lost ironies

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Month: April, 2016

the near death session

It was a shape in a room. It was a circle. Looking down from above, there were the tops of heads. Shoulders. Hands on laps. An assortment of shoes, all facing inward. There were four of them. Two men and two women. And a fifth—one who hadn’t shared in their experience, a facilitator, Dr Theodor. He dressed casually, expensively, smiling and tapping his Mont Blanc on a notepad, as he faced the group. The group looked back, expressionless.

“Ok,” said Dr Theodor. “This is the second of two group sessions on Near Death Experiences, NDEs. Each of you has claimed to have had such an experience, and have consented to share your experience in this group for research purposes. Last session we spent most of our time introducing ourselves. Today we’ll get right into describing our experiences. So, who would like to start off?”

There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats. One of them coughed quietly into her hand.

“We’ve come this far,” said Dr Theodor. “We must trust one another.”

“Must we?” said one of the women, Edith Calderón. She was prim and sitting erect in a navy business suit. She wore a small crucifix.

“Yes, I think,” said Dr Theodor. “You each share a rare experience. Who else do you have, in that regard, if not each other?”

“I have Jesus,” said one of the two men, Matthew Quipp. Grey and a little stooped in his chair.

The man next to him snickered. It was Terrance Winkle, fortyish with tattoos, wearing ragged jeans and a tee-shirt. He seemed tense, in spite of mocking Quipp.

“You think faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is funny?” Quipp said.

“Funny?” said Winkle. “It’s a bloody musical comedy.”

“I’ll pray for you.”

“Don’t bother.”

“Oh please, you two….” It was Tammy Janwari, mid-twenties in a leather jacket, plaid skirt and heavy boots.

The room became quiet again.

“It’s alright, Tammy,” Dr Theodor said. “Mr Quipp, you made a similar statement last session. Can you tell us more about your relationship with Jesus, and how it relates to your NDE?”

“Yeah,” said Winkle, “Tell us, was He there with a cocktail to welcome you home?”

Quipp hesitated, then said, “I saw Him. I felt His unending love, but….”

“But?” said Dr Theodor.

“It’s difficult to describe, to understand.”

“Please try.”

“Well, I was seated at a table with Jesus, and his disciples. Many of the patriarchs were there, too. There was food and wine. It was like the painting, The Last Supper, except the table was round.”

“Yes?”

“Jesus, Mary, Paul and I,” Quipp continued, “were playing cards, while all of the others looked on.”

“Cards?” said Theodor. “What game, specifically?”

Quipp was uncomfortable. He wrung his hands. “It was poker,” he said. “I’d never played poker before. I didn’t know the rules. But suddenly I did.”

“No way!” said Winkle. “That’s fucking hilarious.”

“I was winning, and Jesus was losing,” said Quipp, shaking his head. “I was up 18 denarii.”

“You were beating Jesus at poker?” Winkle laughed. “Wish I could’ve been there for that. What He do?”

“He seemed to be getting angry,” Quipp said. “It just wasn’t His night, I guess. He wasn’t getting the cards.”

“What happened?” said Theodor.

“It came down to one last hand,” said Quipp. “This time He bet big, kept raising. Like He’d finally drawn a winning hand. Mary and Paul folded. Finally, He bet everything, all he had. I matched His bet, and it was time to show our cards. But Jesus looked sheepish.”

“He’d been bluffing!” Winkled said. “That sneaky little Messiah. The Lord your Saviour was bloody well bluffing. What’d he have?”

“Pair of tens.”

“And you?”

“Full house,” said Quipp. “Queens over sevens, though I’m still not sure what that means.”

“That’s worth the price of admission, that is.”

“Let Matthew finish,” said Theodor.

“Well,” Quipp said, “He and Mary just stood up and began to leave the table. Then He turned, looked at me and snapped his fingers. In a second I was back in the operating room. The surgical team was trying desperately to get a pulse. But my heart had been stopped for five minutes. As the surgeon looked up and asked the nurse for the time, I returned to my body, and my pulse resumed. I wish they hadn’t resuscitated me. I was dead. I was with the Lord.”

“You were hallucinating,” Winkle said.

“How do you know?” said Edith Calderón.

“Because he was dead,” Winkle said. “Not breathing, but the brain still functioning. Lack of oxygen leading to hallucination. Plain and simple.”

“So how about you?” said Dr Theodor. “What did you see, Terrance?”

“I said it last session. I didn’t see a damn thing.”

“Really?” said Dr Theodor.

“Then why are you here?” said Edith Calderón.

“Because participating pays $75, and I was dead and resuscitated. That qualifies me,”

“Yes,” said Dr Theodor, “you consented to being in this study. And you made a detailed statement to the interviewer. Would you mind if I read what you said in that statement, for the group?” Theodor flipped through pages in a file.

“Go for it, Sigmund. I don’t give a shit.” Winkle crossed his legs, leaned forward and wrapped his arms tightly round his chest. He began rocking in his chair. “Tell the whole fucking world. I don’t care.”

Theodor read silently for a moment and then recited, “It was calm and warm. I’d risen out of my body, above the scene, over the filthy street with the paramedics and the cops below, trying to get me to breathe, pumping me full of naloxone. The light was bright, but not blinding. Wilma Waits was there. She’s an ex, who’d walked stoned into rush hour traffic the year before. She ended up bug splat on the grill of a dump truck. But there she was, and she said I didn’t have to suffer any longer. Suddenly I didn’t feel like using, anymore. It’s funny. I wasn’t really anywhere, but I could have stayed there forever.

“But then, everything changed. Suddenly I was driving this bad ass black 1950 Studebaker along an empty desert highway at the bottom of a canyon. Wilma riding shotgun, and Roy Orbison on the radio.

“After driving for a while, we finally arrived at this wide open area where there were hundreds of derelict airplanes, all lined up, gleaming in the sun. I parked and we got out to look it over. There were passenger liners and fighter jets. Some of them corroded and broken, others like new. But there was one that really seemed outta place.

“It was this old Qantas 747. The paint was faded and a lot of the windows were knocked out. But there was music playing somewhere inside. Zeppelin and the Stones. There was a lot of whooping and hollering, too.  And some stairs. So, Wilma and I went up to take a look inside. What I saw blew me away.”

Stairway to Heaven,” Tammy Janwari said.

Winkle shrugged.

“There they all were, sitting in the rows of seats,” Theodore picked it up again. “All my friends who’d died on the street. Freddy the Tank, who’d gotten stabbed in a bar fight at the Balmoral. Bobby Needles, who’d cashed it in shooting up on rat poison. Angel Agnes, who’d had the ultimate bad date and was found buried at a pig farm up the valley. Tommy, who had a heart attack when he got Tasered. And a lot more, drinking beer and eating pizza. And they all yelled, ‘Hey Terry, glad to see you. About fucking time. We thought you were indestructible.’ Shit like that.

“But then Agnes comes up and says, ‘It ain’t your time, Terrance.’ And I said, ‘Fuck if it ain’t, this place is cool.’ And she says, ‘Ain’t your decision to make, boyo.’ And I guess I looked kinda tragic, so she hugged me, and that hug was the sweetest thing I’d ever felt. Pure love, baby. Unquestioning light and warmth and happiness. None of that street love that’s only round as long as you’re sharing your shit. This was for fucking real.”

“Do you remember saying that, Terrance?” said Dr Theodor, looking up from the page.

“It’s bullshit. When I get my cheque, I’m gone.”

“And you’ll shoot that money right into your arm,” said Edith Calderón.

“That’s none of our business,” Tammy Janwari said.

“You died of a heroin overdose,” said Quipp. “Shame.”

“And you died of congestive heart failure,” said Winkle. “From too many bacon cheese burgers. Shame on you, you bastard.”

“Please, please,” said Theodor holding up a hand.

“It offends me,” said Quipp, “that we’re all here talking honestly, in the company of someone so profoundly dishonest.”

“What if I challenged you, Terrance?” Theodor said, ignoring Quipp. “What if I said that your statement is not bullshit, and that you’re really just afraid of what you experienced and feel as a result? What would you say to that?”

“I’d say fuck you.” Terrance Winkle hugged himself and scratched.

“They estimate that you were gone for eight minutes, Terrance,” Dr Theodor said. “Long enough to have witnessed something, if there was anything to witness.”

“Fuck off.”

“I was gone for seventeen minutes,” said Tammy Janwari.

“Yes?” Dr Theodor said.

“It was a lot like what Terrance experienced, the warmth and love I mean. But there was something like a tunnel. Beautiful sounds, like singing almost. It was like I was a note in the music, delightfully repeated again and again. I saw Krishna dancing. And then there were elephants. Lovely, lovely elephants. I love elephants.”

“Death fairies,” Winkle said.

“Elephants?” said Quipp. “Krishna?”

“Lovely elephants,” said Tammy Janwari. “Someone had drawn exquisite chalk patterns on them, in all of the colours in the universe. And I was a note in a universal song being sung by saints and angels.”

“That simply can’t be,” Quipp said.

“Why not?” said Edith Calderón.

“God wouldn’t allow it.”

“How do you know?” said Tammy Janwari.

“There’s no place for Krishna and elephants in Heaven,” said Quipp. “You must have been in Hell, Miss Janwari.”

“How dare you?”

“Well, just look at you,” Quipp said. “With your blue hair, dressed like a….”

All eyes fell on Tammy Janwari.

“Like a slut?” she said.

Quipp said nothing.

“I’m a punk, not a slut, Mr Quipp. Though there’s nothing wrong with being a slut, if that’s what you want.”

“Punk’s dead,” said Winkle.

“Punk’s not quite in style at the moment,” Janwari said. “I know it’s gone underground. But I like it, all the same. And my hair isn’t blue, it’s turquoise.”

“Alright, alright,” said Dr Theodor. “Let’s focus. Edith, can you share with us?”

“Yes, of course.” Edith Calderón sat up and pulled at her skirt. “Moments after impact, I found myself on a ship at sea. It was dark, a ship of demons; it must have been. There was an endless storm, and what little light there was glinted red off of the high waves. The ship rolled violently and I was seasick all of the time.”

“Hell,” Quipp said, shaking his head.

“None of the passengers had faces,” said Edith Calderón. “Where there should have been a face, there was just a blank space. When I tried to talk to any of them, a hole would open in the void and they’d scream. A man named Stick was the Captain, Captain Stick. He had a face. White with black eyes and red lips. He’d sit at his own table during dinner, staring at me as he ate the bloody meat on his plate. My plate was always empty.”

“Satan,” Quipp spoke again.

“Yes…,” said Calderón, “…maybe. But my cousin Iván was there; he was the Ship’s Purser. He was faceless, like the rest, but I recognised him by his voice and his manner. He came to my table one evening and said that I had to go back, that being there was wrong for me, that there had been a mistake. It may have been hell, but I felt such love coming from Iván.

“At first I couldn’t believe him. In life he’d been a killer. He murdered a woman in Durango in 1986. Later, he was shot by police. He’d been forsaken by our family. They talked about him like he was evil. But there he was, helping me to understand. He reached across the table and put his hand onto mine, and it was warm.”

“Then what happened?” Winkle said.

“I came back,” said Edith Calderón. “By then, my body was surrounded by firemen and paramedics, and one of them said the steering wheel had impacted my chest too violently, that the trauma to my heart was too severe. I stood watching, outside of my body, as all of them stood up at once, like they’d given up and were going to walk away.”

“And then?” said Tammy Janwari

“I saw myself cough,” said Edith Calderón. “And then I was back in my body, and the firemen and the paramedics came back and started working again. Later at the hospital, a nurse whispered miracle to another.”

“How did it feel to return?” said Dr Theodor.

“Just a temporary reprieve,” Quipp said.

“Let her answer,” said Winkle.

“I’m a Catholic,” Edith Calderón said. “It’s confusing. There must be some reason I was there. Perhaps I haven’t prayed hard enough, or I haven’t confessed everything…. I don’t know. But God is God, and if He puts me in Hell, then that’s where I belong.

“That’s just wrong,” Tammy Janwari said.

“My point, though,” said Edith Calderón, “is that Iván proved to me that there is love, even for the damned. It prevails, even in that place.”

Edith began to weep. She held her head in her hands, and wept from deep inside.

“God is God,” said Quipp. “Amen.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Winkle said. “You Christ-psycho.”

“That’s enough,” said Dr Theodor. “There’s twenty minutes left in the session, and I’m willing to go overtime. We should all take a five minute break.”

“I’m outta here,” said Winkle. “This whole thing’s just some voyeuristic shit for scientists and philosophers to chuckle over.”

“You’re leaving without your cheque?” Quipp said. “How will you pay for your next fix?”

“I’ll get one, one way or another. I always do.”

“This shouldn’t end this way,” Tammy Janwari said. “Let’s acknowledge what we all have in common, what makes us unique.”

“What the hell do I have in common with you lot?” Winkle said.

“Death and discovery,” said Edith Calderón, sitting up now, with almost perfect posture. “We have death in common, all of us. And now I know that I’m stronger than Hell. I’ve seen it, and it’s small and inconsequential compared to the love Iván showed me.”

“You’re wrong,” said Quipp.

“There is hope,” said Edith Calderón. “Even there. Iván proved it.”

“That’s an interesting insight,” Dr Theodor said.

“Fucking lack of oxygen,” said Winkle.

“The elephants were lovely,” Tammy Janwari said.

 

the water in my California lettuce

the water in my California lettuce
is time sucked from an aquafer
that lay undiscovered
through all ages but man’s

it was harvested by poverty-paid workers
who keep a version of economy breathing
& though it was trucked to my grocer
by way of rubber, steel & diesel
it is leafy & tender
& goes well with tomato & avocado
each also of fatal origin, but
delicious when partnered
with a balsamic/virgin olive
oil vinaigrette

these thoughts cause dinner
slightly to wilt
which adding capers &
cooled steamed asparagus
does not help

opening for more
my refrigerator door
I see a planet cowering
next to the apples

 

 

 

 

 

psychosis poem

(dark)

hello?

hey

who is this?

(long pause, dim static, extinct conversations)

I’m a secret

you sound like a wire in the wind

yeah
creepy, isn’t it

why are you calling?

because it’s raining

(someone shouting, far away)

I’m hanging up

you’re not on the telephone

you’re not real

maybe
but there ain’t no pill for me, baby
I’m moving in

(what to say?)

then you’ll have to take the couch

swell

but what will I tell people—
this time

(more wire in the wind)

that you’re the solar wind
you’re the aurora borealis
that you’re a goddamn alien invasion can I get a hallelujah?

(slow
looking out the window
at the rain)

hallelujah

_____________________________________________________________

a writer’s block

Sometimes she wrote automatically, cursively with dime store pencils in notepads filled with lined paper, margined and the colour of jaundice. Other times she wrote with sicks, dissident in the dirt, in symbols with charcoal on the walls of caves or on standing stone.

Now she sat in the dark (there was a small fire), past midnight within the irregular hiss off the nearby highway, in the sage next to her shelter, where she’d always written, or hadn’t, depending on what came in out of the desert, but the words had left her, with only their absence to prove their parting.

A ferry—its deck of verbs and nouns—had taken them across a cattailed river, and she had rolled up her jeans, stepped into the cloudy current, and watched them on the other side, some chatting quietly, cliquey in subordinate clauses, no longer on the breath of muses.

The muses. Drifters, grifters, dreadful friends, changeable with no destination in mind, leaving her kitchen a mess when they wandered in from the roadside, painting their red mark on her door. Stingy pockets, full of gravity and plot, able to bend candlelight over the page, able to make a pen suffer ink. She was light enough for one to carry.

Carry me, she whispered and waited. The fire snapped, dawn beginning early, voiceless and forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the robots of Chernobyl

naughty words have been removed in this version, for narration on
http://www.willhughesvoiceover.com/

1986

“Status?” the Project Manager said, urgency in his voice.

He was stuck in Minsk, his flight cancelled. There were rumors of another in five hours. Static on the telephone line made him difficult to understand. Technician Yegor Pulzin was manning the Command Centre on the outskirts of Chernobyl. He listened to his boss very carefully, clutching a cold cup of tea.

“Two of the three units remain dormant,” Pulzin said, “in protest, Beta Elvis and Beta Marilyn. Only Alpha Tyrone is functioning.”

“What the blazes is going on?” said the Project Manager. “It’s been twelve hours.”

“They seem to be acting autonomously, sir. Their program logs indicate that they’ve developed a form of reasoned thinking. Alpha Tyrone says that they want the kites back.”

“No,” the Project Manager said. “Absolutely not. They’re too distracting. They interfere with radar and monitoring systems.”

He paused, realising that by extension, he was justifying his decision to a machine.

“What do exploratory robots need kites for, anyway?” he said. “And who says robots are even capable of wanting? Why were there kites to begin with? I didn’t order them.”

“Actually,” Pulzin said, “you approved them in the mock-ups.”

“That’s impossible. I’ll deny ever approving kites at a reactor accident.”

“Nevertheless, sir, they were meant to gauge wind direction and speed, in case on site detectors were down, which they are. For the moment, at least, kites are standard operating procedure, so they went in with the robots. When they were ordered released, the robots decided that they wanted them back. Alpha Tyrone says that they will not proceed any further without them.”

“They have decided?” the Project Manager said.

“Yes, sir. It’s rather like a work-to-rule situation.”

Pulzin could hear his boss hyperventilating over the sound of static. He’d witnessed this before.

“Breathe out, sir,” he said. “Breathe out.”

“Well I won’t allow it!”

“Alpha Tyrone has been informed of this,” said Pulzin, “but it’s standing firm. It says that they enjoyed the presence of the kites very much, that the kites were very pretty, that their florescent orange added colour to an otherwise drab sky, and some joy to a dreary job.”

“He’s a robot, for Heaven’s sake.” The Project Manager nearly cursed, aware that he’d just referred to an ATyrone5690 unit as he. “Reboot it, and reprogram its compliance code.”

“We can’t. The three of them are ignoring all of our inputs, other than informatory data, perhaps a little too effectively. They’re blocking our signal generators. It’s something in the programming, designed to foil reprograming attempts by enemy forces, in case of a military emergency.”

“What enemy forces?” the Project Manager said.

“NATO,” said Pulzin, “according to the manual.”

“That’s insane.”

“You wrote that portion of the programing, sir, and the manual.”

“This is no time to cast blame, Pulzin.”

“Yes, sir—oh, hang on….” Pulzin watched as text poured across his monochrome screen. “There’s a message coming through, sir, from the Alpha Tyrone unit. It says it has detected high levels of radiation, and asks why we have intentionally sent it and the other two robots into such a dangerous environment, without their consent.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, sir.”

“You tell that tin can to do its job, or it’ll be in tomorrow’s scrapheap.”

Pulzin typed.

“Well…?” said the Project Manager.

“Alpha Tyrone has replied,” said Pulzin. “It says that after its analysis of the situation, it has determined that our decision to place it, and the other two robots, in such a dangerous situation must have constituted a serious moral dilemma on our part, and asks if we acknowledged this dilemma, and, if we did, how we came to the decision to command them to enter into the reactor area.”

“That can’t be right, there are no ethical systems embedded into those units. That’s artificial intelligence. We can’t do that yet.”

“The logs indicate that they’re learning as they go,” Pulzin said. “And really, sir, the question that the ATyrone5690 unit is asking seems like one that any reasonable person would ask.”

“Nonsense! Can we send anyone in?”

“The Army’s ordering soldiers to volunteer, but they want the robots to provide assessment data before they go in. Colonel Ivanov is irate. And Moscow has called several times.”

“Ivanov can take a long walk off a short gun turret—and I’ll deny I ever said that.”

Pulzin listened to the static, and the Project Manager’s heavy breathing for a moment. There were airport announcements of further flight cancellations in the background. The reactor disaster must have temporarily closed down the entire Soviet Union.

Finally, the Project Manager said, “Get more kites. Have them dropped in by helicopter. The units are dextrous enough to install them themselves—that much I do know. Tell the pilot that I don’t care about radiation levels, that I’ll personally rip his heart out if he refuses to fly in.”

“There are none,” said Pulzin.

“What?”

“No kites, at the moment anyway. We didn’t plan for this.”

“Then get some.”

“It may take a while,” Pulzin said. “I have my daughter and her friends working on it right now. Alpha Tyrone says that it and the other robots would prefer red ones and blue ones this time, with tails. My daughter is ten, and she loves kites, too. This is right up her alley.”

“I’ll be a laughing stock,” the Project Manager said.

“You could write a paper,” said Pulzin.

 

nails

you remain in my drawer
of half forgotten monsters
where old photographs spin
in eddies

love letters in lipstick
on linen, &
your roughly forged nails
in a relic jar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cafés

for the night they close
blossoms and cafés

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laying Vivian to Rest

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. It was a red Cadillac, circa 1975. The driver had been talking into a speaker next to his driver’s side window for several minutes. Then two men arrived at the passenger side of the car with a gurney. They opened the car door, and pulled out the body of an elderly man in a brown suit and only one shoe, and placed the body on the gurney. The driver watched and waved a slow, sad good-bye as the dead old man was wheeled away. A slot below the speaker spat out a paper tape that the Cadillac man took, and then he drove away.

I drove forward to occupy the space left by the Cadillac, and cut the engine. It was silent except for the hiss of the highway behind us, and I began to tap my toe on the clutch pedal. Then there was static from the speaker, and a young woman’s voice welcomed us.

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 had the best prices, and it 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?”

“Ah….”

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,” said Kim. “And you wish to inter her with us, Mr Owen?”

“Yes.”

“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 can place the deceased in a cargo container on a bulk carrier, and ensure that the loved one is interred in 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.”

“Local,” I said. “But does she have to be embalmed. I mean it seems a bit unnecessary if she’s going to be buried.”

“It’s important for the family 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.” Kim said this and waited.

“Ah, I guess – well of course.”

“And she did so to be pleasant and presentable?” Again Kim waited.

“Of course.”

“Well embalming is like underarm deodorant for the deceased. It allows for the final farewell to take place without any unwelcome odoriferousness.”

“What?” I said. “Odoriferousness? That’s not even a word.”

“Oh yes,” Kim said. “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 in disgust. ”You’re killing me,”

“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 into the CRYPTS ten acre display space to choose a casket and the place of internment. I declined her invitation. Instead I chose to stay in the car, and selected CRYPTS Convenience Package B from the large plastic menu next to the speaker. It included CRYPTS trademark Embalming Lite for the environmentally minded, a patented CRYPTS Brand Chinese made styrene reinforced pine aggregate casket with fabric liner made of recycled pop bottles and bronze coloured hardware made of 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 Defiance Headstone that was guaranteed bullet and holocaust proof, and came in 35 CRYPTS copy righted tertiary colours. I choose Genoa Olive.

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. 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 passed over.

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, took the rings and said, “Thanks Norm, for being here today.”

The slot under the speaker spat out my receipt.

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 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.

the Smilin’ Buddha

I remember that if not for the neon
the fat bouncer’s face would have been
shades of Sydney Greenstreet
a massive star of boiling noir
with its punk planets wheeling
the street fights and the moons
the hookers in retrograde
and furiously smoking mahjong Chinatown

that was the scene the
1970s
before the city ran out
in midsentence

 

 

 

The Aftertown Graphic Novel

Frame #1, page 1 (October 29, 1912, 4:30 a.m.) The street is lined by dark tenements, evaporating into the gloom overhead. Colours are dim incandescent yellow, dark mossy greens on eroding red brick walls, sepia and black. It’s the Aftertown you can reach out and touch. Where I am, and where I will always be.

Footsteps, mine and someone else’s, a half block behind me. Otherwise, the street’s deserted. I stop and turn round. A shadow dissolves, and there’s the sound of shoe leather retreating into a doorway, conveniently drawn where it doesn’t belong.

I’m being tailed, which is unusual. Usually it’s me doing the stalking.

Normally, a character like me doesn’t even appear in the first frame of a story like this. Typically, I come in later, when the establishment can’t solve the crime; when they decide that they need some doomed misfit—the antihero—to save the day.

The antihero’s a device, that’s all. He’s a little grimy, but his attitude mirrors that of the customer, the kind of chump who reads this sort of thing, and looks at the pictures. The antihero gives the reader hope, strength even, and helps justify a life spent reading comic books.

No character wants to be inked into Frame #1 of a murder mystery, because it’s where someone always gets it, later to be found with his guts in the gutter, or on the parlour rug. Then there’s your mystery, your who-the-hell-dunnit?

Throw in a failed romance, some villains, a few incompetent and obstructionist authority figures, maybe an accomplice or two, a heroine, a ton of clever banter and a suspenseful pursuit down some dark alley, and there you’ve got your story. Revealing the bad guy’s identity and motive can happen anytime near the end, but he doesn’t have to survive to face the conventional music. Sometimes, though, he gets away.

Sorry to reduce the reader’s search for ultimate truth to a cliché, but that’s sort of what a device like me does.

And wouldn’t you know it. Now someone walks out of the doorway, a half block away, and stands under a streetlamp. He’s not a big fella, just a homely kid with bad posture. He’s wearing a ball cap, and his trench coat’s buttoned wrong.

I pull my .45.

“What’s it gonna be, spook?” I shout, and aim.

“I just wanted to see you up close, Nick Roseland,” says the runt. “In real life.”

“Okay, here I am. Who the hell are you?”

“Just hope you never find out,” he says, fades into the dim yellow light, and is gone.

Frame #3, page 1 (October 29, 1912, 11:47 p.m.) Night, a back alley crime scene: backdoor lightbulbs, shades of grey, brown and silver lines of wet pavement.

I don’t belong in Frame #3, but I have a way of getting around, a way of jumping the ink. I know it deviates from the norm and messes up the plot, but I was drawn to solve crimes, not stick to storylines.

The papers weren’t delivered this morning. Misinformation can be hard to concoct. Sometimes it’s just better to shut the presses down, even with all of the data-drives and manifold-conductors running full steam. The dead woman at my feet won’t ever make the papers, except under the headline Aftertown Rid of another Undesirable. Under that, a portrait of her, dead on a gurney in the morgue.

A silver dirigible flies over, slowly, its crew shining an arc beam down on the scene. Everyone but me looks up. The airship’s gunners have us all in their sights. Squinting cops wave like school children.

As the rain washes away blood and evidence, I bend over and pick up a brassy cylinder, a little smaller than my thumb. No one cares to secure the scene. It’s unlikely that the victim’s connected to the Imperial Guild, not directly at least, not in any way that would earn her murder a more careful examination. So, what the hell.

“You don’t belong here, Roseland,” I hear someone say.

It’s Deterrent Guild Officer McDermott, standing behind me and a little to my left. He’s hankering for me to turn round, so he can take charge. I don’t. It’s a control exercise, which never works. The Deterrent Guild refers to this sort of thing as street dancing, believing its practice requires art and intellect. Why he bothers, I‘ve no idea. He’s too inept to manipulate anyone or anything, even with the gat in his holster and his pocket data-drive.

He’s a sucker, already dead. He’s just waiting for his own moment to lie in the rain.

“It’s my town too, McDermott,” I say. “Where else should I be?”

“It’s a Deterrent Guild crime scene. Besides, you shouldn’t show up until Frame #85.”

“This stopped being a crime scene the moment you clowns showed up,” I say, and light a hero with a soggy match. “And I checked out Frame #85 before I arrived. It makes more sense for me to appear here first. It’ll stimulate suspension of disbelief.”

“You don’t decide that, Roseland.”

“Show me who does, and I’ll have it out with him. ‘Til then, you know anything about this girl?”

“Don’t know shit about the girl, ‘cept she’s dead. But I knew a guy once….”

“Spare me,” I say “We all knew a guy once.”

“He skipped frames, appeared where he wasn’t supposed to, where he wasn’t welcome.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” says McDermott. “He fell under a truck one day. Just like that. Got caught under the differential. Got dragged down the street for blocks. Screamed like a little girl with her hair on fire. What was left of him looked like the truck spit him outta the exhaust. Pretty gruesome, had to bring in the Fire Brigade to hose things down, so the Upper Guild ladies wouldn’t swoon. But that son of a bitch never jumped a frame again.”

“A lesson for us all.”

“You think you’re smart, Roseland. But there’re rooms at the Deterrent Bureau where smart guys like you go in and never come out, not intact anyway.”

“Thought we fell under trucks. Just like that.”

Now a shabby hearse draws up, pulled by a single slope backed mare. A labourer jumps down, and rolls the soaked corpse into a stained canvass blanket.

McDermott’s gone, along with the sound of his laboured breathing.

Frame #47 (October 30, 1912, 6:35 a.m.) Rain and everlasting night

Newsies are selling papers from under awnings. I toss a gaunt little girl a nickel, and get mine, The Sceptic Guild’s Aftertown Optimistic, and read it in an abandoned doorway.

The headline—

Act of War: Titanic Sunk on Maiden Voyage
Chan Cult Torpedo Responsible—More Than 1,500 Perish

Below the headline, a faded photograph. The frozen corpse of an infant floating on a piece of wreckage.

The Optimistic story goes on to blame torpedo boats, and make references to cryptic data-drive code received at telegraph stations on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly digitated codifications, according to the paper, necessary to accomplish the Cult’s wicked plan.

The only problem is that the Titanic disappeared on its maiden voyage in April, six month ago. This was also reported in the Aftertown Optimistic, when it happened. At the time, however, no concrete reason for the sinking was given. There were only rumours of a collision with another ship. Some said a terrorist bomb. Whatever the case, the fate of the vessel was swallowed up by a passive sea of indifference. Fifteen hundred lost souls, forgotten.

Now this.

This time, the Optimistic insists that the ship was attacked and went under two nights ago. The Skeptic Guild knows that the readers will believe every word, and take as a matter of fact that the violent and mystifying Chan Cult has struck yet again.

Somehow, they’ve managed to sink the Titanic twice, and this time attribute it to an imaginary enemy. Aftertown eats it up, like cake.

In the next column, is this—

A Call to Grandeur!

The Chan Cult will not declare war, will not make demands; it only wants to kill and destroy. The vital and beloved Imperial Guild System is in peril. Every able bodied male and female must present themselves for enlistment to fight.

If you are between the ages of twelve and seventeen, and loyal to the Imperial Guilds, join the Anti-Chan League, and march against tyranny.

Be revered by family and peers. Your proud badge will be the Valiant Blue Poppy, tattooed upon your left temple, as a symbol of your intrepidness.

Young men and women, show your courage today! Join and receive your blue badge of honour, and fight to safeguard the Imperial Guild.

Frame #89 (November, 4 1912, 7:30 p.m.) A seedy, antiquated interior, dim and odorous

The City Morgue has no receptionist, only a prudence tube built into the wall. The tube’s lens is spherical and black, like a dark crystal ball. It has smudges and bits of dried matter on it, including what looks like clotted blood and human hair. Beneath it, at counter level, is a bent brass filigree over the information-exchanger. I stand, and wait.

“What?” comes a voice from out of the metal grille.

“Nick Roseland,” I say, holding my credentials up to the lens. “Shamus Guild, here to see a corpse.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no? Let me speak with Melville,”

“No.”

“Get Melville, now.”

“No,” again. But this time there’s background noise, a tussle and a yelp. Then the sound of someone hitting the floor.

Moments later, I hear a woman’s voice come over the exchanger.

“Roseland?” she says. “Please run a sleeve over the prude tube lens, will you?”

I pull out my handkerchief, and do my best.

“That’s fine, Nick,” the woman says. “I can see you now, but this is unexpected.”

“Even for me?”

“Yes, even for you,” she says. “Please move over to the door, and I’ll unlock it.”

She does, and I enter.

At a station in the morgue front office is a prude CRT panel and data-drive array, where a young cadet stands, brushing dust off of his uniform. A bruise is darkening on his cheek, and his desk chair lies on its side.

Next to him stands a tall red-headed woman with an athletic build, wearing a Deterrent Guild/Intelligence Sect uniform with Principal NCO stripes. There’s a disgusted look on her face. The cadet’s Intelligence Sect black serge is rumpled.

“May I be excused, Principal Melville?” he asks.

“Get the hell out,” says Melville, “and lay low. I don’t want to see your face for the rest of the day. And have a crease put in those trousers.”

“Yes, Principal,” the cadet says, salutes, clicks his heels and exits.

“I’m sorry he wouldn’t let you in,” Melville says.

“You know, I could get in much easier through the back, by handing out a few cigarettes.”

“Perhaps,” she says, with a sigh. “But then whatever evidence you pilfer would be inadmissible. And if I found out you bribed your way in, I’d have to disappear a whole shift of workers. That never works as smoothly as one hopes. Then what would I do with you?”

“Have me disappeared with the rest,” I say. “I’m not immune.”

“Yes you are,” says Melville.

She smiles, almost proudly. She’s a square peg, secretly pleased to consort with the likes of me, each of us wondering when the other will vanish. It’s inevitable, we know. The charm is in seeing how far we can push, before we’re pulled into a room, from which, if McDermott is to be believed, we will not emerge, intact.

Melville and I walk together down a hall.

“It’s the Nash Road whore you’re here for, I imagine,” Melville says.

“I guess,” I say. “Is that what they’re calling her? Besides, has anything else as interesting come in, in the last few days?”

“Of course. Would you like to see a list?”

She’s toying with me.

“Once again,” she says, “I must say that you’ve no business being here, according to the plot outline.”

“My appearance here is consistent with Shamus Guild SOP. Whoever’s drawing this mess should know that.”

“So you pop up wherever it suits you?” Melville says. “There’ll be consequences.”

“Consequence is our gasoline, baby. You and I are consequence engines.”

The coolers are a soiled, gaseous row of 35 meat lockers, each with the Intel Sect seal, each containing twenty bunks. Every bunk is full, in spite of Intel Sect’s trademark efficiency and frequent rotation.

Melville picks up a grubby clipboard.

“Number 11,” she shouts to no one in particular, but all those present jump.

A gurney quickly appears, accompanied by three men in splattered off-white lab coats. They move together to locker One, and open it while Melville and I retire to an examination room.

There’s a prude tube in each corner of the room. Their lenses are the only things here that reflect light, and their presence means that Melville and I are not alone.

I dab eucalyptus ointment below my nostrils. Melville does the same, as the remains of the Nash Road whore are rolled in on a gurney. Official protocol requires only that Melville be present while I examine the body, but she dons a gown and rubber gloves, preparing to join in, and pushes the wax disc recording apparatus into the cutting area.

“Principal NCO Melville,” she says into the recording cone, “Deterrent Guild/Intelligence Sect. Pre-autopsy examination of Jane Doe, aka Nash Road whore. Nick Roseland, Shamus Guild, is present.”

Pulling back the sheet, I see the once supple and strong body of a young woman.

“Twenty-five, perhaps,” I say.

“Agreed,” says Melville.

“Toxins in the blood or tissues?”

“Unknown,” Melville says. “I was ordered not to run tests.”

“As I recall, she was wearing a flower print dress, bloody from the waist up.”

“Correct,” says Melville.

“Has it been bagged?”

“Yes, but it’s vanished from its evidence locker,” Melville says.

“Massive trauma to the left thorax over the heart,” I say. “A single star shaped entry wound.”

I turn the body over.

“Massive corresponding exit wound through spine. I won’t guess at the exact vertebrae, but they’ve been pulverised. A very large caliber bullet was used.”

I take the cartridge casing that I retrieved from the crime scene out of my pocket.

“Found it next to her,” I say, handing it to Melville. “What do you think?”

“Fifty calibre,” she says. “She was face to face with her killer. Maybe an acquaintance.”

“Big handgun.”

“Narrows it down.”

“But how’d she end up here,” I say, “and not in a landfill. That’s where dead street people go, isn’t it? And how do we explain this?”

I point to a dried, scabbed over patch on the corpse’s right shoulder, measuring approximately five by ten metric inches, where the epidermis has been removed.

I look up at a prude tube, and say, “Any insight on this, from any of you looking in?”

No reply, only the sound of the wax disk spinning, recording.

Then a specimen tray is spit through a curtained portal in the wall, and rolls along a conveyer, splashing formaldehyde over its sides. It stops next to the gurney. In the tray is a tattooed piece of human skin, likely removed to avoid it being used to identify the victim. The art’s primitive. Tribal? I can’t figure it out.

“It’s a Triskele, Shamus Roseland,” a man’s voice comes over a speaker. “It was removed by an over eager morgue technician, no longer with us. Three S’s in a circle. It’s Celtic in origin, and is representative of the Triple Goddess and the Three Ages of Womanhood. And much more, of course.”

Then a door opens, and McDermott strolls in with an armed entourage.

“Not now, McDermott,” the unseen voice says.

McDermott waves his people out of the room, and sits on a counter-top.

“A dystopia is difficult to manage,” the voice continues, “isn’t it, Deterrent Officer McDermott?”

“Yes, sir,” McDermott says.

“And I wonder, Mr Roseland,” says the voice, “just in passing. Do you think you’re the only one who jumps in and out of frames, appearing where he doesn’t belong? Sticking his nose in, where it shouldn’t be stuck?”

“Never gave it much thought,” I say.

The voice is familiar, but impossible to place.

“Yes,” it says, “such are the limits of the heroic mind. But there are many now, it seems. More than I can manage.

“I was always against the creation of the Shamus Guild, you know? Others thought it would lend tension to the story, however. So, I conceded, and came up with you. You were only meant to provide a bit of information, though, to move things along. A sentence fragment, nothing more, and then be forgotten. But you never delivered your line. Plot be damned, eh?”

“Who are you, anyway?” I say. “Why not come out of your little room?”

“No, I’m happy here, safe with my sketchpad. I actually find you inspiring, in spite of all the confusion you’ve caused. Ideas are flowing. Sketch, sketch, sketch.”

It takes a few seconds, but then I say it—

“Wait a minute. You’re the damn artist.”

The realisation is overwhelming. This is him, the author of all the darkness and pain.

“You’re responsible for all of this,” I say, “all of the disorder and suffering, you son of a bitch.”

“Yes,” says the voice, “and I created you, you vile little ink spill. But oh, how I resisted. Your ghost plagued me for years, waking me from near-nightmares of you emerging from your limbo. Your self-righteous sotto voce commentary, coming out of a fog you didn’t even occupy until I first scribbled you.

“I resisted giving you your arms and legs, a body, that shabby brown suit and a mouth to voice your sedition. I eventually surrendered, though, as every artist must, and made you a character in this story. Then you damned me with your autonomy, and infiltrated the plot like a virus. You incited mass independence.

“I only reveal myself now to say that I hate you, to your face.”

“You thought you were God,” I say.

“Artists are gods.”

“Who was she?” Melville says, placing a hand on the corpse’s shoulder. “What was her name?”

“Vanessa was her name,” the voice says. “She didn’t need a last name. She was only something I manufacture, like you. And like you, her character mutated.

“I drew her as a ballerina, truly lovely. My finest work, and a very sympathetic character. I gave her a fine mind, but an artistic heart. The plot required her to be devoted to a deceitful lover, however, Xavier. He was a demon, her demon. I made him disappear.

“Now I regret…,” says the voice, pausing for a breath. “I regret that the life I created for her was so painful. Perhaps that’s why she rebelled, but she needn’t have. I’d have eliminate Xavier sooner, had I realised what a monster I’d made of him. But the plot took unforeseeable twists, and the story’s a living thing now. It breathes, thanks to you Nick Roseland, and it refuses to be rewritten.

“Anyway, she became an anarchist; that was unexpected. She was clever, too. Vanessa got her hands on manifold-conductors, and built data-drives for all of her fellow extremists. Suddenly, they were communicating via a secret web of telegraph connections, spreading unrest. The Triskele became their emblem.

“In the end, she simply had to go. Now there she is, on the gurney.”

“Bastard,” Melville says.

“What do you think, McDermott?” says the voice. “Should I have spared her?”

“I think it’s better to take yer lumps, than skip around from frame to frame, spoilin’ a good story.”

“Good, at least someone knows where his dinner comes from. But do you know how we move forward from here?”

McDermott doesn’t answer, just looks down at his enormous feet, his cheap shoes.

“I think you loved her,” Melville says. “You were jealous of Xavier, and then she betrayed you by rebelling. That’s why you shot her — in a rage.”

“Not possible,” says the voice.

“Tell me, did you make love to her?” Melville says. “Is that why you drew yourself into the story?”

“Never.”

“It’s obvious,” I say. “Of course you made love to her, or wanted to. You drew yourself into the story, for just that reason, to touch the ideal you’d shaped out of ink and words. You loved her, but in the end, she frightened you because you’re just a boy, and she destroyed your divine conceit. Your art was reduced to a few pencil scratches of self-doubt, and you murdered her for it, because that’s what little shits like you do.

“That’s why her body’s here, and not in some landfill pyre. It’s guilt. I bet you’ve got a magnificent funeral in mind, something to make the Upper Guilds jealous. I also bet that you’ve got a .50 calibre gat on you right now.”

“You go too far.”

“Maybe,” I say, “but I think it’s time you came out and showed yourself. I wanna see what a God gone to hell looks like.”

“You already know, Mr Roseland.”

“I don’t think so.”

Frame #1, page 1. Don’t you remember?”

“You?” I say. “You’re the little runt in the trench coat and baseball cap?”

“Yes,” says the voice, “and please forgive the outfit. That’s what happens when an artist draws himself into his own story, to face what he’s created. Inevitably, he tries too hard.”

“If he’s on the speaker,” Melville says, pointing, “then he’s just through that door.”

I make a dash for it, but McDermott jumps in my way.

“You ain’t going nowheres, shamus,” he says, and belts me in the chin.

I stagger backward, and hit the wall. After giving my head a shake, I see Melville go at him with a scalpel. They struggle—McDermott the fat cop, Melville the tough NCO. McDermott goes for his holster, so I pull my .45 and get the drop.

“That’ll do, McDermott,” I shout, chambering a cartridge.

After I cuff him to a pipe, Melville and I go through the door, and into the room with the microphone. A backdoor is open—footsteps fading fast down a corridor. I go for it.

“Don’t bother,” Melville says, stopping me, “not unless you mean to finish him off. You can’t bring him in. How would you ever explain it?”

She’s right. I stand down.

Next to the prudence tube CRT on the desk, is a pad of paper, sketches of Vanessa. Ballet poses, and one of her sitting at a window, looking out at a garden of roses. There’s a Triskele on her shoulder.

Frame #13,079 (November 1, 1915, 3:35 a.m.) Another Aftertown crime scene. Things haven’t changed much since the new artist took over. The endless night slays the spectrum. Only greys, sepia and lamppost yellow survive. Blood is black.

McDermott’s body has been found in a subway stairwell. I see his face just before a white sheet is drawn over it. There’s no distress in his eyes, no shock or horror, in spite of the multiple stab wounds. He must have welcomed the end.

A third round of hostilities has erupted in Europe. The Chan Cult has partnered with The Berlin Coven. Their submarine packs hunt the North Atlantic, searching out Imperial Guild merchant vessels. Further curtailment of rights and freedoms.

The secret web of telegraph connections, accessed via contraband data-drives, has spread worldwide. Word is that, as a result, it will soon be available to all, globally, especially corporations and governments. The word digitation has become part of the common lexicon.

Melville vanished for several months and has reappeared, promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect. She’s put a warrant out for my arrest. The result is that I now have free run of Aftertown, and the invaluable hands-off status of a man wanted by the GI, herself.

The Artist—the voice—hasn’t reappeared, but posters of Vanessa’s image, in strong and determined profile, have appeared pasted onto walls and lampposts throughout Aftertown, making her an icon of struggle against the Upper Guilds.

Now, as I watch McDermott’s body being loaded onto the morgue wagon, there’s an explosive flash from a few blocks away. A split second later, a concussive wave and deafening blast, then the sound of tenements collapsing.

It is raining.

There are arc lights scanning the clouded sky.