Thursday, August 27, 2015

Fang and Claw - Tooth and Nail

Fang & Claw - Tooth & Nail
the short fiction

Rodolphus and Larsen, together in one book for the very first time. Although very different writers, these two storytellers stir emotions, produce chills, and introduce people we soon know and love (and sometimes hate and fear). Collected here are such singular works as Fearsweat, wherein a supernatural stalker threatens an entire town. In My Father: The Killer, we meet a young man who has always believed the worst about his father, a famed terrorist. Interstate Chimes accompanies twins completing their separate destinies outside of time and space. We enter an amazing little girl's creative genius in Four-Leaf Clovers. And for a dark laugh (and scream) we ride along with The Dread Cowboy. Included herein is the unfinished Rodolphus master-work, the novella Contest Darkly which taps into the incredible world of Larsen's Vanya Song (a novel 40 years, and counting, in the making). Rodolphus and Larsen, like coffee and cream, or hemlock and wine, we experience a world incredibly dark, yet vividly bright.

©Copyright 2011 Rodolphus and Douglas Christian Larsen. Fang & Claw - Tooth & Nail. All Rights Reserved by the Author. No part of this book may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited. This book is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental.

Fang & Claw – Tooth & Nail
ISBN: 978-1-257-14999-5

 for Alicia Kathryn
the girl with the golden eyes

with all a Papa’s love

Hemlock and Wine

My Father: The Killer

MY EYES are bleary red and painful, as are the developing blisters on my fingers — I sit here before your HD TV, manipulating the buttons; from some unseen mystical haven you manipulate my life.
            Is it you, my darling, ma cherie, the manipulator, or is it him, my father, the true deceiving force, turning my reality back upon itself? My watch relates the passage of time, what is it? I do not know, only that I have been here for more than forty-eight hours, without food, without sleep, without your touch, going between your marvel of modern entertainment and my old clunker 486, slapping the keys like some antiquated hack, spilling my beans, shooting my shot, discovering the truth you would have me believe, the truth, the reality which as I just said has turned back on itself. Did I just say that at the top of the paragraph? Hell, I have been without food and sleep and you for a long time. I really do not know what I just said, or wrote, as it were, at the top of this paragraph.
            You have deceived me. Should that be important, I wonder, flipping through the buttons on this remote which before a few days ago I did not even realize existed, could exist, except maybe in those horrible sci-fi movies they do on late night, you know, that geek show for geeks with the silhouette geeks who think they are funny? I ramble. Please forgive me. As I have forgiven you. The little Nash Rambler. Bamble. I need coffee. But have I forgiven you, truly, my love, my woman, forgiven you as I have forgiven my father? My father, that mysterious web of lies. And have I forgiven my father, just because you invited me here and sneaked this wonderful gizmo into my hand, then deserted me?
            I don’t know what I think, you bitch. I do not know. I do not know. All we have shared has been a lie. My father was a lie. Obviously, my mother was a lie. Do I even know, at this late date, thirty-two years old, what is real and what was constructed to make me think I am normal?
            There, I touch the red button and — forgive the oodleful typographical errors — I watch over the top of my laptop as that man, the one I am to believe was called The Wolf — in some mythical organization called The Club, or you would force me to accept it as truth — and that man glides into the center of the screen, some gray room, large pistols blazing in his fists. The snarl on his face is something I never would have imagined on the face of my father.
            He half turns and red fire erupts from the big holes in the pistols. I see what I perceive to be other men, thrown backward, dying, I presume, and I am given to believe this is not a movie. Not some staged performance of tasteless violence.
            My father. The Killer.
            I know the face. I do not know the expression. The savagery. I know the coat, a drover coat I remember my Papa calling it. Is this man, as you would insist I believe, my father?
There! His body jerks. He has been hit by a bullet. Again. His body twitches. His expression does not alter, his body accepts the torment of the projectile, my father turns and the pistols in his hands buck, men fall, and my finger touches the button and he is there, half turned, his face turned to me — the implied camera — frozen, more than half-profile, and I see the face I remember from earliest childhood — when was the last time I actually saw that face, eight years old? — and it is the twisted animal snarl of a wolf at bay, a wolf seizing and snapping the bodies of the multitude rats hanging from its pelt.
            Excuse my lapse. How long have I sat here thus, unmoving, watching the screen, studying the animal-man frozen there? Sorry, I suppose you would not register my ten-minute coma, for you are somewhere else, I imagine, reading this text — did I tell you that some time this morning the telephone rang, and that I answered to silence, blackness, not even breathing? Somehow I knew that void was death. Or Death, let me capitalize that. No, Death — italics, aren’t modern word processors neato?
            They will be coming. That’s what the call was about. They will be coming, those shadowy rats from The Club, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Why I happened to meet you at the coffee house? Why someone that looks like you would speak to someone who looks like me? Someone in my profession — a priest, you bitch you bitch — I should have known a gorgeous woman like you would never seduce an ugly man like me unless it was political.
            Political. God, forgive my vanity in using your Precious Name, but God! I am a stupid man. I have been vain all my life. I thought I was smart, so sharp, such a canny dude? I had all the answers, and those I didn’t have, shit, I faked.
            Where are you, ma cherie? I love you. I forgive you. Did you deceive me? I don’t care.  I will accept you on any terms, only love me, only hold me the way you held me my darling girl my woman my stealer of virginity I will break any vows to touch you again to cradle your breasts so tenderly to stroke the insides of your lips with my tongue I never thought lovemaking so real so sweet oh God shit there I used it in vain again and swore besides but entering you was entering my life I never lived until you opened onto me and made me enter the true plain not that spiritual place I tricked myself not them not the fathers my teachers my nice sweet nuns the all-knowers the too-sharp dudes you know I lived on the street real canny that’s me I could throw a punch with the toughest oh wow just noticed. Where have I been? Just glanced back.
            Punctuation. Shit. I am usually very good about punctuation.
            Fuck it.
            My finger, one on my left hand, one not so blistered, toggles and your miraculous monitor scans ahead to the place my father drops. He falls. Like a sack of shit, my old man. Again, what is it, the hundredth time. More like the hundredth and first time, more like it, more more more how do you like it. I digress. I am strange and tired oh so tired. Got to watch that punctuation. Sentence structure. I ramble. My head is packed full of manure, a much nicer word than shit. Hell. Shit sums it up. My head is packed full of shit that reeks that stinks that emanates from my nostrils like smoke rings. Which brings up another thing. I’m smoking again. I suppose that’s why you left that stack of cigars in the kitchen?
            Toggling between the sci-fi remote and my laptop I really can’t say when I’m actually conversing with you here in text as you sit somewhere else far away reading my words somewhere in time and when I’m babbling thinking I’m recording my thoughts but not really because I’m over or over here as it were my key board covered with cigar ash.
            What is vivid in my memory is the TV — all that crap on the news, years ago, when I was what, ten years old, or eleven? That fat general in his battle fatigues talking about blowing away the terrorist, The Wolf, saving the country and all Hail to the King. The police guy, some really fat sucker with a cigarette crazy-glued to his pink fat lip, he told me it was my father they were talking about, that fat general, in his battle fatigues looking dashing and fat under the TV lights.
            My father. I remember his big hands. Big hands like a bear. They were warm. I always thought they must be kind of magical, you know? The way the heat came out of his hands and zoomed into my shoulder as he patted me. He used to pick me up and squeeze me, a real long squeeze, until the blood must have stopped flowing to my brain. And he would kiss me then, just before I blacked-out, a big sloppy kiss that grosses any kid out only I never minded. the kiss usually landed on my eye, or smashed my nose to the side, or his great big huge mouth covered my whole mouth and my chin and part of my neck.
            Did you know that I detest politics? I know that is not my public image. How the hell did a sucker priest get a public image, is what I want to know. But we never had much time to talk about me, about you, we were just so busy touching, and tasting, and kissing — but I detest politics, the political machine, Republicans, especially Democrats. But anyone with a political slogan in their mealy mouth is no friend of mine. Well, actually, most of my friends have political mealy mouths, but hey, love is supposed to be unconditional, right?
            What are you anyway, my love, ma cherie, my stealer of peace of mind? Are you a secret agent? Is there a telephone in your shoe? Be careful answering, you could do some serious damage with that spike heel. Did I ever tell you I thought you were a hooker, that first day, when you oozed between the tables and nearly spilled cappuccino on my nice pressed collar, well, my dickey anyway, but it would have been okay, fine and dandy-doo, buddy-roo, because it was my plastic dickey, cheating all the way that’s me but I never could manage an iron, as you have remarked when you snooped through my closet. A hooker. And I got hard. Immediately. Did I fit some Club profile? Attracted to the trampy. Raised by nuns. Could you see the tent which sprouted and nearly knocked over the table?
            If you molded yourself to fit my profile, or if they chose you to fit my needs, they get an A+, no shit, you were right for my eyes for my heart for my soul the second I saw you I said “she is right” I really said that and I’m getting an erection just screwing up this punctuation again.
            I just watched it again. The moment my Papa drops. There is smoke everywhere. All the episodes of Gunsmoke concentrated in that little gray room. Flashes of fire as presumably the bastards aerate my dear old dad.
            Surprise! He gets up! He flashes up, more correctly versed. I love you, I don’t mind saying, probably because I never said it when we were lovemaking. Screwing. Fornicating. Fucking. No we never fucked, not us, even though I could do you right now tenting here at my laptop, the rhythm of my fingers creating a syncopation a vibration if you will and here goes the punctuation but if you were here excuse me — I’m back. The punctuation should be better. I am relieved (I blush). If you were here. Or, if two minutes ago, that is, you were here. What I would have done for you. With the frozen image of my father, the killer, on the screen in high-definition glory.
            I toggle the button. The button. And my father the killer goes down again. Actually, thrown down. Dashed down. Body slammed.
            The strength in him. I thought I was strong. All these years, I thought I was the toughest. But there. There is tough. How many holes must he have sustained. The blood squirting like in those terrible terrible cartoons, shot full of holes, let’s have a drink of sparking yuppie water, you know the routine. The strength in him. I thought I was strong, I did, but I am not, for I weep, I cry even now, at this moment, this moment locked in time which you read somewhere far away at a later date. The tears leak, they cascade my face is wet, who would have thought the old man to have so much salt in him?
            Are they coming, I wonder, briefly. I don’t care. But do I? Shouldn’t I care, shouldn’t I fear? I have been indoctrinated. Fear. Caring. That might have summed me up, two days ago, three days ago? I have lost track. I cannot read my watch. It must be busted. The numbers are smeared. Why am I crying like a child, blubbering actually, rocking back and forth in front of your super-fucking-special-TV-set-of the future, my old Compaq 486 laptop soaking in my lap.
            My father, my father, they have killed my father. And it was all lies, what they said, on the TV all those years ago. About him screaming, about him wailing and blubbering as only I seem capable of doing! They said he screamed, screamed like a woman, like a harpy, like a carpy — that’s a fish, isn’t it?
            I used to have nightmares about my father. Played like a movie. Night terrors, I would scream, I would wake to my soppy sheets, shit! I pissed the bed again and I am fourteen years old and they think they all do that I am such a sissy that’s what they say and I kick the ever-loving shit out of them each time they do. My night terrors were like a movie.
            My father, his hands over his head, bawling, screaming: “I surrender! I give up! Don’t shoot me please don’t shoot me oh God I don’t wanna die don’t shoot me!” Screaming. That’s the focus of my nightmare. My father, screaming. Hell, I didn’t care, I loved him, I didn’t care if he killed people. He was Papa, to me, was and always will be, the guy with the big bear hands, the magical hands that shot me full of life and love. My father is screaming, tears on his rictus face, and then he pulls out that famous gun and shoots that cop. My father, the killer.
            Is it okay to love a killer. Therapy, I tried it. It’s okay to hate your father, that’s what they preached. But they never told me, if it is okay, you know, to love your father. I was too scared to ask.
            I need a sign. I have watched the CD I don’t know how many times. I have wept. I have guzzled your ritzy coffee. I have smoked every one of those hundred cigars. I have not partaken of the flesh, nor the wine. I hate to admit this, but sometime, I think yesterday, I caught myself lapping water from your toilet. Bad dog! No food. No pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes. But no matter how many times I watch your high-falutin TV, I can’t figure out what I am supposed to do with the information. We were a sham, I got that part. My old man wasn’t a coward, I’ve figured that far (duh, no dummies here). But now what. I need a sign. God. Ma cherie! Papa!
            I do thank you for giving me back my father. That is most important to me. I had stopped admitting that I even had a father. Mr. Orphan, that’s what I’d tell everyone. Even you. Embarrassing, that’s what it is. The CD shows the guy had guts, wasn’t a fraidy cat. And, I guess, although there are no subtitles to all the gory action, that those two people, one that looks like a kid, and the other that looks like a girl or a woman or to be politically correct a female — those must be the hostages in the long ago headlines. The ones my dear old pop was supposed to have offed. And now I know. I’ve watched, so many times, Papa hustling them along, covering them with his big body, and taking, taking, taking those bullets. And it’s obvious they were killed by all the other fire. Thank you for giving him back.
            Fantasy. Fiction. What were those cameras doing there? There must have been at least five, maybe six, for all them angles. Am I supposed to guess? I need a sign. Preferably a great big flashing neon sign.
            God in heaven, my Father, what about the sins of the father? Is that why I am at heart a violent person? How many deacons have I desired to drop, with one of these fists? Kissing rings, how I would have loved to shove some of them rings up some of them holy asses. Did I ever stand a chance? Has any choice been right? Well, regardless, no more starched white dickeys for me, plastic or cotton.
            The phone is ringing. I sit here listening to it. Seven. There goes eight. Should I pick up? Twelve. It’s them, isn’t it? Where are you, my love? I don’t want to go out, both pistols flaring, snarling a savage rictus grin. Bang, bang! Ooh, ya got me! I’m dyin’, ooh, I’m dyin’ — I’m not afraid, I really do not think I am that, afraid. But I am afraid of never touching you again. That must be twenty. Just pick it up. I’m afraid of never smoothing my hand down the curve of your back, palming your sweaty silken waist. Squeezing your ass. Sheesh, what a way for me to talk! Hell, why not. I’m just a regular guy, nowadays, even though my father, a claimed blackhearted bastard, traitor to the glorious U.S.A. (and fucking coward on top of that) is dead all these years, unsung, probably noisy as hell in his grave — and the only woman I’ve ever touched is a figment of my imagination, no more than a plant by something called, of all things, The Club. I wonder if they’re the people who put out that gizmo to protect cars?
            I’m getting weird in my insomnia, in my starvation, and the telephone just keeps on a-ringin’ — the tiny thought has passed through the hallways of my head: what if it’s you? Calling me? To hear my voice? Is that a silly fantasy?
            Hello? That’s what I said, about a minute ago. And, of course, silence. That void, again. I have a feeling, a bad one, that things are coming, so to speak, to a head. They are coming, probably even now, and I have to think, to think, where can I hide this disk, so that you will know? So that you will know how I feel about you, ma cherie? So that you will know that in our three weeks of the only happiness I’ve felt in my life, that I love you, more than anything else breezing through my world! I could be happy, even now, even with the tears wet on my face, if only I could kiss you one more time.
            You bitch! How could you do this to me? Trick me? Make me a fool. Oh please make me a fool again, again, that is what I pray for, not for world peace, not for the end of Democrats and Republicans and greed — I pray a selfish prayer for one last wet kiss from your perfect lips.
            The doorbell. Uh-oh. Even though I expected it — have been waiting for it for all the time in the world — I am not ready. Wimp that I am, I desire to live. I want to tell people the truth about my father. As I go to meet my executioner, or torture, or hell on Earth, my mouth is dry. Probably more the hundred cigars I smoked, the gallons of your special coffee, the lack of food, the lack of peace for the whole of my life. I’ll put the disk — oh, I don’t know where. But, P.S., I love you, ma cherie, whatever your name is, my Jenny, always my Jenny.

* * *

            The man opens the door. He readies himself to throw himself to the ground. Roll on the carpet. Or throw the biggest punch of his life. Or, more realistically, to offer his throat sheeplike to the butcher on the other side of the door.
            The man on the other side of the door is big, at least as big as the man opening the door. They blink, for a moment, their eyes no more than two feet apart.
            And then the younger man, the one opening the door, throws himself into the older man’s arms.

* * *

            That’s how I got my Papa back. I trembled. I wept. I hugged him harder than he ever hugged me.
            “It’s really you,” I breathed into his neck.
            “It’s me, Christopher, my sweet boy,” he said, and yes, he still was able to squeeze me harder than I squeezed him. “We have to leave here, son. Now.”
            “Okay. I’ve got to get my computer. I hid it in the freezer.”
            “Now there’s an original place to put your computer. Hurry up. Now, Jennifer said my shipment of cigars was here in the kitchen...”
            “Um, Papa. I smoked those.”
            He blinked at me, the freezer door between us.
            “You smoked one hundred Cuban Presidente cigars? Sheesh, talk about a priest with expensive tastes.”
            As we left your apartment he told me not to go too hard on you, ma cherie. Your name is really Jenny. He told me you were very worried about me. That any trick wasn’t your fault. And the only profile you fit was Papa’s idea of what was worthy of his son.
            “But I saw you die.”
            We walked arm-in-arm and I could not stop looking at him. He looked older, certainly — what must he be? Fifty-five, -six? — but he looked exactly as I remembered him, with a touch more gray in his still-thick hair.
            “Long story, Christopher. In a nutshell: good, quick surgery, and advanced, for its day, body armor. That was a drover coat for droving electric sheep.”
            “And do robots dream of electric sheep?”
            He paused and took my hand, moved it inside his suit coat, inside his shirt. I felt the deep puckering pits. Big bullets had passed that way long ago.
            “I’m sorry for leaving you, Christopher. Needless to say, I wasn’t given a choice. In many ways it was my fault. I was an arrogant fellow, way back then. I broke rules, and usually I got great results. The CD you watched was the first and last case where my rule-breaking cost innocent lives. So naturally the top brass chose me as their favorite fall guy. Instead of the rescuer flubbing the play against overwhelming odds, I became the actual leader of the terrorists. An agent gone way, way bad.”
            “I could have killed somebody for the way it used to make me feel, the way they talked about you.”
            He grinned as we resumed our walk. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
            “Where are you taking me?”
            “No choice, Mr. Angry Young Priest. You pissed off a lot of the wrong people, with your anti-government rhetoric. Specially since it wasn’t such a secret whose son you were.”
            “The Club was going to get me, shut me up?”
            “The KLB does pretty much whatever it thinks is going to get the job done. And I had a pretty big following back in my day. There are a lot of people around in the biz who wouldn’t mind clearing my name. And you could have ended up being the perfect rally banner, with all your politics —”
            “— I hate politics —”
            “I hated all the things I was involved with, but I was still involved. The same with you, sonny-boy.”
            “I don’t understand why you never came to see me...”
            “I’ve been there, Chris. The whole game. But you couldn’t know. You’ve always been a target, and if the KLB knew I was alive you’d’ve been a target with a big hole in it.”
            I patted his arm. “It must have been pretty tough on you, Papa.”
            He grinned. “We’re tough guys, aren’t we?”
            I laughed.
            His smile vanished. I felt him tense.
            “This is the hard part, son. You’re just out for a walk with an old pal. Better let go of my arm. Just look around, naturally. See the leaves? Beautiful. I’ve always loved this time of year.”
            I felt faint. Maybe it was the starvation diet I’d practiced the last two days. More probably it was the car with the blackened windows idling at the curb no more than one hundred feet away from us, which we were walking toward.
            “I’ve always loved Winter, the best. I love snow.”
            “I remember.”
            And if the bullets had hit us, at that moment, I think I would not have minded too much. Because I felt peace. I wanted to hug him, my father, the killer, even if it angered the bullet bees, provoked them into their eternalizing stings.
            The bullets didn’t hit us, of course. Because the car idling at the corner was our destination. I noticed it was a Bentley, big, black, brand new, with the back windows tinted opaque.
            “Sir,” my Papa said, suppressing his grin, bowing slightly, as he grandly opened the rear door for me.
            I listened to the door chime before entering. The James Bond theme.
            “That’s actually very funny,” I said.
            “So laugh. That’s better. Was afraid you’d lost your sense of humor. You know, all that priestly stuff. Programmed it for you this morning,” Papa told me. “Now get in the car, Waldo.”
            “Don’t call me Waldo,” I laughed. “And I’m grown up now, so you can call me Chris, or Christopher if you prefer.”
            “Just get in the car, Junior. We’ve got places to go.”

* * *

            You were in the back seat, waiting for me.

* * *

            You are sleeping, snoring slightly, and it is more beautiful a music than anything Chopin ever played. The only light in the room is the LED glow of my laptop. We made love tonight and it surpassed all the wishes in my life.
            When I sat next to you last year, in the back of the Bentley, I couldn’t for the life of me think of a thing to say to you. And you, of course, could not even meet my eyes. Papa, in his chauffeur’s cap, hit that bump in the road (on purpose, I’m certain), and our legs brushed. I swallowed and gingerly took your hand.
            Your hand was trembling, as violently as mine. My hand was trembling from exhaustion, though, and starvation, and all the many revelations of the last two days. I’m not sure what your excuse was, except maybe that the feelings in my heart mirrored in your own.
            I hope. Because I do love you, ma cherie. And I will go anywhere with you, wherever your loony band of displaced geniuses go, on whatever nutty, dangerous adventure you throw your lives. This organization, the World Order Law Fellowship, or WOLF, as Papa calls it, might be a means of dueling the mindless greed, the idiotic politics, and it might be something I fit right into — although that is something I’ll have to ponder for a while.

            You have not read this mini-journal, and I don’t know when you shall. And I have been unable to say those words to you, those words which consume my entire being, even when you say the magical phrase to me. Perhaps the purpose of this journal is to say the things I cannot spew verbally. And now I’ll save this file and store the disk, and then I shall return to bed and listen to you breathe, gently stroke your hair in the darkness, and if I cannot help myself, perhaps I shall wake you, gently, softly, and in my new, inexperienced way, thank you....

The Writings

Fantaise Artiste
Douglas Christian Larsen

She lies in bed long after the ceiling appears in the light of dawn. Her eyes, large and dark, stare at the gray ceiling, rarely blinking. Her face is pale and cold. Wind batters the apartment’s one small window with a shuddering blast of dirty rain, but she does not acknowledge the cold and wet that wishes entry. She shifts to her side and stares beyond the window to the gray day birthing outside.
            After many moments she pushes the blankets aside and climbs from bed, not looking at the ever-silent alarm cloc — how long has it been since it has not sat quiet, unwound? She goes to the “kitchen” area to set the coffee machine alive. What is it, twenty steps from my bed to the kitchen? She hasn’t fallen that far, counting the paces in her prison.
            “Who are these silent pale people we call the dead?” she says aloud, for some reason misquoting Wilde, and smiles critically at the sound of her own voice. She lifts her pale hand to feel the icy glass of the window. Her fingers are lovely, slender and long.
            “But I play the violin, and what does it matter what my fingers look like?” she says, and feels for a brief moment that she might wail. Her fingers? Lovely? More properly described, they are weak, skinny, scrawny, the fingers of a survivor of a concentration camp, or possibly someone who almost survived.
            Moments later, in the shower — the tub is on the other side of the icebox and sink that comprises her kitchen, an old-fashioned tub with giant monster feet, with a plastic curtain that loops all the way about the tub — she stands with right arm across her breasts, hand resting between neck and shoulder, left hand gripping her anorectic-thin waist. The water is hot, soothing, loving upon the back of her neck. She could stay here forever. And as always, she stays many minutes more than her father would approve — many minutes more than the law proscribes. But her father is dead. And we’re not under the law. And what a dumb thing to feel guilty about, she thinks, she feels, because I pay for this hot water and I have the right to enjoy it. This is the only part of the day when I feel like I know what happiness is. Still, the undeniable whisper of guilt is there, a thief, stealing away the heat from the water.
            She dries and stands before the mirror in the “bathroom”— toilet on the other side of the tub, a tiny sink with an ancient oval of a mirror above. Brushes her teeth, teeth which are not pearly white but at least have no cavities. Moisturizes her face. Combs out the long dark hair that no man has put his fingers through in the last two years. Who am I kidding, she kids herself, her lips curling in a sneer, because no man has ever put his fingers through this hair, not in that way, not in the way she dreams about.
            “Dance class at 10:00 a.m., lunch at noon, three hours at the café, then art class at the JC at 3:00 p.m., and finally my last three hours at the café,” she litanies, checking the flesh beneath her eyes, seeing the lines there that should not be there until she has at least passed her thirtieth birthday.
            Maybe I’ll just go back to bed. Stay in bed. The whole day. Pull the clean sheets up around my neck and listen to the rain outside, and it won’t be dirty rain, and I’ll lie here and listen to the sound of the heater blowing. I won’t go and see all the petty people. I’ll lie here in bed and dream and maybe think over some things I haven’t allowed myself to think about for all these years, and I’ll pull out some memories that will hurt me and make me cry and I won’t have to see anybody all day long.
            She pulls her robe about her shoulders, walks to the kitchen, and pours herself coffee. She uses the cup which has been sitting in the sink rack for the last week — just rinse and dry, rinse and dry — but tomorrow, Friday, she’ll get down a new cup, maybe the gold one. She sighs as she lifts the coffee to inhale its vapors. Good, strong coffee, dusky. Steam rises about her eyes and she smiles and then sips the coffee. A kind of happiness, she feels, but not like the hot water on the back of her neck first thing in the morning.
            She takes her cup to the window and looks down at the streets. Buses lumbering seventeen floors below. Splashing water. Flickering headlights beaming through the gray day, it is now after 7:30 a.m., but when in this gray city don’t we need our fake lights?
            “You should get some curtains in here — and rugs,” she laughs, quietly, amused at the fact that she’s talking out loud to herself, but not looking away from the window and the gray world beyond. “If I ever did bring someone up here they’d think I wasn’t feminine. What kind of female walks around on bare wood floors? Windows uncovered so that any old jerk can peek in — of course, only bricks have a line of sight to enjoy by matchless beauty!”
            When she notices her reflection hovering above the streets of the city she retreats into the “bedroom” area of her loft “apartment” — actually it is one room in what had long ago been a commercial building, and now is one room the size of a normal person’s den, or maybe a family room slash dining room — still, as cramped and dark as this place is, she loves it, it is like herself, cramped and dark. As far as prisons go, this one was quite lovable. She starts grabbing clothes, shedding her robe, yanking everything on with an economy of movements. Just get it over with as soon as possible, that’s the ticket. What a hodge-podge, crazy dresser you are, she thinks, donning delicate bra and panties that in no way go together, a beige baggy blouse she must have bought from the gypsies, her favorite fuzzy cowl-neck sweater that’s purple for goodness’ sake, her tightest pair of white cords and a black corduroy blazer to cover all. She sits on the bed to pull on her knee-high black leather boots — the tight fit of the boots outside her jeans, the spike heels — they make her feel sexy, ripe.
            “As if it matters,” she says beneath her breath and nearly bursts into laughter. She laughs, because she has no idea whatsoever if all these colors go together, the beiges and browns and blacks and lavendars — what, is she crazy or something? But that’s just another supposedly feminine talent she lacks.
            If she’s going to catch the long transit bus she’ll have to hurry. She dons her black suede fedora hat — supposedly waterproof but it’s already limping and sagging after a year of use, slips into her long black raincoat, grabs her purse and nylon bag with all its books and dance stuff, and then she slams the door behind her, throwing the two deadbolts with separate keys.
            Soaked and shivering, she just makes the transit after a two-block dash. At least I didn’t fall. She nearly laughs and makes the mistake of making eye contact with the gray man seated across from her — she didn’t mean to smile, but that near laugh looked like a smile, and like a boa constrictor going after a rat, he smiles back at her.
            “God is going to punish us for the porn houses,” he assures her, nodding. He says it as if it is a secret message, just between the two of them. He is Moses, and she is an ignorant Hebrew, sticking straw into the mud. She should be grateful, she really should.
            “Thank you,” she tells him and returns to watching the buildings flash by. A derelict up the aisle vomits, and further on a baby howls in protest against the gray world and all the proofs of the devil, the porn houses, the daily rapes, all the whatnots and whatevers. She sighs and settles down to survive the ride downtown. Nothing big, nothing major — just the same old bungfruit.
            She forgets herself and begins humming Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, softly, with her soul. As in the shower, but not quite as nice, she can just settle here, go invisible, watch the gray world pass the windows, and allow her mind to float free. Go invisible and think deep thoughts, or hide from the thoughts and all the depressions. Whatever or whatnot, who cares, really, who cares after all is said and done?
            At ninety-third she hops off the transit and luckily clears a puddle oily with acid — that can’t be good on the clothes, now can it? She dashes through the rain into the dilapidated building where she will spend two hours a day, six days a week. Here, in dance, she can forget — but differently than in the shower, or at the window with her coffee, or invisible on the transit. Here, it is in sweat and the pain of stretching muscles where she can almost go free. She doesn’t have to think or worry or concentrate. All the things. Whether her neighbor is going to kick through the wall to rape her, because that happens almost every day (well, to other people it happens, not to her, at least not yet, knock on wood, maybe her own wooden head). Or whether something grotesque is hanging out of her nose, or if an asteroid is going to hit and wipe out another city — if it does, please God, let it be this city, and let me be awake when it happens.
            Do I believe in Him, that One that I pray to? Do I really believe He is there? That He can hear me, or chooses to hear me? It’s not hip to believe in Him. And you have to feel stupid believing in Him, don’t you? Because there’s more proof of a devil than there is of God. But stop, the thinking, don’t let it in, all those thoughts, just dance. He’s there, you know He is, that’s how come you can go on, because if He wasn’t there, what would be the use? It would all be meaningless. Yes, He’s there, so just don’t think, just watch the gray world pass by the murky wet glass.
            Twenty minutes of bopping to rock, the old stuff, followed by a fast and modern jazz, ten minutes to breathe and sip at water, aerobics for twenty minutes, and rest for a few minutes, and her remaining time to float in classical music, classical dance, usually Mozart, her own dear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
            At noon she hurries to a little vegetarian shack to wolf down lettuce and onions and banana peppers and mustard in a thick piece of shepherd’s bread — and what does it matter, the onions, the peppers, because she has no one to kiss, the oil and vinegar. By thirty after the hour she is at the little café nestled almost safely between a private library and a laundry. When she enters the slow girl is cleaning the tables and looks up to smile, and they nod to each other, and then she looks to where the slow girl is pointing.
            Some fool, sitting out on the terrace. No one sits there, except maybe for a week of calm Non-Greenhouse Time in July when there is no rain, or at least not much rain, but then there is the sun and it can sting. And this fool is sitting out there, in the constant storm, shielded from the acid rain by only one of the weather-bashed umbrellas and a silly old-fashioned Fedora hat, the real kind, not like my plastic fedora.
            “Who’s that?” she asks.
            “Some weirdo, I think,” the slow girl says, settling down on the table she is pretending to clean, her large breasts melting across the surface of the table. She looks as if she is about to pass out, just go stone-cold unconscious on the round table.
            “What’s he doing?”
            She peers through the foggy windows and sees a young man, maybe not that young, sitting in the rain, huddled over something, shielding whatever it is from the storm. Maybe it is a notebook, a pad of paper, or a hot tamale he doesn’t want to get wet. But he appears to be writing, so it must be a diary or a shopping list or laundry list or a hit list, maybe he’s a hitman. Some fool, writing in the storm.
            “The guy’s like a clock. Here every day. Kind of cute. Don’t talk much. About eight or so, every day. Comes in. Scribbles in them notebooks — sometimes red notebooks, sometimes blue notebooks, always scribbling. He’s usually gone by now. Don’t know why he’s still here,” she moans, almost as if she is having a bad nightmare and babbling in her sleep, but then she says something very bizarre indeed: “Maybe you’re supposed to meet him or something.”
            She looks at the slow girl. The slow girl’s eyes are heavy lidded, probably on something, as usual, and she’s half smiling, and her eyes roll up to meet the girl’s, and she smiles and says: “Sometimes he sits over there by the fireplace, when the rain turns to ice, or when it snows. I don’t know why he likes to sit by the fireplace, that smelly old thing. He’s probably a creep on the New Welfare or something. Looks like a bum.”
            The girl begins setting the tables, serving water to those just coming in, then mops the beads of moisture off the inside of the windows with a mop. She pauses to consider the man sitting outside, the only customer crazy enough to sit outside. He has a broad back, she sees. Kind of strange, she thinks, not really thinking about him, not really wondering at all, just allowing her thoughts to go freeflow, that’s all, but weird that he’d sit outside like that, like he’s afraid of the people in here. What kind of man is that?
            She moves to the other side of the café where she gains a new perspective on the man outside. A nice masculine nose, she sees, viewing him now in profile. Handsome, it looks like, he is, that’s what kind of man is that. Rugged. Big guy. Thick eyebrows. Dark hair beneath that old hat. Big hands. Doesn’t like people. Maybe he’s like me, maybe he’s like me, wouldn’t that be weird, he’s been coming here all this time, and we’ve just been missing each other, until today, because for some reason he has sat out there in the rain longer than usual, what is so special about today? Does he have plans? Is he meeting someone? Is this is birthday? What is going to happen today?
            It strikes her how lonely that man in the rain looks, and she feels overwhelmingly sad. This surprises her, very much, this feeling, any feeling, really. It has gotten to where she doesn’t feel much for anyone or anything these days, only the grayness, the constant misty grayness about everything. She has a sudden image of them sitting together, me and that man out there in the rain, and she can imagine them touching fingers, looking into each other’s eyes — it is like a dream, or more, like a vision, she can see into his eyes, and he’s saying something to her, but she can’t make out his words, but she sees it in his eyes, the thing she has dreamed about seeing in a man’s eyes, a man like this — and she nearly goes out into the weather to say something to him. But what can she say? He would probably look at her as if she’s insane.
            There’s nothing special about today. Nothing is going to happen. Just coincidence that he stayed later and I met him. But why do I feel like I must go to him, right now? Just go out and say: “Stop! Here I am. Look, it’s not hopeless, is it?”
            He glances up, a split second as he squints into the storm, and she inhales, it’s like they’re looking at each other and for an instant she thinks he is looking inside of her, seeing deep down to the true person she really is, but then she realizes he cannot see within the glass, it is in mirror mode, he is only seeing a reflection of the weather in the glass, he cannot see her, cannot feel her, cannot know her — he looks like the Big Bad Wolf in her old childhood books, only not bad. And he is handsome with full lips and lean cheeks with cheekbones jutting out, and he looks like a tigerman writing in the rain in his notebooks — either a red one or a blue one. She finds herself smiling, which is surprising indeed. When is the last time she really smiled? The tigerman, the Big Bad Wolf, and she can easily think up a reason to go out there and say something to him.
            ...yes, go out there now...go...don’t dawdle...just take this chance, i’ll never ask anything else of you — if you believe in me at all, you’ll listen to me now and go, please, don’t wait, this is your only chance...
            Stupid, she thinks, turning her back on the man out in the storm, turning her back on the still small voice in her being. This is a world of fear, not one of love. That is for the kiddy books, love and all that, and in the kiddy books the Big Bad Wolf is very bad, and the pigs kill him. Yes, this is a world of pigs, and that is the wolf out there in the rain, and how could I ever talk to him? Just allow the pigs to kill him, you can’t do anything else, really, can you imagine him in your prison? Looking at your window without curtains, your beautiful view of the ancient bricks? Can you imagine that man understanding your color blindness, your fashion blindness? What can you ever say to him, you can’t talk to him, what could you say to him, what possible excuse could you ever find to talk to that weird man sitting in the acid rain?
            She can get him some coffee! Of course! Why else is she a waitress if not to attend to people and provide their coffee? But when she returns with the coffee pot and her coat over her head to dash into the storm she sees that he is already on the street, diminishing in the storm, hands deep within the pockets of his leather jacket, looking lonely, so lonely, she thinks. She watches him walk down the street, head bent forward, dark hair sticking out wet beneath the silly old Fedora. It’s not too late, the still small voice seems to say, because you can run after him, your coat is already over your head.
            She feels, suddenly, that she is in love with that unknown man out there in the rain. She smiles, an ethereal smile, putting the coffee back on the burner, returning her raincoat to the peg by the door, thinking, how silly to feel like you love someone you never even met. What a thing to think about, running after a strange man in the rain, what ideas you are having. Maybe you’re supposed to meet him or something — why had the slow girl said that? Then again, there is a reason everyone thinks of her as the “slow girl.” Silly, she thinks, but still, her skin rises in cool shivers. Gooseflesh. Her mom used to call this feeling someone walking over your grave. She watches him even when he is gone from her sight. There’s tomorrow, right?
            Don’t be dumb. But no way are you going to tempt fate tomorrow, you can go crazy doing that, I’m going to follow my schedule, because there is sanity in the things I do, it keeps me together, it does, and just stop thinking. Clean those tables over there, and get that man’s order, and sweep the floor, sweep, don’t think, don’t worry about that still small voice you have not heard in such a long time, and it was quiet now, quieter than it used to be, but stop it, now...
            ...the rain fell in a ring about his face, but he didn’t notice the big dirty drops oozing off his hat. He watched his boots and the water splashing away from his heavy steps. His hands were balled into fists within his pockets. His face, cold and wet, was numb, as was his entire being.
            How do people feel, he wondered. Or do they, really, does anybody, he wondered. He searched his memory for some recollection, some stray thought of how it must have felt to have feelings — wow, a truly sensitive kind of guy, he thought, a sardonic grin crumpling his face into a balled fist. Failure. Coward. Loser. Capitulator. Defeatist. Wimp. Fool. 
            So. You are a coward. Isn’t that true? Never would have guessed it, but should have known it, really. A coward. Isn’t that how people describe people like you, guys who go this way? Yes. Me and this big yellow stripe I wear on my back beneath my jacket. His head was heavy, as if the rain were inside, not out here in the storm. The rain and the cold and gray were inside him. God, oh God, what a mess, why have You forsaken me? Or why did You let me forsake You? Would You have created this world? This gray world? Or if it once was Eden, how did You let it get to this place? And why am I here in this place? If I am a coward, You must have made me so. Programmed me for this route that I take today, on this special day.
            If I believed in God, would I choose this path, this route? Of course not, but then again, how long has it been since I believed in Him? Are there people who still believe in Him? Are there people who can still feel? Feel anything at all? Idiots. But I am an idiot, right? I am the idiot. The fool hath said in his heart that there is no god. How do I still remember that stuff? Forget it. Stop thinking.
            But damn, he could never stop thinking, he could never close his mind, because it kept going, kept churning, and it wore him out, it wore him down, grinding him down like a knife on a never-ending wheel, burning the candle at both ends, burning brighter, brighter. Stop. This is the end. End. The end.
            My cession. End. No epithet. No last notes. No great swan song nor swell of Mozart Requiem. Nothing. Like the grayness of the world. Gray. My life. Nothing ironic, not there, in my life. Just gray. No white. No black. Comme çi, comme ça.
            Without need to check or look up he made a right turn down a little alley and then a left turn at its end. His eyebrows were low over his eyes, his hat pulled down low, too low, and anyone who saw him at that moment would have thought the moisture on his face was just rain, the red-rimmed eyes nothing more than another reaction to the acid that drizzled from the sky. His pale face was only a product of the sunless sky, correct?
            But none were near to look, to notice, or wonder. No one was there to see.
            He spoke something. Some garbled, self-pitying platitude. He jerked, thinking that someone had just spoken to him, then laughed when he saw that he was alone and it was only his own mouth that had spoken. Speaking to walls, isn’t that what people like him did? Wander the streets chattering to themselves? He was alone. Then again, that was as it should be, because wasn’t he a loner? Isn’t this the life he had chosen for himself?
            Thunder, far off, rumbled. At least there was life in the sky, electric, flashing light upon the world. The thunder echoed and rolled.
            “That’s a sound I like,” the man said, then pulled his hat even lower over his eyes, his head sinking even deeper into his chest.
            If anyone were close and looking at him they would have seen that he was weeping. But nobody was there.
            His boots splashed and he felt nothing more than a lumbering automaton plodding through the wet gray world. He reached the stairs leading up to his modest flat and he started taking the steps, climbing slowly, then gaining speed —
            — and suddenly he is moving swiftly, taking the steps with grace and ease, two at a time, three at a time, moving up the many steps in the power of a younger self, and he is nearly smiling as he reaches his door, leaping four steps at a time, humming one of those sad new songs that the boy plays on the piano, as he produces three keys to unlock his doors, and possibly there is sky above the rain and warmth beneath the cold —
            — but by the time he has pulled back the third deadbolt and the door creaks open his smile is gone, because he is home, and this is where it will happen, my life, he thinks, it is a gray world, the absence of my life, this is no life, and the Russian said that without God everything is permissible, that Karamazov idiot, everything is okay to do even this thing, this terrible thing, and this is all it can be, what I’ve been moving toward since I became a man in this world. Since I became a coward in this world. Beaten down by society. Because no man is an island, but some are mud puddles. Did Ayn Rand really ever exist, or was she somebody’s figment, like my figment,  the dear figment I never met, my dream artist, my dancer, she of the piano fingers?
            What a lot of nonsense Ayn Rand wrote. She must have been just another figment of the Machine, to keep people going. Stinking Machine. Trash, everything that came out of it was trash.
            He stepped into the small apartment. He listened. Not a sound. He threw his jacket over the coat tree and kicked off his soggy boots. After he locked the door he went quickly to the fireplace and shut the damper. Hurried into the kitchen, opened the oven, blew out the little blue pilot, switched on the gas, and then stood there, looking about him, trying to make certain everything was how he wanted it to be. It was. Except, he could use some coffee, even if it were instant. He put some water in a kettle and set it on the stove — time enough and more than enough time for a cup of coffee before I leave this place for good.
   don’t have to, you know, because you haven’t given me a chance, have you? in that deep place, you still yearn for me, don’t you? today, you can have me, and the gifts i have ready to give you, real gifts, not figments, so don’t do it, give me a chance, just hold off for one more day, go to the café tomorrow, stay late, just like you did today, just one more day? before you leave this place for good, follow my will, just one last time, for good, for good, for good...
            For good. Did he even know what he was talking about any more?
            In his bedroom he pulled a high-collar sweater from his closet and pushed his frozen feet into his favorite slippers. By the time he returned the smell of gas was strong, but his water was boiling and he made himself a cup of extra strong instant and went back into the tiny living room.
            A voice was trying to get through to him, but he didn’t believe in that stuff any more, because how could he? He sat in his black leather recliner and thumbed across his collection of favorite old authors, the Hugos and Goldmans, Dumas and Brontës, Irvings and Beagles.
            It’s Hemingway he wants to read now, but which one. The Sun Also Rises was always one of his favorites, but then again there is Moveable Feast, and there! Yes, fitting, so fitting, he seizes the posthumously published Islands in the Stream, considering his choice to be oddly appropriate.
            He opens to the part where Hudson is lying on the beach, exhausted from sleepless days of pursuing the U-boat sailors, and he is dreaming of his first wife, looking back across the wasteland of many failed marriages, and seeing his three dead sons who are somehow alive once more, just dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, and maybe that’s how it will be with me, he thinks lingeringly, but no, he knows how it is, how it really is, there’s no coming back, there’s no second chances, when you make your choice you’ve made your choice, and that is what he has done, yes sir when your hand finds something to do, well by George do it with all your might! It’s too late now, to late for me now, even though that voice is still trying to get through, but fainter now, faintly, faintly flows the dreams, lying on the beach, on the warm sand, I’m just dreaming, sweetly dreaming, sweet dreams...
            And maybe he is Hudson, right now, dreaming, maybe he’s not here in this modest flat sitting in his black leather recliner and maybe he is lying on the beach thinking about his lost life and his lost chances and he knows the coffee is getting cold but for some reason he has no strength to reach out and take it, the cup of coffee, his throat is strangely dry, and he could use that coffee, but this weakness, what is it, where am I, but no, he is not dreaming, but no, but no, because he hears the boy downstairs playing the piano — what a good kid, that boy, the man thinks, sad, but I should have said something to him, I should have talked to him, because I always sensed he is like me, or is it I am like you, no, he is, he is, what am I thinking, asleep, I’m dreaming, said something to him, we never talked, but it was written in the stars, no choice in the matter I have no choice, talk to him, predestination, across time, across space, sheesh I’m dreaming about saying something to the boy, but no, that would be mean, it’s best this way. Sighing, heavy, so heavy now, he listens to the boy playing the piano...
            ...the boy is playing Fantaise Artiste from the Frances Joan opera, the comedy wherein a lonely man seeks his woman of dreams, ever destined to meet ambitious airheads and those already eaten by the grayness. The empty ones, the gray ones. The boy knows that the artist upstairs likes such things. He thinks about the man upstairs and feels a wave of what might be love flow through him, because the man upstairs is his hero, a rugged individualist so at odds with this society, a man larger than life, like no one he has ever met, because there is no one like the writer in the world, not any longer...
            ...go up there, right now, he thinks, go up and talk to him, don’t go to work tonight, no, go up there, have a cup of joe with him, right now...
            His fingers, pale and long, caress the old stained keys. He has his eyes turned to the window and the clouds there, then lifts his hands away from the piano. He wonders if the man has been listening. Fantaise is more than fantasy, it is a dream come to life. The man often turns off his classical discs when the boy plays the piano. He has often desired to meet and talk to the man, about his writings which are pointless in this world and yet ideally artistic, beautiful, unlike the images the Machine produces, where and when the brain channel waves do all the work for you, and you do none of the work — and the man still reads the old-time authors too, the kind in skin bindings with the thin slices of the old-time trees — amazing, when you thought about it, what the world used to be like. The boy actually read one the writer’s books on the E-vid and did not understand hardly a word, but still, he sensed something, didn’t he? He has always desired to talk to the writer about it, and the other books.
            And somehow the man upstairs is like that, a product of a previous time, a previous, older strength; a previous, older breath. The boy has fantasized about talking with the man, his secret mentor, discussing books and music and thoughts and politics and all that interesting stuff, but he has never been brave enough to approach the man — maybe tonight he will, finally, go upstairs and knock on his door. But right now he is late to his Uni-State job. He is a clerk in the Education-Req Division, but it is only a job assigned to him, he could have taken it or left it or at any time he can take it or leave it. What he really wants to do is play his music, but why play music which will never come close to anything as intricate and perfect as what the Machine produces? Even Fantaise Artiste was forgotten today, no one played it any more, no one stroked it, there was no love for such amazing works of spirit; no one believed in true love...
            The boy pulls on his raincoat and exits into the gray world, locking his door with four separate keys. Going down the steps he promises he will visit the writer tonight. You have to take chances in this gray world, he thinks, and I vow that I’m finally going to talk to him, tonight. I say yes to the voice in my head, that still small voice, but not now, I have other things to do, the important things. My fun can wait. Just a little while, only a matter of hours.
            But late that night on returning with a paper carafe of coffee the boy perceives a chemical smell — or a gaseous scent — outside the man’s apartment. He finally knocks on the writer’s door, but nobody comes, and after resting his head against the old wooden door for who knows how long, breathing in the gas, maybe he’ll stay here forever, breathing in the writer’s solution, but no, he must return to his music, and when he finally leaves he notifies a passing patrol about what he thinks has happened upstairs, then retreats to his own small apartment, his own modest lair.
            He would never follow. The writer was a coward. But what could the boy believe in this world? What was left to hope in? There was no hope. He’d play his music, for a while longer, he could play his music, and distantly know what happiness might be.
            He sits at the piano and places his fingers tenderly, lovingly upon the keys, but he cannot think of what to play. Somehow, it seems inappropriate. He should have skipped his job tonight, he thinks, he should have gone upstairs instead, or last night, or any of the two years before since he first saw the writer. My mentor. My dear mentor, I love you. And will I follow your path, your route, as well? Would we meet over there? I wish I could have asked you about those things. But maybe tomorrow. But no, there is no tomorrow, is there?

* * *

            She lies in bed, staring at the ceiling. Colors seem to swirl across the once-gray ceiling. A smile, a new thing inside her, warms her face, bubbling up all about her. What is this thing inside of me, is it hope? Isn’t that impossible, though, that I have hope? Her eyes, slightly moist, crinkling at the corners, smile with her being. Tonight, before coming home, she purchased new curtains for the one window, and they add a certain touch to her home, yes, her home not her prison, and a bright throw rug for the floor at the foot of her bed. It is bright red with sparks of blue through it, her fine and cozy throw rug on the floor.
            And tomorrow — tomorrow, she can hardly wait for it to come, because she has decided, daringly, that she will skip most of her appointments tomorrow and visit the café a few hours early. She will be bold, she promises, because this life might not be much, but I saw something today when I dreamed about looking into his eyes, and I felt something — no, I FEEL something, when I see his lips moving, in my imagination. What will he say to me?
            I feel. I can still feel.

            And it feels wonderful.

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