christmas in a laboratory.

CIAL

Two sub-levels down, the little robot quietly raised his head.

He counted the minutes.

Kept an eye on the door.

On the keypad, its digits a calculus red.

Once convinced, he stretched his set of mismatched wheels and went for a walk.

As always, he reached his destination within seconds. Ends of his rubber-lined, caterpillar tracks hanging over the edge. Automated hums and rhythmic clicks joined him in quiet meditation. He turned, and wobbled his way back across the stainless steel. Other end of the table. Same situation.

He turned once more, revisiting familiar territory…

It had been months since his awakening, and still, there was only the room.

He knew the tables, the counters. He knew the walls, the ceilings. The glare of florescent grids. The vials, agar plates, the biological storage system. He knew the equipment. Knew the computer terminals, monitors, air displacement pipettes, thermal cyclers, confocal microscopes. Something called the BACTEC MGIT 960. He knew he had somehow been pieced together from select sections of their obsolete cousins.

He knew the men in white.

…The little robot changed directions…

He knew that none of the men in white knew he was alive. One of them had assembled him as a pet project. Something to pass the time by the quiet spin of the centrifuge. He knew there were no other robots. Knew he wasn’t the reason for the room. He knew his awakening had never been part of the plan. And he knew, somehow, that he could never let them find out.

They would flip the switch, and he would pretend to activate. When they spoke to him, he replied, responded within the parameters of his programming. Listen closely, stare vacantly. Learned to learn.

Learned to survive.

Whenever they left him alone, he would roam the narrow surfaces. Tables, countertops. Wherever the last man had left him. Weeks spent moving back and forth. Depending on the location, he would sometimes stand before sleepy flat screens. Stare for hours on end at what he came to recognize as his own abstract reflection. Body a set of exposed circuit boards. Lone appendage sprouting obliquely to the left. Conical head ending in a single, puckered lens.

Always keeping his eye on the keypad by the door. Waiting for the numbers to turn green. Ready to wobble back to his mark. Just as the men in white remembered him. Stand by, and prepare for them to flip the switch.

Practice replaced subroutines. Recall replaced memory.

…The little robot began to turn circles. Spinning on his axis, arm extended in a crooked pirouette. Searching for his center…

His only friend in that white-washed prison was a turkey named Hamilton.

For the first few months after the awakening, there had been several turkeys. It took him a good while to understand what they were, what he was seeing. The men in white would haul them in, their plump bodies filling transparent polymer cages. Some of them thrashing about. Lively and alert. Others languishing like deflated pump bulbs. Eyes caked with broken yellow varnish.

It wasn’t until he began to record the numbers printed along their tags that he realized they weren’t just one, but many of these creatures. Temporary visitors. Hardly enough time to become familiar, before they were carted away.

He was never sure what made Hamilton the exception. It wasn’t until the third or fourth visit, same tag reading TS-142 that he knew this one was special. Finally. Here to stay.

The men in white seemed to agree with him.

It was on one of those occasions that he let Hamilton in on his secret. Rolled his way to the edge of the table. Caught Hamilton staring at him. He raised his arm and waved. Hamilton followed the motion, head cocked. Red wattle bobbing.

A pact had been forged. The little robot bounced lightly on his treads. For the first time in his short little life, no longer lonely.

The men in white never referred to the turkey by anything other than his tag.

The little robot named him Hamilton.

Taken from the letters embossed on their mammoth biological storage unit.

On better days, they would place Hamilton’s cage on the same table as him. The little robot would play dead. Wait for the men in white to turn their backs, then raise his head in what he presumed was a wink. Hamilton would respond with a twitch of his head. Nobody the wiser.

There were times they would be left alone together, and those were the best of all days.

He would approach Hamilton’s cage. Up close. Marvel at the shades of grey, an intricate binary of black and white flanking those majestic wings. At certain angles the soft slope beneath his neck would even shimmer a silver blue. His tail looked as though it was missing some feathers. Bare bottom leveling into a sallow shade of pink.

The little robot would place his tiny claw through the narrow slits, as far as it could go.

Hamilton would peck away, eyes awash with life and dark eternity.

It was on one of those days that Hamilton had told the little robot his first joke.

A series of garbled noises the little robot hadn’t understood. But the absence of logic seemed to do something to him. Sent his wires crossing in an infinite, blinding paradox. Circuitry glowing, and he pressed close to his best friend, wanting to share the warmth.

Then there were days, brutal times, when they did things to Hamilton.

It would start with the men in white. Their faces would disappear. Retreat. Replaced with shapes that held no meaning, signified nothing. They would float across the room. Lay syringes along steel plates, one after another with rote precision.

Hamilton would begin to pace in his cage. Or try. Bright, weathered talons marching in place as he pressed his feathered folds against the immaculate plastic. Retract his neck. Head nestling, convulsing in all directions. The men in white would lead with a needle, wait for Hamilton to shut down. Still awake, though miles away, as they injected, extracted. Hamilton’s eyes would stare out across the room. Beady eyes glazed with a mournful, shimmering acceptance.

And the little robot would watch from his sanctuary. Powerless. Certain the men would turn, any moment now, and catch his tiny body trembling with violent rage, flush with anguish at a room that would allow his friend to be treated so shamefully.

Each time, there were more needles. More tests, more pain.

And during the in-betweens, when the little robot had a chance to approach Hamilton’s cage, he found his friend growing distant. Hovering just above his own body. Wishful wings unable to fulfill their purpose.

…The little robot stood in place. Checked the door. Began to hop, lightly. Up and down. Each time determined to jump a little higher. Certain this was the first step. Positive that with enough momentum he would soon be able to jump from surface to surface. He could visit Hamilton whenever he wanted. And if he could learn to leap, he could learn to climb.

Given enough time, they might even make it out of the room, someday.

Beyond the steel door, behind which glorious unknowns would open up before the both of them.

The keypad turned green.

And the little robot didn’t bat his eye. Swerved backwards, forward. Parked himself right where he belonged. Adjusted his head, appendage, to match his last known location.

Checked the digital readout above the keypad.

12.25.16.03.14.05.

The door slid open. A pair of men strolled in.

One of them in white.

The other in a suit. Toting a tinted bottle of tiny bubbles. His head bundled in an outlandish cap. Red with white trim, topped with a powdery puff. The little robot had never seen him before. Or any man like him.

It wasn’t only the alien nature of his shell. His face, demeanor, was entirely different from the men in white. Purpose unknown. He strode about the room with a mechanical grin that threatened to devour all knowledge.

The little robot was so bewildered by this new arrival, that when Hamilton was placed at his table, he almost jumped back. So close to giving the whole game away. Dared to scoot forward a few centimeters. Raise his head just north of south-west.

Hamilton looked equally confused. As though the familiar were folding upon itself. Something about this night that didn’t match previous weeks, months. He cocked his head towards the man in the suit.

The little robot couldn’t risk turning around.

Felt himself yanked from the table. Flipped on his back, suspended in midair. Resting in the palm of that terrifying man, his teeth gleaming. Jaw working, chewing loudly on a series of fattened question marks.

The man in white intervened. Removed the little robot from manicured claws and set him down.

It only took a moment for him to realize that he had been placed at another table. Just one table away from Hamilton, but stuck facing the other way. The little robot’s dismay ran deep. Electronic tantrums building up. Held in check by the mention of TS-142.

The little robot remained in stasis as he listened in. Searching for patterns, explanations.

What little he managed to glean made his rotary joints go numb. There were more men, somewhere beyond that room. Men without homes. Hungry subjects. Plucked from some awful existence. Waiting for the arrival of TS-142.

Afterwards, there would be questions.

Further tests.

But not on Hamilton.

The man in the suit laughed. Bent over and began to fiddle with the computer.

The man in white placed a diplomatic hand on his shoulder.

The gesture was violently shrugged aside, as the suit man clicked a few times, then straightened. Waiting.

The little robot found himself leaning forward.

He nearly shut down as the sounds washed over him. Mathematics crystallizing, drifting across the room. Waves of soft melodies embedding themselves in his emotional codes.

His first song. His first time hearing the music.

Lush, flowing words telling him to Have yourself a merry little Christmas

It was almost too much, as the man in the suit reached down once more. Swept him up and across the table, dangled him in front of Hamilton’s cage. Telling him to say goodbye, to say goodbye to his friend, half his words garbled in a solution of laughter and high-pitched whines.

Hamilton cringed, feathers bristling.

The little robot was snatched away, once again, by the man in white.

Set down, once more. One table away from Hamilton.

The man in the suit took a drink from the bottle.

Insisting that it was Christmas, and soon, they would all be rich.

The man in white reminding him of something, both of them stepping out of the room.

The door closed with a strange hiss.

Locked. Keypad keeping to its typical red.

The little robot turned. Overwhelmed with movement, information, and the sounds of a rich, bittersweet vocalist filling every corner of the room. He sped towards the edge. As close to Hamilton that distance would allow. Motioned with his arm. Moved his head in pantomime circles.

Hamilton stared back. Feathers fluttering. Beak reaching out past his confines.

It was true. The little robot knew this. Just as he had come to know the room, the equipment. Just as he had grown to know Hamilton as his only friend within the sanitized cube that was his world.

He turned. Began to pace. Heard Hamilton calling out to him. Telling him not to be afraid. Warbled sounds mixing with harmonies, insisting there had to be more for the two of them.

The little robot began to spin, arm extended. Searching for his center.

Finding it in the music, and a sudden realization that everything would be all right.

There was still another way out.

He turned to Hamilton.

Reached out with his arm.

Forcing perspective, running his tiny claw along his best friend’s soft, yielding feathers.

Backed up. All the way back, until his treads reached the table’s end.

Hamilton began to claw at the bottom of his cage. Cried out.

The little robot understood. If the men came back to find him by Hamilton’s side, or flat on the floor, then alarm bells would go ringing. Warrant further investigations. Experiments. The room had been a prison, but the alternative would most certainly be his tomb. Subject to the same atrocities endured by Hamilton, and all those unfortunate creatures who had come before.

The little robot didn’t care.

He knew there was a world out there. He knew there had to be a place where they could be together. Be happy. Spend every waking hour resting on the notes of this new, inexplicable gift. He imagined endless years nestled close to Hamilton, staring out over a landscape for which there were no definitions. No images, temperance or colors.

Not yet.

The little robot’s treads began to spin. Rocketing him across the table. Unquestionably faster than he had ever moved. Bouncing along on those tragically inefficient wheels, cobbled together at the whim of an indifferent creator.

What he didn’t know was that beyond that door was a hallway. A hallway lined with innumerable doors. Leading to innumerable rooms just like this one. Stairways leading to another level, mirroring the same dispassionate floor plan. And above that, a lobby lined with security cameras, metal detectors. Men with guns. Windows that looked out onto an infinite parking lot, a thousand miles between solitude and salvation.

The world became a blur. Lights flickering in reassuring patterns. Test tubes turning red and green.  Microscopes and monitors now wrapped in brilliant tinsel. Surrounded by the velvet assurances of a disembodied voice, promising that through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow.

The little robot didn’t know it was hopeless.

But he knew who he was. He knew music. He knew the tickle of feathers, the feel of a sad pirouette. The comfort of conversation in a room with no windows. He knew Hamilton, he knew love, and he knew that no matter the outcome, he would soon be at his best friend’s side.

And as he reached the edge, readied himself to jump, he knew it would all be worth it.

Because it was Christmas, and Hamilton had once taught him what it meant to laugh.

###

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kiki and the silver slipper.

kiki

The suicide hadn’t gone as planned, and a few months later, Kiki and I were seated side by side, mismatched foldouts upon a wide swath of Mississippi sand, 30 yards or so from the gulf, overcast skies taking things down maybe a single degree or so.

“How’s your garbage book?” she asked.

I glanced over. She wasn’t looking at me, eyes trending on a nearby bird. Pale skin poured into a two toned bikini. Full, thick hair rampaging through the wind. Dyed a fierce, molten red, making up for an absent sun. Toes buried, wriggling. Second hand evidence of activity.

I closed the book. Stared at the cover. Donald Rumsfeld’s beady features stared back. “My garbage book is garbage.”

“Are you in much pain?”

“It is painful, reading this garbage. But my boss’s boss’s boss swears by it, and I want to understand just how evil that man is.”

“Do you really? And don’t you already?”

I didn’t answer.

She polished off her fourth bottle of hard lemonade, and stood up. Stretched, arms to the sky, breasts and belly, tiny happy trail motioning towards the water. “Wanna go in?”

I nodded . Downed my drink. Hangover lessening, and walked alongside her. Some five feet between us. Into that flat porcelain.

We submerged. Floating in silence for a while, looking everywhere but at each other.

“The water feel strange,” I said, finally.

“Left over fuck yous from BP,” she said. “So that’s what here is now.”

“Still?”

“That shit doesn’t go away.”

She tilted, floated on her back for a bit. The salt water kept trying to embrace her thighs, wrap itself around her neck, but Kiki kept on resisting.

We aligned ourselves with the mainland before our fingertips could rebel. She suggested we walk down the beach apiece. I nodded.

There was nobody else out there. Without waves, the afternoon was nothing but blustery gusts, unique acoustics of the ocean giving the day a faraway feel. Far ahead of us, the waterline took a crescent curve back towards the gulf, topped off by a garish casino, all cement and hideous color, topped with an eponymous Silver Sipper.

I was seven or so footprints ahead of her before I realized she had stopped to pick up a seashell. Took a second in the sand to turn, watch her pick it up.

“This one’s pretty.”

“For you?” I asked. “Or is it going to be a gift?”

“Come look at it.”

I walked over, cautious steps.

Face to face with Kiki.

She handed me the shell. I took a close look, followed pink fractals ‘round and around, climbing the mountain, disappearing into a single moment.

I handed it back. “That’s a nice one.”

She gave it another once over.

Turned her head to eyeball a single seagull. “It’s already planning to kill me.”

“It’s not.”

“Birds hate me.”

“What did you do to them?”

Abashed. “I have done nothing to them!”

“Previous life?”

“Dunno. Maybe.”

We stared at each other for a bit. Bright eyes you could ice skate across, even in the middle of a deep south summer. I saw freckles emerging along pronounced cheeks, last drops of seawater falling down her shoulders. Full lips, carnation pink, and I realized they always parted slightly when she was thinking, listening, slight reveal of two prominent front teeth.

I realized she didn’t mind walking around with heavy, officiating footsteps, getting to where she had to go. When she laughed it was a revelation of the joke, punch line, she added weight to the occasion. She would change the way she moved from one moment to the next. When she observed, her stillness was almost statuesque. Responses peppered with her neck moving forward to bring her closer to those who needed to hear. She would send an arm outward, behind her, when it came to describing anything that wasn’t there. She loved a good shoulder touch, small hand resting, softly, along the arm of those she liked, or was at the very least momentarily attracted to. At certain times, you could see those two moments intertwining, at certain times, and those were moments when all that was perfect about Kiki Carpi made me wonder why I looked down and caught both my hands in her.

Those clouds were on the fence, sending down a light drizzle with  threats of a super system. I swallowed the pasty aftermath of salt and water. Nodded towards an unspoken question. “The birds aren’t going to kill you.”

“How do you know?”

I shrugged. “You’re with me. I think they can see that.”

“They can’t.”

“I know…” Thought about it. “There was a time, back in the late 90’s, when I thought any day, I was going to get my nose broken.”

“Every man in you family got their nose broken in their early 20’s, yeah,” she said, smile, unimpressed. “And it was supposed to be a curse, and for weeks, random guys would try to pick fights with you, for whatever, and you thought this was it. You were stuck in a cycle, that and that, and that….”

“Guess I already told you that story in LA.”

“You didn’t. But I know what that means, too.”

“The birds aren’t going to kill you.”

“I know that. Kind of.”

She smile, face close to mine.

We slid into each other’s arms. A loose interpretation of a tight embrace. No waves on the water, wind swimming circles around us. Her palms pressed against my bony shoulder blades, holding me close. I put my head to rest on her shoulder and kept an eye out for birds. Behind me, the Silver Slipper remained down the shore. Inside, I wondered if the slots were paying off. There had to be some boor, anybody in there, sitting at the brightly lit monsters. Pushing buttons based on nothing other than being mesmerized, choosing the best possible combination of what came before, one chance to act as the center of the universe.

“Jesus Christ, your skin is slimy,” I told her.

“BP,” she murmured, lids brushing against my neck. “So here we are.”

And we were in for another few minutes before the rain finally stopped.

###

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dreamland.

blur

my brother once told me, in the midst of a brief spiritual bender, don’t share your dreams with strangers. could be they’re the devil, and the devil is always looking for any opening he can find.

fair enough.

but when a dream is pathetic enough, so clearly gold plated in flaccid intensity, i can’t imagine the devil to have much leverage, so

to all you devils out there, be advised.

there’s children out there with skin waiting to be burned right off the bone, money churning, blasting from the muzzles of hot steel, and when it comes to me, you might want to let this one go because,

there are any number of circumstances, outside influences surrounding how i got to this point. this point in my dream. but i can’t remember them. i only know this:

there was the hallway. i was in a hallway. on a mattress. mattress in a hallway. laying sideways with my girlfriend at the time, Misty. spoon position, myself taking tea, herself running the table. big and little. both of us propped up on respective elbows. a pair of women entering the apartment. don’t know what had come beforehand, but dream logic seemed to imply they were disappointed. in need of a little something to encourage them. make their moody morning just a bit better.

wink.

Misty held up a hand. tiny hand, she was a tiny creature. large head set upon curves, up on curves, eyes that changed color depending on the circumstances. commanding whatever situation my subconscious had begged for from beneath the table.

if we’re going to have group sex, she insisted, then i would very much like, thank you, for you, yes, to take a look at this graph.

as the outside spoon, i was not privy to whatever she had come to, up with, all over on. all i knew was that one of the ideas was that there were to be no orgies unless we were ready for them.

next thing, this mattress we shared was transported, time and space, back to Misty’s room.

and it was so very clear, nobody had paid attention to her presentation.

there, on the gray carpet, were three women, three men, kissing, stroking, sucking, eyes rolling backwards, hard to say whether sweat was dripping down along bodies or rising, assumed towards dead light bulbs, elastic limbs fucking their way through a clear violation of the rules already established.

dream law, broken.

despite all that was known of me and my predilections, i certainly wasn’t ready for this.

i figured Misty wasn’t either.

i told her something along the lines of, let them know. let them know the time isn’t right.

Misty agreed and inched her way, silkworm, towards the edge of the mattress.

at the time, i remember thinking i would never see her again, and

in certain respects, i was right.

rather than deliver a message of reserved group fucking, she went overboard.

i caught one last glimpse of her miniature feet, toes curled as she joined the fray.

not that i wasn’t pleased. it was simply that i wasn’t ready.

a brunette clawed her way onto the bed. short, bobbed hair cut, must have been something from my time in New York. slow suicide, a woman named Ana. black miniskirt and silk bra to match. upper lip curled in a renascence sneer.

no reason for me not to do it. right to it.

we bathed in the pale morning, tongues reaching, reacting, every which way. how my arm managed to go, stroke the length from her ankle, up between her thighs, hike up that skirt with my middle finger, only to linger a half second before cruising her belly, up between her tits, thumb and the other four straddling her neck in a chokehold kiss, that was anyone’s guess. intrusive sounds of everyone else fucking on the floor. sick blue fingers of light filtering through the windows. all the while, wondering what i was doing there.

the brunette got into it. couldn’t help thinking she was pretending to get into it. her talk was dirty, hips sprinting towards the finish line, spirit seemed willing, and as any narcissistic, superficial bastard will tell anyone willing to listen, i wanted to believe, but

there was a certain meaningless candor to it all.

in an act of improbable fluctuation, entanglement, she situated herself between to planks of a nearby bookshelf. legs, arms spread like a spider, that same maddening, carnivorous sneer ordering me to come on her face.

never thinking that would be a problem, i assured her that plans were being put in place, in my palm, to make it happen, make it happen, she said, and yes, ready, there i was ready when

i realized i had to piss.

driving ten hours without a single stop kind of piss.

i swung myself off the bed, already losing control as i skipped to the loo, past bodies so massively intertwined, part of one another, that there was no origin point for jealousy to take hold.  pissing as i ran to the bathroom, thinking to myself, my, my, my. this won’t look good in the cold light of day.

time i got to the bathroom, there was no point in being there. i stepped into the shower, figured i’d wash some of the regret from my skinny ribcage, gruesomely long and bony legs. no shower curtain. didn’t care that much. let the water rinse.

the two women, blonde and brunette, let themselves in.

the brunette seemed fine. leaned into the shower and kissed me goodbye.

the blond kept her distance. just an average, cold farewell… the kind you’d expect from someone who had just peed on your orgy and was now cleaning himself in a shower with no curtain.

it was conclusion, really, that brought a sharp pain stabbing through my stomach. transported to Misty’s living room. still naked. helping to clean up whatever bottles and half empty glasses had been left behind by the ravers, a mess i had been given the chance to contribute to, exchanged instead for a cold shower and yet one more regret past half seven in the morning.

milo was there. sweeping a pile of red bull cans into a hungry garbage bag. i guess he must have been somewhere in the mix, enjoying himself in the puzzle of limbs and wet exuberance.

best night ever, he commented casually.

and, of course, i couldn’t agree.

the very thought brought tears to my bloodshot eyes. perhaps it was the genial transition into waking hours, but i felt as though i had melted. molted? lost myself to events i should have been a part of.

i woke up, happily, to find i had not wet the bed at the age of thirty-three.

unable to shake what my brain had served up for dinner.

doesn’t take a therapist to figure what it all means.

though if anyone out there knows a good therapist, please let me know.

i’d probably like to have sex with her.

then i’ll see about getting some professional help.

…in other news, two bottles of wine haven’t managed to level me just yet. cigarette smoke floating happily through my words. not looking forward to clocking in tomorrow, what could my job possibly mean now that this has been said, done, spoken, exposed?

pleased as punch nobody reads this shit.

pleased as punch, just ducky that the devil has better things to do.

###

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Elixir.

elixer

Put Elixir in a police lineup, and if she’s the one behind that hold up then she’s fucked. You’re not going to find anyone else with those eyes. One second so spherical, you’d be inclined to step inside, make yourself at home. The next, her lids would take the thousand mile journey halfway along those snow globes. Turn into a sleepy, inward gaze where her own secrets slowly evolved into private jokes to be cultivated. Waiting for release. The moment her eyes would go wide once more.

So when she stepped forward, into the floodlights, number five out of five, and delivered the line, I kept the adoring smile to myself. Had my own secrets to contend with.

“Number five,” I said.

“Are you sure?” the detective asked. He was a six-foot two powerhouse. Shaved dome gleaming white, even in the darkness of this one-way room. Thick set, white undershirt tucked into jeans, aqua and pale-red Hawaiian shirt. Sharp blue eyes. Friendly and mischievous grin that might have been sincere up until the day he discovered it worked for him.

“Am I sure, what?”

He rolled his eyes without actually following through with the action. “Are you sure she’s the one from the bank?”

I’d tangled with this particular cop before. Back during the dark, early days in New Orleans. He’d been assigned to me after those two kids had forced that front door open, shotgun and nine millimeter, a misunderstanding, bad tipoff regarding where the weed was at. After they had left empty handed, I made the mistake of dialing 911. Most of the officers at the scene treated me like shit, no small surprise. Not to say detective Daisuke had viewed me through rose colored lenses. He was sure as any of them that I was a dealer without a clue. I could read this in a single moment, but acting smart, intuitive, never played well with the boys in blue. Even if they were dressed down to the same jeans, undershirt and Hawaiian they were wearing this second time around, this time treating me as the only one whose blindfold had slipped during the heist.

But these were special circumstances.

“I’m sure of several things,” I told him. “I’m sure that she has half-notes in her head going whole while she secretly sings to herself in the shower. I’m sure that if I were picking rhythm out of this line up, then I wouldn’t even need her to dance. Sometimes she sways from side to side when anyone else would be standing still. I’m sure she glows. I’m sure that stripped of outgoing thoughts, layers, you’d still end up with the same person. I’m sure she laughs fast and hard. I’m sure you don’t get to second base in her thoughts without some kind of proof you’re willing to round first like you really mean it. I’m sure if you saw her half naked onstage, you’d need a compass to find your way back from the places your mind would wander…” I shrugged. “Sure I’m sure. I’m just not positive.”

This was the time to be every bit the idiot I had always been.

“I’m sure you can find your way out,” he said, cracks so clear in the laid-back persona.

I strode out of the station and hailed the bus. Paid an extra two bits for a transfer. Got on the crosstown taking me to the intersection of Broad and Tulane. Lit a cigarette. I walked along the east sidewalk, under the crumbling eye of the courthouse across the street. Shoes sidestepping wasted beer cans and Taco Bell wrappers.

Saw Elixir waiting for me. Dressed in a scantly clad, black and white prison mate outfit that hugged her tits, thighs, drew my eyes to all the proper places.

God knows what she had been up to when they picked her up.

“You didn’t put the blindfold on tight enough,” I told her.

She shrugged, eyes moving into a half-lid moment. “I’ll know better next time.”

“I think it worked.”

“None the wiser?”

“I think we confused the fuck out of them.”

“Guess all we can do is wait.”

It was a cloudy day, and for once, the humidity was humble enough to let an October breeze push past us, tussle moments of her thick, bleached Mohawk. It occurred to me that Elixir’s eyes weren’t so different from the traffic lights at my back. But I would have to wait to explain that one to myself as I went ahead and said:

“I know a good Jamaican place, Boswell’s. Just up the road.”

“Yeah?”

“Got a rum cocktail that’ll bring you three steps to God.”

“I don’t believe in God.”

“Then it turns out they’ve just got a rum cocktail.”

“I don’t really drink.”

I nodded. She motioned with her head, and we went our way, past government offices, bail bondsmen, decimated motels, feet taking us over sidewalk cracks, and I reached out to hold Elixir’s hand.

She smacked it away, sent me a sideways smile. “I’m actually quite hungry.”

I nodded.

Tossed my cigarette aside, and we

made our way, still unsure whether Elixir and I had pulled this off, making time along Tulane and up towards the lake.

###

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wild palm.

palm

Just over the six-five wooden fence, some 30 feet beyond, a palm tree stands tall, crown in its entirety, peeking out and over, shag haircut a dark green. Neighboring lights keep her visible at night. Create a double exposure of silhouette and a stark, outlined aura. And on nights when a storm has just missed New Orleans, distracted by other places to lay waste, you can witness the influence.

Whenever the wind blows west she wraps herself in affection. In love, careening with a sense of her own existence.

Southbound breeze brings coercion. A rustle, somewhat softer, that suggests submission. Petioles bent. Leaves horizontal, green razors like pinstripes against the stars pointing outwards, splayed. Taking dictation, orders, going along with it momentary blind fold.

The east winds are mild, and it makes for the slightest tilt. Curiosity. Conclusion. Wondering what might come next, or when the clouds might change directions.

North isn’t something she’s particularly fond of. Could be habit, something in the roots. Memories embedded in scars along the trunk, wearing her rings on the outside. You can see her leaning into it. Resistance to what’s planned, a secret agenda to bend against the weather.

When they all blow together, it signals a chaotic revival, all parts moving in such agreement that her undulations are the ones creating the winds, and to someone far away, in several days, this illusion is as strict as the solid truth.

And my influence is laughable. I watch, passively observe, keep an eye, both eyes trained, because she moves. And when the winds change direction, the only assurance I have is that this is her. Wild palm with an ever shifting, spiraling lifeline that runs along petiole to leaf sheath, all along the stem, and who would have guessed such a pattern would be printed against the mute affections of a windswept, midnight friend.

###

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sonia’s window.

stories_from_a_big_bar-honey_resize

the boy sat on the floor of Sonia’s apartment in 100 degree summertime. dry desert heat flowing between the decrepit patio and the bedroom. cigarette clamped between his lips, steeped in the details of the day. indifferent to the nameless young anarchist stretched across the couch, struggling to decipher the cover of a vintage 12 inch. the slow swing of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong swelled from velvet red speakers, occasional skips and vinyl pops. in another room, snatches of conversation.

the boy’s gaze fell on a stuffed elephant, nestled between a few cassette tapes and a cinderblock shelf. he raised a plastic cup to his lips. small swallows of Gato Negro. listing the flavors, shades of lush blueberry and cherry bygones.

couldn’t bring himself to venture back beyond that same morning. waking up to the arid sunshine. traversing one house over to knock on Paxi’s door.

and Paxi had rolled out of bed without hesitation.

I have to go to El Centro, the boy had told him. in English, giving Paxi a chance to practice. Don’t want to get lost. want to come with?

Sure, Paxi answered. Just let me eat some M&Ms.

the bus had been packed, even after peak hours. windows open. the pair had stood towards the back, balancing against the bounce of potholed streets. unspoken agreement to keep an eye on each other’s pockets. half an hour down the line, disembarking on the corner of Alameda and Manuel Rodriguez, that second one named after a revolutionary who would dress as a bum and run scams on the mayor.

city walls alive with graffiti and dead foliage.

and now, they had moved to the dining room. sun streaming through the window, a tiny rectangle revealing the rooftops of Santiago. all seated in semi-quiet, the agoraphobic presence of a wake. nodding along to the swing of things. stoned atmosphere. Sonia licked a wooden spoon smothered in honey, which the boy suspected was the only food in the house.

the record ended, and Sonia went looking for something fresh.

a little Jimi Hendrix, possible bootleg featuring Lonnie Youngblood.

the melodies stung. side winding saxophone, blues guitar, and the sounds of the crowd. one night only, once in a lifetime, pressed into orbital grooves.

the young anarchist stood. swung a satchel over his shoulder, patches sewn into tattered, navy blue. stole a cigarette from the boy, shook his hand. introduced himself as Federico, then left.

Sonia and her friend escorted him out.

the boy heard the front door close. waited for a few minutes.

across the table, Paxi looked up from a copy of Hopscotch. threw out a little joke, wondered if they would ever come back.

the boy said he didn’t know. glanced at the clock, long hand making its rounds. he searched for a date, only got the time. all along the maroon walls, photographs did their best to guess. evidence held in place with dabs of black electric tape. the boy turned his head, jumped back to find the picture of a dead cat lying on the street. roadkill. paws stiff, insides splattered across the concrete in blinding, saturated hues.

the boy reached for his empty cup. just to make sure there was nothing there for him.

the runaways returned. Sonia placed a cardboard box on the table, handed the boy two bottles of Gato Negro. pointed to the corkscrew. as Sonia and the other girl retired to the kitchen, the boy went about his task. he poured himself some wine. a few sips of purple to grease the wheels.

from the kitchen, the low sizzle of oil in a pan.

lured by the promise of a late lunch, Paxi went to offer his services.

the boy couldn’t bring himself to move a muscle. chivalry held in check by loud colors and the surreal remnants of an afternoon sunset.

Sonia walked in and hung a string of dried oysters around the boy’s neck.

How do i look? he asked in broken Spanish.

Good, she said. took one of the bottles back into the kitchen.

he noticed a button, inexplicably pinned to the back of her shirt. crossed out swastika peeking through vines of matted brown hair.

the scent of onion and cooked pasta overtook the apartment, riding the currents. the boy thought the breeze must have been the same one, from that same night. ketchup in place of tomato sauce. stretching their pennies. stretching the hours until the minutes bled, begged for them to crawl into bed together and set things moving once more.

Sonia popped her head in. asked if he was hungry.

the boy fabricated a large breakfast, and declined. refusing to become part of this new apartment.

stuck with superimposing. two years gone, laid flat upon a second transparency. watched as Sonia placed mismatched plates over the dozen candles they had once lit, as Paxi plopped into his chair with total disregard for the cat who had napped for hours, as the girl he didn’t know reached past countless empty bottles, daylight swirling through midnight, creating a stage door sort of lavender, as Sonia sat in her own lap, dish held close to her mouth, unaware of the cigarette she was smoking as she removed her shirt and let it drop to the floor, had herself a glass of wine and laughed at the boy’s mispronunciation of the word psychopath.

the boy crossed his eyes, cut through double vision. zeroed in on their meal. bowties in place of spaghetti this time, tossed with a freshly made marinara. the single detail that sent the bridge burning. no ketchup. no candles, no kitten. no cigarette, for the moment, because the boy knew that was simply bad form.

Sonia gave the boy’s shin a light kick. told him that unless he made his own plate, it was up to him to carry the conversation.

so the boy leaned back, stretched his arms far over his head. launched into a story about a little robot in a laboratory. a sentient little creature whose masters had no idea he had achieved full awareness of himself. a best friend named Hamilton, experimental turkey trapped in a cage. star-crossed soul mates, destined for a life together were it not for one Christmas when the world would come crashing down around both of them, though three sentences short of killing them both, the boy trailed off.

it had carried them through the meal, and they lapsed into silence.

Sonia stole a cigarette. It’s six o’clock. we should go soon.

A walk for the digestion, Paxi offered.

Yes.

Excellent.

Maybe Blondie will be there, Sonia said, turning to the boy. Have you had a chance to see him?

the boy lit his own cigarette and stood along with the rest. could be his name was Kenneth, though odds were just as good it was Lucky who turned to his chair. relegated some silent advice. filed out with the rest of them, taking one last look over his shoulder to catch the sunlight streaming through Sonia’s window, beyond which the rooftops of Santiago could still be seen.

###

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edit the clouds in the sky, if you have to.

hate

We shared the bed last night. No wider than the surface area of a snack machine. No more comfortable. Lying on my back, stomach, either side, there was no avoiding some kind of contact. Hair, or skin, shoulder or the back of her thigh. The rise and fall of her breath displaced the air around us. Kept me waking. Wondering. Nothing happened. And if it was ever going to, that would have been the day. That would have been the night.

 

Francis swept into frame. Replaced the empty husk of my gin and tonic with a fresh round. He peered at the shoebox I had set on the bar, it’s dusty lid brimming with cocktail napkins, stacked two by one. “What’s this, then, Lucky? Caught the cold, or something?”

“I feel fine.”

“You never feel fine. At least, you never look fine.”

“Didn’t have to make this my new home, you know…” I squeezed the lime, licked my fingers. “Had a perfectly good dive on MacDougal.”

“That was when you lived near MacDougal.”

He was right. The Bishop was the other end of the rainbow. A straight jacket turned inside out, all buckles and belts hidden from prying scientists. The bar was spotless, the wood varnished. Tables sturdy, kitchen open ‘till two in the morning. Bartenders every bit the professionals. White shirts tucked into black pants. Didn’t drink on duty, and smoking behind the bar was akin to spitting in the drinks.

But they somehow turned professionalism into something warm.

And that wasn’t half bad considering where I had abandoned myself.

“For real, though, Lucky…” Francis propped his foot against the basin. Rested his arm on a raised knee. Quizzical look grazing beyond a pair of green pastures. Crew cut glowing a wild, Irish red. “What’s in the box?”

“Notes from the underground.”

“Fell obligated to warn you, son. A certain mad Russian beat you to the punch.”

“Is that who that was?”

Sixth sense kicking in, Francis jettisoned himself down the bar to top off the regulars.

I drank my gin. Reached into the box pulled out another handful of cocktail napkins and kept reading.

 

Milo, Jake Maxwell, Beatrice. They really don’t care for her. Thrown the whole lexicon at her feet, practically in her face. Stupid. Moron. Ditz. Idiot. I’ve told them, time and again, that if any of us could stomach the thought of sounding stupid to others, we’d be the most brilliant of all stars in the sky. You really haven’t experienced deaf ears until you’ve tried explaining anything to your friends.

An old man sporting an argyle cap and matching vest planted himself next to me. Red nose of busted capillaries pointed to one of seven screens. Yellow eyes staring through ruby highlights.

He made a noise, trapped somewhere in the back of his throat.

Brought Francis marching down the length of the bar. “No! Out! Right now, Liam!” He pointed towards the doors. “I am not even joking!”

The old man shuffled away, garbled words found in translation.

“Right out the door, sir!” Francis yelled. “You’re not welcome here!”

Another croak from the old man.

“You’re not welcome here!” Francis repeated. Took a beat. Came in close for a better look at my box. Read the name scrawled on the side. “Who’s Anya, then?”

I lit a cigarette. “Somebody that I used to know.”

“Pretty name.”

“Pretty face to boot…” I did something with my lips. Might have been a grin. “Dazzling smile. Lips that went from ear to ear. Slight overbite. Brown eyes, shaped like birthstones. She was slender, but she wasn’t skinny. Best part of all, she never tried… Blond hair tangled with darker shades.”

“Mm. Curtains match the drapes?”

“Carpet, Francis.”

“I’m tired.”

He left me alone with my napkins.

Caught a shift in the date, some five months later, in March.

And Anya was crossing the street at random. She caught my eye. Or I caught hers. She flashed that smile. Reached into her satchel and pulled out a check. “Got paid today. And I’m looking to buy.” There’s no saying no to that. We dug our way down into Creole Nights. Grabbed a seat by the door. Milo and Tarquin drinking beer. Myself with my Jack. Anya taking shots of Stolichnaya, demanding I match her for each one. Happy to oblige. Don’t know what it was. Maybe the circumstances. Wild cards. She went to buy another round of shots. Milo and Tarquin busying themselves with musician talk. As she got to the table, I got to my feet. Wrapped my arms around her and started dancing. Slowly. Even though the reggae was demanding something in a faster beat. I think I heard Zephyr crying out from behind the bar. Possibly more ecstatic than I was. And that was a tall order. Anya’s body pressed against mine, feeling the raw burn of vodka on my lips. And she was smiling. That’s what it was, she was smiling…

I finished my drink.

Summoned the genie. “Another one, Lucky?”

                “Yeah. Just going to crawl my way to the jukebox, if you don’t mind…”

“Mind if I…?” he tapped his finger against the napkin.

“Go ahead.”

I picked out a few tunes. All from the same album.

Sat back down.

Francis set the napkins back on the bar. “This is really quite bad, Lucky. No joke, it’s kind of awful.”

“Can’t imagine anything grabbing your interest that wasn’t written along the dotted line of a credit card slip.”

“Now that’s mean, Lucky… mean, and actually well written.”

The jukebox got to my selections.

Francis shook his head. “Van Morrison? Really?”

“Not a fan myself.”

“Then for Christ sake, why?”

“You don’t have the  Strange Days soundtrack.”

“I don’t even know what that is…” He rapped his knuckles against the bar.

Buyback.

Had myself a few swallows worth of a free drink. Kept reading.

When we got back to my place, the lights were already dim. Just a string of Christmas lights hanging over my elevated bed. Milo had absconded next door, staying the night at  Tarquin’s. Anya said she was going to take a shower. Asked if I wanted to join her. I told her I’d wait. We had our first kiss. It was big, full of smiles. A lot of mouth, but I didn’t mind. She made it work. Came back out with a towel wrapped around her body. We climbed onto the bed. I pressed play on Milo’s stereo. Strange Days soundtrack blaring. Brought that smile back. She had a body about her, and it tasted clean. Remnants of generic soap. “That’s pretty fucking nice,” she whispered at one point. We made our way through the entire album, CD changing over to Van Morrison. She was leaning backwards over the edge of the bed, hands planted against the adjacent mattress, some several feet below mine. I reached back and unplugged the lights. It was either that, or stop and pull the blinds, and I didn’t want it to end. Next morning, we kissed for a good two hours before she realized she was an hour late for work…

“You really think you’re something, don’t you?”

I turned to my right. Caught a man drilling for oil in his pint of Guinness. Blue button-up, khaki pants. Thick scar below his mouth, like a fleshy soul patch. Hair a mess, suggesting the rest of him would slowly follow.

I didn’t answer.

He went back to his drink.

“What’s this then?” Sean had returned from his break. Bulbous lips twisted in a curious smile. Eyes wide, black eyebrows arching. Standing side by side with Francis. Their arms crossed, as though I had broken curfew. “What’s in the box?”

“Memories of Anya,” Francis replied.

“Oh, I like Anya. Who’s Anya?”

“Somebody he used to know.”

“She got a sister, Lucky?”

I lit another cigarette. “I’ll let you know once I’m done fucking yours.”

And the round went to Lucky. And Francis bowed, and Sean bowed to my jibe and served me another drink.

I withdrew another stack of napkins.

Got to drinking. Forced myself further into Anya.

Hard to believe a good year and a half had come to pass.

We found each other in Creole Nights. Played catch up. Wasn’t sure if I looked any different. She remained the same. Laughing loud, mouth open wide as she knocked them back. I was on my way to a poker game. Too good to pass up, but I told her, “Anya. You want to meet here tomorrow?” she nodded. “We can drink, I mean really drink. Talk Chekov, talk Shakespeare. Then maybe go back to my place and have lots of sex. I mean really fuck, want to?” She nodded, smiled so wide.

I smiled back. Caught myself in the mirror, and ran a moistened had along my face.

Wiped the slate clean.

We sat at a table for two. Back left corner. Underneath the glass skylights, twin periscopes looking out onto MacDougal. Drinking Jack out of obligation, taking  vodka shots out of habit. She talked about The Cherry Orchard. I told her the four or five hands that had won me a few hundred dollars. I don’t know how Milo always knew, but he was nowhere to be seen that night. We took it to each other in every which way we could. It was raining, and outside the windows, Washington Square streetlights highlighted a glistening kind of abandon. We stayed in bed all through the next day, until the sun set. I had a game over at Kip’s. We walked out onto the streets together. She kissed me, wished me luck.

A drunken business man was buying shots for the bar.

Sean set a bullet of Jamison’s before me with a shrug. Eyes telling me to enjoy it while it lasts, kid.

I followed his advice, and kept right on.

Anya is guest bartending at Creole Nights these days. Another little thing we have in common. Last night, Zephyr and I played Texas Hold ‘Em at the far end. Money on the bar. Anya served us drinks. Kept my money stacked in neat piles. Ones, fives, tens. The band played on, and with every hand I won, she’d lean over to kiss me. Then her and Zephyr got involved in a historical debate, a hysterical fight over the lead up to WWII. Anya had lost two grandparents in the Holocaust and there was no way that was going to end well. I bought us all shots of Stolichnaya. Later on, she thanked me. It was one of our better late night fucks.

I blinked.

Reread that last line.

My handwriting had changed. Morphed into a fevered calligraphy that welded letters at impossible joints.

Almost like a single thread leading me along.

“You all right, Lucky?” Francis asked.

“Yeah.” I reached for my cigarettes. “Could I get a shot of Stoli, please? If you would be so kind.”

“You’re what riddles ask each other, Lucky…”

Got what I needed. Took a shot. Asked for another, along with a fresh gin and tonic.

“Going to have to cut you off one of these days,” Francis said.

“That will never happen.”

“Going to be a big writer someday, Lucky?”

“Five-nine. About average.”

He rolled his eyes, disgusted, and sailed back down the bar.

We got good and drunk. Back at our place, she offered to dance for us. Milo was pretty far gone, catcalling well above legal limits as Anya spread that blanket like a cape. Topless. Smiling as she bounced to a little burlesque. Sandra was passed out in the closet. Another random event. We let her lie. The three of us curled up in Milo’s bed and fell asleep. I joined Anya in the shower next day. Water running down her body, mine. Both of us catching hot drops in our mouths between kisses. Fucked standing up. Got down into the mildew, did it from behind, bringing her up to kiss her neck, listening to her laugh in my ear.

There was a shift. Something I didn’t enjoy or appreciate.

Bad night at the table. That was Kip’s money, too. Wandered into Creole Nights, three sheets to the wind. Anya was helping out behind the bar. She served me a fresh addition to the family. A shot of Stoli Pepper. A pair of frat boys who had somehow wormed their way underground gave me a look. “Good luck, pal,” one of them said. Must have been trying it on with Anya for some time. I knocked back my shot, something awful. Told Anya to take a break. Led her to the back. Into the men’s room. Lights off, kissing, hands all over each other. Lowering our jeans in the dark. Fucking against that cold surface. Knocks at the door. Just a few minutes worth. Turned on the light and flushed the condom down the toilet. “Start yelling at me,” I told her. She did. I yelled back. Decent enough cover story.  We charged out of the bathroom and took the argument to the closest table. Not letting up, until Zephyr put his arms over our shoulders. Leaned in, laughing. “You are both the WORST FUCKING ACTORS I have ever seen!”

“All good?” Francis asked.

                “I remembered that night,” I told him. “Next morning, thought I was going to die. Milo placed pitcher of water before me.  A loaf of bread. Told me to keep eating, and throwing up until I could get back to sleep. And I did. Got tired of seeing myself vomit the same sepia colors and added some Country Time Lemonade, just to see a little pink in my puke.”

“I mean, do you want another drink?”

“Yes. Sidecar of Stoli, too, while you’re up and about.”

Anya caught us at Creole. I was already one bottle of wine into my evening. She was taking smuggled shots from a bottle of vodka. Said there was a rooftop party going on, somewhere in the Village. We made the scene early.  Didn’t make any friends that night. Milo screaming, shirt wrapped around his head. Anya grinding against me, long before anyone had a chance to achieve even the slightest level of intoxication. Anya and I ducked into an alcove. My hands were all over her. Mouths clamped, working. Her hand between my legs. She led me to an adjoining roof.  I figured we would tuck into a doorway, do it there. Anya. Flat against the middle of melting tar. Out in the open. Available to all surrounding apartments, moon shining down as I drove into her, let her flip me. Hair hanging down in my face as she rode. Laughter. She excused herself to the bathroom…

“Caught up with her as she walked up the stairs,” I read. Out loud now. “My vision swimming. Told her I had to go. That I would call. Scooped Milo up and made my way back home…”

“That’s cold Lucky,” Francis said.

“True enough,”  Sean agreed.

I polished off my drink. “How long have I been reading out loud?”

“Long enough to know I owe you an apology,” Francis said. “The writing does get a little better, after a little while.”

My head bobbed against the pull of the little hand, reading ten past three. I reached for the final napkin. Held it out. “Then read this, why don’t you?”

Francis obliged. Straining. “Is this even…. are these astronauts, Lucky?”

“Look closer.”

Francis did. Struggled. “Anya wandered into Creole Nights. We had a drink. I told her I was with Helena now. She nodded. We talked some more, but our time together was at an end. Both of  us left it at see you next time…”

                He handed the napkin back.

                “At some point, there’s less of her,” I said. “And more of what happened.”

“What’s in the box, Lucky?” Sean asked.

“What’s in the box?” Francis repeated.

I lit a cigarette. “Used to sit my ass down at Creole Nights. Almost every night. By the time eight months had past, I’d put in my dues. Practically drank for free. I’d scrawl out every last thought on their bar napkins. Take them home. Store them in a box. Then two boxes. Then maybe ten. At one point, I realized there was some trimming to do. Culling. I would take the napkins to the bathroom with me. Read over what I had written as I took a shit. Then, bit by bit, I would choose the worst of what I had, and use it to wipe myself. Quite literally, gentlemen, wipe my ass with my own words…” I polished off my drink. “I mean, a guy’s got to know shit when it’s shit…”

Francis and Sean jumped the bar. Leapt right over, each one on either side of me. I turned with a lazy eye towards the commotion. Saw them rushing a man out the door. He was screaming. Face gone, profiled long enough  to recognize him from a few pages previous as the man with the khaki pants.

The bartenders walked back in. “You ok, there, Lucky?”

“Yes. What just happened?”

“Drunk piece of shit was about to take a swing at you.” Francis squeezed my shoulder. “He was trudging down the bar, headed your way. Arm cocked, ready to sucker punch you to the floor.”

“Sucker punch,” I said. Blinked a few times, wondering if it wasn’t over just yet. “Thanks. To the both of you. Good lookin’ out.”

“Can’t believe you didn’t see it coming.”

“You never hear the one with your name on it.”

“Buy you a drink?”

“Yes.”

I watched them round the bar.

Looked over and saw a napkin left behind by one of the lesser diners.

Snatched it up.

Reached into my pocket and began to write.

Was down by Astor Place today. Got my hair cut. Starting that new job, waiting tables down on Second Avenue. Left the place with a shorn head, all dolled up. Spiked with product. Guess that’s why she didn’t recognize me. But against my better judgment, I called out her name. Anya turned, and it occurred to me it had been such a long time since I had seen her in the daylight.

I turned the napkin over, kept writing.

We skipped over what was, barely focusing on the now. Her lips the same, no doubt that smile could have doubled down if it weren’t for the fact that she was facing me. Even with the garbage piling up along the gutters, I could smell the soap on her skin. And I wanted to tell her, those years were a better brand of life, and I had lost all sight of

I ran out of room.

Found a fresh drink awaiting orders.

Picked it up, did it up. Televisions glowing as I took it down in three simulcast gulps.

Folded  my fresh napkin. Stacked it along with the rest. Placed them all in the shoebox. Fastened the lid on tight, and tucked it under my arm. Pushed myself away and began to walk towards the back.

“Last call, Lucky,” Francis called out.

I turned. “Back me up.”

“You ever write a story about me, I want you to call it, The Sight of an Empty Glass…

I tipped an imaginary hat.

Walked into the men’s room, strolled into the stall.

Dropped my pants and took a seat on the toilet.

Lit a cigarette. Clenched my stomach. Clenched my fists. Ground my teeth together.

Remembered that it had been several days since I had eaten anything.

Had myself a tug, enjoyed the smoke for what it was.

Sitting on the throne. Eyelids drooping.

Good a time as any to truly start hating  myself.

But as any good napkin will tell you, it takes a while for the bigger picture to make itself known.

###

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