Delirious as a blowtorch and begotten in the luminosity of love — This is the infamous out-of-orbit literary journal that delivers storytelling fit for a gathering around fire. Home to unpredictable fiction, revealing personal essays, bitter social assessments, subversive hymns, underwater obscenities, uplifting bad news, veiled confessions, hints of the erotic… And maybe even some dicey advice.
My name is Magnolia Shakes, and I was born on July 28, 1970. Exactly eight years later my daddy died in an act of self-killing out on the interstate near where we lived. I don’t know why he picked my birthday to do what he did. People tried to tell me he wasn’t feeling right and didn’t pick that day on purpose. I knew better because he left me a present that I found after. It was a doll inside a box that you could see through. She had blonde hair and wore a pink dress with yellow dots on it. I never did open it and just sat her on a shelf in my room and I would look at her once in a while. I wanted to play with her, but I just couldn’t. He had a little note with it too that just said: Happy Birthday always, my Magnolia. Love, Daddy. On all my birthdays after that, I made myself believe he picked it so I would never forget and always remember him, but not in a bad way. Thinking otherwise would have crushed me to dust.
The accident was awful, and they had to shut down the highway and reroute people through town. There was a story about it in the newspaper the next day, but momma wouldn’t let me look at it. She folded it up and hid it away somewhere. I found it later and my brother clipped it to keep. They had to take the driver of the truck to the hospital and sedate him because he was so traumatized. There were about half a dozen cars that wrecked, too. No one else was killed but I think some people had some bad gashes and broken bones. The highway patrolmen that came to the house warned us not to go down there. Later, if we had to go on the highway, I would close my eyes at that particular stretch and try not to think about it, to push it away. It wore me out, in almost anything I did, having to do all that pushing of bad memories away. They just kept coming back, like I was constantly building a dam and it just kept breaking.
My mother’s name was Helen Shakes and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She had long, bouncy blonde hair that she loved tossing around with her hands. Her eyes were a smooth green with a dot of sparkle that looked like the Emerald City from that Wizard of Oz movie. I thought she looked like a real-life princess, but other people said she was a little rough around the edges in both looks and actions. I don’t think she was, not until what happened to daddy. She kind of just let herself go after that. She started to drink more than usual, too. She was never mean to me, just a bit neglectful at times, especially when that Eddie Dallas started coming around more and more. My older brother Dylan and I didn’t like him at all. I thought he was arrogant and rude and disrespectful to our mother. I don’t know what she saw in him. He was a small, red-headed man with a smooth and youthful face dotted with freckles. If you didn’t know the real Eddie Dallas you would have thought he was a sweet, nice guy just by looking at him. But he wasn’t. He had a mean streak running through him all the way. I don’t know how my momma could feel any comfort looking into those demon eyes or being held in those scrawny arms. She acted like she did. But I knew better. It was sort of like I could see her insides, past her skin and into her soul, and what was on the inside was different than what was on the outside. I’ve always been able to do that, with most anybody. The only one I really couldn’t do it with was Dylan, and I think that was because he could do it too.
Oswald Madness was sitting at the end of a very long table in a very white room that had a long line of narrow vertical windows against one wall. The windows were covered with chemical blue curtains, the bottoms of which gently swayed because of some sort of artificial air being pumped in.
His eyes hurt. His throat felt like he had been screaming for a long time, but he didn’t know why. There was some sort of lingering cloud over the table that silently churned like a butter thunderstorm. Then someone spoke and the cloud began to twirl into a tighter vortex and then drifted up and out of the room through an invisible hole.
“Can you pass the Christmas mustard?” the young girl called from a seemingly long way away. “I have some vivacious ham here that I would like to add a little more zing to.”
Oswald looked down in front of him at the table adorned in a crystal white cloth. There before him sat a jar of unopened Christmas mustard from a deli in Chicago that he used to know of because his Aunt Sharlene would never shut up about it at family gatherings around the holidays.
He looked up and called out. “Who’s there?” He saw the vibrations of his voice shoot across the long table and stumble into something on the other end.
The girl’s voice came back. “Do I need to come over there and get it myself? You really don’t want that.”
Oswald pushed his chair back and got up. The floor didn’t feel real. He picked up the jar of Christmas mustard and started walking toward the other end of the table. He walked and walked and walked. “This is the longest table I have had the displeasure to encounter,” he said out loud.
“Just keep going. You’re almost there.” A small hand suddenly reached out and snatched the jar from him. “Thank you.” And then the mist around her cleared and she slowly came into view. He just watched as she struggled to open the jar. “Fuck!” she said loudly, and then she handed the jar back to him. “Could you open it please?”
Oswald pushed his hand against the lid and turned. There was a little audible pop. He handed it back to her and she smiled up at him. “I don’t know why they make those things so damn hard to open. What if this had been an emergency?”
“A sandwich emergency?”
She gave him a dirty look as she did not care at all for his sense of humor.
He quickly altered the awkward moment. “I know you,” Oswald said to her.
“That’s right,” she said as she smeared Christmas mustard on a piece of rye bread with a silvery knife that flowed like liquid. “I know you as well.”
“What is this?” Oswald wanted to know. “It seems that just a minute ago I was chained to a very different table. I was in some sort of trouble, I think.”
“You were in trouble, but I decided to get you out of it,” the girl said, and she looked around with admiration. “This is my home and I have invited you for lunch. Are you not hungry? I assure you the meats and breads are top of the line… Top of the line.” She took a monstrous bite of the sandwich she assembled and chewed. She casually swung her legs beneath the table and hummed while slowly moving her head side to side as if she didn’t have a care in the world. She was wearing washed-out blue jeans cut by ragged stone, red high-top tennis shoes and a Nirvana T-shirt. She swallowed and looked back up at him as if she was annoyed. “Are you just going to stand there and stare at me all afternoon?” She took another bite of her sandwich and chomped. “Go on now. You can go back to your seat and have your lunch.”
Oswald looked to his right and down the long length of table to a chair in the distance. “We can’t possibly carry on a conversation with so much space between us,” he said to her. “Can’t I sit closer to you?”
She ran her hand across her mouth and looked at him as if he had requested something horribly unreasonable. “Why would you want to do that? We’re eating, not talking. There’s a time for talking and it’s not when we are eating.”
“We can’t do both?”
“No! They’re two totally different and unrelatable things. It would be a mess!”
Oswald decided it was not in his best interest to push the subject, so he turned and walked away from her toward the other end of the table, a table that seemed to have become even longer than before. When he reached his end, he sat down in the chair there and scooted it in closer to the table. He sighed when he realized he forgot to bring the Christmas mustard back with him. “Hey!” he yelled out.
“What do you want now!?” the girl answered sourly.
“I forgot the mustard. Can you bring it to me?”
There was a cackling, childish laugh. “You’ve got some nerve, Mr. Madness. You’re in no position to ask me to do anything for you.”
“I just want some mustard. You can’t expect me to eat a dry sandwich. It’s not like I’m asking you to jump off a cliff.”
“You want me to jump off a cliff?”
“No! I just want some mustard!”
He heard a plate clank in the distance and then it was quick footfalls coming toward him. The girl suddenly appeared, and she slammed the jar down in front of him. “Here’s your fucking mustard!” she barked. “I wouldn’t want you to choke on a dry sandwich… Or would I?” She scowled at him, turned, and walked away toward the other end.
Oswald cringed and called out to her vanishing trail. “Thanks.”
He worked on assembling a sandwich and when it was built to his satisfaction, he took a big, deep bite. It was very agreeable to him. But then he realized as he reached out in front of himself that there was nothing to drink. He looked all around to see if he had perhaps overlooked something. He swallowed what was in his mouth, cleared his dry throat and called out to her again. “Hey!”
“Jiminy Cricket! What the hell is it now!?” the girl replied from the other side of the vast distance.
“I don’t have anything to drink. I could choke without something to wash this rye bread down with.”
“Ugh!” she scoffed loudly. “Seriously, Mr. Madness. You are becoming a real pain in the ass.”
“You sure do swear a lot for a young lady.”
“So fucking what!”
“I’m sorry if I offend you, but I was unfortunately raised in not the most stable or proper environment. I’m afraid I’m the product of poor parenting… But despite my personal woes, I persevered. As you can see. But try not to be so judgmental.” She reached for and rang a small bell.
He thought he heard her whispering to someone. And then that someone suddenly appeared beside him balancing a small silver tray on his hand. He was tall. His bald head was large and shiny. He had small facial features. He was dressed in a black and cornsilk-colored suit. And when he spoke it was in a very soft, almost undecipherable tone. “The lady has asked me to bring you something to drink.”
Oswald hesitated to answer the strange man at first. “Yes. What do you have?”
The strange man nodded his head and a slight smile appeared on his face. “Whatever you want, sir.”
Oswald thought about it. “Chocolate milk.”
“Fine, sir. I’ll bring it straight away.” He gave a quick bow and then was off. He returned in nearly an instant, and the strange man’s hand, clad in a tan glove, set down a tall glass of chocolate milk in front of Oswald.
Oswald peered up at him and tried to smile. “Thank you.”
“Oh, you’re quite welcome, sir,” the strange man answered. “I do hope you enjoy it. I worked it out of one of our brown cows myself… May I get you anything else?”
Oswald nodded. “I think I’m good.” He lifted the glass to his mouth and took a deep drink. He smacked his lips and looked at the strange man who had brought it. “That’s the most incredible chocolate milk I ever…” The glass suddenly fell from his hand and the chocolate milk pooled on the table and began to seep into the tablecloth. Then Oswald’s eyes flickered and closed, and he collapsed headfirst into the spill. The strange man got down on his knees and moved his face closer to where Oswald lay. The man shook his head and made a noise with his mouth. “How unfortunate,” he whispered. Just then the girl appeared. She was whimsically eating a chocolate covered banana as she looked things over.
She cocked her head and asked. “What happened to him?” Then she laughed before taking another bite of her treat.
The strange man looked up at her and grinned. “Must have been a bad cow.”
The man was identified as Oswald Madness, a drifter through time and space and now under special scrutiny in a locked room down in the hidden bowels of Denver International Airport. Two men from security stood around him. They were both wearing white dress shirts and red ties and sunglasses the deep dark color of alien eyes. The younger one was sucking on a colored toothpick. The older one had his foot up on a chair and was twiddling his thumbs while he looked at the detainee with a dubious stare.
Then he cleared his throat. “What business do you have in Denver?” he asked.
Oswald looked at him and then the other before speaking. “Leisure.”
“Vacation?” the younger one asked.
“Something like that,” Oswald answered.
The older one brought his foot down off the chair and walked slowly around the small, brightly lit room with no windows. “Something like what? Could you be more specific?”
“I’ve come to visit a friend in Arvada. He’s a butcher and he’s invited me to the grand opening of his new shop. That specific enough for you?”
The younger one chuckled. “Do you enjoy the complete and utter annihilation of others?”
Oswald made a what the fuck face. “I don’t understand.”
“The knives Mr. Madness,” the older one chimed in. “We discovered the knives. In your backpack.” He glanced over at his partner. “What are the knives for?”
“I told you. My friend is a butcher. They’re a gift for him. To celebrate his new way of life.”
The younger one laughed again, broke his toothpick, and threw it into some invisible space in the corner of the room. “Just how did you get through security in Milwaukee with a backpack full of knives?” he desperately wanted to know.
Oswald was quiet for a moment. “Security doesn’t ever see me.”
“So, you bypass security somehow?” the younger one said, glancing quickly at his partner.
Oswald looked at him deeply. “No, they just don’t see me. I stand in the queue, I politely wait my turn, I go on through. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
The older one went over to the younger one and whispered something. He shielded his words with a hand thinking that would keep Oswald from hearing what was said.
But he heard anyway.
“Have them pull surveillance from Milwaukee…”
There was a light knocking and the heads of the two interrogators snapped toward the door.
“Oh, shit,” groaned the younger one. Then he looked at Oswald. “Whatever you do, don’t piss her off when she asks you questions.” He went over to open the ugly door, and what appeared in the frame like sudden magic was something Oswald had never expected. It was the young girl who had been sitting in the airport food court and staring at him.
She looked at the two officers. “Leave me alone with him,” she ordered, and they quickly hustled out of the room. The door closed with a heavy, metallic click. The girl slowly circled Oswald like he was prey. She didn’t look like she did before. The conservative religious sect garb of yesteryear was replaced by a loose-fitting snappy navy-blue pant suit, and she wore a crisp white shirt and had on a red tie like the other two. Her hair, the color of a lemon-yellow sun, was pulled back tight and the excess pinned neatly into a circular mass on top of her head, and it looked like she was wearing a cinnamon roll for a hat. She wore black-rimmed glasses over her small eyes that hung below her oddly oversized forehead. Her nose was like a rabbit’s and her small mouth poked out like a swirling peppermint candy. Her stern look made Oswald nervous, but at the time he wanted to laugh at her because she was swimming in those clothes, and she made the harsh room smell like bubblegum.
The girl stopped moving and sat down in the chair opposite him. She looked so small and awkward in it, he thought.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Who are you?” she shot back.
“You must already know.”
She leaned forward and put her small arms on the table. “I know a lot of things,” she said. “Most of all I know that you have disrupted the vibrations of my particular plane in time and space.”
“Look,” Oswald began. “I was on an airplane to come see my friend in Arvada to help him celebrate the launch of his new business. The next thing I know, the world goes weird and suddenly I’m here being accused of whatever I’m being accused of.”
“Bullshit,” the young girl said so plainly and straightforward that it forced Oswald to take her more seriously. “That sounds like a very normal story but there is nothing normal about you.”
“Where are your parents?”
“I am the parent,” she snapped back.
“You’re in charge around here?”
“You seem so surprised, Mr. Madness.”
“You’re a kid. How old are you?”
He studied her intently. “Yes.”
“12… Yesterday I may have been 54. I never really know until I get there.”
“I don’t really get what you could possibly mean. Can I get a lawyer?”
“But it’s my right.”
Oswald pulled on the restraint that kept him chained to the table like an animal. “You can’t do this!”
The girl stood up and made a face to the camera in the corner of the ceiling. She made a strange nod with her head. A moment later two people entered the room, a man and a woman, and they were garbed like doctors. One wrapped something around Oswald’s head to keep him from spitting and screaming while the other one quickly injected something into his arm with a long needle. The girl happily smiled while watching the green liquid enter him.
I enjoy the smell of blue Play-Doh it reminds me of childhood wounds so give me a piano bar and let me sigh eternally amongst the dark, doldrums beat where man is nothing but an enclave, a water dish for God’s mighty piss it’s time machine day watch all the lovers fall forward into another happy moment of ashes on carrots and whimpering in designer hallways tape these bleeders closed I’m leaking to much embryonic fluid I will never forgive the doctors for letting me live they should have stabbed me when they had the chance rhythm isn’t all that and why is my cigarette all wet she must have sucked on it too long like a crimson call of the balls a jungle gym for her hands and mouth and what is it all about when the pressure rises and the beat rises and the teeth chatter and the hands shake and all you want to do is pound! pound! pound! every senseless array of light pound it into the ground and play blind man on the street corner with a couple of dimes and a couple of cobs of corn to boil in a pot of your own soul
Forget history forget the curds and whey forget the memories of your lullabies let me rephrase that — there is never any hope in love when you’re banging the drums on Skyline Drive shooting asphalt high in her eyes it’s a rhythm that means nothing except to her unfaithful hips her hungry lips the javelin rodent prays to Mary the metal plate in his skull sends messages to his doldrums let me feel your hair, come sit on my lap come swallow shotgun shells at sunset and watch cowgirls on Texas junk
Do the mice really care how intricate the tapestries in Babylon are? Does anyone care that Teddy bears aren’t real? What is the basis of all our motives what grips the brass ring in your belly? The tug of a lover the tug of a memory the tug of a prophecy dialing up in your brain making you spit down the drain where is my lumber? where is my sword? step aside whilst I stricken you with damage who will care for the bloody mouth who will stare at the red wine running south who will submit to my need and not be forsaken because of it???
The sound of the jet airplane’s engines had lulled him into a half sleep. He was drifting in and out of a panoramic dream — something about floating on clouds — and then when his head jerked hard enough to snap him back into wakefulness, he looked out the small window next to his seat and saw that his dream had come true.
At that very moment, he wanted to crawl through that impenetrable opening and just fall like an angel into those mushroomy blooming puffs cut now like vibrant jewel prisms by the perfectly angled falling light of the day. There was a ding sound in the cabin and then an indecipherable voice came over the sound system. He could feel the plane beginning to dip and soon they were swallowed whole by the very same clouds from his dream come true. And when they finally emerged from the bottom, he could see the land below, wide western meadows and low rocky ridges and far off into the distance he saw the snowcapped peaks that Colorado was so famous for, and they sprang out and up from a mirky soup of yellow pollution hovering over a city called Denver.
He moved through a pulsing hot throng of people on his way to the mile-long escalators going down to where the train arrived that took travelers to the main terminal of DIA. Even though he had no particular place to be at any particular time, he walked fast, constantly adjusting the backpack he carried with him because it kept slipping. People zoomed by him in both directions. The voices all mingled into one loud hum in a hive.
He dashed into a crowded men’s room to relieve himself. He had to wait in a line to use a urinal. Once finished he washed his hands, splashed his face, tried to comb his hair into some semblance of order with his fingers. He studied himself in the mirror for just a moment because he thought it was overly vain to look at oneself for too long. And for some reason it made him uncomfortable to look at himself, as well, almost embarrassed. That’s why he always did it quick. He decided he looked very tired and moved on.
Once back into the rush of the main thoroughfare, he slipped out and took a seat in the mostly unoccupied waiting area of a darkened gate where a flight to Detroit wasn’t set to depart for another two hours. It was a quiet reprieve for the time being. He lifted his pack into the seat beside him and retrieved his cell phone. He squinted as he looked at the screen. He took it out of airplane mode and waited for the technological pipes to clear. No calls. No messages. Nothing erupted now that he was back on the ground. He was almost glad for the fact he wasn’t popular among any crowd but his own. He took a deep breath and tried to stretch his neck by bending it from side to side. He could almost hear the tendons strain and crackle.
He sat still there for a long time, his thoughts getting caught up in the traffic of human beings continually parading by like a perpetual mountain stream. Some moved fast, others dawdled. Some had a trainload of luggage behind them, others merely a single bag slung over a sore shoulder. He wondered about where they had come from and where they were going. Why were all these people moving so much? What was with all the here and there? What great grief or passion was calling to them? His life in comparison seemed so much slower and simpler. But was it? Not really, after all.
He glanced at his diamond digital watch from Hades, but then realized it didn’t really matter what time it was. He was at that place in life where time was something that only other people dealt with, not him.
Then for some strange reason his thoughts drifted to childhood in the lakeside burbs of upper middle crust Chicago and about the Christmas mustard his Aunt Sharlene used to proudly serve with her platefuls of fancy meats and breads and cheeses during the warm, crystalline holidays. Aunt Sharlene was always wearing a dress, he recalled. Even if she was cooking eggs and bacon at 6 a.m., she had on a dress. Back then he even thought that she most likely slept in a dress. Maybe she did. But the mustard, that Christmas mustard. It came in a fancy glass jar, and it had a fancy foreign label and lid and Aunt Sharlene boasted about how she got it from this peculiar owner of a deli in the brick and gold shopping plaza in the neighborhood because he thought she was something special and would know exactly how to use it as if it were fragile magic. His Uncle Drake always frowned when she brought that part up because she would always throw something in there about how this particular and peculiar deli owner was also tall, dark, and handsome. His Uncle Drake was none of those things.
But the mustard was something special in exchange for the pricks of jealousy, as well, he supposed. And his Uncle Drake would lovingly slather it all over his rye bread. It had a bite to it that was somehow extraterrestrial and made the person eating it feel like they had traveled somewhere very far away. The man’s imagination had always been bright, and he believed the Christmas mustard must have had come from Saudi Arabia or perhaps Yemen or even Tatooine. But why would he think something so foolish? He shook his head at his own youthful naivety, and then he was suddenly hungry for a sandwich even though he knew that no one would have any Christmas mustard in the airport.
He settled on a faux New York deli type of sandwich place that pretended it was authentic but really wasn’t — merely corporate fantasies for sale. It was crowded and hard to move around inside the little box in a long line of other boxes aglow with money suckers. His broken velvet eyes the color of underwater gold scanned the menu for something that wasn’t gross. He settled on a New York Clubber — roast beef, turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, bacon, lettuce, spicy (not Christmas) mustard, black olives on a crusty crunchy dick-like stick of white bread cut and spread open like a lover’s legs.
The pace of the place was frantic, and the man’s nerves began to tick and twitch as the people pressed in on him, the mingling of sandwiches and skin like uneasy sex in a musty dark cellar, and he reached forward to pay at the counter quickly because the pressure was on him. People were watching and waiting and staring at the stranger from somewhere else. He felt like they all hated him.
He found a small table in the very center of the food court outside the deli joint and the roar of people eating and talking and slurping and bitching and babies wailing was all around him. He unzipped his backpack and reached in for an orange bottle of pills. He uncapped it, shook out two white bars with score marks and tossed them into his mouth. He washed them down with a bubbling iced Fresca.
He unwrapped his sandwich and laid the paper out flat. He opened a bag of salt and vinegar chips and poured them out onto the paper. He brought the sandwich up to his open mouth and bit into it. He chewed and as the flavors and textures mingled, he looked to his left where he saw a young girl in a periwinkle blue dress and her hair in pigtails sitting at a table all by herself. She looked very different from everyone else. She looked like she belonged to a strict old religious clan that rebutted the ways of modern, sinful life. She looked like she should have been in a barn, knee-high in hay, not inside one of the busiest airports in the world.
The girl was staring at him for a long time for some strange reason. Did he have something on his face? He instinctively reached for a napkin and wiped it across his mouth. He glanced over at her again. She had weird eyes and she looked unsettled. He put down his sandwich and sucked on the straw connected to his plastic cup of Fresca. A strange man and woman dressed similarly to the girl suddenly appeared at the table and they set down bags of food and cups of drink. She looked up at each of them in turn and smiled. Then she said something to them that he could not understand through the cacophony of humans communally filling their guts.
Then all three of them turned to look at him and their faces were dusted with disgust. He watched them watch him through the clouds of humanity. He couldn’t understand why they were looking at him that way. What did the girl say to them? And why? He had done nothing wrong. Was it because he was so different from them? Had she read the inner linings of his soul and discovered there was a reason why he was now drifting listlessly through time? Did she discover that he was merely a living ghost after all, and it upset her balance of beliefs and familial rituals set forth by her spinning God?
He quickly finished eating, gathered his trash and stood to carry it over to a receptacle to dispose of it. When he did, an eerie quiet fell upon the food court and seemingly the entirety of Denver International Airport. A billion heads turned to watch him with scathing glances. He moved slowly to the garbage bin and dropped in the remains of his meal into the wide hole. No one else moved or spoke. He hoisted his pack over his shoulder and gazed at all of them.
“What do you want!” he screamed out.
And when they just continued to stare and not say anything, he backed away from the coital mob and made his way back onto the main thoroughfare of the concourse and walked as fast as he could. The people there too now stared at him, watched him with sallow unfamiliar eyes like he was some murderer on the loose. He quickened his pace as the swarm thickened. He started bumping into bodies, pushing bodies, kicking at bodies. He pulled the pack off his shoulder and started swinging it at the people closing in. He hit a young woman in the face, and she fell. No one screamed but instead they just hummed like a hornet’s nest plump with menacing insects.
And then he ran. He ran as fast as he could and the tunnel like artificial air of the airport whooshed by him in an effort to keep pace with his speed. He glanced behind him, and the people were floating toward him effortlessly. He glanced in front of him, and there he saw that a thick wall built of human beings was erected to keep him from passing. He suddenly stopped and looked from side to side. He saw an emergency exit door and made for it. He pushed on the thick silver bar and an alarm immediately began to wail. He ran down the jetway that was untethered to any airplane. Once at the end he could taste the open air and he saw an attached metal ladder in which he could use to get to the ground, and he swung over and onto it and climbed down.
Once his shoes hit the pavement he ran and ran and ran until he was breathless and limping. A jet loudly swam above him and then he was suddenly surrounded by white cars with flashing blue lights on their rooftops and men in uniforms quickly jumped out and corralled him. They pushed him to the ground and made him lie on his stomach. They handcuffed him. They yanked him up and led him to one of the cars and shoved him into the backseat and slammed the door. He was in a cage now, and he was headed for another cage. He was sure of it.
Veronica Genesis sat nervously in class trying to focus on the puzzling geometry book spread out before her. She lifted her head and painfully watched Mrs. Anderson’s back as she scratched something into the green blackboard with a thick piece of white chalk. She was wearing a yellow blouse and black pants that were too tight for her and Veronica thought she looked like a bumblebee painfully stuffed into a sausage casing.
Her blonde hair was pulled back tight into a ponytail, and it bounced as she frantically worked to complete whatever equation she was trying to complete. It was all a foreign language to Veronica. She hated math. She hated equations and formulas and calculations that to her seemed so meaningless in the scope of real life. She wanted to be in art class drawing pictures of hopeful summer days with colored pencils and inky markers that somehow only smelled good to her; every other girl in the class crinkled their nose and said, “Eww,” when she would push them toward a face. Maybe she was destined to become some sort of non-traditional and pushy drug addict. The boys never smelled their inky markers for some reason, and she never forced it upon them. She didn’t know why.
Veronica looked across to the side of the room near the windows and there sat an empty, cold desk. No one had seen or heard from Andy Bliss recently, and at that very same moment as the girl thought about it and how she was practically involved, his parents were a few blocks away at the sheriff’s office on the square and they were sitting at the desk of a detective and reporting their son as missing. His mother was crying. His father was pained with worry. A younger brother somewhere else didn’t care.
And then all that dissipated in Veronica’s mind as the door to the classroom opened and Adam Longo stumbled in.
Heads shot up and turned in unison toward the front corner of the classroom. Geometrical-minded Mrs. Anderson stopped what she was doing and lifted her chalk away from the board. She was puzzled, angry, and emphatic all at the same time. “Adam?” she said. “Is everything okay?”
He looked at her and then he turned to look at the sea of faces lined up neatly in rows and he felt their mocking stares and he heard the whispers and he caught onto the teasing, muffled laughs. But he ignored all that and his focus bore into Veronica like a huge drilling machine on a mission to the center of the Earth. “Everything is fine,” Adam said to Mrs. Anderson without really seeing her.
The teacher looked him up and down. His clothes were dirty and torn in places. His shoes were muddy. His black as night hair was uncombed and flat from not being shampooed. His face displayed a draculian pallor of death. And then she noticed his hands. There were streaks of what looked like dried blood on them, as if he had tangled with a rose bush. “Adam,” she repeated. “Will you wait for me in the hallway?”
He broke the mental connection he had with Veronica and sleepily gazed at his teacher. “The hallway?”
Giggles rippled through the classroom. “Yes. Please,” Mrs. Anderson answered. “Right now.”
“But I’ve come to do my math lessons. I need to learn how to do my problems.”
“He’s got some problems all right,” someone in the crowd murmured, and there was more laughing.
Then Adam patted at himself and looked around in a sudden state of confusion when he realized he didn’t have his schoolbooks with him. “They must be in my locker,” he said aloud.
Mrs. Anderson pointed with a stern finger and repeated herself. “In the hallway, Mr. Longo.”
Again, snickers rose among his classmates, and he looked into them deeply and recorded and filed the memory of who they were before turning and stepping out of the room.
“Do you get a kick out of disturbing my classroom, Mr. Longo?”
Mrs. Anderson had him backed against a wall on the opposite side of the hallway. She was so close to his face that he could smell the abundant makeup that nearly dripped from her own face. Her mouth was thick. Her eyes looked like watered space jewels, and they contained all the colors of an English garden somehow. Her skin was seemingly flawless beneath the masking powder. He almost loved her.
“I’m sorry I was late,” he said. “And that I didn’t have my math book.”
“And what is all this?” she wanted to know, taking a step back and gesturing with her hands. “You look like you crawled out of a garbage dump. Don’t you have more self-respect than that?”
He just stared at her oddly and didn’t know how to answer. But instead of telling her that he had an inkling that she was right, it was all still too foggy to him and he instead said nothing.
She clamped her lips tight and shook her head with frustration. “You certainly are an odd young man,” she said. “I want you to go to the restroom and clean yourself up. And then I want you to report to the school nurse. You don’t look well. Don’t come back until you do. Understand?”
“I understand,” Adam Longo answered.
She shot a wondering sigh in his direction, turned, and went back into her classroom.
It was just a short time later when she turned from the blackboard to address the class about some sort of puzzling triangle, when something out the window caught Mrs. Anderson’s attention. It was Adam Longo, and he was power walking across one of the playing fields behind the school. He was recklessly waving his arms around and it appeared as if he was arguing with the oxygen. She excused herself and quickly went out and cautiously ran down a corridor, the bottoms of her shoes making an echoing tapping sound against the glossy school tiles as she went. When she reached the end at the exit, she pushed on the metal bar of the door that led to the back side of the school. Sunlight and air burst in as she stepped out.
“Adam!” she called out to him. “You can’t just leave! Adam! Get back here! You’re my responsibility!”
He paid her no attention and he just kept on going. When he reached the low chain-link fence at the boundary between the playing field and the wild lands of a fresh yet downtrodden suburbia, he leapt over it like an animal and disappeared down into a mound of brush and trees and into a ravine the depth of a tall man and it bore through the landscape brown and crooked like a jungle river with the light of day looking down upon it through the canopy thoughtlessly rearranged by man. He moved through it like a piece of electricity.
MORE TO FOLLOW
Aaron Aldous Cinder
You can read the previous part of this story HERE.
The misunderstood devil knocked on the back door around noon on a Sunday. Mae looked up from the stove where she had just set her drained pot of boiled potatoes to cool. She dried her cooking hands on a towel hung on a drawer handle and turned down the kitchen radio that was playing war time classics.
“Who is it?” she called out.
The knocking came harder, and she went closer to the door and stood against it.
“Who’s there?” she said again, her heart beginning to race.
Then there came a man’s voice from the other side. “I’m very sorry to bother you on the Lord’s Day, but I was wondering if I could use your telephone.”
Mae paused for a moment and then told the stranger something untrue.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t open the door to strangers. However, my husband will be home momentarily if you’d care to wait.”
She held her breath for an answer.
“It’s quite cold out, mam. I’m not a murderer. I swear it.”
“What do you need the telephone for?” she asked. “Perhaps I could dial the number for you.”
She could hear the crunch of snow beneath the man’s boots as he shifted. She imagined he was looking around, searching for another way into the house.
“All right then,” the man’s voice came again. “I’ll be frightfully honest with you. I have no money and I’m hungry. I was hoping you might have a bit of food to spare.”
Mae bit at her brightly colored bottom lip and thought about it. “What does the good book say about such a situation?” the voice inside herself asked. She quickly decided and opened the door.
A small man wearing a hat and jacket wet with snow stood there and attempted a smile. “Mam,” he said. “The name’s Ed Jallow. I sure do appreciate it.”
“Come in, Ed,” Mae said. “Please, have a seat at the table and I’ll get you a cup of coffee to help warm you up.”
“Thank you,” Ed said, and he pulled a chair out from a small table by a set of large windows that looked out upon a modest yard now caked in various layers of snow. He sat down. He pulled the hat from his head and stuffed it into a pocket of his coat. He sniffled and then coughed.
Mae turned from the kitchen to look at him. “Are you sick?”
“No. I don’t think. It’s just I’ve been breathing all that cold air.”
Mae carefully carried over a steaming cup of coffee atop a small plate. She set it down in front of him and studied for a moment the now revealed top of his balding head. “Here you are. It’s a good thing for you I keep a pot going most of the time. I’m an absolute fiend about it.”
He smiled at her and picked up the cup, blew across the top of it and then carefully took a sip. “Hmm. That’s a good cup of Joe,” he said.
“So,” Mae wanted to know. “Where are you from?”
Ed Jallow cleared his throat. “Detroit,” he said.
“Detroit? What brings you all the way up here?”
A cuckoo clock suddenly released its half-hour call from up above them on the wall. Ed became startled. His hands trembled slightly. “I’m a fugitive from love, I guess you could say.”
Mae was intrigued. “A fugitive from love?”
“Marriage trouble,” Ed confessed. “I’m afraid I didn’t plan well enough. Ran out of gas. And so here I came around to your abode, penniless and hungry.” He feigned a laugh, but she could sense the stress devouring him.
“You were in the neighborhood?”
“I suppose I got lost,” Ed said.
“Would a sandwich be, okay?” Mae asked, quickly changing the subject. “Ham on rye?”
“Great,” Ed answered. “And do you have any potato chips? I’ve got a thing about potato chips.”
“I’m sure I could dig some up,” she said, and she went into the kitchen to fix up his plate.
Ed craned his neck to get a good look at her tightly packed rear-end as she moved it around while she worked. “You said your husband would be home soon?” he said, wanting to clarify the situation.
Mae quickly looked in his direction. “That’s right.”
“Does he work on Sunday?”
“No. He’s down at the corner bar watching the big fight with the fellas.” She strutted back to the table carrying a plate with a sandwich and a small mound of potato chips on it. “I could call down there and have him come home. Wouldn’t take him but about five minutes or so to get here.”
Ed Jallow eyed the plate as she set it down in front of him. He quickly snatched the sandwich up and bit into it. Then he shoved a few of the chips into his mouth. The noises he made while eating bothered her and she walked toward the phone and picked it up.
“What are you doing?” Ed asked.
“I was going to call down to the bar and ask my husband to come home.”
Ed waved his hand against the air. “You don’t need to do that. Let the guy enjoy the fight.”
Mae hesitated for a moment and then hung the phone back up. “I suppose you’re right. No man likes to be nagged.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
Mae smiled. “As soon as you’re done eating, we can go to the garage. I’m sure my husband has a gas can out there somewhere.”
Ed looked at her with a puzzled expression. “A gas can?”
“Right. You said you ran out of gas.”
“Oh yeah. Of course. Gas. I could sure use some gas.”
“What’s so funny?” Ed wondered.
“All this talk of gas.”
Ed pushed the plate away and wiped at his mouth with his hand. “How about we go check on that gas now?” he said with seriousness.
“Follow me, Mr.… Jallow, right?”
“That’s right. Like shallow but with a J.”
Once inside the garage, Ed followed her movements with his eyes as she searched for the gas can.
“Surely there’s some gas in here somewhere. I can smell it. Can’t you smell it?”
Ed got closer to her and looked at her face in the dim light. “All I can smell is you, and you’re in heat. Why are you in heat? For me?”
She looked at him as if offended. “Mr. Jallow?”
“What do you really want from life? You want me?”
“Mr. Jallow… I’m a married woman.”
He suddenly grabbed her left hand and held it up. “You’re not wearing any sort of wedding ring… And I didn’t see a single picture inside of you with some fella. What gives, lady? Why are you lying to me?”
Mae yanked her hand away from him. “Why are you lying to me? You’re not some poor fella from Detroit run off by his wife… You’re nowhere near out of gas and down on your luck, are you?”
He got close to her face. He squinted his eyes in defiance. “Looks like you got me pegged, lady.”
“What do you want from me?” Mae quivered.
He was breathing heavily. “I want you to take me to your bedroom and spread your legs for me. Is that bold enough for you?”
With her movements void of any hesitation, she led him back into the house, through the kitchen, and past the table where he sat to drink coffee and eat his sandwich and potato chips. He followed her down a dark hallway, past a bathroom with the door slightly ajar, and finally into her bedroom in the corner of the house. Ed gently closed the door behind them, shed his coat and threw it on a chair in the corner. He loosened the collar of the shirt he was wearing, unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up the sleeves like he was about to fight someone.
“Get out of your dress,” he ordered her.
Mae slipped out of the dress like he asked.
“Now everything else,” Ed instructed.
She did as he said until she stood fully naked before him.
“Get on the bed.”
“How do you want me?” she asked.
“Like if you were sleeping, but relaxed, open, untethered,” he told her.
Mae got onto the bed and laid down on her back. She felt his eyes on her as she looked up at the white ceiling that resembled swirled cream.
“Now what do you want me to do?”
“Nothing,” Ed Jallow said. “You don’t have to do anything. I just want to look at you.”
Mae propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him, confused. “You’re not going to have your way with me?”
He avoided her stare for just a moment. “No. I can’t. I’m not able to. I got an injury in the war. They told me I’m only half a man now.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
Ed walked to a window, parted a tender curtain with his hand and looked out. “I’ve been driving the last day and a half, and I just wanted to see something beautiful for a change. I’m plain sick of the way the world looks and acts out there. Plain sick of it. I never meant to scare you. You’ve been very kind. I should just go now,” he said, and he moved away from the window, reached for his coat and made his way toward the door.
“Wait,” Mae said to stop him.
He turned to look at her lying there naked on the bed.
“What’s up, lady?”
“Do you like fire?”
“What kind of fire?”
“Crackling, orange fire that gently licks at the brickwork,” she explained. “Would you like to sit in front of the fireplace with me in the other room? It’s supposed to snow more. And where else would you go?”
Ed Jallow scratched at his balding head. “And you won’t mind if I just get lost in the flames for a little while?”
She bowed her head for a moment to think, and then she looked back up at him. “Isn’t that what life’s all about?” she said, her tone thorough and full of conviction.