witness.

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Janet was dancing in my dream. It was her birthday, in my dream. And despite the occasion, she hadn’t changed a thing. No place to go but down, into the depths of Creole Nights, where she spent most every evening. Tuesday through Saturday. Stationed behind the bar, her own foxhole, pinned down by dueling requests for drinks, refills, and the roaming eyes of men who could benefit from a sly castration or two.

The last night of Voodoo Fete. What was once a weekly tradition of drums, music and rhythmic hips, all coming to a close. Combined complaints from the people two floors up, and a new city dictum forbidding six or more people from dancing in any bar, pub or watering hole that wasn’t a licensed nightclub.

“AYIBOBO!”

The subterraneans cried out in kind.

I was seated at a table, for once. For some reason.

Popped a Marlboro. Had a bit of chilled Jack. Ice cubes fleeing.

Ayizan raised his arms. “God bless us all, the world has brought us all here. AYIBOBO!”

I kept drinking, in this dream.

This infuriating, superlative memory.

Ayizan pointed, the full length of his arm. “We’ve got Zephyr and Evan behind the bar!”

Cheers. The two brothers raised it up, applauding over their heads.

“Janet, so beautiful! It is her birthday tonight! Thank you, God, for such a wonderful woman!”

Cheers.

From her station at bar’s end, Janet lifted a bottle of sweet dynamite. Slender arms. Athletic build. Eyes an adopted flare of Korean madness.

Ayizan pointed in my direction. Eyes smiling through his dreadlocks. “We’ve got Lucky Saurelius, smoking on his cigarette, AYIBOBO!”

I raised my glass.

The drummers railed against the approaching city ordinance.

One last weekend.

Ayizan went from table to table. Swinging a censer of incense. Pungent smoke reinforcing the musty scent of underground sweat, tears and body heat. He went from table to table, from friends to perfect strangers. Slid on over my way. Hovering before my seat, the two of us, eye to eye. Shadows scuttling along the walls and ceiling.

I finished my cigarette.

Finished my Jack.

Held out my hand and met his. Let the eucalyptus oil slather its way from his palm and down my arm.

When I looked up, Wanda was standing above me.

Dirty blonde hair coming down in shoulder-length curls, where black bra straps wrapped over pale shoulders, beneath a white tank top. Hands on her hips. Their circumference encircled by a black belt; double notched, leather cracked and peeling. Bottle of Jack in her hand.

With my face inches from her belly, I raised my glass again with blind expectations.

She lifted, tilted. Sent a stream of sour mash swimming, right up to the rim.

I set my refill down, and then Wanda was straddling me.

Denim thighs wrapped around my waist.

She curled her fingers around my neck. Thumbs pressing up beneath my chin. Drumbeat coursing through her nails as they dug in. Lifted, tilted. Brought my eyelashes to meet hers. Crystal blue bearing into me. Mouth parted in a tiny, prepared invitation.

When I closed my eyes, Wanda was pressing her lips against mine.

***

And when I woke up, Wanda was standing above me.

“You were talking in your sleep,” she said.

I shifted against the grain of my open futon. Windows host to the flu-colored sunlight, typical of winter mornings. Jazz station playing Wynton Marsalis, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” “You went to go sleep under the coffee table.”

She shrugged. “Yeah.”

“You fell asleep next to me.”

“I know.”

“Well…” I stood up. Bent low and reached beneath the wooden frame. Pulled that worn contraption back into its full, upright position. Room for none more. “There. That looks a little more honest.”

Wanda didn’t comment.

I was spoiling for a fight and she knew better. “You going to throw on a tie?” she asked.

“What are you going to wear?”

She gestured along her body. Feet planted, catwalk spiraling around bare feet. Worn jeans. Black, double notched belt. White tank top. Black bra strap visible over a single, pale shoulder.

“That’s it?” I asked, remembering my dream.

“Sweater, sure. Jacket, too, should do the trick.”

“And then?”

“It’s a casual affair,” she said.

“And yet, I should throw on a tie…”

“Because if you don’t, you’re going to wish you had.”

I opened the mini fridge. Helped myself to a tallboy. Swished a mouthful of watery suds. Offered it over. She took a few swallows. I followed up with my own rhythmic timing. Set it down.

Caught a flicker in her wild blues.

I traced the momentary blip, down past my body.

Faced with a discouragingly slight morning erection. More of a benign tumor, poking from the corner of chastened boxer shorts.

“Maybe some pants, too,” she suggested.

I rubbed my eyes. “A little privacy, please?”

“Sure.” Wanda stole the beer from my table and left me alone.

I struggled with my pants. Struggled with my tie.

Realized I needed a shirt to go with it.

Glanced at the futon.

Tore at the noose around my neck and hit reset.

***

The N train tossed us onto the steps of City Hall. A few wayward protestors were posted a few yards away. Placards raised, commemorating the slaying of Patrick Dorismond. It was almost one year later, March 2001, and public interest had waned.

And Wanda paid for our coffee.

We sat on a park bench and counted squirrels. Caught somewhere between frozen headaches and genuine appreciation for sunlight. The space between us was authentic and casually painful.

“What were you dreaming about?” Wanda asked.

“Mm…” I popped a Marlboro. Offered her one. Lit hers, then mine. “Janet’s birthday.”

Wanda smiled, only with her eyes. “That was a good night.”

“Yes.”

She took a strong puff. I could hear her lips tugging. “What was the dream about?”

“Janet’s birthday.”

“What was it about, though?”

“More of a memory.”

“Just in a dream.”

“Yes.”

“Nothing different?”

I glanced over. Just slightly. “Why do you ask?”

She tapped her nails against the coffee cup. “You were talking in your sleep.”

Janet jumped out from behind a tree.

Did a little high kick, her thick boot-heel coming an inch from my face.

Came so close to ripping her silver strapless dress in half.

“What’s up Scooter-Pie?” she crooned. Hair pulled in a sloppy cinnamon roll. Pair of curls falling on either side of heavy eyeliner and rouge. Opened her arms and scooped me up.

Tossed me aside for Wanda.

Remy Love joined in. Smiling. Quiet. A foot shorter than his future wife. Dressed in a slick, burgundy suit. Matching tie and cufflinks. White pressed shirt popping nicely against his dark skin. We shook hands, went in for a half embrace.

“Hello, Lucky.”

“Glad I could make it, Remy.”

He laughed, rubbed a hand along his shaved head.

“What did you two kids get into last night?” Janet asked.

“It was Lucky’s belated birthday celebration,” Wanda said.

Remy gave me another hug. “Happy birthday.”

“Belated,” I told him. “They tricked me into celebrating.”

“What’d you give him?” Janet asked Wanda.

“Three rounds of truth or dare with me and my girlfriends.”

Janet snagged my cup. “Ooh. Nice n’ hot.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Coffee ain’t bad either.”

Janet took a sip. Frowned. “I expected a bit more of a kick…”

I reached over, patted Wanda’s green canvas satchel. “Slipped a fifth of Jack in here. We’re good.”

“We are good,” Janet said.

“Ready to do this?” Remy asked.

Janet bent low. Kissed him full on the lips.

They held it.

A blast of frigid wind found its way around them; lifted my tie, tossed ragtag curls against Wanda’s lips.

I dropped my cigarette on the ground. Crushed it. “Can we all go get married now? It’s cold out here for the rest of us.”

They broke apart.

Hands clasped, Janet and Remy began to walk towards City Hall.

Wanda and I watched them for a few seconds.

I gave her an elbow to the ribs. “Thought you said this was going to be a casual affair.”

“Good thing you wore a tie.”

She held out her hand, palm facing the treetops. Smiled in a southerly direction.

“Goddamn you, Wanda,” I said, and wrapped my fingers around hers.

We followed them up the steps and into the machinery of New York City.

***

Emptying my pockets was never a problem.

Took less than three seconds of crumpled bills and confused apartment keys.

Sent my bookbag through the x-ray.

Walked through the metal detector without a care in the world.

The security guard on the other end had taken the liberty of unzipping what was rightfully mine. Rifling through notebooks and worn Post-its.

Domingo was the nametag, embossed in brass.

His eyes were large, set against Dominican bronze. “What’s this?”

“Bad writing,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” he replied. Before I could praise his read on the situation, he lifted the fifth of Jack from my bag and gave it a shake. “I mean, what’s this?”

Wanda must have slipped it back into my bag sometime earlier.

“Fourth floor,” I told him.

“Wedding?”

“Yeah.”

“Shoot…” He shook his head, smiled sadly. “Go ahead, man.”

“Thanks.”

I collected my twelve or so Washingtons, keys to the kingdom.

Watched them run the wand up and down Wanda’s body.

They smiled while she remained rooted, arms held out.

***

So there was a six-foot blonde seated next to a man matching her in every last detail. Dress and all, matrimonial twins. There was a Jamaican with his arms wrapped expectantly around a diminutive brunette, hair cut so close that a red birthmark, fashioned after a tired armadillo, could be seen at the roots. There was a white teenaged punk with pink hair, nipples so clearly pierced, arm-in-arm with a Japanese man in a fresh pressed suit. There was a cancer patient in a wheelchair, her husband-to-be decorated in multi-colored tattoos of B-17s, P-40 Warhawks, F4U Corsairs. Two teenagers mixing it up between hopeful smiles, nervous glances towards the door and deep, wet kisses, tongues triangulating.

Waiting for their number to be called, like patrons at the local butcher shop.

Wanda stole my thunder with a quick whisper: “This may be the most honest place on the entire planet.”

I leaned close to her ear, unconcerned with proximity: “I thought of it first.”

“Maybe.”

“And I’ll beat you to it, someday.”

“Do your worst.”

“And I’m going to call it, If Found, Return to Wanda.”

She smiled with her eyes. “What makes you think they’ll ever find me?”

Janet hijacked our moment and dragged us into the hallway.

***

Surrounded by dull tiles and navy nameplates on endless doors.

Cracks in the ceiling. Splintering along the walls, paint job the color of mulch and worn Astroturf.

Janet dug greedily into Wanda’s satchel.

Extracted her Excalibur and unscrewed the cap. Took a double dose in two happy swallows.

Wanda threw me an eyebrow or two, wondering when I had planted it back in her bag.

Janet handed me the bottle. “There you go, Scooter-pie. Go deep.”

I did. Wiped my lips. “So are you going to be Janet Love?

“Yes, god, yes!” She took another belt. Sent the bottle back my way. “Janet Love!”

“Then what?”

“Do I look like a goddamn fortune teller?” she asked. Pretended to hand me the bottle. Drew it back and sucked down some more as I fought to reclaim what was rightfully mine.

From somewhere off screen, Wanda smiled: “Snap.”

We both turned.

Caught her with a disposable camera.

Eyes peeking over the rectangular box.

We traded her. Bottle for camera. Took shots of her taking shots. Sent the merry-go-round from each one, to each other.

Janet drinking with Lucky.

Wanda drinking with Janet.

A still shot of Lucky drinking with Wanda, which I would never have the chance to throw away.

Both of us reaching with eager tongues towards the same end.

Remy poked his head out from the waiting room. “They’re ready for us.”

There was a quick scramble to see who would get the last belt.

Remy waited patiently as we drank through a tangle of arms and Tennessee-tipped lips.

***

The chaplain was dressed in a simple tweed suit.

Protruding lips, sad and moist, clashing with his pleased brown eyes.

An agent of happier days. Day in, day out.

Because we were gathered there today to witness the union of Janet Banks and Remy Love. No vows. No invocation of the Lord from his unfortunate bureaucracy. An exchange of rings. A request for the witnesses to sign there, and there. Light shining through a stained-glass, nondenominational window, into the strangely triangular, nondenominational room. Pronounced husband and wife. Janet and Remy coming in for a kiss. Wanda bringing her fingers to an otherwise cynical mouth.

Myself standing there with a drunken, stupid smile on my drunken, stupid face.

Stupid, unreliable present, and when Wanda hugged me, I had the presence of mind to keep it to myself.

***

We celebrated in an empty bar across the street.

Remy ordered us a round of Cognac.

Janet ordered loaded potato skins and mozzarella sticks.

Just a little past noon, and the brilliance of the day wormed its way along the floor and wobbling barstools.

We raised our glasses in a toast to the newlyweds.

“Lucky…” Janet dumped the contents down her throat. Raised her glass once more. “I’ll never forget the night of my birthday…”

In a rare moment of gratitude, God had the presence of mind to get Wanda choking on her drink.

Janet remained stalwart. “I sent Lucky out. Out onto the streets. Out on a mission to fetch me a chicken shawarma. From Yatagan’s, across the street. He left, and with my drink in hand, I had to wait. And I thought he was gone. Wouldn’t come back. But he did. And when he did, he had twenty chicken shawarmas. Came down into Creole Nights and just started slinging those shits everywhere. I don’t think I ever saw the losers so happy. Everyone eating and pounding their Red Stripes. Happy and dancing, end of the fucking world… Thank you, Lucky.”

We managed to bring our glasses together, drink.

Wanda stared at me over her glass, question directed at Janet: “And then what happened?”

“What do you mean?”

Wanda shook her head. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

“Me too,” Remy echoed.

I took an oversized bite from a rubber mozzarella stick.

Lit a cigarette.

“Good about her and Taylor,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Getting back together?”

Without thinking, I put out my cigarette. Realized the mistake and lit another one.

The bartender was a blonde. Straight hair, typical grin. Tits meant to entice tips from lonely number-crunchers, paisley ties and early afternoon knock-offs. I motioned towards my glass. Got a nice dose of Hennessy for my troubles.

“I turned twenty-two again last night,” I told Janet.

“Good for you, Scooter-Pie.”

“Yes.”

“What did those dirty girls make you do?”

“All kinds of things,” I murmured.

“Now I’m married.”

“Yes.”

“Want to do a shot?”

“Tequila?”

“Yes!”

We gave ourselves a round, chased it down with cognac, and the world got a little easier for the two of us.

Wanda and Remy showed up at precisely the right time.

“Should we go?” he asked.

“One more drink,” Janet said.

I turned to Wanda. “What do you think? One more?”

Wanda let her lids rest, then shot back to the now. “One more for the newlyweds.”

And that was what we toasted to.

Another meaningless bar in the middle of New York City…

***

Wanda and I stumbled into the apartment.

A rare moment where all the squatters, deadbeats, and so-called friends had found something to do with themselves beyond the walls of 30k.

I took a quick glance along the empty 40s, bottles of vodka, bourbon and scotch.

Reached down for the last fifth of a fifth.

Had a few draws and let exhaustion set the agenda.

Stretched myself out on the couch. Black vinyl sticking to my skin, forgetting that summer was several seasons away from a violent, cataclysmic ending.

“I hear you,” Wanda said. Stretched her arms high above her head. Gave her navel a quick lay of the land.

I motioned with my head. “Coffee table’s right over there.”

“Shut up.” Wanda brought the moxie along, into our bed.

Couch. Whatever the case may be.

Stretched out alongside me.

Face to face.

Eye to eye.

“That was a good night,” Wanda said. I felt the Jack Daniel’s hot against my face. Knew her lips must have carried the same dangerous taste. “Janet’s birthday.”

“Yeah.”

“Was I there?”

“Of course.”

“I mean, was I there? Was I in your dream?”

I was tired. And it was nice to have Wanda’s leg casually nesting my knees.

“Yes.”

“It was different though, right? It was how it should have been?”

“Helena.”

“Yes.”

“And now that she’s gone off to wherever people go when they go to France –”

“Paris.”

“ – yes, now that she’s gone –”

“Taylor.”

“You’re not on the rag, are you? That was just your excuse.”

“We’re getting back together.”

“It’s a mistake.”

“I like that you can say that without sounding desperate.”

“It’s still a rotten thing for me to say.”

Wanda smiled sadly. “I get tired of adoring you.”

“Me too.”

“I know what you really meant, so don’t expect the joke.”

I put my arm around her.

Wanda sent those eyes through me one last time. Wider than I had ever seen them. She shifted. Turned. Nestled in close with her back to me. Clasped my hand in hers, against her breasts. Didn’t seem to mind the mid-afternoon erection digging into her back, because what I said was really the long and short of all things.

Whispered into her ear: “It’s never going to be our time, is it?”

“Never.” She kissed my hand. “After all, we’re perfect for each other.”

“Sleep well, Wanda.”

“You too, Lucky.”

’Til death do we part would have been a nice way to end this story.

“You’re talking in your sleep again, Lucky,” Wanda said.

Much better.

I dropped out, drunk and in love with the way Wanda walked into a room.

###

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so long and thanks for all the pish.

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When stripped of their brash and dismal tomorrows, they weren’t all bad memories.

Every time and again, it was a peaceful buzz in place of endless tempest. Resting comfortably with my back to the bench, rather than waking up to a uniformed request for some form of ID. The perfect sunsets before vagrant dawns spent stranded some twenty miles from home. Rare moments when city streets, the significance of pedestrians, details and the color of stray cats sent dead friends and miscarried affairs scurrying to their cave.

Sitting in Battery Park City as September took a bow. Elbow propped on the back of my bench. Cigarette tip a distant relative of the westbound sun. Reserved sips of Jack Daniel’s from a dented flask. Content with letting the scenery stroll past. Watching the giant clock across the Hudson tick towards six-fifteen.

World Trade Towers peering over the tops of lesser buildings.

Enjoying seventy degrees of gentle breeze.

Eyes closed for just a moment. Primed for further, inexplicable outcomes.

Never mind that for a few days now, legions of random men had been trying break my nose.

I took a moment to reach into my jacket. Notepad, pen, quick dictation –

He passed a sign to his right reading LOS ANGELES, 350 MILES. To his left, a deer, dead on the side of the road. Probably clipped by a passing truck. Its insides poured onto the tar, and flies cautiously walked along the surface of its lifeless eyes.

– didn’t know what it meant, and maybe that had been the sole reason for this field trip to Tribeca.

End of story. I snubbed my smoke, took another pull from the flask. Settled up and stood. Paused for a couple pushing a stroller of triplets. Got moving.

Still dazed with irreconcilable levity when I

made the mistake of one casual glance towards another bench. Saw her lacing up a pair of roller skates. Caught in the middle of a similar blunder, her gaze reaching to meet mine. Only half an opportunity for me to think I recognized those features. Dark skin, cushioned eyes, thick hair reaching down to rest upon her knees. Small mouth, abbreviated lips that bordered on violet dusk.

White t-shirt blessing lovely overtures, torn jeans stopping watches up and down the east side of Manhattan.

Sensed my stare wasn’t welcomed in those parts, and I kept walking.

Kept walking. Carrying that uncertain moment on my back.

Unacceptable.

I turned, expecting a brisk walk back to ground zero.

Only two steps to find her roller skating towards me.

Legs spread too far. Arms held out like a model airplane, pinwheeling.

Eyes remaining on mine this time. Her head tilting, matching my own impossible recollection.

“Are you Lucky Saurelius?”

I nodded. “Are you Zelda?”

She grinned, dazzled the scenery with her smile. “Wow. Lucky.”

“Zelda.”

“I saw you walk past.”

“Yeah, gave my eyes some liberties. Sorry.”

“Wondered why this creep was staring at me like that.”

“That creep was me.”

“I know, stupid.”

“Hello.”

“Hi. Give me a hug.”

I did. She agreed, roller skates sending her body against mine. Arms draped around my neck. I brought my own around her waist, keeping her afloat as her wheels found traction.

Came face to face, holding her hands in mine.

There was that same tiny scar on her cheek.

Zelda grinned. “Wow, again.”

“Yeah.”

“How long has it been, do you think?”

“High school,” I said. No hesitation, a database of previous lives always at the ready. “It was after you left Verona. You were visiting. There was a school dance. We were sitting in your car. You were smoking a cigarette. I didn’t smoke yet. You told me about the scar on your cheek. It was quiet. We were listening to Erika Badu.”

She smiled. “How did you do that, just now?”

“I have trouble letting go.”

Zelda released me from her hands. Watched my arms drop against my hips. “There.”

“That was easy.”

“Where are you going?”

“North.”

“Me too.”

“Thank God…” She took hold, hooked on, and we shuffled forward.

To our left, the sky was blue, orange, pink. Garish. Perfect.

***

We hooked a right across the West Side Highway.

Her wheels a set of untamable, wild horses.

I insisted we could make the light.

“What if we can’t?” she asked.

“We’ll be the first to know.”

We did. And we were. And we slow-rolled our way along Harrison Street, below a short tunnel built between two wings of the BMCC. Half a block of darkness as cars cautiously ambled past.

“How did I not know you were still in New York?” I asked.

“You didn’t know where to look.”

“Maybe you didn’t know where to be.”

She smiled askance, raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you going to be a famous director?”

“Still could be.”

“But will you be?”

“No.”

“So what’s left?”

“Been thinking…” and thinking about it made me smile for the first time in a while. “Writer, maybe.”

“If it’s maybe, then it’s never.”

“Well, then. Writer. Only.”

“Only?”

“Why the hell not?” I glanced up at the dimming clouds. “Writer. Only. That’s all there is.”

We paused at the corner of Greenwich Street.

Red light.

I pulled out my flask. Had a hit. “Want some?”

“Jack Daniel’s?”

“Not a bad guess.”

“I could taste it on your breath.”

“You mean smell.”

“I mean taste.”

“Want some?”

She had a tug. Winced. Smiled. “Writer juice.”

“At least you understand.”

She stared up at me. “So far, so good.”

The light turned green.

“Careful. There’s some glass.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait… there’s a lot of it. All over the crosswalk.”

“Piggy back?”

“Hop on…”

Zelda leapt onto my back. Crushed my neck in a tight chokehold. Tested me all the way towards higher ground. I set her down, gently.

She gave my arm an appreciative squeeze.

A passing ambulance gave two whooping coughs. Set its siren ablaze and barreled down the street.

I nodded. “Shall we beat on?”

Boats against the current?” She quoted. “Borne back ceaselessly into the past?

I was left with nothing to say, other than Uh-huh.

“Thought so.”

She took hold of my arm, and soon we hung a left, shambling our way up Hudson.

***

We were at the corner, split junction of Sixth Avenue and Sullivan.

“This is a Chilean restaurant,” I said, pointing to an awning, brown and yellow tiger tail. “Only one in Manhattan, near as I can figure. Named after a river. In Santiago.”

“Any good?”

“Never been. Always mean to, never do.”

“We should go sometime.”

I kept the possibilities close to my salty heart, as the buildings receded to a blueberry-grey.

Caught sight of a man walking towards us. Frame of a healthy marionette. Grey beard grizzled against muddy skin. Dressed in teak colors, head to toe. Counterpoint steps, as he turned his moistened eyes upon me. Stopped short. Glared at me as we walked by.

“Boy,” he said, “I want to smash your face in, and I don’t even know why…”

I kept on.

Fortunate enough to have Zelda on my arm, tugging along like a red wagon as she kept watch over her shoulder.

“What the fuck was that about, Lucky?”

“Just the universe. Sending a message.”

“You know that guy?”

“No.”

“But?”

“But he thinks he knows me…”

“How you figure that out?”

It was getting dark. “I know a place where we can get some coffee.”

“Hmm.”

I pointed to the ground. “Dog shit.”

She clomped her way around it, wheels misunderstanding their purpose.

***

“It’s a little hard to explain,” I said.

“What’s hard about it?”

Café Gina, Prince Street between Thompson and Sullivan.

White marble tables, carved into tiny circles. Seasonally misplaced Christmas lights hanging from the walls. Large doors opened out onto the streets, letting the urgency of city life stream in. Below the counter, bright lights bounced off decadent pastries.

The harmonic sounds of coffee cups mingled with our own as we sat.

One of us waiting for the other to speak.

I remembered the question, and laid down my answer.

“Yes… My parents. On my father’s side. All the men on my father’s side got their nose broken right about their early twenties. My grandfather, a mishap in Odessa, back in Russia. My father, rugby game in Chile. My brother. Twice. Once while driving along the LA freeway, last-second swerve onto an off-ramp that sent his car into a divider. Second time, a bar in Tijuana. Put his arm around some drunk Mexican and began speaking to him in Spanish. Never mind it was my brother’s first language. Depending on who you are, he passes for almost whatever race you peg him.”

“Like you.”

“Like me… So this cat thought my brother was being disrespectful, some gringo bitch making fun. Fast as you can, pops my brother right in the weathervane.”

“Ouch.”

“My brother can be an idiot.”

“Like you?”

“I’m more of a fool.”

“Difference?”

“Fool doesn’t get executed for making fun of the king.”

Ovidio slid back to our table. Hair cut in a jet-black helmet, parted to the left. A pale baby with premature creases and an eager grin. Twenty-seven-year-old Italian import. “More coffee for you and your friend, Lucky.”

“Thank you much.”

He crouched low. “You, eh… maybe want a little bit of the wine?”

“I want all the wine.”

“We got a bottle open in the back. Maybe a little bit in a coffee cup? Our little secret?”

I gave Zelda the silent question. She nodded.

I relayed the message to Ovidio. “Two cups of our little secret. Please.”

He scurried back behind the counter.

Zelda poured some sugar, stirred. “You still haven’t explained yourself.”

“So every man on my father’s side had his nose broken. Right about when they were twenty years old.”

“I’m guessing that’s you.”

“For the past week at least.”

Ovidio dropped off our clandestine red, and scuttled to the next table.

“For the past week?” Zelda asked.

“Random men, strangers in the streets. All of them have been picking fights with me. Swinging wildly. Had some Jersey asshole body check me outside Bobst Library just yesterday. Practically knocked me into a wall, then started screaming, What, want to start something? Want to start something, bitch?

“And the guy in the hat earlier?”

“The guy in the hat earlier, yeah.”

I pulled out a pack of Marlboros. Offered Zelda a stick. She shook her head, pulled out a pack of Parliaments. We lit up, sipped some wine. Chianti, from what I could taste.

“So it’s inevitable?” Zelda asked.

“Maybe.”

“You believe in destiny.”

“That’s hard to say.”

“What’s hard about it?”

“Lot of chance out there…”

“Yeah, ok. The chances of so many random people looking to punch you in the face, break your nose. What do you figure that figure that comes out to?”

“Gastronomical.” I took a drag. “Don’t look like the curse is in any mood to be broken.” Drained my wine and exhaled.

Zelda did the same. Pointed with her chin. “You’re smoking.”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t used to do that, last time we saw each other.”

“Would you have remembered if I hadn’t reminded you?”

“I do remember you, Lucky.”

Our smoke mingled in the air between us.

She ran a finger along the scar on her cheek.

Ovidio swept in to keep the moment from coming into focus. “Oh, no! Your cups are empty! Let me take them, I will refill them for you.”

Zelda watched him leave. Shifted her eyes back to me. Christmas lights dancing off her skin. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to know more.”

“I know a bar on Macdougal that caters to the underage.”

“And to think, all I did was wake up this morning.”

From beneath the table, I could hear her wheels rolling back and forth along the tiles.

***

It took another piggy back ride to get her down the steps of Creole Nights.

Greeted by the ring of a silver bell and sounds of a dozen jaws dropping. Regulars unable to comprehend who had got dragged in by what the cat dragged in.

I set Zelda down at a table by the mural, and headed to the bar.

Aiysan gave me a wink. “Lucky, Lucky, Lucky.”

Joined by Zephyr, Evan, Orlando and company:

“Nice.”

“Somebody’s got a live one tonight.”

“Mr. Lucky Saurelius, the man.”

“Enough.” I accepted a gifted cigarette and a light. “You do realize this joint’s the size of thimble.”

“I can hear you!” Zelda called out from the table.

Zephyr laughed, brought his hands together. “Busted!”

Served me up a pair of Coronas. On the house.

I took them back to the table. She was seated on the bench, back to the wall. I sat across from her, my own back to the room. We both worked the limes down our longnecks and toasted.

Zelda was good with the drink, already halfway through.

She burped. “Excuse me.”

“No need.”

“Hm.” She lit a cigarette. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“Which one?”

“Any of them.”

“Starting now.”

“You are destined to get your nose broken. But you haven’t. Because there’s a lot of chance out there.”

“There is.”

“What’s holding it back?”

“You’re familiar with chaos theory.”

“No.”

“No?”

“You ever heard of Steles?” she asked.

“No.”

“No?”

“Ok.”

“So we all know what we know.”

I took a sip of beer, had a drag. “You ever think what might have happened if only?”

“All the time.”

“Imagine if only, then take it down to the smallest of events.”

“Wait, is this the butterfly thing?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Yes…” I lifted my hand. Stuck my pinky out. “This is my pinky.”

“I know.”

“Just a pinky.”

“Yeah. Keep on.”

“And now…” I began to move my little finger in slow, semicircles. “There I go. I’m changing the air around us. True, the door is closed, and it’s a long way from here to Melbourne, but like it or not, I may be affecting the weather half way across the world. Just by this. Just by doing this.”

Zelda gave me a look. “Then stop doing it.”

I paused. Withdrew my hand. Reached for my beer. “Never thought of it that way.”

“See, you can make room.”

“Think so?”

“Double edge. Before I left the house today, I put on roller skates.”

“So now there’s us.”

“Here.”

“Destiny?”

“Any chance I could get another drink?”

I held up my pinky.

Zelda shook her head. “I told you to stop doing that.”

“Not what you think.”

Zephyr coasted by with another pair of Coronas. “Here you go, Lucky…” He smiled at Zelda. “Good to see you again. Love the roller skates.”

She gave him a wink.

I lit another cigarette. “Yeah, Zelda. Good to see you again.”

“You heard of Prince Wesley?”

“Yeah. Reggae singer. Big fellah, gray dreads?”

“Yeah. Used to date my mom.”

“You’ve been here before.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t tell me I don’t know where to look.”

“What about when?”

“Saturday, right?”

“Yes.”

“Saturday, then.”

We toasted. Quietly swept the unspoken coincidences aside.

***

Half past midnight, and it was the same scene. Six drinks later. The live music had canceled, leaving room for softer sounds. Tables topped with drinks, conversation. Music dressed in shades of late-eighties reggae.

Zelda and I were smiling.

A little unbelievable, even to myself.

“I remember the day,” I said.

“More,” she said.

“I was lying with my head in your lap. You were touching my temples.” I reached up with my fingers. About to demonstrate, when –

“I told you to stop doing that.”

I put my hands down. Had a drink. “ – you were touching my temples.”

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“You seem… irritated.”

“I’m irritated that nothing ever happened.”

“A little irritated myself.”

“Your fault,” she said. Lit another cigarette.

“Yes, I know.”

“Do you remember why?”

“Because I’m a fool.”

“A fool can insult the king without worry of execution.”

“But me?”

“You told me, a few days later, that I was like a virus.”

“Yes.”

“Prove it. Prove you remember, because it’s stuck with me all these years.”

The speakers tuned themselves to No Doubt, Underneath It All.

“I told you I liked you. Short sold it. It was more than simple affection. But I wasn’t ready to try for anything. With anyone, what it meant to mean something. Or anything. You got to me too late, I guess. And I told you, that ever since I met you, I internalized you. And it was like a virus. You get it. You deal with it. You beat it. Then it stays in your body. Never leaves.”

“Yeah.”

“Not the best way to describe how I felt about you, agreed.”

“You compared me to chicken pox.”

“To be fair, I compared you to shingles.”

“Yum.”

“I regret it, wholesale.”

“Me too.”

“Yes.”

“I think of the music, and I get…” she shook her head. Cigarette, beer. “I just get how I am right now.”

“Yes, but we’re here right now,” I said. “So one thing leads to another.”

“Mm.”

“Want me to take you home?”

“I want to keep talking.”

“Me too.”

“And send another drink our way. Who do you have to fuck around here to get a shot of tequila?”

“Nobody.”

I went to the bar and placed my order.

Ignored the regulars. Looked over my shoulder.

She was playing with her hair…

***

Side by side.

Both of us on that bench, four shots deep. Beers cleared, moved on, long since ignoring the count. Cigarettes nearing empty. Budweiser clock reading 4:15. Only a couple of stragglers left behind.

We were shoulder to shoulder.

One of her legs resting on a chair. Wheels wondering what happened, remembering when they used to matter. I watched the contours of her thighs press against whitewashed jeans.

No doubt we were staring at the same sad scene. Focusing on the same collection of martini glasses left behind by those who were done with stories.

“So when does it end?” she asked, quietly. Lit a cigarette with a misshapen candle. “When you turn twenty-one? Twenty-two? Ever?”

“How old are you, these days?”

“That’s a good question.”

“More of a common question.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“You know I’m adopted.”

“Yes.”

“So my official date has me at twenty. But when I went back to visit the village where I was born, in Ethiopia, they said otherwise.”

“Otherwise how?”

“They remembered the night I was born. They knew me. Said that the moon disagreed. Said that I must be at least twenty-four. Could be I’m old enough to be having a drink without worrying about what my ID has to say about it…”

“Wow.”

“A good story.”

“It belongs somewhere.”

“Maybe that was the point,” she said. “Maybe we were only supposed to meet for this one story. This one idea, right?”

“Maybe. But I don’t like it.”

“There’s a butterfly in Japan laughing at you.”

“Don’t speak Japanese.”

“You make sense, though, in a strange way.”

“Don’t know no other way to do it.”

“The scar on my cheek.”

“Yes.”

“You know how I got it?”

“You told me that night in the car.”

“You need to hear it again, though. Right?”

“Yes.”

“They crept into my house and killed my mother,” she said. “It was during the Ogaden War, or thereabouts. I was a baby. Can’t say I remember. Story goes I was lying in bed with her. They put a bullet in her head, and that bullet scratched my cheek… Whether on its way in or out, I don’t know…” She picked up a shot glass and licked at stray grains of salt.

“What a stupid world.”

“You want to talk about the smallest of initial conditions. Half an inch, a nervous twitch from the hit man,and I wouldn’t be here. Random, random.” She hummed along as Jonny Nash began to sing I Can SeeClearly Now. “Do you think we can we do anything to stop it?”

“Got a quarter we can flip?”

She dug into her pocket. Lifted her lap from the bench as she did. Hips rubbing against mine. Withdrew a twenty-five cent piece. Placed it on the table. I picked it up and threw it across the bar.

She gave me the favor of a deep kiss.

I tasted tequila and unscented candles.

“What did that mean?” she asked.

“Just… I don’t know.”

“Hey!” Zephyr looked up from his totals. Spectacles gleaming with perfect reflections. “If you two want to fuck, you have to go home!”

“Poetry,” Zelda said.

“Can I walk you back to your place?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve got wheels on my feet… you can roll me there.”

Before that, we had some stairs to contend with.

***

Pale blue and luminous greys acted as escorts.

Up along Third Street. Past Castlebar, the Beantown Comedy Club, several years shy of knowing either one. Past LaGuardia place. A city coming to life, second chance in every last living thing. Zelda by my side. Arm linked with mine, my own little sidecar.

She stopped before the Washington Square Village apartment complex.

“You’re kidding.”

“What?”

I lit a cigarette. “This is where you live? This whole time? Right around the corner from where I pretend to learn?”

“My mother is a professor in African studies.”

“If that don’t beat all.”

She lit her own cigarette. “It don’t.”

“Says you.”

“Says me.”

No stopping the sun. Blue might soon give away to pink. The nearby roar of a garbage truck signaling the start of a new day in Manhattan.

“I don’t think it’s true,” I told her.

She bent down to unlace her skates. “What’s that?”

“I’m not fucking around, Zelda. Stand up and talk to me.”

“In a minute.”

I waited. Counted down the full sixty seconds.

Sure enough, time enough to get those skates off.

Zelda slung them over her shoulder.

First glance at tie-dyed socks. Toes wriggling against the concrete.

“It can’t just be that you don’t know how old you are,” I said. “It has to be more. The reason we met. The reason we’re standing here in the cold, right?”

“Maybe.”

“It’s not good enough.”

“We can always see each other tomorrow.”

“It is tomorrow. Already.”

“Yeah…” She put her palm along the back of my neck. “Another day without getting your nose broke. Why not take the same chance with us?”

“I should warn you, if I see you again, I’m going to kiss you.”

“You already did.”

“You kissed me.”

“Say it again.”

“I’m going to kiss you. I’m going to mean it. And it’s going to be endless.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.” She paused. Glanced down the street. “Hug me already.”

I did as I was told.

“Perfect day,” I said.

“Yes.”

She drew back. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes.”

Zelda gave me a smile to remember her by and walked away.

I took a breath and popped my last Marlboro. Walked east towards the 6 train. Searching my pockets for a light. Thrown off my stride as an NYU janitor shoved me against a chainlink fence.

“What!?” he cried out. “Want to fight? Want to fuckin’ fight?”

I stepped up to him. Face to face.

“Yes,” I said.

And it would be years before I saw Zelda again, and the flush would have faded, neither one of us understanding what we had started or stated. But for the time being, I had the second greatest day on my side.

I stepped close, wondering if he could taste the Jack Daniel’s. “Today, I’m fucking invincible.”

He thought about it, then kept on his way.

Sent a few glances over his shoulder. Uncertain as I was.

I changed my heading towards Washington Square Park. Another calendar moment revealing its hand. But at the time, tomorrow was beholden to sleep.

And I walked home, following my nose, unable to imagine a more perfect fucking day.

###

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grey was the color of my resolution.

stories_from_a_big_bar-honey_resize

 

Not a lot of people can say they woke up in Scotland.

A handful of Scottish people, maybe.

But then again, most of the Scots I’ve met don’t describe it that way.

Admitting the world is grey, that’s how I’ve heard it.

And grey was the word for the day. Color of the light, dropping its mention through the window, dimensions one by one. A reminder of where I was. Couple of empty bottles in my head, open transcript of what went right the previous night. Half covered by a dusty quilt, sprawled over a spongy mattress, springs phoning it in. Boxes piled high against the wall. Consequent rows gradually stacked lower, meeting the bed in single units. A storage deposit for what must have been an amazing life.

Half naked body next to me, reminding me of all that was left to be thankful for.

Three hours of sleep tucked under my belt, and I sent my hands over her body, if only to assure myself this was the one thing I didn’t deserve.

Kate stirred. Took hold of my arms, wrapped them around her breasts, then sent them down her body. My lips pressed against her neck, and I sensed the two of us anxious to rid ourselves of the same thoughts. Tight knit  haircut giving room for my breath to accelerate along her shoulders, down her back, tongue looking to perform a soft, wet spinal tap. She turned towards me. Turned towards me, and through the headache and misunderstanding of what had brought me there, she smiled. Grassy eyes wide, flecks of a Celtic sky matching our surroundings.

“Please tell me you slept,” she said.

I brought my fingers up to her forehead.

Wished there was some other chance for a better tomorrow: “I slept.”

She kissed me.

I kissed her back, and it filled in for absent hues.

And grey was the color of the sky, and sunshine, a spotlight, highlighting a room on the outskirts of a strange Scottish city.

###

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sci-fi.

stories_from_a_big_bar-honey_resize

It was a Tuesday in mid September, on a planet in its final throes . An entire population in perfect sync. Transfixed. Eyes on broadcasted skies, awaiting the moment of First Contact.

Several weeks had passed since the government’s revelation, and humanity remained unchanged. Citizens stuck with their jobs, second and third shifts. Factories kept churning out sneakers, chairs, action figures, and the people kept on buying every last bit of it. Families continued to eat and scream at each other while couples pored over receipts, counted dollar after dollar. Everyone still drank, starved, screwed, watched television, stepped in front of stray bullets and did what they did.

Only now, there was something to look forward to. A common thread linking all of humanity, that’s how most everyone handled the news. And on the day of the arrival, most everyone wanted to be someplace on purpose. The younger set above all others. The Greatest Generation had Pearl Harbor. The Boomers, JFK. And now history was back to claim their children in those waning summer weeks of 2001. A fresh generation, anticipating the shape of their memories. Televisions cranked to capacity.

Poised on the brink of a brave new world.

Still, the only thing Tess Newhart would care to remember was sitting at the end of a bar in Verona, North Carolina. Cradling a double of Irish whiskey. One-fifteen in the afternoon, and not giving a fuck about any of it.

She gazed across the room, connections never quite landing. Staring through walls. It wasn’t a typical day for The Aussie, or the world for that matter, but all roads led to the same destination. Bars up the block must have been packed. University crowd spilling into the streets, into her bar. Too many young people. People her age, people she couldn’t stand. Her mind buzzed. Wandered, took sharp left turns.

Eight separate screens were splashing CNN’s  coverage from the capitol. Pundits killing time, recombining words in every possible way to inform the public every five minutes that the aliens had yet to arrive.

…The announcement of their impending arrival, three weeks ago to the day, reached the ears of the world with a message of peace and a claim to the answer to – and I’m quoting the translation, here – “all of life’s mysteries and miseries…”

Tess took a pull of her cigarette. Loosened her tie, unbuttoned her collar. Killed her double of Jamison’s. Scored another round, a minor miracle from an overworked barkeep. Had a sip. Took a lazy look beside her. Last seat in line occupied by a college senior, all smiles and bubbly as her drink. Her straw was stained with an excess of lipstick. Platinum highlights. A trail of glitter winked playfully along her neck, across her tits. There was something moderately beautiful about her, Tess supposed.

College girl caught Tess staring.

Then, for some reason, she spoke: “Exciting, right?”

“Not really.”

“Oh. I see. You’re one of the cool ones.”

“Nope.”

“How can you not be excited?”

Tess hadn’t really thought about it. “I haven’t really thought about it,” she said.

“That answers my second question.”

“Which is?”

“Now I feel stupid asking it.”

“Which was going to be, then?”

The girl sighed. “I was going to ask you if you had dressed up. For the occasion… for the aliens.”

“No.” Tess popped her neck. “I got out of work early. Everyone did. Guess a five-star restaurant ain’t the place to be today. Even the elite are slumming it.”

“Well, forgive me for thinking aliens are a big deal.”

The answer to all of life’s mysteries and miseries, is that it?”

“Their words. Not mine.”

Tess snubbed her cigarette. “There are no answers.”

“Everyone else seems to think so.”

“I never even met these aliens.”

“You’re not excited.”

“Not really, no.”

“Are you scared?”

“No.” Tess took a swallow of whiskey. Tried again. “No. Are you?”

“For a few years now.”

The telecast was replaced with a commercial for the Conair Cord Keeper. Tess pretended to be enraptured by the bouncing blonde, hairdryer to her temple like a loaded gun. The college girl stared into the blue skies of her drink. Tess knew that was it for their conversation. She slid out of her barstool. Battled her way through the bar, catching the chatter.

Vested hopes.

Two steps behind a flock of chickadees on a little field trip to the lady’s room.

Tess helped herself to door number two.

She breathed in the putrid stench of the men’s room. A pair of frat boys kept right on with their hair, sharing the mirror. Tess walked into the stall. Wiped the seat. Had a squat. Listened in, kids telling tales out of school. Saturday night conquests. Multiple positions, countless orgasms, gallons of cum all over those tight, coed bodies. Their conversation seemed to lack a certain honesty. She finished and waited for them to leave. Flushed the toilet and went to wash up.

Ran wet hands down her face.

Stared at the mirror.

Doe eyes gazed back with wasted longing. Porcelain skin. Black hair cut close, front end gelled to full attention.

Tess reached for the towel dispenser. Pumped it once, twice. Turned to the left, regarding a railway body, shapeless beneath her white dress shirt and black slacks. Tugged at her belt. Pumped the handle ten more times. Tore at the winding paper curtain, wrapping recycled brown around her hand. Moving fast. Took the impromptu bundle and slid it down her pants.

Put on a profile pose. Gave her new bulge a tiny pat.

Pendulum swinging to the right.

Tess made her way back to bar’s end, stumbling slightly. The Aussie had doubled its numbers, a thick net of tuna-safe dolphins struggling to make room. She slumped into her seat. The girl with the painted smile was glued to the tube.

Tess gave the bartender a wave, before catching sight of her glass.

“I got you another drink,” the college girl said. “Got one for me, too. Jamison’s, right?”

“Yeah.” This was different. “Thanks, you.”

“And my name is Lisa.”

“My name’s Tyler,” Tess said. “And thanks, Lisa.”

“I have a big heart.”

“Careful, then.”

“I suppose.”

“The bigger your heart, the more likely you are to choke on it.”

“I’m sorry you think that.”

Tess glanced up at the television. Another rundown of the dais; all the leaders, authorities and dignitaries chosen to best represent this blue planet.

Camera holding tight on the face of a nervous chaplain.

“Ha.” Tess raised her glass in a toast no one was sharing. “You want to feel sorry for somebody, feel sorry for those poor assholes. Genesis ain’t going to rewrite itself.”

Lisa ambushed Tess with a quick clink of her glass. “You don’t believe in God?”

They drank, wiped their lips in unison. “I do, actually.”

“You don’t seem to be on very good terms with him.”

“I am.”

“Is that right?”

“It’s his friends that I don’t get along with.”

“That’s a lot of people.”

“I know.” Tess lit a cigarette. “And that many people couldn’t possibly be right.”

“Never been to church?”

“Used to. Every Sunday, dressed in my best. An outfit my mother used to keep in her own closet, keep me from getting grass stains all over those pretty colors.”

Lisa helped herself to a cigarette. “What happened?”

“I got sick of all that truth.”

Lisa laughed.

Tess liked how it sounded, clean and frightened.

But the music sort of went away before it was done.

Tess was having trouble keeping her eyes from a blatant stare.

Lisa toyed with her hair. Turned to face Tess. “You’re not like other boys.”

“I know.”

“Can I show you something?”

“Yeah.”

Lisa pulled at the neckline of her shirt. Wasn’t wearing a bra, right breast laid bare. A single, light brown nipple peeked up at Tess. Sharing the stage was a tattoo of a miniature crucifix. Size of a thumbnail, just a pair of intersecting lines. No one else to witness. All eyes on the television.

Tess reached for Lisa’s shoulder, and Lisa quickly covered herself.

Beating a quick retreat, Tess finished her drink. “I think tattoos are the lowest form of self expression possible.”

“I know, right?”

“How old were you when you got it?”

“Ten, maybe. Ten, something like that.”

“That’s… early. For tattoos.”

“Wasn’t a choice,” she said. Finished her drink, and reapplied her lipstick. “I’m not so fond of truth myself.”

Tess ordered another round. They sat without speaking, ignoring the television and massive crowds stationed at the nation’s capitol. Tess nudged her pack of cigarettes towards Lisa.

Lisa took one and lit it with a broken match. Helped Tess get her own going. Fresh drinks arrived. There wasn’t much to go with in the world, Tess felt. Not much of anything, really.

“Hey, you,” Lisa said.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for the cigarette.”

Everything had grown quiet somehow, and Tess thought of kissing her for the length of an entire week, taking her to bed and never leaving. She didn’t, though, because they most likely didn’t have more than a few minutes left between the two of them.

“You know what you need?” Tess asked.

“What?”

“Hold on to whatever uncertainty you can get your hands on.”

Lisa laughed, this time letting it ride. “I’m sorry. What was your name, again?”

And Tess would have told her that second time around. Confessed to everything, but the moment was stolen as a scream ripped the walls apart.

All heads caught on fishing lures, yanked towards the television screens.

Live and direct, as a silver orb floated innocently towards the reflecting pool. Settled on the manicured grass. The legions of officials, leaders, advisers, and common folk all took two reflexive steps back.

Overhead, a flock of geese made their way south, sensing an early winter.

The bar went quiet. Bodies leaning forward, pressed together. Waiting. A silence heard the world ‘round. Everybody’s mind one massive question mark.

Tess felt the early stirrings of a headache.

The orb began to split apart along a vertical seam. Opened wide to reveal an interior of sunburst yellow, free of all depth. Window to an endless sky. No point of reference for the staircase that unfurled towards the ground like a beaded, metallic tongue.

From the back of the bar, a woman began to sob.

Nobody made a move to comfort her.

Tess was filled with an inexplicable rage upon discovering that the alien looked remarkably human. Explicitly human, the last thing on everyone’s mind. Dressed in androgynous reds. A computer simulation of every race, poured into a single, six-foot vessel.

The woman’s cries turned to wails. Murmurs erupted across the bar, as the alien coasted gracefully towards a wooden lectern. It leaned into the microphone. Translucent eyes maintaining their distance.

Tess’s stomach folded into fourths.

Outside The Aussie, traffic stalled.

Lisa bit her tongue, and Tess could hear the blood begin to trickle along her teeth.

Field reporters watched in wonder, and the nervous chaplain remained stiff, his face ashen, damp.

Finally, the alien opened its mouth. Didn’t take a breath. Lips unmoving as he spoke his first words, each one in crisp, artificial English.

“Citizens of your Earth…” the announcement bypassed the amplifiers, echoed over the buildings of downtown DC. “I bring you the answer you have all been searching for… the purpose… the answer to all of life’s mysteries and miseries…”

Tess left her bloodlines behind. Began to fade away in the face of future history.

The alien held out its palm. Within seconds, a thick black book had manifested, held aloft for everyone to see. Childish confusion spread as everyone tried to make out the letters on the cover. A quick bit of focusing from the lens at CNN took care of that, and suddenly the title jumped into sharp focus.

Twelve letters, etched in gold, all in a very specific order to spell out a very specific phrase:

THE HOLY BIBLE

Tess felt a lonely, horrified tear wander down her cheek.

Lisa reached out to grab Tess’s thigh, oblivious to the papery bulge in her pants.

Both of them the first to speak in perfect unison:

“Oh, fuck.”

Live and direct from the centerpiece of history, the chaplain relaxed, a tranquil smile now resting on his face.

###

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my friend.

spleeple

i was sitting on a stranger’s futon, counting sheep, when one happened to wander from the fence. came on over and bummed a smoke. helped itself to some wine. bright white and so very cloudy. after an hour or so, i felt that talking to a sheep couldn’t be any more crazy than watching one make short work of my reds.

“got nowhere to be?” i asked.

when he spoke, his voice was calm, almost monotone. “soon enough, and maybe i will.”

“just ‘till i run out of wine and cigarettes?”

“stick with me, and you  never will.”

i nodded. watched my new companion reach for another smoke. easy enough, though he nodded at me, implying that pouring a glass might not go so well for a set of clumsy hooves.

poured him some of what was to come.

figured what the hell, and patted the futon. “care to join me?”

the sheep took a few steps, climbed aboard. tucked his legs beneath. cotton swab body, snout mouth to mouth with a cotton filter.

we enjoyed that for as long as we could, single desk lamp in the corner keeping us honest.

“i don’t have a lot of time,” he said.

“figured as much.”

“there’s something i need.”

“i feel i owe you as much for your visit.” poured some wine down his throat, gave his chin a light wipe with my index. “your hundred or so brothers have never done much for me, but you were always there.”

he smoked with a pleasant tear in his eye. “i want a friend.”

“guess i haven’t been much of one.”

“you know i can’t comment on that, Lucky.”

i knew the rules. there was the fence. there were the numbers. meaningless assignments. what mattered most was the last one that allowed for those few hours i would be fortunate enough to never remember.

“sorry,” i said. “i just like you, is all. you’re soft and unappreciated.”

“yes.” he curled close to me, laid his head on my lap. “and i want a friend.”

“what kind of friend?”

“i would like a bird. a bird would be nice.”

“what kind of bird?”

“a small one.”

“a small bird.”

“a small bird who is also my friend.”

i smiled, watched the room grow hazy with smoke. sure enough, no matter how much wine we drank, the bottle remained full. sweet crimson reflecting off wayward walls. “ok.”

the sheep lifted his ears. “ok?”

“i’d give you all the birds i could, if i could, just to let you count them and have a little sleep yourself.”

“i just want one.”

“imagine that.”

“could you?”

“yes.” i took the cigarette from his mouth, drank his wine. “now go on home, my friend.”

the sheep chuffed, his breath hot on my arm. made it off the futon with some difficulty. he gave me one last look.

i stared into his endless, black eyes. ran my hands through woolen textures. “anything else?”
“will this friend be with me always?” he asked, whispered in that same endless tenor.

“yes.”

“i would like it very much if this bird would stand on my head.”

i nodded, eyelids heavy. “can’t imagine anyplace else it would rather be.”

“good night, Lucky.”

i watched that round, beautiful creature turn tail as he began to shuffle, delicate steps towards the fence; nothing but green before it.

what lay beyond that, i could only imagine.

when i woke up, there were birds to ask me all about it.

###

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the ballad of fast jack.

stories_from_a_big_bar-honey_resize

And I’m warned by all sorts. From activists to pool hall bruisers, to those suspicious few who have found the time to do both:

“The future’s got a special place for people like you…”

And I tell them…

“I’ve got a special story for people like you…”

 

Two hours before the end of the world, Fast Jack left his ten-by-four flophouse, and went wandering for a drink. Led down busted, undesirable streets by a bulbous nose. Inexcusably long hair hanging before blue eyes, both tinted a hungover, cardiac red. Shuffled through the double doors of an artificial saloon. Buttons of midday sunlight led to a bartender with an undiagnosed twitch in his right arm. Only one tooth to boot, but nobody ever noticed that. One of those details what turned out to be just a little too typical, every ignorant soul a little too distracted by a bar that was never wiped down, paralyzed ceiling fans, and the exhausted creak of barstools, warped from years of thankless servitude.

Fast Jack – or Cole, as he was known to nobody other than himself – sat down and gave mention to the bartender. With this reminder clutched firmly in fist, Bartender served up a scotch. But it was better n’ the usual. Top Shelf. An unhealthy dose of Johnnie Red, which was good as it got between those rotting walls.

Fast Jack asked why, and Bartender said, “Two-Time Crenshaw is still alive.”

“So?”

“Two-Time was set to be killed by Lennox.”

“Why’s that?” The scotch went elsewhere, and seconds later, refilled.

 “Two-Time fucked Lennox’s girl.”

 “Pink Lady?”

 “Pink Lady, that’s the one. Lennox blew this place last night on the war path. Pissed n’ blitzed, telling us all he was going to stab Two-Time in the mouth.”

 “And Two-Time’s still alive?”

“Told Lennox it was you.”

Well, Fast Jack knew right then that it was over for him. Unless he fingered someone else. Let the Furies play hopscotch until someone faltered in the art of fiction. On and on. Could take years for any kind of imaginary vengeance to finally rest its sorry feet.

Same thing every last one of them was doing.

So Fast Jack downed his drink, and ran along the inside track of impending doom. Got himself another one. Turned his life into a quick, impersonal laundry list. Dead mother. Father fond of raping his sister. Hands fond of a glass and the occasional woman who might take payment in return for ignoring that face of his, half-deformed by a hash-house grease fire on the fringes of Baton Rouge. Brain on a slow boil, twelve steps shy of complete annihilation. Senses dulled from a juke box gone off the record. Rained on and dried out by a sun that shone in shifts.

In the midst of such memoires, a midget with a cowboy hat stormed in and had a drink. Cackled along with his bourbon and left within the same miraculous minute.

“It’s been some kind of a time,” Fast Jack mused. Only a moment or so to drape his arm around this thought, before Lennox cried out from the streets:

“Fast Jack!”

Fast Jack lit a cigarette, one eye closed against the smoke.

 “I’m calling you out, Bitch!”

Fast Jack turned to Bartender: “One more?”

“Don’t go out there.”

“I’m no idiot.”

Bartender poured another one. That overworked, singular eye measuring an oversized hit.

Jack took it down. Caught his half-face in the mirror. Paid without tipping.

 “I hope he kills you,” Bartender spat.

Jack laughed, and emptied the contents of his wallet onto the bar.

“Come back, Fast Jack!” Bartender cried, and Fast Jack kept grinning every last step of the way, because life was like that. Life was a second midget in one day, this one by the name of Lennox. Life was getting floored, hunting knife to the throat, a three foot human being screaming drunk accusations while the block contented themselves with watching. Life was all about blood, one quick gush of arterial spray, spilling into the gutter, only to reunite with the city’s drinking water someday.

But life was more than that.

It was the laughter that came half an hour before the end of the world.

Half an hour before the end of the world, and Jack, Fast Jack, never saw that meteor coming…

 

And when people tell me: “That never happened.”

I say: “What makes you so sure?”

And they say: “The world hasn’t ended.”

“Wait,” I tell them, and go wandering for a drink.

 

Sidewalk pumping against my sneaks, because, I know, it’s the pavement that does all the walking.

###

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so long and thanks for all the pish.

super hero.

stories_from_a_big_bar-honey_resize

An entire evening’s worth of liquor was always well and good, and always best when paired with a good head start.

Two in the afternoon, parked in my seat. Meter running. Double greyhound. Grapefruit juice refracting against Castlebar’s narrow windows. Taking the initial steps towards curing what ails. Brilliant exchanges with the bartender, first-shift regulars. Enjoying the occasional fresh face. Sending the occasional barfly home for a nap, and taking bets on how many hours, maybe minutes, before we would see his sorry face again. Never too many words away from laughter. There was a transcendent joy in taking it from the top, reassigning hangovers under the accumulated weight of our yesterdays.

A few drinks down the assembly line, though, and venom would steep into the foundation. A calibrated dismay, free of form, sense or center, that nobody in those sunset hours knew exactly who I was. What I was really thinking, saying, or seeking to accomplish. Further drinks accompanied by the cagey certainty that I had no idea either.

I would strong-arm my way into conversations, spout predictions. Soliciting the future, what lay in store for all of us. A scorched planet, the end of all personal interaction, floodwaters that would send cities fleeing.

And from there, more drinks. Rungs slipping past my palms as the ladder rushed past, light at the end of the tunnel narrowing to a distant star. Sending all superfluous life to the outskirts, only to be told by the bartender that it was time for me to go home.

The one everlasting truth they always seemed to know.

“Brigid would never cut me off,” I could have been heard to say.

A sly look from Rowan. “Who the hell is Brigid, Lucky?”

And maybe I would squint as I laid down my tip. “I don’t know.”

And it was July when I found myself stumbling westward. Trying for a sober stride while my left and right fought over whose turn it was to pay. Possibly mumbling to myself. Most certainly not listening to either one. Patting down my pockets. Finding the flame stick. Thinking maybe I had left my cigarettes at the bar. Body doing a one-eighty. Feet just a little late on the uptake as I marched backwards into the crosshairs of Third and Sullivan.

Pinned by the yellow burn of gleaming monster eyes.

No time for the driver to hit the brakes.

Hardly time to wonder whether death might have a particular taste, when someone grabbed hold of my shoulders. A rough moment of clarity that gave strange constancy to those digits. Three fingers from each hand wrapping themselves around my chest, down under my arms, back around, over and under, creating a biologically impossible harness…

Then I was yanked.

Soaring backwards through the air, extracted with a velocity that left trails of vomit shimmering in a rotten, pastel rainbow. Not one drop landing on my jacket or faded jeans. Felt my ass hit the sidewalk. Expecting to see the face of my savior hovering above mine with sober concern.

But the ride didn’t end there.

Didn’t stop. Sliding on my back now, legs flailing. Still in the grasp of those irrational tendrils as I was dragged along Sullivan. Enough speed to lift me from the ground, flying parallel to the sidewalk, bobsledding upside down. Storefronts and stoops a pinwheel blur. Wearing my entrails for shoelaces, confident they would be decorating the streets within a few short seconds.

And within those seconds, I cleared Bleecker Street. Massive acceleration slowing the skinny hand. Traffic on West Houston reduced to a relative crawl. Both lanes home to ambling beasts, a great migration of reinforced steel and lazy headlights.

Felt my mind begin to slip, stretch. Irreversible.

Saved by a dull thud. Body meeting some malleable barrier, rising, turning summersaults through the air. I went flying. Got a glimpse of someone flying with me.

Copilot were the final syllables I managed before slamming against the wall of St. Anthony. Wind knocked out of me for a second time as I fell face down in a damp patch of grass.

I managed to get on all fours. Waiting for my lungs to decompress. Hiccupping, half retching. Finally getting in a good one. B-sides scratching against my throat as I breathed in. Coughed. Next one coming easier, lifting me to my feet.

Said feet stumbling forward, side to side.

Twirling around, just once.

Toe to toe with a superhero named David.

Known to himself and his friends as Eclipse.

He was five-five, nice symmetry to the height as well as the face. Though that symmetry was nothing to brag about. Balding, face a middle-aged network of dried riverbeds. The kind of ears you tell stories about. Hypnotized eyes of a subway conductor. Arm extended, inviting mine for a perfectly normal shake, and I had to wonder how it was we had made it this far.

“I’m David,” he said.

I nodded. Twisted my shoulder, felt a joint pop. “David, huh?”

“My friends call me Eclipse.”

“Ok. Why is that?”

“Because I can bend. My arms, lengthen them. Like light. Eisenstein’s theory of relativity, proven by Arthur Eddington during a solar eclipse, caught the sunlight bending –”

“Yes,” I interrupted. “That’s a bit of a stretch. Also, how come they don’t call you Stretch?”

He shrugged. “Can’t give yourself a nickname.”

“Well, thanks anyway. I suppose I owe you for saving my skin.”

“You really haven’t thought twice about it, have you?”

“Thought?”

“You just got dragged some hundred yards by retractable arms.”

“Yes.”

“By a man named David who calls himself the Eclipse.”

“At least that last part wasn’t your idea.”

His smile was a bargain at half the price. “Want to see more?”

I watched as a teenager coasted past on his skateboarded. Had a moment there where I saw him ollie off the curb, try to stick the landing. Fucking up. Back wheels hitting a crushed soda can. Landing on his side. On his side, on his arm. Snap of the radius as bones splintered in two.

Two seconds later, I saw him ollie off the curb.

Turned away.

Wasn’t enough to muffle the skater’s screams as his wrist lost all meaning.

“Why did you do that?”

I glanced over to find David sizing me up. “Huh?”

“You turned away. Why?”

“Because…” There was the kid, sitting in the gutter. Clutching his arm, shrieking. Staring at what used to be a given set of instructions. I began to walk towards him.

“Wait,” David insisted. “Answer the question.”

“What?”

“Why did you turn away?” David repeated, voice loud over the screams. “Tell me.”

“Jesus, David, come on.”

“Here come the others…” Small tribes of concerned citizens were already congregating from all sides of the street. “It’s actually our best chance.”

“Best chance for what?”

“Quickly.”

He motioned for me to follow him past the church steps, and down a second set. Paused at the wooden door, imbedded into a squat, stone archway. Sending me a second cue, this time with a circumspect urgency. “They aren’t looking at us. They won’t see. This is it, Lucky. Now, or not at all.”

I turned back to the kid, now the focal point of Houston street.

Every last soul gathered by his side, watching from a distance, or ignoring the tears and all that surrounded them.

I trotted down steps. Gave David a vigilant frown.

He pressed his palm against the door. Fingers spread far as they could go, though clearly not as far as they could stretch. The low warble of an angry insect flooded my ears. The wooden panels began to warp, just enough to hint at a heartbeat, before the door creaked open. Swinging inwards, rather than out. And rather than a rec room or dingy boiler, a metal staircase that led further into a faraway shade of aqua blue.

“Now, Lucky,” David said. “Right now.”

I stepped through the stone arch. Giving up on the outside as I took several rusted steps down into the dwelling. Heard the door close. Waited for David to join me.

“You did good, Lucky,” he said. There were no walls, no ceiling, but his voice still managed to find its echo in the rippling light. “Matter of fact, you just won me five hundred bucks.”

“So can I go now?”

“Not the way you came in.”

He was right. The door had vanished. Replaced by the same velvet darkness on either side of the stairway. “Where do these stairs go?”

“They go down.”

“Fine. Where do they lead?”

“Same place.”

I got to moving.

Hollow footfalls along a subterranean fire escape.

A seven-minute hike that ended in a steel catwalk. Mesh pattern hovering two feet above a pool of brilliant turquoise. We crossed those lonely waters in silence. Not long before we hit another door. Metal this time. Black paint job, dented in certain spots. From the other side came the muted wail of a saxophone.

“We’re here.” David said.

“Ok.”

It was as easy as turning the knob.

We stepped into a burning replica of every bar I had ever set foot in. Total identity crisis, from the clash of neon signs to the black and white frames of Irish immigrants. Every color in the visible prism represented by naked bulbs. Mismatched barstools adorning a bar that cut out at obtuse, impossible angles. Floor tilting upwards, ninety degrees, towards a jukebox with no buttons or speakers.

Miraculously managing to belt out Boogie Woogie Boo.

Bright flames leapt from the walls with no apparent origin.

I felt my new comrade wrap his arm around my shoulder.

And around and around.

“Hey, everyone!” he called out. “Say hello to Lucky Saurelius!”

The patrons all turned, joined together in a greeting both joyous and brooding.

Didn’t take a mastermind to notice there was something wrong with each and every one of them. But David was quick to notice that I had more pressing issues on my mind.

“Who’s in charge of drinks?” I asked.

David withdrew his arm with an elastic snap. “As you pass yet another test.”

He led me up the wall, sideways along a mural of Guernica.

Wild angles vandalized, spray paint outlining exposed tits and erect cocks.

Made our way back down to what could barely pass for the floor. Had a seat.

The bartender slid on up. Or what the bartender was wearing did, at any rate.

Nothing but a bowtie was floating before us, surrounded by a pale, industrial mist.

“This is Spectrum,” David told me.

The bowtie bobbed slightly. “Lucky Saurelius. Pleasure to meet you.”

I extended my hand. Felt an electric tingle as he shook mine.

David signaled for a pair of drinks. “His thing is he’s invisible.”

“You don’t fucking say.”

“I do.” David reached for a pair of floating glasses, doubled with ice and Jack Daniel’s. Set them down. Stretched his arm out to a rusted cigarette machine. Pulled a knob and reeled in a pack of Dunhills.

Struggled with the cellophane.

Ignoring the vertigo of odd dimensions, I took a moment to take in the regulars.

Saw a fellow floating placidly above his table. Laid flat on an imaginary mattress, one arm behind his head. Mouth open. Voraciously taking down a stream of whiskey, poured by a woman with ebony skin and bright lipstick; dressed in full denim, with bare feet and her remaining hand stuck to the ceiling.

In the corner, a pair of identical twins sat concentrating over a chess set. Matching scuba suits doing what was possible to imprison their curves. Miniature ice sculptures in place of knights, rooks, and bishops. Every so often, one of the twins would unzip to the valley between her breasts. A select figurine would melt, crawl towards another square, and reconstitute. Sometimes as the same creature. Occasionally, as another beastie, only to take a bite out of some unfortunate statuette in a bright spark of cold fusion.

A weathered face stepped into my line of sight. Hawkish features, stern smile. Celestial blue against a wrinkled face cut from the Dakota badlands.

“Huh?” I asked.

“He’s got questions, Eclipse,” the old timer said, helping himself to David’s cigarettes. “Don’t be fooled by his cool.”

David nodded. “He’s got questions, then, Ksa.”

“Yes.”

“Seeking the answers to life’s mysteries?”

Ksa borrowed the arm of a passing drunk, who barely took notice as his palm was used to light the old timer’s Dunhill. “I don’t recall life’s mysteries asking him anything.”

Then Ksa went on his way, copping the gin and tonic from a distracted patron and knocking it back.

David offered me a Dunhill.

I popped it in my mouth. Turned and borrowed an arm, lit up.

Smoke mingled with the strange taste of burning flesh.

“You got questions?” David asked.

“Who was that character, just then?” I asked. Took a sip of Jack. “You called him Ksa.”

“His thing is he reads minds,” David said. “Pretty much runs this place.”

“He’s your leader.”

“He runs the place. We don’t have one of those.”

“Ok.”

“So you figure we’re a group?”

“There’s a group of you, no doubt.” I took down a bit more of my Jack. “Group of who, more like, is what my question is.”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Yes. So obvious I don’t actually know the answer.”

“We’re super heroes.”

I polished off my Jack. Motioned in the general direction of that floating bowtie. Got another double for my doubts. “No, you’re not.”

“Well, let’s see…” David turned in his seat. “Jamie over there can glide through the air. We call him Magnet. The lady on the ceiling? That’s The Spin. She can crawl up and along any surface. The Gentleman, he’s not here right now. But he might be. He can walk through things, likes to hang out in crawlspaces. Whenever he’s not sojourning in women’s locker rooms. The twins? We call them the Absolute Zygotes. Got a way with temperatures…”

“Yeah,” I lit a new cigarette off the end of the other. “I get it. But what do you all do?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“Have you stepped outside this bar lately?” I made to gesture towards a window. Realized I was several miles underground. Made do with pointing towards the ceiling, where the face of a well-trimmed gentleman in a top hat melted through the panels just long enough to realize he’d been made, then withdrew from sight. I ignored it, soldiered on. “We’re sitting on a caldera.”

“What’s your question?”

“What the hell have you all done?” I asked. “Haven’t read anything in the papers recently.”

“You familiar with comic books?”

“No.”

“X-men?”

“No.”

“DC comics?”

“No.”

“But you understand the concept.”

“Yeah, I do.” Thought about refreshing my drink, got one courtesy of Ksa. Some kind of rum concoction that burned my throat. “And where were you when Amadou Diallo got shot? Columbine? Or fucking Rawanda? All this talent, and what?”

“Well, it’s complicated.”

“Not in the comic books.”

“I thought you didn’t read those.”

“Other people do. Have to sit and listen to their bullshit sometimes.”

“And that’s how you know they’re not complicated.” David said. Lit another cigarette, and as though on cue, the music died. Got every one of those eyes focused on us. Cyclops at the corner table included. “You think we haven’t done our share of interventions? Wiped out a good old-fashioned fascist or two? It never works. You know this.”

“I don’t know shit.”

“Well, stop asking why we don’t just take down every super villain that comes along.”

“So I shouldn’t even bother to ask about the usual street crime?”

“Well, the Gentleman can walk through walls, but so what? People see him the instant he pops out of hiding.”

“Don’t you have an invisible guy –”

“Spectrum?” David laughed. Joined by the rest of the freaks, all gathered around with their various drinks. Cigarettes. Floating in the air. Hanging off the wall. Orbiting the crass angles of this impractical bar, drunk smiles and tired eyes. “Think about it. Can an invisible man really manipulate anything if he can’t see his own hands? And how invisible can you be when your digestive tract is visible to everyone.”

“He serves drinks pretty well.”

“It’s the only constant. The bottles and glasses are always where they are.”

“Blind people seem to do ok.”

The bowtie slid by, served me another drink. Told me: “Their eyelids aren’t transparent.”

David nodded. “We have to put him in a coma every night just to make sure he can sleep.”

The bowtie bowed with a certain sadness. “Eye masks make me itch.”

“Want me to go on?” David asked. Drank. Got a rousing chorus of murmurs from the rest. “The Arachnid can climb anywhere she wants, but the second she loses contact with a surface, she goes hypoglycemic. Ignition, the guy whose palm lit your cigarette a couple of minutes ago? He can only work his magic when touching easily combustible material. The twins? Well, the scuba gear says it all…”

“Tell it!” one of the twins called out.

“Tell it!” the other echoed.

The bar erupted into drunken revelry, shot glasses manifesting from the clear blue. Each one taking theirs out without a second thought.

I sighed, plucked my own drink out of the ethereal plane.

Took it down.

“You see,” David said, wiping his lips. “We’re not prognosticators, Lucky. We don’t know how our actions play out. The results. Unintended consequences. And we have no way of knowing who is going to be needed in the short term. No way of telling who’s getting mugged when or where…”

“You don’t have a guy small enough to change things on a molecular level? Genetically enhance wheat fields, food supplies. Find a cheap way to desalinize seawater? Create a cleaner fuel?”

“Sure, that never goes wrong. Split the atom. Radiation. Science. Mary Shelley.”

I smirked. “She one of you, too?”

“Wish she had been.”

“Say what?”

“We weren’t accepting women in those days.”

“Wow. So you really are all useless.”

“I’m sure you can relate…”

I sipped my Jack. Didn’t argue.

David waved everyone off.

They scattered. A lanky man with blue fingertips stuck his digits into the jukebox. It sprung to life, Fantasy is Reality.

“Well, yes,” David said. “We are all just a few minutes to midnight. We can’t contribute to innovation. We can’t kill Hitler. And we don’t know when Joe Average is planning to attack… until now.”

“How you figure?”

“You.”

I rubbed my nose. Saw a plume of black smoke, abstract and lively, floating just inches away. Felt carpeted lips kiss mine. Breasts rubbing along my cheeks. Then it was gone.

“That was Shadow,” David said.

“Don’t care.”

“I’m going to answer your final question and save you the embarrassment asking.”

“That’s not a sentence.”

“You want to know what you’re doing down here.”

I toyed with my glass. Would have done the same with the ashtray, but it was already spinning of its own accord. “I want to know how I can get out of here…”

“Do you know what’s going to happen in the future?”

“No, but if you hum a few bars, maybe –”

“You can see. Can’t you?”

“Make a shot appear in front of me again, could you?”

“You don’t know it, but you do…” David wasn’t being dramatic. He wasn’t even that interested. The empty panacea of any lifelong bender setting in. Eyelids drooping, stretching down, dipping into his drink before snapping back up. “You tell things. Come up with scenarios that aren’t scenarios. Nobody listens to you.”

“Nobody listens to me because I am genuinely unpleasant to be around,” I said. Drank hard this time. Motioned for Spectrum to bring on the booze. “I’m entertaining. A cautionary tale. Doesn’t prove a thing.”

“Your project,” David said. “The one you’ve been working on since you were fifteen. Came to you out of the blue, right? At The Blue Note, listening to Herbie Hancock’s first concert in years. Pulled out a notepad and just started writing. We’ve kept tabs and it all points to something. A hurricane. An enormous wave. An oncoming disaster somewhere in these United States that is going to change everything.”

I kept cool. “You’ve been reading that nonsense.”

“Yes.”

“You, in particular?”

“The Gentleman helped a little.”

“I hate that guy.”

“You know what comes next.”

I shrugged. “So the words are written proof that I’m some sort of soothsayer?”

“Better hope so,” David said. “Your writing isn’t very good.”

I smiled.

“Want proof?” he asked.

“I would love proof.”

He pulled out a quarter. “TAKING ALL BETS!”

Once more, the jukebox cut out. Halfway through Allen Toussiant singing Mother in Law. Everyone gathered around. Started exchanging money, pink slips, with ice cubes for markers.

David told me to call the coin toss.

“Really?” I laughed. Unconvincingly, washing down my cigarette with Jack. Ice cubes changing shapes against my lips. “Fifty-fifty shot, that’s going to settle it for you?”

“Yes.”

“Bullshit.”

“Every one of us started same as you.”

“Good for them.”

“We all know you’re a gambler by nature. Call it.”

“Call my balls.”

“Heads or tails.”

“No.”

“Let go and call the fucking flip.”

Fuck you, and fine!” I took down the rest of my drink and slammed it against the bar. “Chicken!

He flicked his thumb. Sent the coin flipping. Up towards the ceiling, where a chicken happened to be soaring past. Plucked the quarter right out of its arc and swallowed it. Dissolved into thin air along with a rousing chorus of wan disappointment. Everyone handed their money to the Cyclops, and there was another question that would always remain unanswered.

I turned back to David as the music started up. “Come on.”

“You called it. Heads. Tails. Quantum chicken.”

“You planned that.”

“So those are your options,” David sighed, drank. “Either we’re the most brilliant, conniving people you’ve ever met…” A nearby regular passed out in a plate of lentils. “…or you can see the future, and you belong down here with the rest of us.”

“I don’t belong anywhere.”

“Neither do we.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Glad you think so.”

“About me…” I put out my cigarette. “You’re wrong about me. You made a mistake.”

“We need you, Lucky…” David lit a Dunhill. Took a drag. “We need someone to absorb our sadness and turn it into something else. We need direction, Lucky. We need a Heyoka.”

“A what?”

“Ksa’s idea.”

“So that’s my new designation?”

“Can’t give yourself a nickname.”

“I’m going.”

“Don’t.”

“I’m going.”

David nodded.“Fine.”

“Really.”

“Yeah.” He sent his thumb towards the back. “There’s the exit.”

What I had assumed to be a portal to the kitchen slowly morphed into a set of velvet doors. A thuggish bouncer, skin covered in reptilian scales, stood watch. Arms crossed. Muscles bulging beneath a white t-shirt.

“Let me guess.” I stole one last cigarette . “He can eat bugs, but can’t tell you if crickets go home.”

“He has Ichthyoisis Vulgaris. That’s not funny, Lucky.”

“Well, ok. That one’s on me.”

“You walk out that door, you will never find us again.”

“Fine.”

“You really don’t care?” Tears formed in the corner of his eye, drifted across the air in oblong shapes. “You honestly don’t realize this is where you belong?”

“Whatever Heyoka is,” I said, “he doesn’t belong anywhere.”

“There’s not belonging anywhere, and there’s belonging nowhere.”

“That’s stupid. You’re boring. And I’m going.”

“Goodnight.”

I fell out of my seat. Caught the Gentleman looking up at me from the floor.

“Stay out of my goddamn life,” I told him.

Shook it off and went to the door.

The Bouncer stopped me in my tracks. “ID?”

“Excuse me?”

“Need to see some ID.”

I felt myself vomit a bit in my throat. Held it down. “You need to see my ID to go outside?”

“ID please.”

I sighed.

Pretended to reach into my pocket.

Punched him in the face.

Was planning to, anyway.

His mouth opened, jaw stretched several fathoms beyond my worst nightmares.

Devoured my hand. Wrist. Elbow. Had to stop being cool at that point and scream. Tilted my head towards a ceiling that should have rightfully been a floor. That woman, the Spin, stared down at me with worn disgust. Felt my shoulder meet razor blade teeth before that mouth opened just a little wider. Hollowed sensation of a wet sleeping bag against my head as I caught one last glimpse of David.

He stuck his middle finger out, raised it high. “You didn’t think I meant the door, did you?”

My mind compiled a list of retorts, and I kept screaming.

Acetone mucous dripping into my eyes as I slid down the bouncer’s throat.

The jukebox started up again, a little number by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Not one of those elements available for comment as I slid into yesterday’s throat.

***

Stepped through the door to Creole Nights.

My ears popped.

I checked myself.

All appendages present and spoken for.

Took a look around.

All dimensions reset to their manufactured settings.

Tangerine lightbulbs. Straw hats stapled to the ceiling. Caribbean mural painted on the wall. Earth, Wind & Fire on the speakers urging me to do a little dance, make a little love…

“Get down tonight!” Zephyr cried out from behind the bar.

I sniffed. Air passages clean.

Glanced around once more. “What day is it, Zephyr?”

“It’s not day,” he told me. “It’s night! To-night!”

Ok.

I slid past a couple, drunk way too early to know their hours were numbered.

Took a seat.

Zephyr took a closer look. “Jesus, Lucky. You ok?”

“Huh?”

He stepped aside. Introduced me to the mirror. The entire left half of my face bruised, swollen to resemble internal organs. Flecks of dried blood in my hair, my shirt. Inexplicable shards of glass caught in my collar, embedded into my left hand.

“Ran into some people,” I told him. “We had a little moment, is all.”

“You need anything?”

“Let me get a double of Jack, please.”

“Double Jack.”

I watched, so happy to see his dark hands doing those lovely, unspeakable things he did best.

“You sure you ok?” he asked.

“I think I was,” I told him.

“You’re home.”

“Yes. That much has to be true.”

He smiled past his glasses. Graying mustache doing a little jig.

There were untold injustices playing out in the world, but the television was off that evening. Eventually, the jazz band set up. Replaced proper hallucinations with improvised progressions. Murder, rape, and an oncoming catastrophe took to their place, back room of my imaginary doom. The world was ending. Unwinding. Spinning counterclockwise. I told the woman next to me as much. She didn’t believe me, but figured nodding was good enough.

And it was.

Good enough for me, anyway.

We had ourselves a time, and I never thought twice about what happened that night, miles below the steps of St. Anthony.

I kissed her in her sleep, then left the way I came in.

###

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