THE PICTURE

There was a recliner. He was on it and the TV was on and there was some game playing. Remember when he played in college? Which team was it? They had leather helmets back then, not even enough to keep you from concussing. Like the ones now were any better.

There was a recliner. Someone walked in the room and behind them was a TV. On the TV there was some game. Didn’t he play in college? Who was it for? The person stood in front of him and just wouldn’t move out of the way. The TV was on behind them.

“Hey, grandpa. Watching the game?”

The person just stood there, expecting something. There was a TV on behind them, but he couldn’t see it on account of the person. Who was the person?

“You okay, grandpa?”

“Yes, yes, fine.”

He didn’t know where the words came from. The person looked familiar, and they were smiling, so it couldn’t be all bad. The TV was on. There was a game or something playing on it. What was it again? Football. It was a football game.

“You know what today is?”

The person was looking at him now, giving that facial cue that meant that they were expecting an answer or something. Did they ask him something? Why was he on the recliner? There was a game on the TV.

“Grandma’s birthday. She would’ve been ninety-three today.”

Birthday. Candles on a cake and some wish that you had to close your eyes for and really focus on. Don’t spit when you blow them out. Ten candles on the cake, yellow. Good frosting. Stack of presents in the corner, people all smiling. All happy.

That person was looking at him again. What was it? Was it about the TV and the game? He leaned back in the recliner and scratched the stubble on his chin.

“I fished this one out of storage. Thought you’d like it.”

The person held something out. Silver frame, reflection in it. Distorted old face in the reflection, eyes lost and far away. Gray stubble on the chin, hair disheveled but distinguished still. Got a real shape to it.

Between the frame, in the center of it. A picture. A dream.

She was beautiful then, beautiful till the day she died. The wife. His wife. He had wedded her and she was his wife. Her name was Jean Marie and she became his woman then. Her golden locks and that smile that made his heart get funny. She was funny and he was too. They had each other.

He held that picture in his hand. There was the recliner and the TV and the game, but they didn’t matter. He had the picture. His Jean Marie.

He looked up. His grandson was there, looking at him. Not just a person, his grandson. His grandson brought him the picture of his Jean Marie, and he was happy. Thankful.

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UD 6226

Nick Olson woke up in the middle of the night, uncomfortable in the dingy little Marlboro sleeping bag that he’d been afforded for the camping trip. He was lying in the darkness, listening to his mother’s breathing and father’s snoring when he realized he really had to pee.

He thought of waking them, but his five-year-old logic shunned the idea. They’d think he was still a baby that couldn’t do things on his own, and that was the last thing that Nick Olson wanted at this particular juncture.

He took tentative steps as he went out, his bare feet getting poked and prodded by the rocks that rested beneath the tent’s floor. He took a look back as he left the zippered entrance of the tent. The whole thing was haphazardly erected, a blue monstrosity that he’d tried to help putting together but had ended up mostly watching as his dad did the heavy labor. The family station wagon was parked next to it, license plate “UD 6226.”

Nick knew where the porta potty was. In hindsight, he probably should’ve used a tree and called it a night, but the little boy decided that he’d make the journey through the woods to the toilet and do it right.

The trip there was easy enough. He took careful steps, his feet still bare. The mud caked onto them, but he didn’t really care much.

His mind wandered to a story that his parents had told just before bed. In it, a group of faceless, axe-wielding monsters appeared in the woods, set on terrorizing little boys who were trying to go to sleep.

Nick Olson didn’t entirely catch the reason for the story’s coincidental plot points until later. At the time, he took it as a terrifying legend that happened to center around a little boy that was inexplicably very similar to himself.

But anyway, he did his business and headed back. Or rather, he tried to. Nick got back to where he thought the tent was, only to find nothing but trees and brambles. There were tents and cars all over, but no blue monstrosity, and no UD 6226.

Nick decided he wouldn’t panic, that the campground couldn’t be that big. He’d find the tent soon enough. He explored the outer edges of the place, afraid to go too deep into the woods. The faceless axe monsters might be there.

Time passed on, and still he couldn’t find it. He quickened his pace now, ignoring the pain at his feet as he stepped on jagged rocks and the like. He reached one end of the campground, only to be greeted by the high-speed whoosh of cars as they sped down the highway only feet from him.

He was only five, but Nick Olson knew very well that that wasn’t good news. He headed back into the heart of the campground, pressed into the woods that petrified him.

Up ahead was the unmistakable form of a bar, but which little Nick Olson saw as just some weird cabin that grown-ups laughed and yelled loudly outside of. He scanned the faces of each patron, but was too scared to ask any of them for help.

But just then, he saw them. His parents. He was saved!

He ran over, incredulous at his luck. But his heart dropped as he got closer. His mind had played a cruel trick on him, morphed the faces of pure strangers to look like his mom and dad. Nick was despondent.

He turned back to the heart of the woods, where the monsters no doubt lurked. They might kill him with their axes, but what was his alternative? He braced himself, decided to act like a big kid, and trudged on into the scary forest.

Hours passed, but all time slipped on in vague fashion. It felt to Nick Olson at once like he’d just left the tent and that he’d been outside for years. His feet hurt, he was exhausted, and he just wanted to lie down.

And then he saw it.

Peering out of the darkness of the woods was a pair of headlights. The phantom lights glided past, but stopped at once as Nick Olson hastily approached them.

It was the owner of the campground, on patrol in his golf cart.

Nick explained the whole thing and hitched a ride with the helpful owner. The man asked for any identifying clues that could lead them to the boy’s parents. Nick offered up that they were in a blue tent. There were dozens of blue tents. His parents drove a station wagon. It was the ‘90s. Those were almost an automotive uniform by that point.

But wait… the license plate!

“UD 6226. The license plate number is UD 6226.”

The campground owner sped off in his golf cart, now primed with useful information.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, that awkwardly-shaped blue tent was found. A monumental weight lifted off of Nick’s shoulders. He thanked the man and made his way back into the tent.

His parents were wide awake by now, scared completely out of their wits. Nick couldn’t see what their problem was. He’d just needed to go pee was all. It was like they had seen the faceless axe monsters or something.

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THE TWISTER

I was in a twister.

That’s not intended to be a metaphor, or something cute like that. There was literally a violently spinning column of air rampaging my neighborhood and I was actually inside of it.

It’s funny how it happened.

I saw the news reports, heard all the obnoxious sirens. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that my brand new Kawasaki was parked out front. And I paid damn good money for that thing.

I had a storm cellar, naturally. Out here in the plains, having a storm cellar was like having a bathroom. An assumption. If I could just get to that bike in time, it could ride out the storm with me down in the cellar.

I ran outside, tie trailing in the wind like it wanted to strangle me. The sky was this noxious brown, pulsating like it was a living thing. Rain shot past in little knifelets, cutting against the skin. Abrasive.

I could see the neighbor’s above ground pool from across the way. Ugly thing. How the weeds just sprouted around it, like they were claiming it as one of their own. Always an eyesore when I’d pull the Kawasaki up after a long day at the office. It’s funny the things that cross your head in situations like this.

I reached into my now-soaked business slacks, fumbled for the key. As I pulled it from my pocket and went to jam it in the ignition, I watched as it was ripped from my hands. It was all so slow, how it seemed to hover there, just like that. I considered how strange it was that gravity seemed to be turned off for that little key.

And then I noticed I was flying.

The key was feet from me, turning and twisting with the same relentless speed that I was. My Kawasaki glinted in the brown sky as it hurtled up above me. The windscreen went first. I saw my face reflected in it for the briefest of moments as it shot free of the bike and flew away. Half of a door frame collided with the front wheel, tearing it to shreds.

The key came back, smacked me right in the head. Blinding pain, to the point that I couldn’t feel it. Like when something’s so hot it feels cold.

My Armani loafers went next. They pulled my socks halfway off with them, which socks fluttered more like windsocks than human ones. The Kawasaki’s windscreen sliced one of the loafers clean in half. The other one simply frayed apart at the seams from the force of the wind. It whipped apart, in tatters. Four hundred dollars torn up at once.

My tie really was strangling me now, pulled centrifugally outward. Like an invisible man was tugging with all his might. I tried to reach for my neck, but my jacket was wrapped around me like a scarf. The sleeves were tearing, threading from them coming apart and into my open mouth, how it gaped as I fought for breath.

I cursed God for doing this to me. I cursed myself for not acting quicker, for failing to get the Kawasaki down into the cellar in time. Everything was fading to black.

It all flitted back in an instant.

I was tiny and muddy and just inconceivably small. I was down there in the mud with that frog that I caught down by the river with my dad that one time we went fishing. He was hopping around my mother’s garden, looking for some sort of escape.

But every time he got close to the little wire fence, I picked him back up and plopped him in the center. Little flecks of mud on my face, in my hands. My hair was caked. It was raining. I was a tiny five-year-old and I was playing with my frog.

I blinked.

The feeling came back to my extremities. I could breathe again. My tie had ripped away, half of it ineffectually rippling against one of my outstretched arms. I didn’t know why, but I’d been freed.

Fuck the Armani loafers. I never wanted them. As a matter of fact, they crowded my toes. Johnson in Advertising had a pair so I had to get my own. The Kawasaki was bullshit. I hated bikes, come to think of it. It was nothing more than a fifteen thousand dollar ego boost.

As the wreckage of my life came hurtling past, I made peace with it. I wasted away my life working a job that made me cynical. Buying things I didn’t want. Always hungry for more. Never satisfied. Maybe I couldn’t set things right, but at least I knew in the end. At least I admitted it.

If I could do it all over again, I’d get it right. It was easy to say that, spinning around toward my certain death, but I just knew it. Life was more than a pair of loafers and a motorcycle. There was more to it than having my own office, owning a McMansion in the suburbs.

I was plummeting.

I closed my eyes, braced for the impact. I wasn’t terrified anymore. Not even angry. I just accepted that the next event in the sequence would be my death.

And then I hit hard, like concrete on the surface. Water flooded my ears until they were useless flaps on the side of my head. My nostrils burned as the water rushed in, hitting the back of my throat.

I thrashed instinctively, fighting my way to the surface. I caught my breath, opened my eyes. There I was, in the tatters of my business attire, floating in my neighbor’s above ground pool. And you know what? It was wonderful.

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JUST SEE

There are few things as frustrating in this life as an idea that just won’t come. You sit there as if frozen in time, pen hovering over that blank page that refuses to be blotted out. The Muse is on holiday, if it ever existed. The inspiration’s gone. It’s just you and that page, locked into battle.

I counted each blue line on the blank page, tapped my pen to each intersection of the margin’s red and line’s blue. I drew careful circles around each of the notebook’s three holes, studied the perforation on the page. I was stuck, ladies and gentlemen.

It didn’t help that I was crammed sardinially into the hell that is the American subway train. I was losing feeling in my writing hand, a consequence of my arm being squished against the questionable, faux-wood paneling of the thing. There were loud conversations punctuated with the staccato of exaggerated laughter, a homeless man was sprawled out across several seats, loudly singing the Star-Spangled Banner to no one in particular.

It was pretty hard for me to find a single thing that interested me in the positive sense about the majority of the people I was riding with. The ones whose eyes weren’t robotically glued to shining screens were loudly listening to music, having phone conversations for all to hear, or speaking in the kind of false, superficial tone that made my skin crawl.

And try as I might, not a single idea would come to rescue me from it all. I started counting my breaths. I felt my heart as it beat steadily against my rib cage. I allowed myself to be conscious of the fact that I was sitting in a large piece of metal that was moving through space. I closed my eyes.

When I came back to, I felt like I was ten miles away from myself. My skull had the distinct feeling of limitless space, of being filled to the brim but still going on and on. A million miles in every direction.

There were sixty-seven cents in the right back pocket of the man seated in front of me. Two quarters, one dime, a nickel, and two pennies. The oldest of the coins was the dime, minted in 1972. It had once been in the possession of its current owner’s grandfather, but neither of them did, or ever would, know that. So why did I? It was all weird.

The man sleeping next to me was born in a poverty-stricken rural village in Mexico. He was currently battling a kidney infection, which infection his wife had no clue existed yet. He didn’t want to worry her.

The woman talking loudly on her phone a few seats up suffered from tinnitus, her loud speaking voice the result of her desperate attempts at hearing her own voice over the persistent ringing in her ears. It all dated back to when she was six, when some idiot kid in the neighborhood tossed an M80 at her on the 4th of July, said M80 exploding dangerously close to her ears.

The young woman speaking in the cringe-worthy, false tone was dealing with crippling anxiety, coupled with her severely low self-esteem. She was just considering that today might be the day that she finally ends it all when a classmate came onto the train and struck up a conversation with her. The tone was nothing more than an attempt to feign happiness. If the classmate thought she was happy, maybe she’d be her friend. Maybe the young woman wouldn’t have to end it all today. Maybe not ever.

The homeless man sprawled out on the seats across from me used to be a tenor in a prominent a capella group. After being foreclosed on during the recession and losing his wife to her fight with cancer, what started out as self-medicating with pills turned into a full-blown addiction. In his head, he was out on the field at the ball game all those years ago, harmonizing with his group as they sang the Star-Spangled Banner.

There were two people in this very train car that would one day get married and have a wonderful life together. A marriage that would last more than sixty years and produce four kids. Those two people didn’t know each other at this moment, and they wouldn’t for another five years.

I knew the birth dates, blood types, favorite foods, hopes and dreams of every last person in that train car. I knew their entire genealogic histories, (one among them was a living relative of George Washington) how many children they would have, what they ate for every breakfast of every day of their lives up until this point and beyond.

I blinked rapidly, taking it all in. How or why any of this happened to me, I hadn’t the slightest clue. I looked down at that empty page, at the blankness of it. And then I looked back at the people. At each and every individual one of them. I put my pen to the page and I wrote. Line after line, page after page. I just wrote.

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THINGS FORGOTTEN

So I was in the shower. I don’t know what time it was. Maybe two? Two-thirty in the morning? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I was tired, it was Halloween, and I hadn’t been able to do anything fun thanks to my absolute peach of a boss.

I stank like popcorn, and I was nursing a burn from cleaning the popper that night. As the shower’s water cut on, my mind started to wander to all the faces I must’ve seen in the theater that night. It hit me that each face I saw belonged to someone with a life, hopes, and dreams. That seems like common sense to say, I realize, but it all just hit me then. That’s just the way my brain liked to work, okay?

So anyway, I was trying my best to open the shampoo bottle without aggravating the burn when I got to thinking. It was always so damn creepy in my house, empty and bare as it was when I’d get home from work. Anyone could be hiding in the shadows and I wouldn’t even know. Maybe it was childish, like I was scared of the dark or something, but who cares. It’s what I thought.

I started lathering up, it felt good to get rid of all that damned grease. I closed my eyes to the water as the shampoo washed away, remembering childhood days of tear-proof shampoo and bubble baths with rubber duckies. My stomach dropped out all of a sudden. My knees went limp, I felt like I was going to pass out.

I remembered something.

Under that water, beneath the cold chill of the bathroom air, I used to open my eyes and look out at the world. It was like everything was distorted, warped. Like I had my own little kingdom under the water and only I could see things in just that way. Maybe it was silly. It sounds weird recounting it. But it’s how I felt.

I’d lie there, supine in the tub, naked as the day I came into the world, and I’d will myself to keep my eyes open, imagining each patch of bubbles was some sort of weird iceberg or continent.

I cleared the bubbles away one time to look, and there was an old, wasted man standing naked on the other side of the room, smiling as he watched me.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. He didn’t seem like he was really there. To me he seemed like the abstract concept of a man. Like the suggestion of one. To me it was like he had always been there and always would be.

With everything as hazy as it was, he was sharper. Clearer. Like he wasn’t a part of the rest of the world. All of this I thought to myself as I lay perfectly still under the water, holding my breath.

He had great folds of skin that hung down and collected in rolls, like someone had hastily stitched together a body for him. He was sallow, wasted away. But even so, I felt like he could kill me at any moment. Not with his body though. He wouldn’t need that. He could just think it, and I’d be dead. With a single notion he could follow me wherever I went, even after death, and always be there to watch me. Like I would never, could never escape from him. He told me all of this with the look on his withered face.

His eyes were gray, with flecks of blood red. To the average observer he’d seem blind for sure. But they’d be wrong. What he had was a heightened sight, something that went beyond just seeing something. It was like he could be in your skin as he watched you, feel your every organ as it worked its hardest to keep you alive.

There was white foam at the corners of his lips, like he hadn’t had a drink of water in his life. I could tell the foam was fetid just from looking at it. I imagined little fruit flies drowned within it, not even knowing their mistake. Him not even bothering to wipe them away. Maybe he liked them there.

His teeth were pus-stained. Red, but not from blood. I could just tell. He wasn’t smiling so much as baring his teeth like a predator might do. It was all a grand gesture and it was all for me.

There was a moan, low and deep. It was from him, but it felt like it came from everywhere. I could feel its vibration even down there under the tub’s water. Its sound waves rippled the water’s surface.

I don’t remember anything more. The memory just goes blank after that.

I stood there in the shower, propped up against the wall so I wouldn’t fall. I could feel my heartbeat in my skull. Everything was all hazy after that, like the real world was as warped as it looked from under the water all those years ago.

I started to gulp in deep breaths, like I heard you were supposed to when you thought you were having a panic attack. I didn’t know if that was good advice, but I tried it anyway.

It must’ve just been some weird memory I’d made up. Maybe a nightmare I’d had long ago thanks to some horror movie from my childhood. That had to be it.

I turned off the water. The curtain was there, the only thing separating me from my towel.

A low moan slowly built. It felt like it was coming from everywhere. The water at my feet rippled, splashing at my toes like it was boiling. There was a high-pitched whine, and then everything went black.

That’s it. That’s all I remember.

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