Jesse Jarnow

micro-fiction

the motel party, no. 12

“U.S. Millie” – Theoretical Girls (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The flowers wilted overnight, shriveling from a Technicolor fanfare to something more in line with the muted browns of the rest of the room. Heidi was gone, and an early fall storm battered the ocean-side door. I burrowed under the blankets and thought of Dani, of the company that sent her to Tokyo to investigate “possibilities,” to look pretty with prospectuses, and how she might move among the steam and neon and ringtones and salarymen. Later, if I didn’t check out, she would fill the room again, absorb me in her drama via her company-issued calling cards. The wifi was back. I ignored my email and drifted in and out of sleep. Eventually, I got out of bed and pulled on my pants. I wondered how I could express the notion of time travel to my professor, that I’d been there, and knew what he was feeling, by the water, his dying father, and young beautiful friend, George Peabody. I put on my shoes and left the flowers for the maid. [END]

the motel party, no. 11

“666: The Coming of the New World Government” – Apollo Sunshine (download)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Her name was Heidi and I could still see her bikini under her grey tee-shirt. She was from a few towns inland. “Me and Gene walked there once,” Peabody said. Heidi giggled. “How long did that take?” she asked. “Oh, a day maybe,” Peabody replied, accepting another beer from the chief Angel and nodding at him. “Why did you do it?” she asked. “The territory,” Peabody replied. “Had to know it.” One of the baymen reported the sick Angel in the bathroom, which broke up the card game as the bikers helped their drunken brother to his feet. She put her weight on one foot, leaning towards me. Up close, she seemed older, in her early 30s maybe. “I heard the music down the hall,” she said. “And then this little man came walking by when I opened the door.” “What little man?” I asked. “Not, like, a midget. In suspenders. White tee-shirt.” “Never saw him,” I said. She looked around. “Talked just like Peabody. Yeah, he’s gone now.” So was almost everybody, the party disassembled around us. Peabody tapped me. As I turned around, I could see his shoulders sink. “Mmm,” he said. “It’s there,” he said, spirit escaping. “Just… don’t worry about it.” He was gone and Heidi and I lay down on the bed.

the motel party, no. 10

“Your Cheating Heart” – James Brown (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

It was a hipster’s musicality: a dry, bright singsong punctuated by occasional ironic drawls to slow the tempo. I’d heard it for hours, on every extant tape of Harrison. “What’s it there?” Peabody asked once more, arm around me again, in the voice he’d preserved. “Um, pretty alright,” I answered. His fingers gripped my shoulder once and let go. He looked disappointed. “S’okay,” he said in his dead friend’s voice and his face softened. When he stood upright, I realized he hadn’t been previously. He was only 18 when he met Harrison, who was then nearing 50. “Listen, don’t mind any of this,” he said, suddenly lucid and grinning. “It’s just a party, that’s all. You know what I mean. Who has time for all that?” He closed his smile, like a ghost in a corn field, and took of up three lines of conversation at once: one with the card players, one with a distant cousin, and one with the girl I’d seen earlier in the bikini. She took a step towards us as a Fire Angel staggered towards the bathroom.

the motel party, no. 9

“I Bid You Goodnight” – The Dixie Hummingbirds (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

I wondered briefly what the night manager might think, and only then could I envision it as a series of comic events, of characters trooping by, past his ice machine, to room 302, around the back and upstairs, my room. Could there possibly be anything more exciting going on in the seaside town? The question wasn’t so much conceited as it was a way of marveling at Peabody’s ability to make this coastal outpost feel like a happening place. I pushed myself off the wall and tried to find Peabody, who was talking to a florist, just arrived with a psychedelic bouquet he positioned next to the mirror. Peabody put his arm around me. “What’s it there?” he asked, happily, a definite question. When I didn’t answer, he smiled and nodded slowly, as if prompting me. “C’mon, what’s it there?” he asked again. As he repeated the phrase, the intonation the same, it reminded me of a recording of Harrison reading at NYU just before returning to his father. Peabody suddenly looked much younger as he leaned back and laughed against the lamp, which had somehow acquired a gypsy shawl and was shining silver moonlight over the stucco ceiling.

the motel party, no. 8

“Green Rocky Road” – Karen Dalton (download)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Peabody’s drunken sway made sense when the party hit critical mass, symmetrically lilting to the rhythm of the bebop. He was a ripple at the center of two dozen other ripples, people who’d found their way into the motel room. There were at least five baymen, their eyes becoming more resilient as the evening grew. One, named Ricky Schmidt, lectured on the history of tailpipe design in American cars. Another pair, Corey Lagasse and Rodney Santini, led a card game at the small, lacquered table with four members of the Fire Angels, a local motorcycle club (of which Santini was also a member). They’d been in the town for nearly 40 years — a father and a son were present, the Smiths, their hairlines the same, the curvature of the younger’s back noticeably straighter. I was mildly drunk, but found myself unable to sway as gracefully as Peabody. Instead, I confined myself to one wall, and let the salon of local color circulate around me. I occasionally spotted Peabody ricocheting between conversations, though I was unable to hear any myself. I tried to move towards him.

the motel party, no. 7

“The Warmth of the Sun” – The Beach Boys with Willie Nelson (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The first to arrive was Walter Manteau, a local artist who gave Peabody rides home, up the soft incline to his house near town, when Peabody was too drunk. Manteau had a wife and a child. We chatted pleasantly, though he didn’t stay very long. He was closer to my age than Peabody’s. “He has these moments of profound lucidity,” Manteau said. “Once, I had a painting with me, and he looked at it. This was on a day when he wasn’t making much sense. He told me, ‘if you put that on TV, it would be like… reality.’” I looked at Peabody, who was fiddling with the record player he’d carried in earlier, finally getting it playing. He put on Charlie Parker. He was on his fourth or fifth beer, and was starting to tilt mildly when he walked. I wondered if I would see that side of him. “You think he really knew Harrison?” Manteau asked me. I was somewhat taken aback. Manteau backpedaled. “I’ve heard some crazy stuff come out of his mouth, that’s all,” he said. Manteau excused himself. He had to get home. It was nearing midnight when I stopped wondering when the party would start.

the motel party, no. 6

“Le Fils De Jacques Dutronc” – King Khan and His Shrines (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The last email I got before the motel’s wifi network mysteriously blinked out was from my thesis advisor, asking why I hadn’t responded to his previous message. “Need more proof that Harrison was happy in later years,” he’d written. “Presently insubstantial, unacceptable.” I stared at the blank reply screen and gave up. I thought about calling Dani and decided against it. She could call me. I looked around the room and wondered what else I should do. I put my bags in the closet, on a shelf, and waited for Peabody. It was almost 10 when he arrived. He stood at the foot of the band with his hands on his hips and cocked his head slightly. Turning only his face, he glanced around the room, taking in its contents. He reminded me of a hitman. Though he seemed ancient to me, I realized–watching him–that when Peabody had spent time with Harrison, he was 20 to the former novelist’s 40. He put his fingers to his chin, and I tried to imagine him genuinely boyish, instead of Peabody’s alcohol-hardened perversion. “Alright,” he said quietly. “This can do. Help me unload the car.”

the motel party, no. 5

“Yo Yo Bye Bye” – Why? (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

She was by the motel pool–the indoor one–in wide sunglasses and a bikini the color of the chlorine water. She listened to a yellow walkman with headphones and, other than her tapping foot, might’ve been asleep. It was nice out. Perhaps not bikini weather, but certainly pleasant enough for a walk on the beach. I thought about inviting her to the party that Peabody was apparently organizing in my room. He’d told me to get seven bags of ice, tomato juice, lemons, Tabasco, and candles. He’d do the rest. I’d told Dani about the party, too, though not the girl. Not that I knew Dani too well, trans-Pacific conversations or no, but still. Besides, inviting poolside sirens to parties thrown by chronically unemployed 60somethings in New England hotels wasn’t something I did lightly, or–really–at all. Peabody was in the main texts about Eugene Harrison, but never as more than a footnote from the last, lost years. A looming figure in the unfinished sheaf of poems from ’68–he’d had a few published himself–nobody had yet interviewed him, and discovering that he was still alive was something of a surprise. “Better read than dead/God of mythic dance worlds,” is how Harrison himself put it. “You get the fucking ice yet?” Peabody squawked from the phone, which had been mysteriously replaced with a rotary model.

the motel party, no. 4

“Mama, You Been On My Mind” – Lee Ranaldo (download)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

“My old man knew his old man,” Peabody said, nodding up the stairs, towards his sleeping father, who we’d helped from the toilet and back to bed. “Didn’t grow up together. Only showed up, shit, sometime after his dad. Didn’t know he was a writer at first. I know he had a reputation in the city for knowing everybody, but he pretty much kept to himself out here. Old man fit right in, though.” Peabody’s cheeks had hardened into a permanent softness, like they’d bloated outwards at a young age and solidified before worry lines could arrive. He sipped a Bud. It was past dinnertime. Every time I asked him a question, he stared suspiciously at my digital recorder on the table between us. He forgot it as soon as he started to talk, but didn’t offer anything I didn’t already know: Gene had stopped writing after his arrival, and became an enraged, alcoholic Goldwater supporter, like the ailing father he’d come to take care for. He tried to explain the explosion of emotion when Gene, the self-exiled writer, came into the bar, what the night would turn into. Peabody saw my disappointment, and suddenly looked very old. “Tell you what,” he said, smiling. “I’ll get something together for you.” He stood up. “For you,” he repeated.

the motel party, no. 3

“Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)” (James Houston printer remix) – Radiohead (download)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Peabody’s living room was filled with books, but no Peabody. “Door’s open,” he told me on the phone. “Shoulda come in before.” Detective novels and sci-fi paperbacks were next to the disintegrating gray couch, but also Balzac, Proust, Blake. The walls were paneled with a dark, fake wood that had muted to a sickly tan. Moldy but undusty LPs leaned against a turntable set on a low olive bookshelf. A bouquet of red helium balloons–two or three popped, another half-dozen intact–floated in one corner. Upstairs, there was water running. “Hello?” I shouted tentatively. To my left, a counter gave way to a kitchen, three of the four cabinets open. I could see another three balloons straining to escape from inside one. I stepped towards the stairs at the back of the room. Boards creaked. “Hello?” I shouted again, and listened. There was a shout on the second floor. I walked upstairs. “Yes?” I replied. “Come in here and help me,” a voice returned. On the right, an open bathroom door revealed two men, old and older, the former attempting to the lift the latter from the toilet. The older man grinned stupidly, his wrinkled features recoiling to the guileless guilt of a small child.

the motel party, no. 2

“This Wheel’s On Fire” – The Band (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The motel was on the water, but had two pools anyway — one on the edge of the parking lot, one inside, just off the lobby — both devoid of swimmers. Dani filled my room with her room while I waited for Peabody to wake. Hers was in Tokyo, landlocked amid others, mid-block. I lay back on the starched bedspread and imagined as she described it. It was like a spaceship, she said, the capsule-bed she was in. “It’s like I’m at the controls. It’s totally cool. There’s just enough room to sit and eat my Bobby-burger.” On the blank walls, the Atlantic lapping at the Massachusetts coast, I imagined her ship parting the grey, a fire trail behind, heading towards unnamed spheres. I told her about my sunburn. I could still feel the warmth there shivering and trying to escape. “I guess it’s technically sun poisoning,” I said. But she was gone, disconnected, alone in Japan. I wondered if I should knock on Peabody’s door again. I slept more, the comfort of a deep lethargy like a warm drizzle blurring the view from my glasses. The motel phone rang, red light blinking. “Whaddya want?” the voice on the other end asked me abruptly.

the motel party, no. 1

“I’ll Be on the Water” – Akron/Family (download) (buy)

The Motel Party: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The first time I rang Peabody’s doorbell, just late for my 10 am appointment, I nearly electrocuted myself. An ungrounded wire on the buzzer jolted me, the millisecond of rich current like a thick, long spark, unlike any other type of pain, my body recalling previous shockings in a continuum of electricity: the first, as a five year old, under a poster of the Earth; in high school, drunk on scotch and reaching for a phone charger I’d been too lazy to plug in all the way. I stood under the thin linoleum overhang on Peabody’s stoop, gathering myself against the sudden rain. It pattered in sheets, and I was unable to discern if any life stirred inside. The late summer storm burned off quickly, the wind from the Atlantic blowing warm air over the neighborhood. The second time, two hours later, I knocked firmly. Still no response. I bought a turkey sandwich and went to the beach, made absent notes about the town, and dozed — curled up — on the sand. At the motel, I felt the burn on the back of my knees and slept again, until Dani pulled from me by satellite.

georgie in the sky, no. 16

“Rain” – Bishop Allen (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

“I don’t know what it is,” Darla told me, after we had sex in the living room during the afternoon. “It’s like he stole my blind spot,” she said. The mauve cross-stitching pressed into my back as I cradled her. “You know how your brain makes up that little bit between your eyes? Just there can be something there? But I can’t explain it to him, not like that.” I couldn’t explain it to Morgan, either. We’d almost stopped talking ourselves. And when I saw her car come around the corner in slow motion like that, my own blind spot filled with unaccountable rage, the space of not knowing, of the space of knowing something that you have no need to tell anyone else, and ran for the spaceship. [END]

georgie in the sky, no. 15

“I’ll Fly Away” – Johnny Cash (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

I slipped from the bottom hatch and kicked off as the pod filled with water and sank. Swimming towards the light, I wondered if Darla had heard yet. I rose, as if lifted by color and taste and sound. Were there really boats above me? My wallet was still in my pocket, so I could go to a hotel, if I could get ashore. The surface got closer and closer and I burst through, finally, laughing: probably the first man in the history of the planet to launch himself into outer space for not wanting to have sex. I had phrased our departure as a hypothetical to Morgan. I knew she wouldn’t tell her husband. We were in the corner of the shed then, the warm skin above her breasts pressing into my arm as she kissed my neck. “Then I’d just have to give you a special goodbye,” she said, drawling.

georgie in the sky, no. 14

“I’m Not There (1956)” – Bob Dylan (download)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

It was never part of the plan for me to get in the spaceship. It was only to gather a bag and go. Darla didn’t want a postmark that would hint at our destination or direction, so I would mail it before I left. Thinking I had at least a day, the letter made it across town that afternoon. Probably 20 minutes or so ago, I thought, as my ears popped and I sank through the Gulf. The color in the windows turned a peaceful blue. I saw no fish. Darla had hopefully made it to El Paso, listening to her Jerry Lee Lewis tape over and over. The sealing held, thankfully, and I thought of Darla, with her window open, smoking Winstons. I could tell the pod was reaching the nadir of its descent and, if I didn’t disengage the plug, would shoot upwards at any moment, back into the naked daylight, Coast Guard boats circling.

georgie in the sky, no. 13

“Ride Into the Sun (demo)” – The Velvet Underground (download) (buy)

 

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

There was the morning Darla couldn’t talk, just woke up with a look on her face like she was receding into the distance. She kissed me and got out of bed. We ate cereal across the table like most mornings, and I talked to her, joked about the weather, traffic at the Astrodome. She smiled, unaware anything was amiss. I went back to my corn flakes. When I looked up, there was a look of horror on her face, one I understood entirely when it was time to abandon the pod under the water. That night, after the silent day, by the moonlight, I showed her the ship. She exhaled and cried quietly into me, her body coming against mine as we stood in the shed. For a second, there, every part of her was right again. “I don’t want to go to sleep,” she whispered. “Tomorrow’s going to be like today.”

georgie in the sky, no. 12

“She’s A Rejecter” – of Montreal (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

The spaceship neared completion in the golden late summer, its dirty silver podform taking shape in the midst of backyards aglow with barbecues. We had Morgan and Strommler — Erik, his name was — over for one, in fact. He drank a pop and leaned on the oak, the oak I would see incinerated below me as I launched a few weeks later. “Hell’s bells!” he said, describing an approaching ice cream truck and I laughed. He did, too. His hair always seemed to shoot in different directions, as if it was growing towards the sun. He wasn’t a bad guy, not at all, though his laugh reminded me of my aunt in Shreveport. We had little to talk about, but got along well, even then, when I knew he was destroying Darla, and I was fooling around with his wife. But by Labor Day, I felt dizzy with grace, because Darla and I had it all worked out, what we were going to do.

georgie in the sky, no. 11

“Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” – Neutral Milk Hotel (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

The first alien wildlife I saw was a sunflower. Perhaps five years old, maybe six, at a county fair. The stem was thick as my wrist. There was a small, one-track maze of them. My mother was ahead, with my younger brother, around a turn. Without her in view, I felt transported elsewhere, someplace far. I grabbed one in front of me and peeled at its skin. When I was finally able to pierce it, I found its Martian insides wet and furry. I recoiled at the coolness. As Morgan increased her affections with me in the days after she helped me with the parachute, her hands running from my hips and up my chest, it was a severed sunflower she wore behind her ear. And then the spaceship slammed into the water, sunflowers and imagined interplanetary terrains and Morgan’s mouth collapsed by the sudden pressure.

georgie in the sky, no. 10

“Jesus, etc.” (Swedish version) – David Holstrom & co. (download)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

For every test that Dr. Strommler conducted on Darla, I developed another system for the spaceship. He had her imagine shapes, colors, outlines. I devised a series of coils to create power for the launch. He played her a series of drones, had her focus on flickering patterns, and peeled them away from one another. I built an electricity distribution grid. When Darla described the exercises, in bed, it was with difficulty. “I feel so proud,” she said, as we started towards sleep. “No, not proud,” she amended after a moment. “Adjusted,” though she did not sound satisfied with that word either. I could tell she was still thinking, her breath against my shoulder like distant waves. I smelled salt, sand, and suntan lotion. Darla’s face was blank as she slept.

georgie in the sky, no. 9

“Should A Cloud Replace A Compass?” – The Circulatory System (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

The falling was more vivid than the lift-off, a memory turned to stardust by the adrenaline. The speed increased, and my ears popped on and off, like a loose connection. The clouds came towards me. I wished I could escape my bonds and grasp at the cumulus topographies with my hands. Outside the portal, the land and the blue mixed. I tried blindly to calculate my trajectory, hoping it would end in the Gulf, Army surplus parachute or no. It was really a pair sewn together. Folded into two olive green duffels, I’d heaved them from the car to the shed. Morgan, that day and the next, helped me affix them to each other. When we finished, we kissed in a way that felt natural, which is not what I wanted or needed. Behind the silver and crimson and impossible white, there was a new taste, which began to corrode the old.

georgie in the sky, no. 8

“Absolute Lithops Effect” – The Mountain Goats (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

Morgan called it a “condition” and, when she did, her voice took on a sharp quality, like food left too long in the refrigerator. It made me not want to kiss her. I thought of it simply as the state of being Darla. It was some years into our marriage before I saw that particular look on her face, standing by the garden, though I am certain that I noticed its residue the first time we met, at a garage sale. When she smiled, she looked as though she not only meant it, but earned it. “You don’t see it,” Morgan said, “because you are at work all day, but she is not happy.” Darla’s smile had escaped, flown dissolving into the gaseous atmosphere, where I’d gone in search of it. It was all too fast for me to be queasy. I don’t remember holding the straps, but I know my hands never left them as I plunged towards the planet below me.

georgie in the sky, no. 7

“You Are My Face” – Wilco (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

Our routine: she comes into the shed, sits on the beach chair, and reads a spy novel. I work on the spaceship. It runs in a loop, over and over, even as I am in space itself, watching the stars manifest from pure daylight. That was what I wanted back. The plans are leftover from the space race, a design unpicked, rescued from an attic. Morgan sips her beer. Eventually, she stands, meets me by the workbench. We kiss, hands as neutral as possible on each other’s hips. We say nothing of consequence, and return to our respective stations. Later, Darla slips into bed beside me, and we have sex, passionately, tenderly, the missing colors slipped to me earlier from her sister’s lips. This happened, more or less, for five months.

georgie in the sky, no. 6

“How To Disappear Completely” – Radiohead (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

The colors were always there for her. At first, when she was a girl, they were just spots. “Almost like pets,” she said. “Like, milk was neon green. A cartoon frog that followed me around until the taste was gone.” As she got older, it was whole rooms. When we lived together, I would sometimes discover her standing in some corner, as if in rapture. “Hey,” she would say when I took her hand, breathy and sexy. It is funny now, almost, that I cannot recall when I found out Dr. Strommler, Morgan’s husband, was studying Darla, whether it was before or after Morgan and I first kissed. It was not an important reason why I allowed it to happen. From every other girl I’d been with — Karen and Seiko and Darla, all — I wanted everything, lives together, love in constant renewal. From Morgan, I only wanted a small, specific something.

georgie in the sky, no. 5

“Anchor” – Devendra Banhart (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

We honeymooned in the Caribbean, Darla and I, at a pink, three-story hotel by the ocean. All night, we listened to the murmur of the tide: softer as it went out, harsher as it came in, spitting up over the curve of the sand, long and low. The blinds were open, the stars visible. In our half-sleep after sex, she told me about the colors. A light outside shined on the pool patio, muted by palm trees, and occasionally illuminated the room when the wind blew the fronds aside. Her face, when she said this in the dark, looked like Karen, my high school girlfriend and Seiko, a girl I slept with once in college: all cheekbones. She also looked like herself. “It’s blue and gold,” she said. “That’s what I feel, when I come. Blue and gold.” Which is what I saw when I touched her cheeks the next time we had sex, and what I saw when the capsule peaked and tipped towards the Gulf.

georgie in the sky, no. 4

“Beach Party Tonight” – Yo La Tengo (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

So long as I fixed a toaster once in a while, nobody much bothered me in the shed. Still, I could not figure out a way to test the launchpad without making somebody, maybe Darla, ask what I was doing. There was no shame: I knew how to build a spaceship. But it was also an uncomfortable knowledge to possess, like I’d broken something but couldn’t tell my mother. I kept the parts tucked across the room. When Morgan came over that first afternoon, to see if I couldn’t unjam E.T. from the VCR, her eyes paused on the exposed circuitry on the workbench. Her husband, Jacob, a doctor, had been working late, so she was alone most evenings, too. “Like a menagerie in here,” she smiled, looking at the shelf of bulbs and plugs, and from then on co-existed with it. I looked past her, next to the Astros calendar, at the first sketch of the booster. Even going up, I knew the capsule would hit the apex too soon.

georgie in the sky, no. 3

“Sandy” – Caribou (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

Darla and Morgan, brown-haired and blue-eyed both, were variations on the same family code, though Darla came out prettier. Where Darla’s lips were slim, Morgan’s were puffy. Darla’s clear eyes were perpetually wide with awe, Morgan’s were dopey. And Darla’s voice was bell-like when she yawped in ecstasy, Morgan’s flat and nasal and tired. I saw her, Morgan, a flash of her freckled shoulder, as the capsule launched from the backyard. I was aware of the Chrysler door slamming, but didn’t look up. It was like jumping a car, really, to get it hot enough to launch. She had found Darla’s note with an awful quickness, perhaps with not even enough time for Darla herself to gain any distance.

georgie in the sky, no. 2

“Beautiful Jam” – The Grateful Dead (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

Back then, everybody tinkered. It is not as if it was a lifelong ambition to build a spaceship, or even be an astronaut. Believe me, that’s not my personality. Installing a new car radio, putting together a kitchen table, those are closer to my areas of expertise. Sure, I watched the moon landing. I didn’t give much thought to it, though. Not like that, anyway. The decision was gradual, something to do during the cool evenings when Darla worked late. I thought of this as I grasped the oxygen tube between my lips, my hands desperately clenched in the side straps. As I rose, a half-dozen balls of sweat emerged from my cheeks, fell, and froze instantly into silver airborne droplets.

georgie in the sky, no. 1

“The Big Ship” – Brian Eno (download) (buy)

Georgie in the Sky: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 , no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12, no. 13, no. 14, no. 15, no. 16

Between looking at Texas from outer space and looking at outer space from Texas, I would take the latter, and not out of any great love for Texas. Anyplace you look, I figure, half of what you see is in your head, what you want to see. So, up there, pressed against the glass from my father’s Ford, all I could see were Darla’s cheekbones, the night glow of the gas station, and the cat. Darla’s sister, Morgan, had come in the middle of the afternoon, her white Chrysler extra-bleached as it rounded the corner in slow motion, like the Kennedy motorcade turning onto Dealey Plaza. And so it was afternoon when I took off, no other choice, and it rushed beside me for a minute, a faithful dog, before the blue deepened.

winter & the smelless girl, no. 2

“Her Grandmother’s Gift” – Yo La Tengo (download) (http://ax.phobos.apple.com.edgesuite.net/WebObjects/MZStoreServices.woa/wa/itmsSearchDisplayUrl?desc=Yo+La+Tengo+-+Genius+%2B+Love+%3D+Yo+La+Tengo+-+Her+Grandmother%27s+Gift&WOURLEncoding=ISO8859_1&lang=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fphobos.apple.com%2FWebObjects%2FMZStore.woa%2Fwa%2FviewAlbum%3Fi%3D5253816%26id%3D5253843%26s%3D143441">buy)

(Sporadic fiction.)

Winter & the Smelless Girl: no. 1, http://www.wunderkammern27.com/2007/05/winter_the_smelless_girl_no_2.html">no. 2

There are many urban economies, preying on tourists being only one. The afternoon I was first approached, I participated in several. I had just gotten back to the city, and had errands to run. I bought from the gray market, purchasing new headphones at a dubious electronics chop shop on 14th Street, and spent local, eating pizza from a dingy slice stand. I was returning from my black market acquisition — some Ritalin from a friend of a former co-worker — when it happened.

The afternoon was bright, and the snow made even the dingiest car hoods blindingly luminescent. I squinted into the avenue ahead, searching for the subway entrance, and brushed past the man without looking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his sunglasses drop. “Sorry,” I called, spotting the stairs. He followed me. “These are scratched,” he said. “I’m sorry,” I said again. In a minute, the encounter was over.

In bed that night, I fretted: what if I had scratched the man’s pair of $70 sunglasses. I buried my head in the pillow the smelless girl had slept on 24 hours previous. It was worse than a void, but like lucid daylight cast onto my thoughts when I craved the free-associative release of sleep. The next morning, I woke repeatedly before my alarm.

winter & the smelless girl, no. 1

(Sporadic fiction.)

Winter & the Smelless Girl: no. 1, http://www.wunderkammern27.com/2007/05/winter_the_smelless_girl_no_2.html">no. 2

It was the winter of being a rube and, on the subway home, the smelless girl slept on my shoulder, my nose buried in her hair. Across from us, a drunk student fighting sleep was an automaton, her head lolling to the side before a mechanical reset in her arm jerked it back upwards. In the girl’s hair, I could not even detect the cigarettes from the party we’d been at it. Their staleness, I knew, clung to my clothing. I smelled nothing. I saw her most weekends just before and after the holidays. We got along well, though the comfort she provided was minimal. The night before, I’d been made a mark again. We’d gone out for the night, the smelless girl and I, though she hadn’t come home with me. I’d kissed her goodnight at her door, and made for the train. On the platform, I stepped on a man’s watch, or so he claimed.

looper in the dark, no. 12

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The broken machine’s canister was deployed, Looper noticed. He followed the source of the sound. Kneeling, he saw a canvas belt that had stopped. A loose spring had sprung, and caught in its motion. A heavy rubber stopped caused the spring to vibrate against the cogs with a precise, metallic rattle. Looper glanced at an adjacent machine. There, the canvas belt moved slowly.

Looper pushed the rubber stopper back into place, freeing the gears. The belt began to turn again. Within seconds, the whole room evened into silent harmony. Stepping back, Looper noticed a pattern on the floor that reminded him of the tile fountain in the plaza near the factory. He left the flashlight in the secretary’s window and walked home. The snow fell through the buildings’ massive spotlights, which shot upwards and illuminated the top floors.

At home, he sat still. Soon, he found himself drifting in the perfect quiet he had long known. There, the apartment was all at once. It could bend in the dark, yes, but only in ways Looper knew: his wife drinking tea in the corner, the warmth he knew would await him when he returned from his cousins’. It could be any of these, at any time, and Looper listened. Around the city, the offness had lifted, Looper knew. It was gone. [END]

looper in the dark, no. 11

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Looper lost count of the floors. They bore no correlation to the windows. He reached the top of the stairs. There, he found a space that opened across the span of the entire building. The streetlamp outside cast a familiar, buttery glow on the rows of machines. Looper turned off the flashlight.

Strolling cautiously down the aisle, he felt their humming. Their arrangement was methodical, if irregular. Looper felt as if he were in a garden. Each machine, he saw, had a glass tube emerging from it. The tubes shot straight out, before turning 90 degrees, and disappearing into the floor. Each tube had a copper canister at its bottom.

Near the room’s center, there was a plain metal desk. Next to the desk, there was a large open area. And, next to the open area, there was a machine that did not hum as the others did. Looper approached it. The machine cried quietly, wounded. Looper could hear a whirr coming from its back.

looper in the dark, no. 10

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

The factory was again unlocked. The lights were off, but the entry was no less inviting. Looper could not see the olive green walls in the dark, but he could feel them. A large black flashlight sat in the secretary’s window, like fresh linens for a houseguest.

The upper floors were like catacombs, Looper found. They did not conform to the blueprints Mr. Brown had shown him. On the fourth, Looper branched off from the main hallway. He passed through a series of telescoping rooms, one after another. The beam was strong. In some, there were cabinets. In others, there were shelves. Jars of screws and electrical parts filled them.

On another floor, Looper saw the machines Mr. Brown had described. They were under canvas, mostly. He imagined stuffed animals, dead fur matted, concealed beneath them. He let the light linger on one machine, tracing its shape. He could not get a sense of its whole. Looper sniffed at the air for dust.

looper in the dark, no. 9

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Christmas fell on a Tuesday that year, so the city closed its offices the Friday previous. As usual, Looper would go to his cousins’ home east of the city for dinner. He did not see them often. This year, he looked forward to the three-hour train ride more than he had since his wife died.

The final straw came on Saturday night, however. Looper had called the cousins to remind him he was coming. He opened the window to admit cold air into the room to mingle with the radiator’s pleasant humidity. Instead, the offness filled his apartment, and he felt as if at the bottom of the ocean.

Looper had the sense to bundle up before he walked onto the street. He did not rush. It was late. The city was silent. He needed to surface. Looper again walked west on 79th Avenue. Soon, he would reach the plaza. And, on the other side of the plaza, he would emerge into the normal. It was only when he got there that he remembered how close he was to the factory.

looper in the dark, no. 8

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

It got worse. Looper remembered reading a story in the newspaper about how sunspots caused interference on people’s telephones and televisions. He wondered if the sun had caused this, too. He sat for hours in the warm living room. The furniture moved silently, like tectonic plates, and shifted back. Looper wondered if he was running a fever.

As the holidays approached, Looper thought again about the factory he had visited some weeks earlier. It was the milk that did it. The milk that now always tasted wrong. He had smelled it, at the factory, he knew. It was in the air, trace elements were.

It was not hard to get the secretary to print out the file for the building. Bowman Manufacturing, it was. The documents were unclear about the factory’s purpose. In fact, the file contained little more than Looper’s notes. He tucked the folder in his briefcase. It was the last day before the vacation, and he was glad. Even in the offness, it was still his room.

looper in the dark, no. 7

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)
Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12
It was in the next week that other people began to recognize the offness, too. Walking to work in the snow, Looper saw a boy, perhaps about 9. The boy was blonde, and he studied the row of Christmas trees on the sidewalk as the snow fell around him. Looper could see why instantly.
The trees were not in a straight line, absolutely, but the wind blew through them wrong, as well. In some places, the branches sagged, as if in a breeze. In others, they threatened to snap. Looper could not tell if it was the fault of the wind or the trees. He and the boy acknowledged each other, and Looper continued on to work.
The man at the newsstand complained of too much ink on his fingers. At the bank, Looper overheard tellers speaking in hushed voices about the ledgers being several dozen cents incorrect. In the dark, Looper drank his off-flavored milk and wondered when society began to expect it to taste the same every time.

looper in the dark, no. 6

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Mr. Brown led Looper off the floor. They entered another hallway. Looper felt a change in the air. He smelled something, too. He could practically taste it on his tongue. The sound of the machines quieted as they walked deeper into the building. The odor increased, though. Looper could feel a layer of saliva on his tongue.

“The vents from upstairs,” Mr. Brown noted. “Some people seem to like it. I do not mind it myself.”

“What is it?” Looper asked. He had tasted it before, somewhere. Perhaps inside a chocolate, once.

“Byproducts, mostly,” Mr. Brown replied, fixing his tie. “Byproducts,” he said again. Looper inspected the remainder of the building.

Twice, he got lost in passages of endless doors. Both times, he was unhappy to recover his bearings.

looper in the dark, no. 5

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

In the warehouse’s halls, Looper felt as if he were on an exotic vacation. “We’re mostly a factory now,” Mr. Brown, the manager, explained to him as they walked. They passed door after door. The snowy street seemed miles away. The collar of Mr. Brown’s red shirt jutted at an unusual angle, Looper thought. It was most pleasing.

“The upper floors are for specialty machines,” Mr. Brown pointed out, showing Looper the building map. “None gets used more than once or twice a month. There are rarely more than a half-dozen men up there at a time.” Looper nodded. The tone of Mr. Brown’s desk was one he could not name, like a shade from an early color photograph.

On the factory floor, high windows transformed the thin winter sun into something magnificent. Earphones muffled Looper’s ears. Mr. Brown pointed out the fire exits, professionally silent in the din. It occurred to Looper that he did not know the factory’s purpose. One machine was at least two stories tall. Two men tended to dials and counters at its base.

looper in the dark, no. 4

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

In fact, the warehouse looked especially normal. It was a perfect cube. The walls were a soft, white cinderblock. They met the sidewalk evenly, giving the entire block symmetry. The windows began on the third of the five stories. Looper could not find a doorbell. For a moment, he stood confused. He tried the knob. It was a silver sphere. Clean, very clean, and quite unlocked. There was no lock on the door at all, in fact.

Looper stepped into entry. It was empty. The ceiling was low, Looper observed. Lower than he would expect. The room was an olive green, the light warm. He felt welcome, which is not what he usually felt when it came to inspecting warehouses. A sliding window opened into an office, also empty.

The chair Looper sat in while he waited was of bright white leather, also welcoming. The arms were wooden, cut at sharp 90-degree angles. Looper relaxed into the room’s plainness. It washed over him like a sea breeze. When the secretary called at him from the window, he was not upset. He stood, still in reverie.

looper in the dark, no. 3

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

It was perhaps on account of the offness that Looper was even there, in the other neighborhood. That is what he called it: the offness. Looper considered this as he walked west on 79th Avenue. To be fair, he had not yet called it that to anyone. He merely thought it. Nobody else seemed to do even that.

Like the new secretary. She reminded him of wool, dense wool. She was the one who sent him to the neighborhood. The printed dispatcher sheet was in his coat pocket. Its folds were uneven, of course, despite his best efforts. The destination was far afield, a distance from his office’s assigned territory. “That’s what the computer says,” the secretary shrugged, chewing her gum.

The wind was biting. Looper counted Salvation Army Santas. He looked for a pattern in their distribution. At least his scarf still worked as it should. He crossed a plaza. He remembered a farmer’s market he’d once been to there. On its far side, everything was normal again.

looper in the dark, no. 2

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

In the morning, everything remained flawed. The alarm rang at 6, as usual. It seemed too dark, however. Looper’s coffee was too strong. His toast was too burnt. Even his bootlaces were too short. Walking to the dispatcher’s office, all the world seemed askew. The newspaper headlines were off-center. The traffic signals hesitated before changing.

The time clock punched Looper’s card with an abnormally resounding thud. It echoed through the office. Looper looked around, though neither of the secretaries looked up from her desk. All day, Looper trudged about the neighborhood in the dirtying snow. None of the buildings failed his inspection, though each was wrong, as if it might remove a mask as soon as he was out of sight.

In the dark, later, he held the milk in his mouth. He could taste something else in it, as well. Besides milk. He swallowed it slowly. In his chair, he tried to feel the room around him. He did not want to feel the room. He just wanted to sit. Why should that be difficult?

looper in the dark, no. 1

(Short fiction, shorter increments.)

Looper in the Dark: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11, no. 12

Looper was in the dark. He was sitting, that was all. Outside, it snowed. The apartment sang in response. Steam rushed through the pipes, crying and hissing. Looper listened, though not that closely. He was happy to sit. From his green easy chair, he could see the heavy flakes falling. They were gray and muted through the glass.

The streetlamp was dim. Looper rose to see if the snow was accumulating on the cars and the fire escape. That was when he bumped into the corner of the table. He felt his thigh bruise. That should not be, he thought crossly. The table had not moved for decades. The snow was blanketing the street, unbroken by tire tracks or footprints. It was late. Nobody should be out anyway.

Before he went to bed, Looper drank a glass of milk. It was not cold enough. He’d been drinking milk from this refrigerator for some 33 years, since he first moved to the city. The dials indicated that there was nothing wrong, yet that was incorrect. Oddly temperatured milk and furniture not where it should be. Looper did not like it. The snow kept falling.

the animals i saw, no. 10

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

On the final day, there were dragonflies. They swarmed down each street, above the dock, and across the visible horizon. Their wings beat at a low frequency, like the hum of distant transformers. The weather was perfect, the sky a painted blue. From the basement — a basement added by Abe Lewis — I removed a box of china, my mother’s, to mail her in Sarasota.

The last filings would have to be made, but I knew how to do that; knew whose office down which hallway in what building to address them. I would not return to school that semester, I knew. “In January, I think, I’ll be back,” I wrote my girlfriend, who I did not expect to wait for me, and who didn’t. Abe Lewis would find out what I had: that in times of natural disaster, the duties of a public official override those of a private individual. In pulling the house from the lake, Abe Lewis was acting as deputy mayor, not a contractor. His subsequent possession of the house was unlawful. I would not be the one to tell him.

I thought, briefly, of my shadow cousin, who’d lived there while we’d been away. His memories were present in me now, an adolescence spent carefree on the cool water. Misshapen, they roamed my brain like benevolent spirits; they grew like pungent weeds between weathered planks. It was an exchange, I knew. He would know long before his grandfather. I thought of what I might be taking from him, and what I might be giving to him, delivered on the sagging exoskeletons of dragonflies, terrible and broken. [/END]

the animals i saw, no. 9

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

By the second morning, I was no longer an interloper, and I got dead worm all over the kitchen. The rain was over, and — though autumn hung obviously in the air — it was going to be a warm day. I stepped outside barefoot, in my boxers, onto the narrow brick path that led to the lake. I stretched my arms behind me as I walked. The worm squished between my toes.

On the way back from retrieving my bags at the Becketts’, I had the thought that just because I could get dead worm all over my kitchen floor didn’t mean I should. Assuming the Lewises hadn’t done any major renovations in the interceding years, they were tiles my grandfather had laid himself. My memories didn’t extend to the tiles. He’d driven the truck from Portland alone to claim the empty land. There was no one else for miles. There wouldn’t be for a decade.

They were all over the sidewalk, the worms were, as I went to meet Melch. Neither of us had shaved. We hummed as we painted, though I was unsure if we were humming the same song. “It’s plenty peaceful now, sure,” Melch told me. He was doing detail around a window above and to the side of where I was working. I could see the mosquito bites above his ankle. “I like the spring is all,” he said, and started down the ladder, coughing. “You should come back in the spring, man.” I would, and I would build myself there by the lake, as my grandfather had.

the animals i saw, no. 8

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

I am not sure if a ghost is an animal, or if that was even what I saw, but I certainly smelled it. Besides the constant patter of the rain, the odor was the first thing I noticed upon awakening on the living room couch. It was a deep must, unclogging reserves of half-remembered dreams. In the daylight, the room was instantly familiar. I found the phone and dialed Melch, pretending to be hungover. Melch sounded worse than I did, and called off work for the day without argument. I felt guilty, but the rain continued unabated.

Though the smell — not unpleasant, like skunk-grass — was omnipresent, it seemed to emanate from a single source. I took a cursory look through the kitchen cabinets, but failed to find anything. I made a packet of dried soup in their microwave, and looked at the photomontages hung by the back door. Abe Lewis, the doting grandparent, was in several. His grandson, likely only a year or two younger than me, grew on the wall, my shadow cousin.

In the mid-afternoon, I brought the comforter upstairs and napped in the room I thought was mine. The bed was bare, as was the dresser. I pulled the blanket tightly around me, and swam. When I went downstairs later, my grandfather sat on the couch, reading. The smell was overpowering. Instinctively, I looked behind me. When I turned back, he was gone. I’d never known him, only the house he built and the enemies he made.

the animals i saw, no. 7

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

The large, fuzzy spider in the linen closet did not shake me nearly as much as the top sheets. The creature sat unmoving in the flashlight beam, atop a floral pillowcase that looked like it came from a discount chain. I blew on it lightly and it scampered an inch. By then, the rain had started, and it was much later and I was much drunker than I suspected. It did not sound as if the storm would abet.

I threw the blue down comforter over my shoulder and shined the light to see if there was anything else I needed. On the bottom shelf was the top sheet, white with a plane of red, green, and yellow grids, like a Mondrian. Its match, I was sure, was in my father’s current apartment, if he hadn’t thrown it out. He was in Butte, then, I think, though it was hard to keep up. It was the sheet he stretched over our couch when guests slept over, and what he slept on when my mother sent him downstairs for good and, eventually, out.

On the couch, my feet pressed against the far arm. The house sounded familiar: the rain on the roof (there was no second story over the living room), the wind through the uninsulated walls. When I woke, the house would be mine, really mine. I wished I had the sheaf of xeroxes with me, but that was at the Becketts’. No matter, the sheets were proof enough, if not for the law, then at least for me, that my family had really once occupied the place, a place my father never again acknowledged after we’d been forced from it. I was not hungover the next morning.

the animals i saw, no. 6

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10
It was the mosquitoes that eventually got me inside the house. They swarmed around Melch and me, up on the ladders, as we reshingled the Inges’ cabin. Back in the woods like that, caught in the sun, the bugs hummed in abstruse shapes. It was hot, the humidity unbearable. Rain was expected. The siding already stripped, we needed to finish before then. By evening, we were both covered in sweat and slowly rising welts.

Through the evening, as Melch and I drank off the itching with his beer stash, the humidity never broke. We were at the house he’d adopted for the season — the Spitz’s, I think. Melch grew drunk and apologetic. I considered telling him why I’d come back, that I’d even been there in the first place. It would mean explaining my father, his relationship with Abe Lewis, and why the house was no longer ours after it had been returned to land.

I opted not to, and set out for the Becketts. The air cooler, it was almost pleasant. The rain would arrive soon, I could tell. My legs felt warm as I walked, as if wrapped in a soft quilt. I felt the bones in my feet flex. Then, the house was in front of me. I needed to piss like a motherfucker, and I went inside.

the animals i saw, no. 5

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

The house drifted in the mud for a day, serenaded only by the crickets. It had no foundation, built as a summer cottage early in the town’s history. It was some 30 feet into the lake when people returned three days after the hurricane to survey the disfigured shoreline. The house, for reasons nobody was able to adequately explain, floated. There’d been massive water damage, but that was due to the blown-in storm windows.

I still possess several of the photographs my father rescued the day the house was dragged back to land. One, of the family, taken when I was probably three, was badly curled. The rain had disintegrated my grandmother’s face into flecks of white negative space.

In bed at the Becketts’, listening to the insect symphony, I wondered how many generations of crickets had passed since those who’d chirped at the floating house. Did they live for a season and then die? Was it as simple as that? On the bed wet with lake water, I thought of how their impossibly layered rhythmic constructions were transmitted to the next generation. My drying skin felt cool on the Becketts’ patterned sheets.

the animals i saw, no. 4

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

If the deer saw our house come unmoored, they may not have understood what was happening. The deer were dumb, Melch said. At least once every spring, when he resumed his contracting work, he’d have to remove a dead one from a swimming pool. “Why these assholes need pools by a lake,” he shrugged with contempt, not bothering to finish the thought.

My father had brought my older brother and me out into the lake on an inflatable raft several times that last summer, the only season I can recall. We rowed what seemed some ways from the shore. It was probably August. I would skim my palm over the water as we moved, as weightless as the sunlight itself. Once, my father held my legs and let me plunge into the lake. To my surprise, the sun-warmed surface gave way instantly to impenetrable cold, and I came up sputtering.

In my two weeks back, I’d not yet swum. I’d seen plenty of deer, however. They did not seem as dumb as Melch suggested. During the days after the summer residents left, I saw the deer meticulously picking through spilled trash, the stray cats hovering in a scattered perimeter for leftover leftovers. The cats, however, might’ve known better what was happening. Hopefully, none of them were hiding in the house when the hurricane hit.

the animals i saw, no. 3

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

There was a Pink Floyd song that once scared the shit out of me, which I remembered exactly as I saw the raccoons. There were three of them, I think. Even without the deck light, I could see their eyes reflecting. I didn’t know anything about raccoons at the time. My mind turned to static, expecting chaos.

I’d heard the song on the radio — in junior high school, when Dad had taken the job in Omaha — very late at night. “Then something happened,” a robotic voice, a representative of the animals, claimed. “We learned to talk.” I lay there, terrified of the violent nonsense that would ensue. As I faced the raccoons, I imagined their robot voices: high, electronic squeals pitching torrents of dada.

I started to slowly ease the kitchen door closed behind me, and the raccoons scattered. There was a tree hanging over the deck. I imagine they went up it, though my eyes had not yet adjusted. The door creaked as I opened it again. The Becketts’ house could use some work, I thought. The addition behind the kitchen was being destroyed by humidity, threatening to pull apart like a rogue continent eroding. If they were not careful, it might even sail into the lake, like our house did.

the animals i saw, no. 2

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

The ants came next, a few nights later. I’d gone to find the house. When I returned, they’d formed a crescent around a drop of orange juice I’d left on the counter. A line trailed to the cabinet below the sink. I wiped them off with a paper towel.

The dark air was cool, autumn wafting in like a top note looking to establish its dominance in the melody. The lake was a sturdy mass behind me as I stood on the front lawn, sipping a screwdriver. I tried to pick out the room I’d slept in during those five summers. Perhaps it was just below the west gable, though I had no reason to believe that was correct.

Melch said he went into the houses all the time. If he was painting and had to piss, he’d just let himself in, no big deal. “These people, they leave their doors unlocked mostly,” he noted, crumbling a dead leaf between his calloused fingers. “Small town, you know.” He smiled at me.

I considered this, walking inland back to the Becketts’, and smelled autumn again. School was starting without me. That was alright. I’m sure my roommate appreciated the extra space. Outside the Becketts’, I paused, studying its shape. The screwdriver was done. I put the glass down and urinated into an empty patch of the garden.

the animals i saw, no. 1

(Short fiction in shorter increments.)

The Animals I Saw: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10

It was the time of year when the animals took over, though they were no trouble until later. I noticed the stray cats first. Carrying a tarp from Melch’s truck down the path by the lake, I saw a tabby sunning on the steps of the Petersons’ front porch. It was not theirs. When I stopped to look at it, I noticed another — fat and black, with a white belly — in the shadow of the juniper shrubs. Climbing the ladder in the back of the Johnsons’, I saw still a third — a mangy calico — sleeping under a chair on the deck next door.

The lake caught the afternoon sunlight, reflecting it with less intensity than just weeks previous, as if to finally collect some for itself. Save a dinghy bobbing at a distant dock, the water was devoid of boats. The quiet of the town in the off-season had shocked me at first.

During my first night in the Beckett house — Melch had given me the keys — I pulled the sheet from the upright piano. Depressing the sustain pedal, I tentatively played a chord. It spread through the house like an intruder. In bed, I could still hear it decaying, a vague hum now imprinted in the floorboards. I would have to leave a note apologizing, I thought. Unable to sleep, I sat at their kitchen table and ate stale saltines they’d left in the cupboard, trying to work up the nerve to enter the house that was rightfully mine.

the island, no. 11

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

I do not know where the island went after it left our harbor. The next time I knew of its presence was many years later. I was sitting in my father’s old desk chair. It was a momentary vision — Caribbean waters, crescent moon, stars — and then the house’s radiators were singing again.

That island?” Elizabeth asked. We were in bed. My parents’ old bed, in my parents’ old room, on the third floor. The hot water rushed through the pipes below us. “You’re just daydreaming about a nice island,” she told me, stroking my chest. “I think about nice islands all the time.”

It took some months for David Mallis’s wound to fall away to its resultant scar. I watched the process with silent fascination. That is what I thought of when Elizabeth told me to think of nice islands. David Mallis’s scar was crescent shaped, the same moon I saw over the island.

He lives in Florida now, David Mallis does. Our town is no place for him. Even the hotel, once a proud center of commerce, now sits almost decrepit. The wallpaper peels, and still Jimmy Cavins, the day manager, demands payment a week in advance. It is likely Florida, where David Mallis lives, though it might be Atlanta. Even though he never felt the island, I will find him. Enough time has passed. I have some time yet, and I will have a boat. [/END]

the island, no. 10

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11 “Stop that,” my father said one morning several days

after the occurrence of the island. He had shaved. “Take those down,” he instructed, pointing at charts he’d made. The maps remain, organized and intact, in the attic of the house. I am unable to consult them.

He died just after the New Year. With the trees barren, I could just see the water from the second floor windows. It was a muted gray little different from anything else in the landscape. The wind rattled the glass. I thought of the effort it would take to disassemble his office.

“Just what the hell is wrong with you?” he asked me, the night of the tantrum, the last night of the island.

“Me?” I said. I was taken aback.

“I asked you to get me a goddamn boat,” he told me.

“When?”

“Three weeks ago, for God’s sake.” My father had asked me to get him a boat three weeks previous, but I had taken it for dementia. I was ready to acquiesce to Elizabeth and my brother’s hypothesis. It was an opinion I held for many years. Its inaccurate truth formed the core belief of the household into which Lauren was born.

the island, no. 9

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The words David Mallis used to describe the sky over the island during the time it disappeared from the mainland’s view were twisted into numerous variations. “Blood red!” was one account. “Chalk black and starless,” another. I was not present for any of the interrogations that day. Elizabeth and I spent the afternoon pulling her trunks up Oak Street to the house on a red wagon. Between trips, we drank cold beers on the front porch, enjoying the chill.

That day’s utterances remained David Mallis’s final public thoughts on the matter until the day he moved from town, several years later, after the lobsters disappeared. “I knew what was coming,” he said on that occasion, as we watched the fire destroy the bulkhead. The water shimmered and distorted behind the heat. “After all, the whole sky looked like that,” he noted.

Elizabeth and I were on our final trip to the house when my father erupted. We were on the lawn. The floor lamp in his room flickered, as objects fluttered and fell in front of it. It was his worst tantrum yet. It would be three days before I could reorganize the maps for him. “It’s not you,” I promised Elizabeth, though I couldn’t be sure.

“I didn’t think it was,” she said.

the island, no. 8

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, , no. 11

The death of Andy Byers came as a result of his exposure to Carlos Dias. The two never spoke, Andy Byers’ sister Mimi told me, just sat facing one another under the pennants in Carlos Dias’s room. “He did not tell anybody what happened,” she said, “but Andy Byers knew.” It was said that they were lovers, but a lot is said.

David Mallis, for his part, knew the swiftness of rumor, and distributed his images like currency: jungle, storms, drums. In the end, though, it was clear that David Mallis did not know what he saw, either, or could not describe it. “Make it sound like air,” he told me in high school, as I crafted a letter to Suzanne Camer for him. “Like–” and he made the sound of an exhalation.

Harold Brown at the Ledger compiled David Mallis’s bits into a narrative. He printed it, two columns wide, on the front page. I read it aloud to my father. “This man is steeped in bullshit,” my father said, when the account reached the part about the attack. “Any man can see he does not know what he is talking about.”

“The island, though,” I protested. “It was there.”

“No,” my father replied, perhaps mishearing. “I was not there.”

the island, no. 7

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

It wasn’t until the rain died down, Tuesday morning, that anybody realized David Mallis and Carlos Dias had returned. Arnold Laning had looked through binoculars from his upstairs window at the island, and noticed smoke rising from the beach. Arriving at the dock, he discovered David Mallis’s lobster boat tied in its usual spot.

Carlos Dias never told anybody what he saw. It was said that the transition from a tropical climate back to our own was too great. Three days later, he was dead. David Mallis’s wounds were more obvious: the deep cut on his forehead, burns on both elbows, and an even series of puncture marks across his upper back. Whenever he spoke of his time on the island, he never once mentioned the injuries.

Several years after my father died, Elizabeth and I had David Mallis and Suzanne Camer — briefly reconciled — over for dinner. “We woke up in the sun,” he said suddenly, admiring my father’s sketch of a strange bird that then hung in the kitchen (and which I took with me). “The woods — the animals, I mean — were just crying,” he said, sipping his Scotch.

I had found the sketch in a portfolio in my father’s bag, which he refused to unpack for a week after the island disappeared. “Took me a whole goddamn day to get everything in there, and fuck if you’re going to empty it now,” he declared. My father was rarely an angry man.

the island, no. 6

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

Pastor Johnson mentioned nothing of the island’s continued absence on Sunday morning. Over the next decade, as the town went into a decline, many blamed it on the breakdown of the church, which was — in turn — attributed to the Pastor’s failure to explain the island.

“It was a crack in the egg,” Elizabeth confided to me a few weeks before Lauren was born. “I didn’t want to see what was going to hatch.” I was not in church that day.

For much of the morning, I sat outside my father’s door. Behind it, the radio played mournful music at unforgiving volumes: old standards about moons, lovers, trees. Occasionally, I could hear him moving around. “Soon,” is all he would say when I knocked, if that.

Only Elizabeth was there when he emerged. “Nails,” he said as he walked by her on the way to the bathroom. “Tell that son-of-a-bitch to get nails. It’s time to board the windows.” The storm that rolled in that night beat the eastern wall with such force that shingles I’d painted in the spring aged decades by morning.

Monday, the island was dimly visible among the clouds and whitecaps. Late Sunday night, an hour before the rain began, David Mallis and Carlos Dias rowed into the dock. No one was there to greet them.

the island, no. 5

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

He was ready at dawn, my father. Getting him to town was a chore, but he was as eager to do that as anything. The walking was slow, down the long hill that fed into Oak Street. Both Elizabeth and my brother were convinced it was dementia. That day, he spoke little, scratching at the stubble on his face. It was getting harder for him to shave.

“No,” he said again, when the island was not there. Even Arnold Laning’s entreaties were not enough to convince him. “You know who this man is making a fool of?” my father asked me, when his former poker companion was out of earshot.

“No,” I admitted.

“He is making a fool of you and me,” my father said. It was another clear day, and the sea looked as it always had, an unbroken gray-green extended on a flat plane to the horizon. David Mallis’s lobster boat was nowhere.

When Suzanne Camer drove us home, after breakfast, my father kept touching his chin and cheek, as if constantly rediscovering his need to shave. Elizabeth and my brother may have been right. But they might not have. To claim my father expected the island would be inaccurate, though it is possible he anticipated it in some way.

the island, no. 4

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

They left at dawn on Friday, David Mallis and Carlos Dias in the red lobster boat, with three guns and four knives between them. One of the knives — given to me by Carlos Dias’s sister, Mimi, after Carlos’s death and long a paperweight on my desk — returned with its blade entirely dulled.

We all had excuses to be near the dock when they departed. The island was as clear as it had ever been. Its trees were turning, orange dabs speckled across the green, like a detailed jigsaw puzzle. I was next to Suzanne Camer again. “I needed eggs,” she explained, showing me the carton. We sat on the grass overlook by the park with a half-dozen others. The cold dew seeped through my jeans.

They were out of meaningful sight within five minutes. Arnold Laning — who had donated his old war rifle to the cause — stayed with binoculars for three hours, only leaving when it was time to open the sporting goods store. When the island disappeared the next day, his store remained closed, and Arnold Laning sat vigil on the dock in his fatigues.

Following the departure of David Mallis and Carlos Dias, I returned home. Putting the beer in the refrigerator, I made coffee and breakfast for my father. I did not immediately notice that he had ceased speaking of the boats.

the island, no. 3

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

Thursday, the island returned, and David Mallis proposed an expedition. I was right there. He was a little drunk, though not so gone that we did not take him seriously. Under the bar light, the pores and pockmarks on his cheeks were an ageless stone. Three days later, under any light at all, once he’d washed the blood off, his skin was golden.

The lobster boat was inherited from his father. Once, before dawn, Andy Byers’ brother — who owned a rival operation — blew a hole in the hull with a small explosive. That was the height of the battle. “Doesn’t anybody want to know? Really know?” David asked, standing near the dartboard, his fingernails crusted with plaster. Only Carlos Dias would join him.

I could not go. My father would not hear of it. There were deliveries to receive, linens to air, a house to run. He was stubborn those days, hobbling bow-legged. The ballgames over for the season, there was little for him to do. Weeks earlier, just after the Series, he’d taken to looking through his atlases. When the island came, he’d been drafting navigational charts for some days.

the island, no. 2

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

When we got to really drinking that Wednesday, we talked about the island. I was sure it had been there. Andy Byers got so drunk that he began the night believing it imaginary (“sailors have a name for that illusion,” he’d said, pulling foam from his moustache), was argued into thinking it real, and — by closing — again denied its existence.

“Yes,” Elizabeth told me many years later, the summer we decided I was moving out. “I remember that feeling, too. I could never explain it. It was like a light that was on and off at the same time.”

“Frost’s coming soon,” Andy said on the way home, when we stopped on the empty lot across from the gas station on Baker Street. The water was visible through the mostly bare trees, small dashes of light dancing. There was no moon. The horizon was blank.

Andy lived three houses down. I smoked another cigarette between his place and mine. He’d been a fool at the bar, Andy had. He had always been one and the same with the town — even when he died, not long after the island disappeared for the last time. I stamped the cigarette out, went through the kitchen door, and slipped into bed with Elizabeth. We tried not to wake my father.

the island, no. 1

(Short fiction in even shorter increments.)

The Island: no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The island appeared Tuesday, solid and clear on the horizon, was gone Wednesday, and came back Thursday. “Ask me what the secret of comedy is,” I instructed Suzanne Camer, as we stood on the old dock. It was autumn.

“Haha,” she laughed, though never asked. Then she coughed. Later, her ex-husband, David, would attempt the first trip to the island in his lobster boat, returning with a deep gash in his forehead. “I think it must be the power plant,” she said. “The smoke. A trick.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “a trick. Somebody is tricking us.” Though the air was crisp enough, my beer was getting warm. I gulped the last third of it down.

There had never been an island there before. “This is the end of the world,” my father told me on the day I fell in the campfire and emerged miraculously unscathed. “Look,” he said, “there is nothing out there. Nothing. The next thing is Greenland, maybe.” He pointed and then went back to tending the fire.

“No,” was all he said when I told him about the appearance of the island, which he never saw.

dead bird, no. 11

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

This is what the dead bird told me: it told me that Monica started the fire. There was no mistaking this. We’d seen dead birds all around the house, both of us, the summer the plant closed. It was not possible to go ten feet in the woods that August without seeing them. We’d read them, Monica and I, and saw rich narratives unfold across the gruesome mess. As it happened, Monica moved three blocks from where I’d first come across the bird.

Before that, we’d ridden the train out of the city, to the town in which our mother grew up. The weather was nothing: no rain or particular sun, a muted blue sky. Neither Monica nor I knew the town well. We walked from the train station, through the town center, towards a park I’d seen on the map. Monica bought a beer, which she drank from a paper bag.

On top of the hill, when we were sure we were out of view of the parking lot, we opened the box. Some of our mother’s ashes whipped from us, but there was little wind, and most fell at our feet in a dismal, chalky pile. I thought of the fine black powder our living room had become, the dust Monica had wished to join, unaware that our mother was looking through boxes of knick-knacks in the attic.

Walking back to the station, Monica dropped the bag and empty bottle on the ground. I looked at her. “What?” she said, “We can dump Mom here but not a fucking beer bottle?” But it wasn’t that. I wanted to burn the beer bottle, melt it down. I wanted to keep burning the house, making sure every last part was disintegrated. I wanted to burn the ashes more, making them smaller and finer and smaller still. I wanted to burn all the dead birds in the world. [/END]

dead bird, no. 10

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

“Don’t ever think about that,” Monica told me, still drunk, as I made my way towards the bedroom. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, if it was an instruction to me, or a statement about her own powers of thought.

I craved a return to the life I’d made: working at the coffee shop, jogging every afternoon, getting eight hours of sleep a night. I realized I still did most of these, though no longer had the boundless interior tundra I might wander without Monica watching.

“Ever?” I asked, as I closed the door.

“Ever,” she confirmed.

And so, of course, I thought about it. I thought about the dead bird like Monica told me not to, and what it meant that — a full three weeks into its dismemberment — its wings were now perfectly opposed to one another, as if in flight, albeit with two feet of sidewalk between them. I dreamt of the beach by the lighthouse, its beam chasing me as I swam.
Monica was still sitting at the table in the morning, awake. I could not tell if she’d slept.

dead bird, no. 9

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The doorbell woke me. I’d fallen asleep on the couch, listening to the old R & B station and half-reading about the Mbuti pygmies in National Geographic. Then there was knocking. I found a police officer in the hallway. He had puffy, pocked cheeks and hard eyes. Monica stood next to him. She’d been crying. She was holding a box of brownie mix.

“We thought she was soliciting,” he said. Monica squeezed silently past me into the apartment.

I was taken aback. “Carrying a box of brownie mix?”

The officer looked embarrassed. “That’s what she said. She was quite drunk, though, and very lewd. She kicked me.” I glanced at the clock on the mantle, next to our mother’s ashes. Monica had been gone for over two hours. “We were forced to ticket her,” he explained.

After the officer left, I took my contacts out. I had to work in the morning. Monica sat at the kitchen table, reading the brownie box. I thought again about what the dead bird had told me, and felt tiredness course through my body like ink dispersing in water.

dead bird, no. 8

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

As soon as Monica left, I washed the blood from my knuckle. Then I turned on the radio and rolled a joint. Whenever we separated, I felt a change in consciousness, a portion of my thoughts returning to a private domain. Ray Charles was on. I nodded gently with the music as I smoked.

I’d started getting high a year before I left home. It was summertime. My mother decided that I was the one to attend college in the city the following autumn; Monica would remain at home and run the store. I spent most of my time at Billy Tiernan’s, listening to his stepfather’s record collection, playing backgammon, and getting stoned.

One night, we all went to the lake. Monica and her friends, too. Billy and I had smoked a joint in his truck. Monica didn’t like pot. As we plunged towards the water, through the woods and between sheets of fireflies, I instinctively looked for her in the dark ahead of me. She was gone, then. From me, I mean.

dead bird, no. 7

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The mail was still in the mailbox, all junk. There was an American Express offer for me, and I had not lived there for over a decade. I’d gotten lost on the way over, and it was almost dark. The house outlined in the mild, pink light, I squinted at the familiar facade. When my eyes focused, I realized the whole left side, from the kitchen up, was caved in; missing, like a dark chunk from a waning moon.

The fire had started in the living room, they said. I stood at the edge of the yard and looked at the first floor’s dim skeleton. As a child, I’d imagined fires in the living room many times; not fires that I’d started, but fires I envisioned at their peaks, flames lapping cruelly at the drab, off-yellow drapes. I wondered how this matched up.

I sat on the warm hood of the car for a few minutes before I headed back to the city. The coroner had given me the option of picking up the ashes in the morning or having them shipped. I gave him my address.

dead bird, no. 6

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

“You told the coroner about the brownies?” Monica asked, cross-legged on my couch, drinking her third screwdriver of the night. She cradled the paper cup gently in one palm. Her head rested on the other.

“No,” I explained, “he brought up the brownies.”

“Do you want to make brownies?” she asked. It was after midnight. I was on my first drink. “Come on,” she nudged, “The corner store’s open all night, right?”

Three days after she’d arrived we had our first fight, a silent feud that lasted a week, about whether we could afford a funeral. We couldn’t. I had little desire to communicate with my mother’s sister. Monica wouldn’t do it, either, so I won, as it were.

After that, without discussion, we slid into a natural co-habitation. I’d readjusted to Monica’s whims, all of them impulses that existed close to my own surface. Thinking about it right then, I wanted brownies, too. I didn’t offer to go with her, though. That was my fault.

dead bird, no. 5

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The wallpaper over the urinal repeated infinitely: a house, a river, a moose contemplating the dwelling from the opposite bank, some woods, another house. Somewhere between the woods and the house, the image began again, like an MC Escher illusion. This was the wallpaper in the bathroom at the coroner’s office.

My mother looked more or less like herself, except dead, her blonde-grey hair still in a ponytail. It had been a terrible fire, to be sure, but it was smoke inhalation that had gotten her, in the attic, while firemen below tried to put out the blaze.

“Yes,” I told the coroner, “that’s her.”

He nodded, and said he’d bought brownies from Mom at a few school bake sales.

“Yeah,” I said, “Brownies,” thinking about chocolate and looking at my dead mother’s still face out of the corner of my eye. I was still imagining the sugar on my tongue when I drove by the burnt house at dusk.

dead bird, no. 4

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

“Well, what did they tell you?” she asked. She meant the bird’s parts. There was a time I could have answered the question, when Monica wouldn’t have even needed to articulate it. The idea of telling her of the abstractions I’d read in the mangled pigeon seemed shameful to me, like reverting to the provincial dialect I’d trained my tongue to avoid. She would understand it, though, whatever I said.

“I don’t know,” I muttered. “I really don’t.” I said that second part with more conviction, even though the blood was starting to cake on my fingers and I desperately wanted to wash my hand.

“Oh,” she said, sounding hurt. Feeling hurt, I’m sure. I knew exactly what they meant, and dead birds don’t lie. Then she asked again about what it was like to identify the body.

dead bird, no. 3

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

I’d already been in the city many years. She’d not visited. When she arrived, still smelling of smoke, she walked around my cramped living room. We’d hugged, of course, and probably made one or two inconsequential remarks, but she got right to it. All with her eyes, she examined the magazines on the table (National Geographic, Newsweek), the plants hanging by the window (unwatered and dying), the contents of the trashcan by the television (a few receipts, maybe; I never remembered it was there).

In the next weeks, the room changed shape, meeting her will. The couch, now opened to a bed, was pushed permanently to the wall. Aside from her duffle bag, she brought no objects into the space. At the end of it, it felt right and natural, my arrangement only a temporary diversion from whatever the truth was, whatever I was escaping by moving to the city to begin with. It felt like the room we’d shared as children.

dead bird, no. 2

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

My hand happened to be covered in fresh blood when the conversation began. I’d been chewing on my knuckle for some reason, and I’d broken skin. It was odd, I thought, but didn’t seem like a big deal.

We were talking about sundials, Monica and I, because we both agreed that calculations (especially of this nature) took time, and that we were better off just waiting for all the business arrangements to work themselves out. I explained to her that I’d marked time since the fire with the passing of the bird’s limbs across the cement.

“Oh,” she asked. “Like augury?”
“Yes, I suppose,” I told her. I’d almost grown used to her again, which was strange enough, but she would soon be leaving.

dead bird, no. 1

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The dead bird moved a little bit every day. Or, rather, parts of it did. It was separated — a wing over here, something unrecognizable over there — on the weed-cracked sidewalk outside the wonton factory I passed while jogging each afternoon. It was a mostly deserted street.

Late in the bird’s disintegration, I passed someone a little further down the block, walking in the shadow of a warehouse. “Hey!” I wanted to ask him — a prematurely balding Puerto Rican kid who worked in the tire yard –”did you see the bird? It’s been there since March!” It was the end of May then, and I was wondering what the summer sun would do to it. But I kept jogging.

That was the same week I told Monica about the bird.