FICTION | Sauce by Philip Sultz

Arnie and I drive to the Italian section for a spaghetti lunch. He says, You ever been down here? I say, No. Arnie says, This place is tops for spaghetti. They cook the sauce all day to bring out the flavors. It’s the real thing, Sultz. I say, What, cooking all day? Arnie says, The ingredients aren’t thrown in all at once. They’re added in a sequence at different stages of the boiling. Each ingredient matures at a different stage. I say, You sound like you know what you’re talking about. We both laugh. We get down to the restaurant, but it isn’t there any more. Arnie says, They must have moved. Let’s get some Sicilian pizza. You ever had it? I say, No. Arnie says, you’ll love it. We’ll go to Pazo’s.

Pazo’s is packed. Arnie looks around and says, Grab the little table over there in the corner. I’ll get the pizza. After ten minutes, Arnie comes back with a tray of drinks and two pizzas. He says, Dig in, Sultz, enjoy. I look at the pizza and say, Arnie, what are those dark worm-like things on the sauce? Arnie says, I think they’re anchovies. You ever heard of them? I say, No, I never did. Arnie says it punches up the flavor. It’s like adding horseradish or mustard to something. Dig in, you’ll love it. I say, What exactly are they? Arnie says, To tell you the truth, Sultz, I haven’t the slightest idea. Look around, everybody is eating the same thing. It’s probably a tangy mushroom. The tables are right up against each other. I catch the eye of a woman sitting to my left and say, Excuse me, do you know what anchovies are? She says, Sure, they’re in the ocean. I think they’re little bottom feeders. I say, What, they’re alive? She says, Sure, alive, but not now.

 

 

Arnie stories by Philip Sultz have appeared in Three Quarter Review, Matchbook, Everyday Genius and Fifth Wednesday Journal.  The Arnie stories were nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012.  He taught studio art at the Kansa City Art Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design and Webster University, St. Louis where he is Professor Emeritus.  His two books of poetry, Scenes and Stories and Not just Animal Stories were published by Singing Bone Press, St. Louis.

Syntagm

We are fifteen when we create our first language. It is a cipher, a tongue we make by altering our first language, which we did not create. Old words, new meanings. Things that appeal to adolescent poets, adolescent boys—long-haired flannel kids in corners who take more meaning from things like song lyrics than they should. Than is fair to the songs. Anthems and punctuations for the roil of being. Young.

In our first language, things come to mean otherwise. When we say Are you guys ready?, which means, primarily, “. . . to do something,” we are saying, now, (especially now) We are all for one, which is a thing long-haired adolescents among the post oaks and greenbrier in the undeveloped acreage against Veterans’ Park, twenty feet above the creek bottom, fists and rope-swings, around illicit sleepover campfires, and the rites of our first secret society, and over film canisters of pilfered loose-leaf tobacco curling smoke in pilfered fathers’ pipes, and thoughts like small secrets of the girls we don’t speak to, say to each other. It is a thing we say to each other. We create our first language from our first language, altering it into something that appeals to us. And now we mean “Are you guys ready?”

This is how we parse our thoughts. On things like how right the Romantics were, how right the landscapes and energies and expressions of self in creek beds, geodes, and mountainsides. Like what it is to be landscapes ourselves, which is a better thing to be than adolescents in used cars, west of Dallas, in a place without project housing, bars, or even public transportation. Like how much sense this (or that) song makes. Like how things are going to go down.

We are fifteen when we create this first language, which we call “No”—the collision of our names, the letters we share. We are cheating, of course, using a word from our first language to name our first language. This is important. It is important to us that our first language means something to someone beyond us. Even though we will not share it, are forbidden to share it, with anyone else. N and O are the only letters to appear in each of our names, but only in the ones we create. Danno’s name is really Daniel, and it would share an E with Owen. Thompson is my last name, the one we use—Alan, which is my first name, would share an A with Daniel. No is what we want, because it is the real name of all things we have to say.

We say other things as well:  Later, which is now. I know, which is My honor, my life. We mean things adolescently, which is the greatest way to mean them. The potential way to mean them.

She is part one of three: Love, Honor, and Truth—the three things we mean most, in that perfect order. We will only mean this now while she is only potential. When she becomes real, for each of us, all three things become just that one.

But not now. Or rather, only now, if one translates in reverse.

All of this is important, of course. For we create a second language. We are men then, and nothing means anything.

 

 

“We need a word for this,” I say.

“Something that won’t change,” Owen says, “doesn’t mean change.”

Danno doesn’t like this cigarette business. The tobacco pipes at least come from our books: elf-land wizards, and poets strolling moors, and soldiers carrying swords, which is a fight we like. A fight we would have a chance in, when intelligence (and not simply bullets) has something to do with it. We tell ourselves. This is what we think. Pipe smoking is people thinking.

Still, Danno buys cigarettes for me and Owen because his father is in the same group as the man who owns the gas station and convenience store near the park. A Mythopoetic Men’s Movement group. On occasion, Danno and his father and the man from the convenience store gather with other men, other sons, to channel themselves through ritual drumming. Through “talking drums,” or sound boxes they make in their garages with wood glue and jig saws. They plumb archetypes by sharing classical mythology, and they read poetry by people like Robert Bly. They know about things like role stress, which Danno and his father have both encountered, individually, in therapy. I won’t know what they are talking about until graduate school.

Once a month, my father and I go on Boy Scout camp outs, which isn’t the same thing.

This convenience store man sells cigarettes to Danno, but not to us. He is like that. Danno is like that.

We are in a copse of honey locust trees, back behind Danno’s housing development, in undeveloped acreage, which we call home. It hasn’t been developed because it is private property, and not for sale. We are trespassing.

Danno thinks of one of these trees, the crook-backed one, as a totem—a self he can control, a stronger self. One immune and apart from all of this. It is the oldest tree in the copse, the one that had taken lightning to half its limbs. We all call it Danno.

Danno leans.

“We’ll call this ‘now.’”

Which, of course, in reverse, means later.

And this is what he means. Now. Now means then. Nothing happened to us today. School is over for the week. We will be playing Dungeons & Dragons and going for hamburgers and drinking soda all night. But that hasn’t happened yet. There weren’t any fights today. There isn’t any homework. We haven’t talked to any of our girls. The ones, specifically, among all of them whom we can’t talk to. Like I said: Love, Honor, and Truth. There are rules to this, and it is easier to follow them than to risk fucking things up.

Owen is doing just fine. Danno can’t know what this means now, but he will know it later.

Which is exactly the point. We will always need now to mean exactly this. Later, now will mean so much more, once we know what a terrible thing it will be to capture this moment—what terrible meanings will happen to it because we are isolating it from all other moments. Making it vulnerable to all the meanings that will happen to it as all the first-language nows keep meaning (are forced to mean) now.

We do this to ourselves.

 

 

They were in Phoenix, which is where their father lived. Visiting.

“I was with him,” Danno’s sister said, tiny through my phone.

“What?” I asked.

“On the couch, watching T.V.,” she said.

By themselves. Danno’s father wasn’t even in the room with them, because it was late. Which defeated the purpose.

“What?”

My wife walked into the dining room, where I was sit-standing. Walking and not. I thought of Danno’s old house, so close to home. The sun room was nothing but windows, and that’s where the talking drums and the sound boxes were kept, alongside fossil souvenirs from Galveston Bay. Hiking sticks, and the converted aquariums where the ball pythons lived.

“What?” she asked.

“So I called the ambulance right away,” Danno’s sister said.

“Wait.”

I wondered if there were a sun room in this new house. This Phoenix house. Danno’s father and step-mother had moved there while Danno and I shared a duplex, in college. Home no longer existed for him, in either language.

“Okay,” I said, “what? I mean, which side?”

“The left,” she said. “It’s too soon.”

“What caused it?”

“A blood clot in his leg, through a tiny hole in his heart.”

Primarily, stroke means movement. Energy put (somehow) to use.

Danno leaned, having taken his brain’s electro-chemical lightning to half his limbs. He had grown this clot in the meat of his thigh, with each Friday-night hamburger—later, with each Wednesday night beer. He had nested it and warmed it and taught it the sound of his voice, while we walked and hiked and learned to sail. He had given himself to it in the stress of his first marriage, in the anti-depressants and internet dating services that followed. Danno was a clot of blood, and he had helped my wife and I pack up our everythings and move them nineteen hours away, when we took new jobs, one year ago.

“Is he?”

She was crying now. “They’re concerned because it happened where the personality is.”

“What. Can I talk to him?”

There were rules to this, a rite—a recreation of older times, preserving community knowledge, asking questions with idiotic answers, unnecessary answers. The questions were the point. Where? Which room? Phone number? Getting the story straight to tell it twenty times, getting closer with each phone call to making this normal.

There had to be a reason why I didn’t ask these things.

“No.”

I hadn’t spoken to Owen since my wedding. We made a point of texting each other our new numbers each time we moved, so we wouldn’t have to.

 

 

It is important, at this point, that we believe in God. Because, later, in college, we won’t. For precisely this reason, because I am soon to disbelieve, it is very important that I make Danno and Owen believe.

Our ideas have to be realizations—they can’t be self-generated. They have to come from divine order—a greater sense of how things should be. We learned Transcendentalism in our sophomore lit classes, and it is right. There is a here that we are missing, but so much less than everyone else. We find it in our favorite songs and at home and around the gaming table. There is no point in talking to our girls if they don’t get this. This was why, of course, we don’t talk to them.

This is as close as Danno gets to believing, so I convinced him to follow me to church. His father doesn’t mind, though he disbelieves. Owen goes because he does everything I tell him to. I’ve been taught nothing but panic for my friends’ immortal souls.

Our Sunday School class is specifically for high school boys. We learn, from our teacher who has done mission work in five countries, that women are not supposed to teach religion. She tells us that the Bible tells us so. This is chivalric, and we are fucked here by Honor and Truth.

I look at Danno, and he writes I know on his notepad.

Perhaps this is the beginning. We each write a poem about this, and they each appear in our school’s literary magazine. We are on staff this semester. Two of our three girls are also.

Owen’s is not.

By the time we reach our third year of college, we will have had the conversation that God is, in fact, the universe. That suns and orbiting planets and plasmoid dark matter are god’s atomic structure. Perhaps, then, we are simply clots of tissue in God’s great thigh. We know, after all, that we are cast in his image, that he gave himself to us.

We are getting somewhere, on our way to appropriate late-twenty-something ideas about faith and being nothing. We are becoming energy put to good use. Strokes, ourselves.

We will discuss God’s great thigh while we smoke pot in our living room, which will be done up with fishing nets, dress forms, fencing foils, and the other emblems that we feel identify us as un-serious romantic individuals. By this point, Danno will have taught me how to play the sound box.

 

 

Eventually, she becomes real. We begin to talk. Owen and I each learn that it had all, really, always been about sex. Danno isn’t dating anyone.

My parents are out of town this weekend, so after we swim, after we are in those next-step swim suits, we get ready for this. For the first time. She and I, finally. Before my phone rings.

“There’s no one here with him,” her mother says. Owen’s girlfriend’s mother.

“What?” I say.

“I think—he’s panicking.”

This is not about Owen’s mortal soul.

“Wait.”

“Could you come over here?” she asks.

“Have they been fighting?”

“Yes—not really. Owen chased him around the driveway. The police would rather not arrest him.”

“What?” my girlfriend asks. She is ready, too.

He is a friend from junior high school. High school, too, but not as much. This has been coming on the side—a thing born of long afternoons while Owen was working with us. On the literary magazine. His girlfriend was left without options.

“Owen ran into the street,” her mother says, “but the cars wouldn’t hit him. They just swerved, or stopped.”

Luckily, Owen has been coming with us to church, because I told him to. For this reason, the staff at the Thousand Oaks center are willing to admit him after hours. Because it is a religiously funded institution. I wait with Danno and Owen’s mother in the waiting room while they process Owen in another room. I fall asleep in an arm chair, still in my swim suit.

We gave him a machete, that Christmas, because it was the closest thing to a sword we could find. We found a store in the mall that engraved it with “My honor, my life” in a font called “German Gothic.”

He is not allowed to keep this.

 

 

When can you talk to him?” my wife asked.

It was two days before his sister thought to call me again. There had to have been a reason why I didn’t ask for the number the first time.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you need to go there?”

We couldn’t afford a plane ticket to Phoenix. One month later, we would be back in Dallas, to participate in two weddings—friends from graduate school. This is what we did now: attend weddings.

After her, Owen impregnated a different girl. He married her. While Danno and I were in college, Owen moved to Texarkana to manage a seafood restaurant.

“I can see him in Dallas.”

This is what was happening now. This is what we didn’t realize.

“Do you know that he’s been going to church,” I said.

“What?”

“Because this girl, she goes.”

“Wait. Maybe he’s alone.”

Alone didn’t mean anything.

We had ceased to believe in college.

“The only thing worse would be if he had died.”

“I know,” she said.

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

 

 

Danno leans. The stream below it is two inches closer per year, as the tree bows under its dead weight, aging. We have each carved a sigil of a bird into the collapsing bark. Our seals, with which we sign our letters and make things official.

“You know they’ll make fun of us,” he says.

One of these birds is not real.

“Whatever,” Owen says. “they won’t know.”

I am supposed to be the smart one. “Of course. But secretly—I mean, come on—do you think they’d rather have poets and D&D geeks, or office monkeys with tie-jobs?”

We are talking about her, and we plan to meet all three of her at once—a convergence of two groups. We are only half-kidding when we talk about how crazy it would be if they simply came hiking down the creek bed, with rules of their own.

The plan is universal. We’ll be neighbors, after college—or as close as will be manageable.

Danno shoves Owen as he launches from the creek-shore, fists rope-swing tight. “Yours is going to be the ugly one!”

 

 

He wants to talk to you,” Danno’s sister said.

“Can he?”

“He wants to.”

The name of his hospital is Thunderbird, in Phoenix. I was warned that this was most important to him. For now, this was his everything.

I heard him grunting on the other end of the line.

“Hey, asshole,” I said. I was the one who could make him laugh.

He made a sound like a bird calling. A thunderbird.

“What?”

My wife’s hand was soft against the back of my neck.

He choked. Made the sound again.

We are men, when we create our second language. I cannot transcribe it, via three-letter alphabetic keypads, into a text-message for Owen. There is a sound, from our past, that makes sense of this. We made the sound once, fifteen years earlier, calling to each other in code, through the trees. I will text it from our past selves to our present selves tonight. Starting with Owen. Because it will be easier.

I am not sure we are finished. Danno and I. When I hang up the phone. So I call out, just in case. One bird to another. SONARing space-time with sounds that don’t exist.

 

 

Darin Bradley is the author of Noise (Ballantine/Spectra, 2010). His fiction, poetry, and critical nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and he has taught courses on writing and literature at several universities. He keeps a website at www.darinbradley.com.

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Zero Dark Thirty

It is the silken hour of morningtide as a fat, polka-dot spider crawls along the edge of a dust and plaster-encrusted windowsill.  Briefly, it pauses to examine a vertical, paint-smeared iron bar: one of three that obstruct an easterly view out of a small, broken glass window, above a narrow, rectangular bed, where a short, thin man lays sleeping, sleeping still.  Then, forward-march, and the spider moves from light into shadow, from shadow into a thin, tapered crack of crumbling mortar that flakes and falls in a spatter of powdery ash upon the twisted countenance of the sleeping man.

The man yawns . . . coughs . . . rolls onto his side, extending one skinny arm – with a zodiac tattoo of a fish on the wrist – over the edge of the bed.

***

Look closely now at this arm and you will see a thin, bluish vein pulsing meno mosso to a kind of legato sparkplug music that only he can hear: just there, above the bearded, twitching thumb: one and two . . . and . . . two and one . . . and . . .

***

The man is now fully awake, alert, his eyes wide open and staring up blindly into the black hole of recall (Who?  Where?  What the hell?).  His sense of the moment slip-ping away from him, like a ball rolling tirelessly on, taking a little side trip, as it were, from time in attendance; a side trip to a place that is dark, though not unpleasant – a sort of indeterminate state filled with predatory memories.  And then, of a sudden, there are swirling whirlpools of light as iridescent as the morning sun.  And there, in the center of this swirling, iridescent light, is an apparitional assemblage of memory’s artifacts: a summative review of a world full of lunatics and visionaries; bearded, pale, ugly, and howling like Lycaon in and about cemeteries and secret alley ways where cinematic entertainments, presented as flat trajectories, display a centrifugal cluster of vanities and illusions: partial caricatures in a pantomime of faces framed by other rotating faces, orbiting one another in soundless ellipses, subtly altered, yet with definable characteristics awash in a kaleidoscopic tableau of rainbow colors and liquid reflections.  His weightless thoughts disentangle like so many strands of floating rope.  Then, as quickly as they come, these thoughts begin to recede and to turn off as though, perhaps, the very stream of his existence was also receding, drying up, leaving not much more than a dry bed of pebbles; his essence reduced to the lowest common denominator.  Why, even the outline of his body seems to blur, where once it was silhouetted against the backdrop of his small cell and infra dig of emasculating punishment, cut off irremediably from the world.

Slowly, he pushes himself up to the distinction of a sitting posture: his spine straight, his naked feet set flat upon the floor.  He yawns a second time, emitting a loud onomatopoeia like a gunshot.  Stretches his body.  Smiles his smile.  Begins to mumble-sing:

Oh the bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
And so pipes the piper as he pipes
Now les Demoiselles all lift their skirts
To dance the Stars and Stripes

***

Standing now, shoulders back, chest out, his posture suddenly droops forward with a sort of nervous obliquity.  Then, quick-march to a corner johnnycan and ceramic sink, where he runs a trickle of cold, cinnamon water, and begins his morning rite of fundamental ablutions: Teeth.  Hair.  Vain expressions.

Feeling better, he lights a last cigarette, giving its ash an easy pell-mell flick, a sudden, surpassing blush darkening his narcotic expression of calm euphoria.  The cigarette dangles from a pinched corner of his mouth.  Smoke, like a dissipating vagrant spirit, rises and curls along the low ceiling, then through and out of the barred, broken window of easterly view.

***

Of course, there are windows, and there are windows:

Through one category of window one might, metaphorically speaking, survey selected phases and episodes of one’s own life: coming down with the chicken pox; having those nasty old tonsils yanked; losing one’s virginity; scoring a winning goal or touchdown; the death of a parent or sibling; graduation from high school or college . . .

Through a second category of window one may look out – oh, let’s say – upon the degeneracy, corruption (political, religious, social, etc. . .) and low-mindedness of the world.

And through a third category of window one may, perhaps, voyeuristically spy upon one’s neighbors; e.g.:

A man and a woman are seated on identical kitchen chairs, at a round kitchen table, in a square kitchen.  The man has a penny-pale complexion.  The woman, also, has a penny-pale complexion.  Both the man and the woman are pale.

The man wears an expression of absentmindedness.

The woman wears a kind of gargoyle mask created with lipstick, powered rouge and mascara.

The man is dressed in a dark-colored overcoat (buttoned up to the collar), scarf, gloves, and hat.

The woman is naked, and one of her plump breasts is plopped into a milky bowl of porridge.  With her two capable hands she lifts this breast out of the bowl of porridge, and begins to lick the nipple clean.

Suddenly, the man begins to sniffle and snort, like a pig at slop, laughing aloud at something he is reading in a newspaper – a newspaper that completely obscures him from the woman’s point-of-view.

Startled by this sudden cacophony of jollity, the woman begins to choke on a tasty lump of porridge; a moment later she slumps unconscious and not breathing onto the kitchen floor.

Hearing an uncommon THUMP! the man lowers his newspaper, and, seeing that the woman is no longer in her chair, across the table from him, he, as though calling to someone in another room, shouts out, “DO YOU NOT WANT YOUR PORRIDGE, THEN?”

***

With a sideways glance, he jealously surveys the escaping fume of smoke, a transient, gray shadow crossing his face; a face dimly blurred, yet ably reflected in the silver-drinking cup he now holds before him:

He has his late father’s hard eyes (so he has been told), and perfect fig nose (now no longer perfect, but broken and askew).  Eyes, nose, he has even inherited his father’s optimistic delusions (this, too, he has been told), but definitely not the old man’s blind faith in holy writ superstitions and prayerful supplications.  No, sir.  Not that.  He was no anointed communicant of the Holy Church of God-believing saints.  He had not entered into the service of this or that orthodoxy: imparting, declaring a self-invented exordium of canard and fib to be preached throughout the land; hell, throughout the universe; even to where God hides and peeks at us from behind the planet Jupiter (as though even the planet Jupiter could hide God’s enormous head).  (– Yes, God forgives us . . . but can we ever forgive God?)

There’s a sudden din of voices outside his cell.  (Coming to take him away?  His head on the block?)   Now the metallic rattle of keys . . . the squeak of his cell door opening . . . swirls of electric light, temporarily blinding him.  Two men enter.

The first man, wearing a plug-hat cocked jauntily on his bowling ball of a head, taps out a cigarette from a fresh pack.

The second man, a black halo above his head (this one could almost be the first man’s identical twin), carefully sets a tape recorder on the cell floor, and switches it on.

After pleasantries are exchanged, an arpeggiated stream of questioning commences: all part and parcel of his ongoing deanthropomorphization.  Specific dates and times are spoken of: a minuscule of irregularities to be explained.  Routine gobbledi-gookery.   Nothing personal, Bub (May we call you “Bub?).  It’s their job to weed out and to rid the world of its loathsome miscreants, scoundrels, and villains. – ‘Cause, ye see Bub . . . God, he don’t like miscreants, scoundrels, and villains . . . or Democrats.

The two men laugh.

When he speaks his voice is hoarse, yet scrupulous attention is paid to his humble emanations: each word, each groan, each pathetic sigh is recorded.

Who did he know?  What did he know?  Were there any notorious schemes a foot?  Fodder for the glossy tabloids?  Was he hoping for martyrdom?  A medal?  Some kind of promotion?  His picture in the papers?

As time goes on the questioning gradually becomes more and more abstracted: What is good?  What is evil?  What is moral?  What is ethical?  What is reality?  What is mind?  What is thought?

Then it’s a series of: Complete the following sentencesGirls just wanna have ____________.  The bigger they are the ___________.  He who laughs last __________.  What goes up, must ___________.  Here today, gone ___________.  Colder than a witch’s ___________.  A penny saved is a ___________.  To be or not ___________.

One of the two men gives him a drink of water, and places a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth.

Dear Jesus, why won’t they let me sleep?  Hour after hour of this brutal insensitivity.  What the hell time is it anyway?  No light coming through the cell window.  Middle of the night, no doubt: Zero Dark Thirty.  Hello!  Is anyone listening to me?  Jesus?  Pick up if you’re there, man.  Screening your calls again, are you?  Aw, c’mon, man, I’m dyin’ here!  No?  Okay.  That’s cool, I guess.  Anyway, sorry I missed you, man.  Oh, it’s me, “Bub” by the way.

The two men say that they are satisfied.  Yes, satisfied.  One of them turns off the tape recorder.  The other snuffs out a cigarette he has only half smoked.  And then, with no further ado, they leave.  Just like that.

The cell door, however, is left open.

***

He is lying on his narrow, rectangular bed, staring up at alligators hiding in the ceiling.  At least he thinks they’re alligators.  Granted, it’s not very likely, but you never know in such a damp climate.

Something he hears draws him suddenly to the cell window.  Voices.  He hears voices.  Monotones and monosyllables.  And the exultant chirping of discordant birds (well-hidden in the branches of precisely planted rows of trees) with their gliding chromaticism of fluted notes whistled rapid fire with incantatory repetitions, recalling a sweet oboe here, a soothing clarinet there, and always the gaiety of a conversing piccolo.

A spider at the edge of the window is sucking the juice from a fly it has captured.  The fly is still alive.

With bedazzled eyes he searches like Joyce in his Martello Tower, and through the window he sees, below, a public garden with lush foliage.  To the left of this garden he sees the dead wall of railway tracks where, on any given evening, one could, as a matter of course, find an omnium-gatherum of copulating, urinating, quarreling, bush-tailed johns and obliging cockchafers down on their knees.  This eerie city scene (- Like some solemn fucking postcard, man!) is lighted by an electric streetlamp, and has the appearance of a black and white photograph by Brassai.  Two men, Emerson and Thoreau, looking like Dean and Brando in black leather jackets, are chatting up a pair of Marilyn Monroe and Catherine Deneuve look-a-likes.  Emerson and Thoreau are not who you think they are, but a plebeian pair of hooligans who happen to do a little pimping on the side.  (Hey, a man’s gotta eat, don’t he?)

(Something must be living in his beard; suddenly he can’t seem to stop scratching.  Goddamn squatters!!)

A fat doper is smoking a fat Moroccan reefer below an enormous billboard advertisement; this advertisement features a gorgeous young woman, in a wet tee-shirt, holding a bottle of a popular brand of beer.

And there’s a blind organ grinder and his monkey: the monkey holds a beggar’s cup in one of its hands, and wears a pillbox hat and a collar studded with tiny bells that tinkle like wind chimes as the monkey works a small group of gazing onlookers who are dropping coins into the cup.  Suddenly two men in the group of onlookers are squabbling.  There’s a punch to the nose, a knee to the groin; the crowd is growing like a tumor, cheering on the two men as they brawl.  One man goes down.  The second man viciously kicks him in the ribs.  The man cries out.  The crowd cheers, and is now calling for the man’s head: they want blood  . . . a Niagara Falls worth.  The organ grinder, too, has been knocked over, and his hurdy-gurdy stomped and smashed into kindling.  But now the cops have arrived, and are questioning the two men; one of whom they put into the back of the squad car . . . and none too gently.  Real brutes, these coppers.

But wait, there seems to be a discrepancy!  No, it’s only a draft of cold air rippling into his cell.  Nothing else.  Yet the draft induces him to shiver as though he has just been touched with a shard of cold steel.  And now, for the first time, he notices the cell door; that it has been left open.

Warily, he walks to the door.  Stops.  For approximately a full minute he stands still, not breathing, not taking his eyes off of the door.  His heart, that perpetual engine of his continuity, is beating like a tom-tom.

Feeling a little woozy, a little light-headed, he backtracks to the bed, and sits down; but only for a moment.  Soon he is up again and standing.

For a second time, he walks to the open cell door.  On the point of walking through, he suddenly halts and stands frozen in place: a soldier at attention, in the throes of a chimerical fear.  Had the door been left open purposely?  Was this perhaps a devious trap?  Or had the two men simply forgotten to lock it?  No, that did not seem possible.  Those men were pros, and pros do not forget to lock a cell door.  That’s a given.  Uncertainty now holds him in its grip as firmly as Menelaus once held Patroclus.  The cold, dead silence of the cell enters into him, and once again he retreats to the bed.  There he sits with his hands in his lap, his head bowed, eyes closed.

Then, lifting his head, he looks around his small cell, taking it all in, detail by detail, as though he was seeing it for the first time; but of course he is not seeing the cell for the first time, no, he is recalling his childhood home, seeing it and not his cell: the small bedroom he shared with his older brother, who was killed, blown to Kingdom Come, along with their parents.

Not very original, he thinks, all this dying; surely by now it’s been done to death!  Of course all God’s creatures must die, and in the end we all come face to face with the inevitable nothingness.  And we can thank first man Adam and his cunning cunt Eve for that!

This memory play evokes the whole stigmata of suffering he has known and endured . . . out there . . . in that world beyond his cell: that world where his own fate, his own demons lay in wait for him, as surely as death awaits us all.

But of course all that will come about later.  For death is not likely to come today, or even right now.  No.  Now . . . now is Siesta-time.

Thus resigned, he lies back on the narrow rectangular bed, and stares up at the alligators in his ceiling.  Soon he is asleep, with one skinny arm – the one with the zodiac tattoo of a fish on the wrist – extended limply over the edge of the bed:

Look closely now at this arm and you will see a thin, bluish vein pulsing menno mosso to a kind of legato spartplug music that only he can hear: just there, above the bearded, twitching thumb: one and two . . . two and one . . . and . . .

 

John Emerson’s works appear in Critical Quarterly, Tsarina, The Long Story, The Trunk, The East Hampton Star, Laundry Pen, Bathtub Gin, Caffeine, and Saint Ann’s Review. He was a writer-in-residence at Shakespeare and Company in Paris.