& she’s there
in her old winter coat
abiding on the corner the
with eels in her hair
she has stories &
sings if she must
she will predict your January
for a dollar
& she’s there
in her old winter coat
abiding on the corner the
with eels in her hair
she has stories &
sings if she must
she will predict your January
for a dollar
Thurston hadn’t been the same since the abduction. He and I had been in high school together, until grade nine when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him the cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly feigning to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from his poorly photocopied sheets of intrigue, or retelling his own story of visitation.
“Says here,” he said to me one Christmas Eve day, reading form a smeared sheet of paper, as I sat and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him, “that SETI has released previously classified files the information contained therein proving the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”
This was new and, “Oh?” I said, guessing that SETI didn’t keep classified files, and realising that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.
“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere, “and this is a hard time of year for me to read it.” He chewed noisily. “When they came it was on a Christmas Eve deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”
This was how he spoke—a fresh and crispy word salad with dressing, and I thought I had an idea what it might look like written on the page: a marathon mixture of absent punctuation, misplaced sentence emphasis, fragments and run-ons. All of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of delusions and memories that swirled like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. He was a man trying to be someone—anyone—in the void left behind by a stolen identity. I always tried to keep up, but frequently failed.
Bing Crosby was crooning now over the coffee shop speakers, Silent Night, as though cash money was at stake.
Removing his ball cap and placing it on the table, Thurston sat back to carry on, and I saw not for the first time his balding head with the mysterious tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. But it was backward. At some past point, in a moment of unrestrainable madness, he’d done it himself, in the mirror. He was about twenty-five years old.
“It was like Christmas card salvation,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city you couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked what choice did they have they made him into soap I think of him whenever I wash I say a little soapy prayer for him nostalgic for the boozy carrion ashtray stink he left behind and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother in the kitchen mostly looking afraid.”
It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.
“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. My sins were forgiven. Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down.
“Please don’t go,” he said.
The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat.
“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Thurston, “the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last who I ever loved were gone they were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionlessness the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”
I said, “I’ve heard this before, Thurston.”
Odd, though. He seemed desperate this time, to snatch up something skirting round his truth.
“Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away?”
He asked the question almost sanely.
“That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour I still know the trajectory and speed or speeds latitudes and longitudes but I won’t bore you.”
I cocked my head and looked him in the eye. He looked back, eye contact strange and sustained. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.
Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance, peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a dissociative disorder, his unwillingness to relive the horror he was certain had taken place. I wondered if I should be the one to hear it first. Too late—
“I looked out of the window,” he said, with sudden clarity. Was he punctuating his words? “and watched it streak across the black Christmas sky.”
He paused there as though he’d made a decision, and then went on.
“It flew over the venting mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a planet on the horizon, and I watched it disappear. It was done, for now, with the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones, the unceded land and occupied territories, the corporations and open-carry Christian fanatics. Now it would move at light speed, out of sight, having flown through the taint and tar of our slaughtered environment, above the starving and the homeless where it had shone brightly, briefly and out of place, while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon. But it wasn’t. So, when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more, the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace, ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another, forever more.”
“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”
Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us get it? a centimetre a day ten seconds a week they throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of what and who we are that’s their plan I guess we didn’t invent the theft of land and culture after all but it’s never enough for them they’re just like us or we’re like them they always want more so from time to time when they go home to visit their world they take a trophy something extra a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow that was Rebecca and my mother.”
“Oh.” What else was there for me to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? Why should I believe you, looking the way you do?”
“I guess I trust you,” Thurston said, “that’s all as far as believing me goes you will because you’re a geek an awkward white boy,”—he was right, I am—“and you’re open to any secondary or tertiary reality you can find in pursuit of any goddamn thing to believe in in this world other than the crap you see on your Twitter feed.”
“There’s a lot of this shit you’re talking about on the internet,” I reminded him.
“Yeah well I’m for real you can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”
He was right, I could.
“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—the glass gets a little more brittle every day it’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time and I can’t maintain my belief in my aliases forever one day that window’s going to bust and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”
“I don’t believe it.”
He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows and I guess I feel lighter for it maybe that puts you in a dangerous spot but I don’t think so you can just tell them the retard didn’t say shit if anyone asks.” He grinned, and took another savage bite of his croissant.
Christmas was now only hours away, and I was worried about where his flashbacks, if that’s what they were, would take him for the holiday. But I wasn’t his babysitter.
Maybe if it wasn’t a piece of fiction, he wouldn’t be in the coffee shop Christmas morning, but he was, and I put a bag of groceries at his feet, along with a brown paper bag containing a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. No one had beamed Thurston up, or whacked him. His gauntness seemed a little greyer, though, and his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state.
His lips moved as he read his conspiracy sheets, and sipped his charity cappuccino. He looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to family and Christmas dinner.
It was a big box joint, out on a low overhead stretch of highway. The pink neon sign arching over the entrance to the parking lot read CRYPTS, a division of Marshal Memorial Inc. Below that was a flashing white neon sign reading Drive-Thru. I drove on, and waited in line for the order window. There was only one car ahead of us, a red Cadillac, circa 1975. The driver had been talking into a speaker next to his driver’s side window for several minutes, before two men arrived at the passenger side of the car with a gurney. Opening the car door, they pulled the body of an elderly man out of the car. He wore a rumpled brown suit and only one shoe. The two men placed his body onto the gurney, while the driver watched and waved a slow, sad good-bye. Then the dead old man was wheeled away, as a slot below the speaker spat out a paper tape and credit card that the Cadillac man took, before he drove away.
I drove forward to occupy his space as he did, and cut the engine, tapping my toe on the clutch pedal for a quiet moment before a young woman’s voice welcomed us over an intercom.
Vivian, my wife, had just passed away of cancer. She was in the back of the Subaru. A hospice grief counsellor had recommended several funeral homes. This one hadn’t been at the top of her list, but it had the best prices and fit well with my tendency toward doing things myself.
“Welcome to CRYPTS,” said the young woman, “a Division of Marshal Memorial. This week’s specials are double Air Miles for all conventional embalming treatments, Armit Kevlar Headstones, purple and tangerine colours only, at 25% off, all sales final, and Carlucci Himalayan Granite Plinths—buy three and get the forth plinth for free. There are many more specials in this week’s flyer. Be sure to ask how you can be put on our mailing list, and receive 25 CRYPTS Points absolutely free. My name is Kim, how may I help you? Our conversation will be recorded for quality assurance purposes.”
The speaker squealed, and then Kim came back. “You’ll have to speak up, sir. Are you distraught? At CRYPTS we understand. CRYPTS Brand Bereavement Counsellors are available to help, should you require their assistance. And this week you can speak to a CRYPTS Brand Bereavement Counsellor for only ten dollars a minute. That’s a 30% savings and you still receive full Air Miles and CRYPTS Bonus Points. You don’t even need to leave your car. Will you be using Visa, Master Card, Amex or Discover Card?”
“Discover Card? You take Discover Card?”
“Yes sir,” Kim said. “And this week, you earn triple CRYPTS Bonus Points when you use your Discover Card.”
“Who even has a Discover Card anymore?”
“I do,” said Norm. Norm was a friend. He had helped me put Vivian’s body into the back of the car, and now sat in the passenger seat.
“I’ll use my Master Card,” I said. “And I don’t need a counsellor.”
“Ok sir, please place your Master Card into the slot marked Payment. That’s great. Now, how may we help?”
“It’s my wife, in the back,” I said with a sniff.
“I understand,” Kim said, And taking my name from my credit card, she said, “And you wish to inter her with us, Mr Owen? Thank you for choosing CRYPTS, a Division of Marshal Memorial.”
“Yes…,” I said, “…inter.”
“Do you wish her interred locally?” Kim asked.
“Of course, where else?”
“Interment locally is more expensive than the CRYPTS Roll of the Dice Program. With the CRYPTS Roll of the Dice Program, we place the deceased in a cargo container, with others taking advantage of the terrific value, that’s put on a bulk carrier. We guarantee that the loved one is interred at the first port of call that has space. Please note that embalming is mandatory for the CRYPTS Roll of the Dice Program. An important embalming benefit to you is that cosmetics and hair styling are included in the price. That adds even more value!”
“Local,” I said. “But does she have to be embalmed? I mean it seems a bit unnecessary if she’s going to be buried.”
“If the family wishes to say a final farewell, it is. At CRYPTS, we believe it’s important for family and friends to say a final good-bye to the loved one. In life your wife would have bathed and used an under arm deodorant, I’m sure.”
“I guess,” I said. Then, “Well, of course she did.”
“And she did so to be pleasant and presentable?”
“Well,” said Kim, “embalming is like underarm deodorant for the deceased. It allows for the final adieus to take place without any unwelcome odoriferousness.”
“Odoriferousness? That’s not even a word.”
“Oh, but it is,” said Kim. “Odoriferousness, antiodoriferousness, quasidoriferousness, megaodoriferousness and polyodoriferousness are all trademarked words belonging to CRYPTS, a division of Marshal Memorial. And they’re slated for inclusion in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
“Gawd,” I mumbled, ”you’re killing me.” I was beginning to feel a little disgusted. I caught Norm squirm, out of the corner of my eye.
“What an odd thing to say, Mr Owen,” said Kim.
“Whatever. What’re the alternatives to embalming?” I asked.
“Well, there’s refrigeration and ice,” Kim said. “We can store the deceased in refrigeration, and display the deceased on ice during the Final Farewell. It’s not unlike a salad bar.”
Kim invited me to park the car, and accompany her into the CRYPTS ten acre display space to choose a casket and the place of internment. I declined her invitation. I chose to stay in the car, instead, and selected CRYPTS Convenience Package B from the large colourful plastic menu next to the speaker. It included CRYPTS trademark Embalming Lite for the environmentally minded, a patented CRYPTS Brand China-made styrene reinforced pine aggregate casket with fabric liner made of recycled plastic beverage containers and bronze coloured hardware made from repurposed parts from bicycles bought at the Beijing Police Department’s stolen property auction.
For Vivian herself, the package included a sateen choir gown with CRYPTS, a Division of Marshal Memorial Inc., tastefully embroidered over the heart. As for the headstone, the package included the CRYPTS Brand Kevlar-Patriot Headstone, guaranteed bullet and holocaust proof. It came in 35 CRYPTS copyrighted tertiary colours. I chose Genoa Olive over Norm’s suggestion, Rings of Saturn Magenta.
Kim counselled me that the best place for Vivian to spend all of eternity was a small memorial park called Frog Hollow Grove, a Division of Marshal Memorial Inc., near the border between Canada and the United States. She assured me plots were selling for a song at Frog Hollow, as low as $20,000. And the US Department of Homeland Security drones made an ever-so pleasant buzzing sound as they regularly passed over, day and night.
I knew my Drive-Thru experience was nearly over when I heard the tailgate open, and looked down to see Vivian’s left hand disappear slowly from between the front seats, as she was taken out to be placed on a gurney. That’s when I noticed that her engagement and wedding ring combo was missing. I looked up at Norm who was holding the two rings out to me in the palm of his hand.
“She won’t need these where she’s going,” he said.
I smiled and took them, and said, “Thanks Norm, for being here today.”
The slot under the speaker spat out my receipt and Master Card.
A black, late model Mercedes behind us revved its engine. In my rear view mirror, I was able to see someone in the Mercedes’ passenger seat listing far over to the left, held in place by the seat belt. I started the engine, and drove back onto the highway.
Life goes strangely on. Norm and I went for a late lunch at Uncle Bob’s Big Box Chicken Infestation Restaurant, a Division Marshal Poultry Inc. Home of the Why the Chicken Crossed the Road Sandwich. We used several thousand of my recently acquired CRYPTS Bonus Points, and ate for free. As a result, I received 10,000 new Air Miles and 50,000 Uncle Bob’s Cross the Road Bonus points, redeemable at any division of Marshal Corporation.
for regret is a curtained window
so no one sees you with that book
reading away your blunders
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
is an actual name, & that
poem on page 12—that The Evening Star
—is for real
just ask Wikipedia
I guess Henry couldn’t help himself
poets are like that
always getting themselves
It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table outside of a small café, checking my pocket watch; it was nearly midnight. A waiter nearby hinted with his posture that it was nearly time to close.
I put down my equations, and looked into the sky. The weak street lights and dimly lit storefronts did little to lessen the intensity of the stars and planets. One in particular moved fast across my field of vision, but not as quickly as a meteor. Then it stopped at the tail end of Ursa Major, and remained motionless.
It was Saturday night and the streets were still busy. I wore a fawn suit, hoping to blend in. I’d needed to get out, but I shouldn’t have left my room. The faint telltale scent of ammonia was in the air. They were watching. They had found shadow and were waiting. I wondered if there might be comfort in capture.
With this in mind, I picked up my notebook and hat and placed some coins next to my empty brandy glass, then walked into the crowd. My last night of freedom? Perhaps my cell would have a window, to watch the seasons change—
I was accosted before I reached my hotel.
Some years later
I tap in Morse code on the wall of my cell, “Do they still use rockets?”
“Yes,” someone on the other side taps back, “of course. Can’t you hear the snap of the atmosphere whenever one breaks free? A guard has told me that they’ll be landing on the moon in just a few days. They’ll increase the Earth’s surface, when they do. They’ll create a whole new nation for men to die for. They’re launching tomorrow.”
Unlike me, whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement. He obviously has some limited access to the world, and is my only source of news. It’s a suspicious miracle, however, that he knows Morse code as I do. I wonder if he’s a liar, or if he’s even a prisoner.
Our dot dash conversation ends, replaced by a strange hissing stillness. I have no window as it turns out, and no way to measure time. They never turn out the light and there’s only one meal a day, sometimes none at all. The food trays slide in through a hatch at irregular intervals. It’s the same hatch my slop bucket slides through, back and forth. Occasionally, the food is drugged so that I can be removed and my cell cleaned.
This cube of a cell has absorbed me; all I have is its space. The demands made by space aren’t the same as those made by time. Space need only be occupied, and here I am. Time, however, must be up by dawn and dawn has been denied me. And so, I have failed time.
A widely accepted scientific rule, called Newton’s third law of motion, is said to allow rockets to travel though empty space. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believed in it once, before my research. A rocket engine is said to push on its own exhaust, created in the near vacuum of space, and it is assumed that this action causes the rocket to move forward.
But the definition of forward, I discovered, remains an open question.
I was close to providing an accurate non-subjective definition, once.
The last time I saw the moon was on the night in Barcelona. I barely remember it now. I’m certain, however, that it appears at night and sometimes during the day, that it has phases, and that its surface has been occupied for a very long time. Since before we had telescopes to look at it. I know this even though I’m not supposed to. No one is supposed to. I learned it through my study and discovery.
This is a recurring meditation. Dreams come when I sit awake on my mat. Psychosis. Voices. Meaningless conversations, with no one, about meaningful things.
My most recent meal comes through the slot with a surprise. My pocket watch, the one they took when they abducted me. It sits there on a plate, next to the dry bread. I stare at it for a very long time, hear it ticking. I expect it to vanish before my eyes. It doesn’t and I pick it up, hold it to my ear. Then I sit against a wall with it in my hand. It’s smooth, cool and gold, with an engraving: On your becoming a Dr of Mathematics. All my love, Jessica.
Jessica? Yes, I suddenly remember: tall and elegant, brilliant, with the strawberry blonde hair, where June and July once took refuge. We were to marry. How could I have forgotten? I haven’t thought of her for so long. Now it’s torture, seeing her so vividly in my mind. The pair of us walking the grounds of the university, laughing at something absurd I’ve said.
I try the crown. The watch is wound tight. The hands say 10:33; a.m. or p.m.? It always ran a little slow. Maybe it still does, or maybe they’ve fixed it to run fast. Regardless, now I can measure time. I watch the hands for ten minutes. It all comes back to me: sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and so on. At some point I fall asleep.
I awake to tapping, coming through the wall. More Morse code, somehow sounding emphatic. “The launch. The launch.”
I check for my watch, and it’s gone. More torture. But I see Jessica in the corner, smiling. As I hold out my hand, she fades.
Struggling to get up, I take the tin cup from the tray and spill the cold tea onto the floor. Then I tap out my reply: “What about the launch?”
“Successful,” comes the reply. “Didn’t you hear the atmosphere go snap?”
“No,” I tap.
“They will be there in a few days, and land. Then the world will be a bigger place. The planet has gone mad.”
“What do you think they’ll find?” I tap.
“You already know, Doctor,” comes the answer. “Don’t you.” Then comes the last message I will ever receive—
“Enjoy the rest of your stay.”
the candy kisses cried
the day Lou Reed died &
firecrackers burned holes
for I am certain
women once could fly
—scullery maids & Jane Austin
in the sky—&
men too to be fair
—skies full of husbands
(their spring driven burdens
weighing them down)
of all of this I am certain, so
I wonder why we landed
& lost our genius & now
write our diaries
of the cunning concrete that
knows us each too well
by the soles of our shoes