought of as a endeavour which should be great, it should only be fun. Everyone should be a hobbyist, a dilletante and if one is not, then one is being too self serious or pretentious or whatever other highhanded dismissal is fashionable with the critical establishment. Its rather like telling an engineer he’s being too self serious about his trade.”

Harold chuckled and nodded.

“You’ve got a way of putting things.”

Harmon flashed the man the faint-trace of a smile and stubbed his coffin nail in a beige ashtray upon the table.

“Art has become disconnected from its subject, which is always, in someway, the society in which it is done. Art only for the individual is not art at all, for there is no audience and failing one, no message to communicate and eventually no message at all but only vague intuitions and suggestions of emotion. Abstractions of abstractions. You can see this in the modern novels, more so in shorter works, the great bulk of which consist largely of impressions alone. The disconnected, as opposed to the distanced, the dispersive rather than the syncretic, works solely from the mold of other books which, often, have been written based on nothing but other, older, works. And so it is that the modern author produces a copy of a copy of a copy, without even realizing it. The public, unaware of what has come before, bedazzled by the occassional transgressive mediocrity, is want to treat the facsimile as something profoundly original and meaningful and yet, more often than not, would never think of reading those old works upon which they are based because they don’t speak to or of the spirit of the times and yet no one askes whether or not the spirit of our time should be spoken of at all.”

“The way you lay things out, I’d assume you were a professional artist.”

“No. I’m a roofer. Writing is a passion of mine but I’ve yet to figure out how to make anything off of it.”

“You work construction?”

Harmon nodded and withdrew one of his freshly purchased cigarettes, placed it in his mouth and lit it as a gaggle of middle aged wastrels spilled into the store.

“Been working construction for five years now.”

“That’s rough work. You like it?”

He nodded again, “Its rough but rewarding. I don’t mind the sore back or the stiffness or the long hours, its good exercise, I just mind the thanklessness.”

Harmon held up his cigarette pack and turned it in the pale, bluish shop-light.

“Someone made this design and most will never know who it was.”

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 22

§.22


Harmon pulled into the parking lot of the northeastern shopping center, its glassy, odd-angling facade shimmering with the solis like molten crystal. He squinted against the glare, put on his sunglasses, checked his wrist watch, exited the vehicle and headed for the pet food store. It loomed a story above every other building, its name, Erma’s Pet Emporium, stood out against the whitewashed and rain-stained walls, glowering from behind illuminated red plastic like the palled embers of an otherworldly fire.

Lyla was finishing her shift when Harmon strode up to her.

“How’ve you been, Bluebird?”

“H-Harmon…”

“Why haven’t you called?”

“Harmon, I’ve gotta close up here… can we talk later.”

“Can’t multitask?”

“Look… Harmon…”

“You’re making a very serious face.”

“I just need some time alone.”

“By ‘alone’ do you actually mean ‘alone,’ or just ‘away from me?'”

“Harmon, its not like that. Its hard to explain.”

She closed up the register and waved to her manager who waved back and then made for the exit, purse over her shoulder.

“Why I wish you would at least try.”

“I just need some time…”

“For what?”

Lyla paused in the middle of the parking lot and looked down at her shoes, unable to muster a cogent answer. Only one lone car moved against the stillness of that barren field. The wind twined her hair about her supple features like liquid night as her eyes narrowed with sadness and her hands went tight about her purse string.

“I can’t be with you anymore, Harmon.”

“Big difference between can’t and won’t.”

“You don’t understand.”

“You’re right about that. Suppose you won’t explain. Though, one thing I do understand is fidelity.”

“I don’t want to have these awful talks anymore.”

“When you didn’t return my calls I assumed as much. Though I never thought of our conversations as ‘awful.'”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it. I meant… conversations about being together.”

“Do you love me?”

Her wide eyes betrayed considerable surprise. Shortly, they disclosed tears.

“I don’t know.”

Harmon nodded to himself, a confirmation of a long held suspicion. He turned and looked towards the setting sun and spoke flatly.

“I remember when you first told me you loved me. More clearly do I remember when you told me you always would. You know what that makes you?”

“What?”

“A liar.”

Lyla straightened, a new resolve hardening her round and delicate face.

“I’ve got to go.”

“Course you do.”

“Goodbye Harmon.”

“You really don’t care, do you?”

“Of course I care.”

Harmon turned full around, hands in his pockets and his eyes dire and incandescent with the stellar sphere’s light.

“Just not about loyalty.”

He could see that it was the last straw for her. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, opened the door of her rental and back out of the lot.

“That’s alright,” Harmon declared to the sky as Lyla’s car melded with the midday rush, “She’ll come to care. I’ll make certain of that.”

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 17

§.17


They descended the stairs as thunder ranged beyond the ambit of the creaking tumbledown. Lyla wanted to watch a movie. Inquiries concerning the cinematic acumen of all present were made, with Andy judged most-knowledgeable, they settled into the massive, tattered and musty couch as their host plopped in a old VHS titled ‘Fractured Mirror.’ The story revolved around a down-on-his luck writer, well past his prime, whose wife had cheated on him with his publicist. The film charted his slow and painful mental deterioration and eventual self-reformation through murderer. Purity through violence.

As the writer bludgeoned his former lover to death with a shovel, Bluebird recoil and buried her head in Harmon’s chest.

“Too much for you?”

“Its my head. You know how sensitive I am with this kind of stuff.”

Lyla was prone to headaches and enjoyed playing up the fact. Harmon had long-induced she thought it cute and quirky. It proved, more often than not, merely affected and annoying.

He said nothing.

“Damn.” Muttered Marla, here eyes wide, fixed to the screen.

Andy chortled and downed some of his beer. After the murder scene the protagonist looked directly into the camera as an eerie cue played. Cut to black. Credits.

“Whadidya think?” Andy inquired, lighting up a cigarette.

“I thought it was really good.” Marla affirmed with a smile, stroking Andy’s arm and squeaking a, “You’ve such good taste in movies, babe.”

Andy smiled and turned to his others guests expectantly.

“Well whats the verdict?”

“I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t think it was going to be so violent.”

Andy rolled his eyes then looked to Harmon whose faraway eyes were fixed upon a small insect on the ceiling.

“She got what she deserved.”

“But they were in love!” Lyla protested.

“‘Were’ is the operative word.”

She looked up into his face and was greeted only with impassivity and resolve. She slowly shifted off of him and asked Andy if he would mind sparing one of his tall boys. He happily obliged and shortly the two trekked off to acquired some beers from the old, magenta fridge, leaving Marla and Harmon to their own devices.

Marla played with her softly jangling bracelets a moment an then leaned towards Harmon inquisitively.

“How long you two been together?”

“Since high school.”

“Oh! That’s wonderful. I didn’t take relationships seriously then.”

“Few do.”

“Yeah. Hey, I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. Was having a bad day.”

“Its no trouble at all.”

She smiled, “Were you serious?”

“About?”

“About the movie. I mean, you think she deserved what she got?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah. I don’t disagree. I used to date this guy named Tanner. Hot, wealthy – comparatively speaking – nice car. Seemed perfect.”

“But there was a snag.”

“Yeah.”

“He cheated on you.”

“Yup. He said he was sorry. That he was drunk, that he didn’t know what he was doing. He was a terrible liar. But even still I forgave him. Not two months later he’d left his phone lying on the counter of my kitchen – it rings and I check the messages. Some bitch asking what she should wear for him tonight.”

She shook her head and took a swig of beer and tapped out her half smoked menthol in the peach can Andy used as a makeshift ashtray.

“That’s unfortunate. What’d you do?”

“I told him to explain. I was ready to forgive him again. If he was honest.”

“Given you’re here, with Andy, I’m assuming he wasn’t.”

“Nope. Told me – get this – she was a ‘business associate’ and that’s why she was asking him what to wear. I told him business associates don’t tend to refer to each other as ‘babe’ and ‘darling’ – he didn’t have anything to say to that so I told him to leave. And that was that.”

“But now you’ve met Andy.”

“But now I’ve met Andy.”

She smiled widely and leaned back in her chair and took a puff of her cigarette. Shortly thereafter, Andy and Lyla returned from the kitchen bearing a six pack and a bag of off-brand nachos. They watched another film about a evil AI in a far-flung future where everyone used floppy disks and then decided to hit the sack. Andy implored Lyla to stay the night and then headed upstairs with Marla. When they were completely out of earshot, Lyla turned to Harmon dourly.

“Did you mean what you said?”

“Bout?”

“Bout her ‘getting what she deserves.’

“Yeah.”

“How can you say that?”

“Can say it because I believe it.”

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 15

§.15


Harmon drew the device’s teeth against the wood grain.

The sound of the chainsaw split the tranquility of the placid Sunday afternoon and sent the sparrows spinning from their thorny thrones.

The smell of the wood, the metal, the machine’s furious humming engulfing the grotesque chittering of the wide outer bright.

He stood over a small, felled tree before Andy’s old, creaking house, the species-name escaping his ken, and rolled it with his booted-heel and worked the grinding steel of the mechanical saw against the spindly branches which shivered like insectal limbs with the impact. He paused to behold a group of men walking along the street. Familiar faces all. They were those he had seen so many days before, waiting at the corner just beyond Sprawls’ house. The congregation wore brightly colored and expensive clothing and moved with a languid swaggered, as if the entirety of the sidewalk upon which they walked belonged to them.

A young and scantily-clad woman moved down the side walk, heading straight for Andy’s lot, ass pushed up and out in jeans one size too tight, hair cropped on both sides, long on top and combed wildly to one side, below which a thin, ribbed and sleeveless exercise top girded her wobbling breast, paler than her spray tanned skin. Harmon thought he’d seen her before but could not remember where. She paused and turned and yelled something at him, her round, lacquered face contorting in vexation. He stopped the chainsaw.

“What?”

“I said why the fuck you gotta make so much fucking racket.”

The gangbangers laughed and muttered jokes concerning the scene.

Harmon furrowed his brow and methodically set the machine down beside the brush pile and dusted off his jeans and turned to the woman with a placid expression.

“Just clearing some brush.”

“Well, clear it somewhere else.”

“Ain’t no other brush to clear. Even if there was, think that would probably be trespassing.”

Her expression softened and she crossed and uncrossed her arms anxiously.

“Andy around?”

“Harmon nodded fractionally and jerked his thumbed above his shoulder, pointing towards the house.

“He’s inside. Bout to leave though. Better hurry.”

She did so and made he way to the door and and passed therein as Harmon bent to his lent chainsaw and returned to work as the toughs, having lost their source of amusement, ambled along down the street.

A hour passed. The woman hadn’t come out of the house. Bluebird hadn’t called. His anger had ebbed some but he refused to allow placidity to overtake him.

Lessons must be learned, so first, they must be taught.

He surveyed the flat, dying grass of Andy’s diminutive lot, restarted the chainsaw and imagined the tree was Serena’s throat.

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 12

§.12


When Harmon waved to Sprawls as he made breakfast the man only shook his head and sneered.

“What?”

“Why you still here?”

“Where were you expecting me to be?”

“Anywhere but here. I told you last night. Ain’t gonna work out.”

“Are you being serious?”

“I ain’t gonna throw you out. I know you don’t have anywhere to go right now. You find one. Then you leave.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Richard?”

Sprawls didn’t answer and kept buttering his toast over a paper plate beside the kitchen sink. Even as he did so, his bloodshot and buggy eyes swept to the side cautiously, suspiciously.

“You’re gonna throw me out because… I didn’t give you a cigarette? Have I got that right?”

Sprawls shook his head and didn’t answer.

“Stop buttering the god-damned toast. I’m talking to you.”

“I gotta leave. You just remember what I said.”

With that Sprawls turned to leave but Harmon braced him with his left hand, turning him half about as Sprawls grunted and smacked his roommate’s arm away.

“Don’t you put your fucking hands on me.”

“This is my house too, Richard. I’ve been splitting the rent with you since you got it. We’ve been playing music together for four fucking years – you want to end all of that over… what? Nothing?”

“I’m not repeating myself.”

“What is wrong with you?”

Sprawls just starred at him dumbly. Harmon knew he was high. He could smell it on his clothes. He wondered if Sprawls was on something else. He was always on something.

“Ain’t me that got the problem.”

“You disappoint me, Richard.”

“Yeah.”

And with that Sprawls turned and left the house as Harmon stood clenching his fists and fighting back a rage that compelled him to run from the house and bash his friend’s head against the pavement over and over until it splattered like an overripe mellon. Instead, he took a seat at his desk gathered up his laptop and went downstairs to begin filing all his belongings into cardboard boxes to take out to his car.

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 3

CHAPTER THREE


The art gallery buzzed like a nest of agitated hornets. Harmon, dressed in his finest dirty T and sun-eaten jeans and moving from the entrance to stand before the gala proper, found the chatter irksome and the low, odd-filtered light disorienting. He liked the dark and quiet.

Despite his proclivities he had agreed to attend Bluebird’s gala opening. Her first. She moved up beside him, breathless and beautiful, supple curves ill-contained by a tight, black sweater and revealing leggings over which she wore a similarly tight, black mini-shirt neath which shined newly polished leather boots with small, silver buckles. Harmon found the whole get-up to be a bit too form-fitting but he said nothing and mock-saluted as she approached.

“Hey.”

“Thanks for coming, Harmon.”

“I’m surprised you thought to invite me.”

An expression of irritation palled her well-plied face.

“Why?”

“Been almost a month since we last met. Been last four weeks since we last talked.”

“That’s not true. I called you last week.”

He paused and furrowed his brows before responding, “You didn’t.”

“I swear I did. I’ve been so busy…”

“S’all right. I’m not complaining. Say. Which one is yours?” Harmon inquired placidly as he cast his sharp, green eyes out over the art school’s gleaming marble floor; so clean and shimmering he could make out the stark reflections of all who there stood upon it. Bluebird pointed to a series of paintings upon a silvery panel installation in the very center of the wide, rectangular onyx-colored hall.

As he followed her gesturing hand he caught the reflection of a curious figure from out the corner of his eye, to the immediate left. Thin and trim and garbed in a albescent coat, tipped at the collar with similarly milky fur. When he followed the reflection to its source he noticed that the ivory man was watching him. The man raised a glass of red wine, smirking slight. Harmon hollowly reciprocated the gesture. He felt suddenly strange. As if a liquid had settled within the core of his being.

Bluebird sighed melodramatically and folded her arms.

“You aren’t even paying attention.”

“Sorry. Got distracted. Who is that?”

“Oh my god. He’s looking at us! He’s coming over. He’s coming over.”

“Friend of yours?”

“That’s Lynder Partridge.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He flew in from the city just to attend this gala. He’s scouting for permanent additions to his museum. You’ve really never heard of him?”

“Nope.”

Lynder Partridge strode up to the odd couple, his sharp, bloodless face opaque, luminous oceanic eyes masque’d by circular green-tinted sunglasses that made the iris appear as gold, his pose cordial and restrained.

“Salutations. I’m Lynder Partridge.”

Bluebird was so star-struck that it took her two seconds entire before she responded, and then, only shakily.

“L-lyla Couldry. I’m… I’m such a big fan, Mr. Partridge. What you’ve done with those library renovations in the city and her, in our little town, its just wonderful.”

“Why thank you, Lyla. And your friend?”

Harmon step forward, extending his rough and calloused hand. He didn’t expect Lynder to take it, yet shortly, the elegant ivory man did, extending one of his leather-gloved hands and grasping Harmon’s own, firmly and without hesitation.

“Harmon Kessel.”

“So pleased to meet you, Mr. Kessel. I’m pleased to see a roofer involved in the arts – architects have a long-standing history of interdisciplinary interest, as their own trade demands it, yet the actual builders who bring their creations into being and those who maintain them, are considerably less intrigued by graphic demonstrations such as those which garner the walls of this venerable establishment.”

“Why do you think I’m a roofer?”

“Skin is tan. Burnt about the neck. Your jeans are roughly worn at the knees, shirt, faded about the shoulders and back. Means you spend a lot of time in the sun, shorn of shade and a lot of time on your hands and knees. The only trade wherein that would occur in this town is roofing.”

“That’s clever.”

Lynder remained wholly impassive save for the slightest trace of a smirk which vanished as quickly as it appeared. Momentarily, Serena walked up to the trio and greeted Lyla and then looked to Lynder and Harmon.

“Who are your friends, Ly?”

“This is Harmon Kessel and this is Mr. Lynder Partridge.”

“THE Lynder Partridge?”

“Indeed.” He responded flatly before turning and half-bowing to the woman whose eyes went momentarily wide with surprise. Lynder then cast his gaze out to the installation directly beside Lyla’s, “Is that your work?”

“Y-yes. I’m so nervous. Its my first gallery showing.”

“I shall have to take a closer look.”

Shortly, Serena and Lyla moved off a pace. It appeared to Harmon as if Serena had some important information to convey. He was mildly irritated that Serena hadn’t even so much as said, “Hi.”

“Looks as if the ladies are conferring. Shall we peruse the works together?”

“Sure.”

The duo moved to stand before the center panel installation which harbored Lyla’s works. Paintings. Her centerpiece was a massive colorful oil painting of a large swan in mid-flight, gliding over the top of a pristine, azure pond, surrounded by reeds and cherry blossoms; petals dancing in the wind.

Lynder studied the piece a moment and shook his head before finishing off his wine and handing it to one of the school volunteers who took the crystal goblet with a smile and moved on to the next group.

“What do you think?”

Harmon studied the picture, “I think its pretty.”

“Indeed it is. That’s the problem. Its pretty and only pretty. Nothing but pretty.”

“I don’t think its that bad. Besides, art is subjective.”

Lynder spoke without turning, eyes to the swan, hands clasped gingerly behind his back.

“Subjectivity is objective. If it seems otherwise it is only due a lack of apprehension.”

“Not sure I follow.”

“I mean that those conditions which undergird subjectivity are themselves objective, even if one does not know what those are. To say otherwise is to say that the foundations of subjectivity are themselves subjectively determined. Now that is hardly plausible is it?”

“Well, put like that, I guess not. But why don’t you like the painting?”

“To answer I would pose a question in return.”

“Ok.”

“Of what use is the art which does not seek to force life to imitate it?”

“Well, she’s not trying to force life to imitate anything. She’s trying to imitate life.”

“Precisely. She imitates life and in so doing, presents to the audience – us – an idyll of splendor with which we can do… what precisely with?”

“Appreciate.”

“To appreciate escapism is degrade life itself. It is the act of a coward.”

Harmon wanted to respond. To defend Bluebird’s work, but words failed him. He had never met anyone who was so filled with such quiet passion and lacking the same, knew not how to meet it.

“You think that I’m being too harsh, don’t you?”

“A little.”

“Given your relationship to the author, that is understandable. Understandable but mistaken.”

“Seems kinda snobbish to me.”

“There is a marked distinction between snobbery and elitism.”

“You saying you’re an elite?”

“I said there is a distinction between snobbery and elitism. I did not say I was a member of an elite; that is another important distinction.”

“Lyla likes to say, ‘Art isn’t about being good.'”

“That would explain why her’s is so bad. Think of the trouble that ethos would cause if it were applied to other professions.”

“Whole lot, I imagine.”

“When one is in need of an electrician, what kind does one seek out?”

“The best. What does that have to do with painting?”

“When one selects a friend does one undiscriminatingly accept all, or does one critically discern the trustworthy?”

“The latter.”

“Exactly. So if one holds such standards for electricians and friends, why not for art?”

“Good question. Don’t think many round here would be keen to answer it.”

Lynder briefly looked over his shoulder at the bright-eyed and youthful denizens of the school, mingling with their teachers and journalists and a couple of well-known local artists.

“Gird yourself. The vultures have arrived,” Lynder half-whispered to Harmon with amusement.

“You mean the journalists. I take it you don’t like um?”

“They have no appreciation for art. Their kind doesn’t belong here.”

“You’re awfully opinionated on art. You do any yourself?”

“I do. What about you, Mr. Kessel?”

“Well, sorta. I like to write. Fancy I’m decent enough. Never gotten anything properly published though.”

Lynder removed a small business card from his pocket and handed it to Harmon.

“If you ever wish to send my publishing house one of your manuscripts, give me a call and I’ll personally white-list it.”

“Thanks. Very kind of you. But uh, you haven’t read anything I’ve done.”

“It is refreshing to converse with one who is so unceasingly forthright.”

“Well, I appreciate that. I figure there’s enough lying and obscuring to go around. No need to add to it.”

Lynder turned and moved to Serena’s installation.

“Your friend’s girlfriend’s work is much more interesting.”

“She’s not Lyla’s girlfriend.”

“Oh? Could have fooled me. Once they walked off they moved together rather, how shall I put it… intimately.”

Harmon felt a sudden unease overtake him and shortly thereafter, anger. It was not incited by Lynder’s words, but by a consideration of the prospect that his word’s might be correct. He slowly turned and scanned the crowd. He couldn’t see Lyla or Serena. He ground his teeth and fractionally shook his head. No. It was ridiculous. Unthinkable. She’d never betray me. Certainly not in so deviant a fashion. She loves me, he thought determinedly. Breaking from his reverie, he refocused his attention on the spot where Lynder had stood.

He was gone.

*

The Silence & The Howl | Part 2

CHAPTER TWO


Harmon awoke with the rising of the light. He ran his hands through his hair, wild and dark as raven-down. He stretched and cracked his neck and leaned out on the tips of his toes til he fell to the floor, catching himself before his face collided with the spotless concrete of his tea and smoke-scented basement. He did a push-up and then one hundred and then twenty more. At one hundred and twenty he started to waver and dropped to his shoulder and rolled over on his back, breathing heavy as a cat howled from somewhere outside. Shortly thereafter, something else howled. Coon from the sound of it. He checked the time. 7:00 AM sharp. He’d an hour to make it to work. He rose and looked to his mobile phone, outdated by the standards of the day. Tense. Anxious. Expectant. It’d been two weeks since Harmon had dropped Lyla off with Serena. Only phone calls he’d gotten were from his boss and his bank to let him know that his account had gone inactive and would be closed if it continued to remain so.

He fancied he were being impatient, she’d call, he told himself, she always did. They used to speak for hours every other day. Hang out on the regular. Increasingly, that was becoming a rarity. Now they’d speak but once every other week, if that. They’d meet up once a month or every other. Harmon shook himself from reverie, stretched and leapt up to the exposed crossbeam of the basement ceiling and started doing pull ups. A sudden implacable fury permeating his soma. He hit fifty and dropped, muscles afire. A pleasurable pain. He looked in the old mirror that had been left in the basement by the previous owner; his pale-yet-tanning form, all sharp, angular lines and surging veins, was alien to him. It occurred to him he’d not looked at his own reflection for over a month. There were no other mirrors in the house. He tensed his half-naked body before the mirror with his arms at his sides; his opaque green eyes vacuous. Glassy. Like liquid emerald’s encased in amber.

He showered, dressed and walked up the stairs to the living room where Sprawls was sitting, drinking his bottom-shelf beer and smoking a joint that smelled of mildew. The odious scent of the rough rolled sheet permeated the room and Harmon braced himself against any outward show of displeasure as Sprawls took a sip before speaking.

“Morning. You been up all night?”

“Stayed up writing.”

“Come up with anything good?”

Sprawls nodded and offered his roommate the joint. Harmon waved the offer and poured himself a cup of coffee, waiting for the reedy black man to continue. After a shrug and a lengthy toke he did so.

“Got this nice blues line, man. Need you to cook up some lyrics for it.”

“We’ve been writing songs for a year now. When we gonna start playing places?”

“What kinda places?”

“Dunno. Bars. Somewhere with an audience.”

“I been busy, man.”

“You work at a failing print shop with one reliable client.”

“Yeah, well, its a very demanding client. Why you always so impatient?”

“Not impatient. Just think we’ve come up with some good work. Must be that stuff you’re smoking.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning it makes you lazy as shit.”

“What’s your fucking problem, man?”

“Didn’t have one til you started snappin.”

Sprawls shook his shiny, bald head, rolled his bloodshot eyes and took another drag, knocking back his beer. He flipped on the television.

As Harmon went to take a sip of his coffee Sprawl spoke up suddenly, “Rent is due soon.”

“Yup.”

“You have it?”

“I will.”

“So you don’t have it?”

“No. Not now, I don’t. Will once Swain pays me.”

“You want to stay in my house you’d better fucking have it on time.”

“What do you mean ‘your’ house?”

“My name on the deed.”

Harmon didn’t respond and took another sip of the coffee, inhaling the soothing Colombian scent. Then he spoke up with a ill-concealed vexation.

“I thought we were friends, Richard.”

Sprawls perked up, no one except Harmon ever called him ‘Richard.’ He’d taken on the moniker ‘Sprawls’ after getting released from prison.

“We are. Weird thing to say.”

“You just threatened to throw me out of our house.”

Sprawls took a toke. Body limp. Eyes shifting from the TV screen to the man behind the kitchen counter.

“Because its MY name on the deed.”

“I’ll have the money.”

“Five days.”

“Five days.”

“I’m serious.”

Harmon furrowed his brows. Sprawls was barely there.

“So am I. I’ll have it.”

“Cool. See ya.”

He may as well have said, “Whatever.”

Harmon finished his coffee and let out the house, got in his beaten and sun-scrubbed car, lit up a cigarette, cracked the window and hit the gas and drove down the cratered roads of the suburban neighborhood to the end of the northern-most street whereupon he spied a gang of toughs hanging about between two peeling and dilapidated houses that looked like over-sized shoe-boxes. The toughs were black and mostly middle-aged with cheap shirts and expensive sneakers. Harmon had seen them hanging around before and knew that they weren’t locals. They looked expectant and worried. Moving back and forth in wordless perambulations, tight little circles of uncertainty. Some smoked and others listened to their MP3 players on their phones. Harmon figured they were on business. Waiting for a drop-off. The area had changed after The Cartel moved across the border, peddling flesh and pills. He looked out the window again as he pulled to a stop at the red light; could have ran it but he liked the ritual of the thing, the stop and smoke and stare, at the gray, seething clouds, like great ethereal snakes, at the birds whirling swarm-tactically against the thermals, at the black outsiders with their baggy pants and bad tattoos and vacant expressions, at the drop off from the rise and the vast mechanical expanse of the abandoned plant below; coal breakers, they used to call them, sorting and processing sites for anthracite, bitumen and lignite. A place where children once labored under the auspices of strong-willed industrialists. From his metallic perch he could see strange forms moving where none should be, glassy-eyed and furtive amongst the shattered and rain-worn rocks of the coal breaker’s ruin.

Junkies.

The zombie apocalypse had already happened and it hadn’t even made the front page. Pharmacology, the vector for a self-inflicted scourge. The pharmacist-as-pusher. The citizen as outcast.

Harmon took a long, soothing drag and watched the addict-vagabonds moving in strange undulations against the dessicated corpse of the iron giant. He wondered if the once-mighty site of unparalleled industry could be rehabilitated, reanimated, summoned forth from its fetid slumber by some creative recourse to technological necromancy. The thought filled his bosom as his whirring clockwork mind with a sense of unrealized majesty.

The landscape before him transformed into a field of great ranging towers, like the fangs of some titanic canine, arcing towards the sky as if in hunger of the moon. The junkies and lean-tos vanished beneath the furious blaring of steam-engines charting the fruits of the coal breaker by rail-lines to every corner of the world and all those beyond it. Their rumbling stacks searing the acrid wind with staccato puffs of smoke, pitch and gray and fading out into particulates imperceptible to the eyes of Man. He saw high-rises crop up around the coal breaker and many more behind it. A metropolis. A megalopolis. A ecumenopolis. A city so great it were as a geological force unto itself, that shook the very foundations of the earth, reverberating the magmous core with the song of its creators; echoing out unto the very stars which were the builders’ own to claim.

Harmon’s reverie was broken when the light turned green. He paused a moment and looked out the driver-side window, away from the coal break, to the right, to the shoe-box houses and the would-be gangbangers stoop-shouldered and sag-pants’d as a troop of hispanics walked up to them, plain-clothed and colorful.

“The fuck you lookin’ at, white boy?”

Harmon said nothing and methodically flicked his half-smoked cigarette out the window, where it landed with a hissing sputter at the caitiff’s feet. He refocused his attention to the road as a muted “motherfucker” echoed briefly behind the rambling, metal wagon.

*

Harmon arrived at work five minutes late. His daydream’s heady alcahest the generative nexus of his tardiness. Eric Swain folded his thick and hairy arms before his chest and shook his head, short-cropped hair copper with the rising sun.

“You’re late.”

“I know it. Got distracted.”

“Hows that?”

“Got to daydreaming.”

Swain smiled slightly, wryly and shook his head fractionally and spoke slowly.

“Coulda lied. Traffic jam, or something.”

“I suppose. Ain’t many cars on the road though.”

“How would I have known?”

“You wouldn’t, but I would.”

Swain shook his head again, like a horse chasing off flies and then looked skyward, squinting his sunglassed eyes gainst the relentless rays of the effulgent sphere and then turned.

“Well. Come on.”

“I’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. Much as I’m able.”

“What? Being late? Hell… you’re the only reliable hand I’ve got other than Daryl.”

“I don’t think Daryl likes me.”

“Daryl doesn’t like anybody. You said ensure.”

“Yeah.”

“My wife bought me some Ensure,” the duo moved over the front lawn to the unfinished house’s driveway where stood a stack of roofing tiles, Swain reached up and removed a bottle,” Its like a protein-shake type of thing,” he shook the bottle,” Said it’ll help me keep it off the middle,” he patted his rounded gut and smiled again, “Guess’n I could do with that.”

“Guess’n so.” Harmon scanned the neat and brightly colored packaging of the protein shake. It was delightfully designed. Beautiful in its simplicity. Bright blue swooshing up in a thick line at the top and bottom bracketed in the middle by off-white with the brand name strikingly colored in stylized typeface just below the thick, upper blue swoosh. He thought of all the work that had gone into the bottle’s design; he thought of the graphic design team that had spent weeks or months choosing an appropriate typeface, modifying it, colorizing it, sketching out drafts in some aromatic coffee house, of the plastic manufacturers which had crafted the bottle to be as ergonomic as possible and of the alchemists, shuttered away in their corporate laboratories judiciously mixing and remixing various tinctures so as to strike the right balance in taste and texture. Harmon fancied it likely that more cognitive energy had been distilled in the creation of that single drink than would be expended by most of those that drank it in a month. The apprehension of such industrious creativity flooded his mind with mirth. He looked up to the roof he would shortly help to build and for the first time in a very long time, he felt pure and unmitigated joy.

*

Harmon was fifteen minutes on the bare roof of the house before, Andy Flint, the last of the crew arrived. He conversed with Swain briskly. Agitation the whole of their forms. Then Flint scaled the ladder to the roof and grabbed a sponge-pad to walk on to ensure he had some tractable footing such that he did not, in venturing out upon that perilous peak, slid off upon the slick, shiny wood or newly nail tiles and tumble out unto the void and there slam his skull upon the concrete drive below. Harmon recalled last winter when they had been working a roof in the middle of winter in the downtown area. The ice made the sponges near-useless and Swain, running a small operation and lacking the funds for harnesses, bid his crew work across the frozen tile. Harmon had overexerted himself and fallen flat upon his back some near twenty feet off the roof. He’d landed in some shrubs and lay their for a long while, stunned and unable to breathe. When Swain asked him if he was alright he had grunted and raised his left arm skyward, thumb extended upwards.

“Mornin’ Andy.”

“Harmon.” Andy replied, nodding dully as he scuttled up to the middle of the roof on his sponge-pad, wrinkled jeans scrapping against the sun-faded plywood like sandpaper on snakeskin. He was jittery and tense. His eyes bloodshot and ringed with owlish circles.

“Can you hand me that bag of tiles?”

“That asshole.”

“Who?”

“Fuckin’ all of them, man. All of them. Sonsofbitches, every one.”

Harmon paused a moment and watched the man curse under his breath and then returned to his work. He didn’t like to chat when he was focused on a task. Andy’s dour mood was ruining the atmosphere of creation. He wanted to dash lizard like across the roof as he built it up under the hot and ceaseless sun with nothing but the creaking of the renovated house and the sonorous opera of the wind. The chatter was breaking his concentration.

“Told me I’d be fired if I was late again. Just like that. Hell, I been working here just as long as you and they still treat me like I’m some… I don’t know… like I’m wet-behind the ears. Like I’m some kinda fuckup.”

“You shouldn’t pay so much heed to what people say when they’re angry.”

“A-fucking-men, man, a-fucking-men.”

Andy smiled awkwardly. He was twitchy and kept scratching himself, flexing his fingers and rubbing his arms in between nailing down the tiles, as if they were assailed by an army of invisible ants. Drugs. Uppers. Harmon wasn’t sure what particular kind, but he could tell the man was on something. He’d had a history of substance abuse, didn’t like to talk about it. Harmon didn’t want to ask. He was focused on the roof. Shortly, Daryl’s crass voice boomed out from the far-side of the rooftop.

“What are you two faggots talking about?”

“Just shooting the shit,” Andy responded irritably.

Daryl stood up high, as if to show his dominance over the peaked surface, “Well, you sure are filled with shit, Andy, so I’m sure you got a whole lot of it to shot.”

Andy leapt up, furious.

“You’re always talking down to me.”

Daryl loosed a cackle and shook his head.

“Why you gotta be such a drama queen.”

“You keep talking.”

“I will.”

“Piss off.”

“Rather not.”

“Keep on it.”

“Hows that girl friend a yours? The flat-chested one.”

“Shut it, Daryl.”

“Might have mosquitoes bites but she sure is pretty. Almost as pretty as that sweet thing our man Harmon’s saddled with. Nice curves on that one. Hows is she doing, Harmon?”

“Fine.”

“Oh look at ole Andy. He’s hopping mad. Look, what I said about your girl – its not an insult. If my mug was as ugly as yours I’d take whatever lay I could get.”

“Shut your fucking mouth.”

“Or what? You’ll shut it for me?”

Tremors of rage shook the hammer in Andy’s hand. His knuckles going white about the red-taped handle. Daryl pointed to the hammer, his tone sobering.

“You so much as swing that in my direction you will regret it.”

Harmon turned around his visage impassive and rose to his knees and slowly placed his hand upon Andy’s arm which clutched the hammer.

“Enough. We got work to do. Client is expecting us to finish this roof today.”

After a moment of tense silence Andy and Daryl moved off to opposite ends of the roof as the neophytes clamber up the ladder, bags of tile upon their straining backs.

*

After work Andy sided up to Harmon where he lay upon his back counting his pay on a patch of cool-shaded grass neath a willow in the backyard of the client’s house. To either side of the tree rose up thick hedges, ill-kept and somewhere a cat meow’d. Andy explained his cousin was unable to pick him up and asked if Harmon could give him a ride. Harmon looked around. Only Swain and Daryl remained, the neophytes all having departed the moment the boss had allowed it. Swain was talking to his wife, planning a dinner-outing for the night. There was no point in Andy asking Daryl. Harmon nodded, saying nothing and asked for but a moments patience. He liked the feel of the grass upon his skin. The moss of the willow upon his neck. He closed his eyes and inhaled and opened them and watched a dragonfly land upon one of the upper branches of the willow and he thought of the construction of the creature and then a facsimile all of copper and brass and steam and coal and fire. A great clockwork dragonfly and he upon it, skipping over the clouds with reckless enthusiasm and a conqueror’s cry. Then he shook himself from reverie, removed his keys and rose.

*

Cherry of Harmon’s cigarette flickered like furnace coal upon the windshield. Andy sat in the passenger’s seat. Sullen. Ashamed.

“Hey Harmon.”

“Yeah?”

“Just wanted to thank you.”

“Its no trouble at all.”

Andy nodded appreciatively and then looked out the red-tinged passenger’s window; some youths were ambling about a basketball court; to the left, a old woman sat upon her porch drinking from a mason jar as a cat the size of a small dog twined about her blue-veined legs. Harmon’s eyes were fixed to the road. He did not need to look out the window. He had memorized every house. Every sign. Every road-turning. Only the inhabitants thereof remained a mystery to him. There was no map, mental or otherwise could encapsulate them. A thin black man passed a young white woman upon the sidewalk before the house of the woman with the mason jar. Neither looked into the eyes of the other and they passed beside each other with wordlessly apathy as if the other were nothing more than a clump of grass. Harmon found it strange and unsettling how so many people could live in such close proximity for so long and yet almost never look or speak to one another. They came and went like ghosts under the setting sun.

“If you died in a crash, but some of your organs could be saved and transplanted, would you want them to be?”

Andy, arched a brow, confused and startled by the sudden query.

“Uh. Dunno. Why?”

“Just something I get to thinking about whenever I drive.”

“I don’t think I’d want my insides inside someone else.”

Harmon tilted his head up and took a drag of his cigarette and mulled his own question around in his mind and answered with measured tones.

“I used to think that way. Used to think it was weird.”

“And now?”

“Now I don’t. If I were to get pancaked – say, right up the road, before I pull in to your drive – bam, flattened; but one of my organs, say, a lung, remained intact and could be transplanted to some patient that needed it, I think whoever can should scoop it out, put it on ice. I wouldn’t need it, being a pancake and all. I’m not a pharaoh.”

Andy considered the driver’s words and then puckered up his mouth and nodded as if sense had been made of the thing.

“Makes sense I suppose. Less’n you’re religious in some kinda way.”

“Everyone is religious in some kinda way.”

“Thought you were an atheist?”

“So are the Taoists, but no one calls them that.”

“Caint say as I know much bout no Tao.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

They rode in silence back to Andy’s house where it stood like a fat skeleton against the pale, bony light of the slowly ascendant moon. Andy thanked the driver again and got out and strode up past the confederate flag which hung over the low-hanging porch, covered over in blankets and beer cans and rickety rocking chairs and flower pots and then vanished there within.

*