Issue #8 - November 2014
Season 1, Episode 8
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Previous can be found here.
“Good Times” by Alexander Jones -- listen to the audio recording
“The Ticket-Taker” by CJ Menart
“Us or Them” by B. Brooks
“The Vestal” by Rob Steiner
“Playing in the Skeleton on Riot Day” by Jedd Cole
“Mayhem at Manville” by Michael Andre-Driussi
"Shenzhen Blues" by Spencer Wightman
Just to give you a taste...
by Alexander Jones
Art shackled his bicycle to the chain link fence off the pedestrian path in the park and sat down on the bench next to Ray. Ray, slouched down against the thick wooden slats, took a hand out from the pouch pocket on his hooded sweatshirt and the two lightly touched their knuckles together.
Art shrugged, adjusting himself on the cold wood. “You know. Same stuff.”
Ray nodded. “I know.”
They both stared across the path at the dirty river and the twinkling lights of the city on the far shore. They listened to the muted traffic sounds of horns blaring and engines revving from the highway overpass in the sky above them. A traffic drone hovered, purring as it zigzagged over the traffic. Car exhaust drifted and settled to the ground, the smell less burnt and acrid at this distance. Layered beneath that smell, the sweet autumn odor of rotting leaves signaled the impending winter.
Further down the path, an old man with pockmarks on his face cast a line into the gray water. Otherwise, they had the park to themselves.
“What’s he gonna catch, fishing this river?” Art asked.
“Cancer.” This joke never got old.
Art slapped Ray’s thigh and rubbed his hands together. “So. Whatcha got?”
Ray grinned. “You’re feeling it? You want it?” Then, with a slight teasing edge to his voice, “You need it?”
“Yeah, I want something. It’s cold out. Something to lift the blues.”
“But do you need it?”
“Stop busting my chops.” But he had no animosity, no annoyance. Just another part of their little ritual dance.
Ray shrugged. “Alright.” He wagged a finger, “You know, you do too much and you won’t remember—”
“And I won’t remember who I really am anymore,” Art finished in singsong. “Right.”
Cracking his knuckles, Ray reached under his sweatshirt and came up with his works, a worn brown leather satchel about the size of a hard cover book. He slowly unzipped the zipper running along the side of it and flipped it open.
On one side, tucked into little pockets, a series of different colored vials, some labeled, some not. On the other, strapped in, was the twonky. Ray had named it after a science fiction story, he had once explained. Its holographic logo gleamed and shifted in the twilight. It was in pristine condition, Art knew. The most valuable thing Art owned; expensive, rare, illegal. He'd asked about it, how Ray had gotten one, where he could get one of his own, but Ray had brushed him off each time.
Ray pawed through the vials beside the machine. "A kid, playing with a little puppy. Labrador.”
“You serious? That’s a commercial for laundry detergent or something.”
Ray smiled. “You like to bike. How ‘bout a cyclist in an important race? Bought it a week ago. Tour duh France. Last few miles, exhausted, wanting that trophy so bad. Exhilarating. You can feel the wind in your hair.”
“I feel the wind in my hair right now,” Art answered, a smoggy breeze wafting over them from a tractor trailer crossing the bridge. “Besides, that sounds like it’s been used a few times already. Third, fourth generation. Right?"
Ray lit a cigarette. “Now who’s busting chops?” He smoked. “But you’re right, it’s been passed around a few times, but it’s still pretty clear. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“No. But you know, a copy of a copy of a copy is fine when you're working with codes. It was fine all the way back to videotapes. But things get lost in translation, with organix.”
"Emotions are hard to code. So I clone them instead." Ray tossed his cigarette. “And I’ve got something special. A girl.”
“A woman.” Ray nodded his head. “Not just sex. An entire relationship with a beautiful woman. Not a blowup doll fantasy, either. A real relationship.”
Art licked his lips. “How much? Is it fresh? No thin spots, no hiccups?”
“I don't know, I haven't done it. But it's fresh. She's fresh. At least, that's what my scout told me. I’m reluctant to part with her. It's been a while.”
“I thought you were a terror junkie. You getting soft?”
“I haven’t got a hundred.”
“There’s an ATM at the bodega.”
“I don’t have a hundred. Besides, you owe me for that guy tortured by the Chinese secret police. I gave that to you for practically nothing.”
“Yeah." Wistful, he said: "That was something. Only thing better was what I got from that Holocaust survivor in my mother’s apartment building.” He tittered. “Good times.”
Shaking his head, not wanting to hear about that again, Art said, “So you owe me.”
“True. But I’m not letting go of her for just money alone. On principal. Nothing scary ever happened to you?”
“I OD’ed once.”
“Coke or heroin?”
Art smiled at him. “Speedball. Best of both worlds, right?”
Ray shook his head. “Not for me.”
Art looked over at the river, at the ripples extending from a bridge pylon in the center, lapping against the stone barrier at the edge of the park. The gray-brown water held a shifting reflection of the city’s lights. A protracted blast from a car horn came from the bridge. The traffic drone skittered over to investigate.
Ray touched his shoulder, and when Art looked over at him, Ray held up a glass vial. Art took it. About three quarters full, it held a coppery red liquid. Art shook it and the liquid languidly responded to the motion. “Thick.”
“Dense. A whole relationship, like I told you.”
“It’s red,” Art said, shaking the vial again.
"Red's the color of passion, right?"
“So what, then?”
“Fifty. And something horrible.”
Art dug through his pockets and handed Ray a wad of money. Then, touching his chin, he leaned his head back against the cold wood of the bench, eyes closed. The dread of coming home from school, walking around the block a couple extra times, waiting for his father because his father used to beat him with a doubled over belt. Getting caught with the belt buckle a few times. He’d pissed himself once, and pissed blood after the beating he caught for pissing himself in the first place. As a teenager, he’d broken into a junkyard looking for a quiet place to get high, but a Rottweiler started chasing him. He remembered that clearly.
Opening his eyes, looking out at the water, Art thought of it. His best terror. Better than that mangy dog, or the belt.
“You got something?”
Art nodded. “It’s good.”
“It better be. You only gave me 43 dollars.”
Art shrugged. “It’s a fair trade.”
Ray flipped through his works to another compartment, and came up with an eye dropper.
"I don’t want to sit here for an hour waiting for the pills to work."
Art nodded. He took the eye dropper, opened it. He tilted back his head, rested it on the bench, and, focusing on the sky, dripped two long drops into each eye. Heavy, self- guided, the drops soaked in, not even making his eyes tear up.
"I'll never get used to that," he said, returning the dropper.
"It's the fastest way into the brain, right through the optic nerves."
"You know, they promised us rocket ships to the moon and bionic kidneys, and instead we got this." Memory cloners. The stuff wasn't psychoactive, really just a marker, but he always felt a little woozy, right after.
"You could be sitting at home with vodka and scotch."
Ray checked the time on his phone. After another couple minutes he nodded. "Your amygdala's probably lit up nicely by now." He tapped a couple buttons on the machine; it beeped and a motor inside it whirred to life. He handed a suction cup electrode to Art, who stuck it to his own forehead, squeezing it into place.
The machine beeped.
"You ready? Think about what happened. Remember it."
Art did. It was easy. Once he'd thought of it, recalling it again got easier with each attempt.
"Deep in there," Ray muttered.
Ray looked up from the machine's display. "Whatever it was, happened when you were a little kid?"
"Good. Childhood terrors taste best." He smiled as he said it. He tapped a couple more buttons. "I'm right on the cell cluster. You ready?"
Ray handed him an empty vial, smaller than the one holding the relationship.
Art rubbed his eyes and stared at the churning river water, remembering everything, fastening on to details, playing it over in his head again and again, allowing the cloning fluid to attach to it, remembering faster and faster, then slowing down over details, the clone soaking it up. When the memory started to shake, Art slowed it down, let it straighten out, let the clone absorb it just right, all in the right order. All the little subtleties flowing from his mind into the clone, the juice soaking it up, doubling it, replicating the memory and the terror.
Art swallowed until his mouth was as dry as he could get it, and when the fluid leaked out from the roof of his mouth, he caught it on his rolled tongue and let it drip into the vial.
Retching as the last of it passed into the vial, he pushed in the rubber stopper.
Holding it up, he saw the color inside the clear glass was the same color as the river water and he shrugged.
“That was good. You’re getting to be a pro.”
“I found a book about yoga and meditating. Expand your mind, control your center. Zen.”
Ray handed him the red vial. “Maybe you’ll get tantric with the girl.”
Overhead, the traffic slowed as rush hour took hold. The old man had caught two fish, flopping around in a sack at his feet, and was loading up the line again. They watched as he cast.
“You wanna do them together, or wait till you get home?”
Art shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Let’s do ‘em here.”
Art nodded. “To pleasant memories.”
“And sweet dreams.”
They toasted, touching the vials together. Ray popped out the stopper, looked at the red and downed it all in a single shot. Art opened his and sipped slowly.
The campus gallery doesn’t open for another hour, but there are already people inside. They’re looking around and talking, pointing and gesturing at things, smiling or maybe trying to appear erudite as they hold forth on this or that. I like the gallery; it strikes the right blend of open space and bright lighting without being harsh or sterile. Those lights are extra soft fluorescents. I know because I’d installed them a week ago, nervous at the top of a twelve-foot ladder.
In some places the floor is polished wood, in others it’s a sepia toned carpet that I’d vacuumed and steamed earlier in the day. I smile the way I usually do when I get assigned to work in this area of the school. The paintings are someone’s work, displayed in the gallery, and the gallery display is my work. I stick around for the exhibits; a part time chemistry undergrad doesn’t get enough exposure to the artistic types. I like the sense of adding to my well-rounded education, seeing things I know I wouldn’t see without making the effort. Making myself cultured. Plus, my boss thinks I’m clean cut enough to represent the maintenance department.
There’s a girl standing alone, off to the side, close to one of the walls, staring at one of the smaller paintings. I remember first being aware of her hair, a deep red that flows over the collar of her shirt. Irish? I wondered.
“You like it?” I ask, walking up beside her.
She shrugs. “You?”
I look at the painting, thinking of something to say, something on point and witty to make me sound smart, something to impress her with my depth of artistic insight and rapport, because I already know that it’s her own painting. No one in this gallery stands in front of one painting, staring, unless it’s their own.
I come up short on the sagacious artist front, so I step in a little closer, squinting theatrically. “It’s cocked.”
“What?” she asks, forehead wrinkling, drawing up her little button nose.
I grin at her when our eyes meet. “I said that it’s cocked.” I continue. “Cocked. You know . . .”
When her expression shifts to puzzlement, my grin widens. “Tilted.” I make an incline with my hand.
“Oh.” Her face relaxes as a thin smile comes to her lips.
“Oh?” I repeat. I want this girl to smile, really smile at me, and maybe laugh, or I want to know that I tried even if I failed miserably, so I say, “Oh, did you think I was saying something dirty to you?”
She blushes, her eyes darting to the floor, and bites her lower lip. “Ummm . . .”
Time to reel her back in, time to say something friendly or look like a perv and feel like a chump for blowing it. I shrug. “I can’t think of any other dirty sounding things I can say about your painting.”
She turns to me with an amused expression and says, “How do you know it’s my painting?”
“Because you’re not admiring it. You look like you want to change something, fiddle with it.”
“So do you.”
“I’m the one who hung it here. So if it’s cocked, then I didn’t do a good job.”
“It looks alright.”
“That’s just my point. We’re not spectators admiring a piece of art in a gallery. Both of us are looking at your painting like it’s our work.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.”
"So it is your painting, right?"
Her smile widens and instead of basking, I forged ahead. “See, this painting over here,” I gesture further down the wall, “I didn’t hang it and you didn’t paint it, so we can go over there and admire it together.” I touch her shoulder.
“How do you know I didn’t paint this one, too?” she asks, falling into step with me.
I smile at her. “Because this one isn’t as good as yours.”
She laughs, finally. “I’m Fran.”
“And I’m Eddie.”
“So,” she asks, as we make our way down the gallery wall, “Was the painting really cocked?”
“Well, the answer to that depends.”
“Whether I get your phone number.”
Our first date at an Italian place away from campus goes well, after I spend 20 minutes combing each strand of my hair into place before meeting her in front of the student union. We talk about her plans, her art, what she wants to be when she grows up and makes her impact on the world. I don’t like to talk too much about changing light bulbs at the school, or chemistry and metallurgy, but she’s listening when I talk about the summer internship I spent extracting and smelting gold from junked computer parts at a reclamation plant. I try explaining to her why I like the work. How the impersonal challenge to formulate the best titration of chemicals is in fact a call to outwit and outsmart the immutable laws of physics. She nods and says that art is the same, it’s all about getting as close to your ideal vision as you can. That’s right, I say, and the little silence after that is comfortable and familiar instead of the stilted, awkward silences that sometimes happen on first dates when there will be no second. This quiet moment, shared during a plate of overcooked linguine, is when I fell for her.
It’s on the second date, sitting on the steps of the gallery, enjoying the warm summer night when Fran spots the little burn I got on my forearm I got as a souvenir from the sulfuric acid baths I set up to get the gold. She touches the squiggled scar, running a nail over it, and I kiss her even though I wouldn’t have a second earlier. She’s into the kiss, our lips work together, hers moist, and we hold hands. I touch her red hair and the back of her neck, her skin soft and warm as we draw to each other. Her eyes closed, mine open. Later that night in my apartment I touch the rest of her. We're sweaty from the press and the crush and our bodies glide smoothly over one another as we have sex for the first time. Touching her, loving her, is the same challenge of getting as close as I can to the ideal, having her enjoy it, having her wanting it to match my want of it.
One night in the dead of winter we rush inside, into the warmth of the apartment we now share, and start kissing, fooling around, dropping our things and pulling off our winter jackets and boots as we heat up together. We have sex in the kitchen because we don’t make it to the bedroom. The windows steam up and her breath catches when I touch her with my ice-cold fingers. She’d been painting something with a bright blue acrylic paint that was still on her hands and the next morning I’m laughing to myself while she gets dressed. When she asks me what’s so funny, I show her the blue streaks she’d left on my body and tell her I’d been having sex with Smurfette.
She fills out paperwork for schools, I help her assemble a portfolio and write an essay over a bottle of wine and Chinese takeout. That night we make love and I tell her that her work was good and any school would want to have her as much as I wanted to have her, and that I loved her. The next morning I mail her application on my walk to work. It gets rejected, and we send a few more a couple months later.
I finally graduate and my mom comes down and the two sit together in the auditorium while I collect my diploma. I take pictures of them both. At some point over dinner when Fran goes to the bathroom, my mother leans across the table and tells me that my father would have loved her, and that’s why I’m teary when she returns and sits down next to me and whispers “What’s wrong?” and my mother winks at me.
Fran’s father is a retired lawyer with a firm handshake and calluses like mine from working in his basement wood shop. I shake his hand when we take a trip out to her parents’ for a Thanksgiving weekend. I like her family. Her brother plays lacrosse and her mother makes the best turkey I’ve ever had, but the thing I’m taken with is her bedroom, preserved just as it must have been when she finished high school, with stuffed animals on the bed and a vanity mirror in the corner. I look through her yearbook and read the inscriptions. Fran tells me that her father worked from home and kept odd hours, sometimes working through the night, so she never got to christen the bed, not even with her old boyfriend Todd who’d drawn a heart on the back page. So we do, and joke about hearing a power saw whining through the floor as we finish.
The ring is good. My timing is bad. The ring is made out of titanium because any metallurgist knows that titanium shines brighter than silver, is stronger than steel, is more malleable than gold, and never tarnishes, all of which I think is a metaphor for love which I’m trying to articulate as I show her the ring. Fran takes it, says “Oh Eddie,” and starts to cry. She says she loves me but she doesn’t say yes and she shows me an acceptance letter from one of those schools she’d applied to months earlier. It’s bitter and ironic that she’s been rejected by her safety school right across town; I could have dropped her off on my way to work, but her dream school has admitted her. Her dream school is an art institute in New Zealand. I’m quiet for a minute as I feel a void open somewhere inside, but then I tell that she has to go and she says that she has to stay so I tell her she has to go, and somehow we end up fighting, screaming at each other, both of us so determined to make the other happy that now we’re miserable.
The day before she leaves almost everything is moved out. The place has magically transformed from our home back to a shitty ground floor two bedroom apartment in a rotting triple decker in a questionable neighborhood. Her things have been shipped back to her folks, and I’m already moved into my new place.
“I got you something,” she tells me nervously, holding out a package to me. I take it from her, the brown wrapping paper crinkling in my hands as I set it down on my coffee table, the only remaining flat surface besides the floor.
“What is it?” I ask, running my index finger over the seam where she’d taped the wrapped package closed.
“Something I want you to have.”
“What is it Fran?” I regard her warily as I still touch the wrapping paper. Lately, everything we say to each other has layers to it. What I really want to know is if the contents of this package are going to hurt me some more.
She says nothing, her arms folded under her breasts, so I rip open the paper. Inside is the painting, the one from the gallery.
“Great. I’ll be able to auction it in twenty years. I’ll tell people that ‘I knew her, way back when.’”
“Please don’t start.”
“Start? Start what?”
Holding up the painting, I squint at it theatrically. “You know that it wasn’t.”
I reach out to her. She comes to me, and I kiss her. “That painting. It wasn’t—”
“It wasn’t cocked. It was perfectly level.”
She starts to cry, and her hands cover her mouth so that it almost looks like she’s yawning, one of those little things about her that I love.
I kiss her again.
We make love, but it isn't loving the way I've enjoyed and come to expect without taking for granted; instead, it's the way I'd imagine the last meal of a condemned prisoner must be—no matter how well cooked and how delicious, the taste and texture of the food isn't what's relevant and can't cover up the reality to follow.
We kiss, lick, rub, suck, tease, squeeze, please; grunting, moaning, sweating, panting, gasping, grasping, inhaling, expelling and finally holding each other, breathing each other’s breath all for the last time.
At some point the sky lightens and I hear a car horn outside. A yellow cab.
Fran leans close, so I feel her lips against the peach fuzz on my ear. “I knew it wasn’t cocked.”
Then she kisses me, and then she’s gone.
Coughing, he sat up on the bench and he touched his face, cheeks sticky with drying tears. He rubbed at the slurry in his eyes smearing his vision, rubbed until he could see straight. Staring at the ground in front of him, he leaned forward, his back cracking as he sat up straight.
“Dude,” he said, turning to Ray. “That was…I can’t even say what.”
Ray said nothing.
Art looked at him. “Worth every penny.” After a second he nudged him with his elbow. “Ray?”
The hood of his sweatshirt fell back, revealing Ray’s pale, slack face. His blue lips, parted, revealed his tongue, also blue, and a rope of drool slid out from the corner of his mouth. His glassy eyes shined wide at nothing.
“No,” Art breathed, leaning towards him. Ray’s body shifted and slid part way off the edge of the bench, his knees scraping the leaves on the ground.
At age nine, Art spent a Christmas with his cousin who lived upstate, out in the woods. Behind his cousin’s house was a scrubby polluted pond that looked idyllic, surrounded by trees all dusted with a crust of snow. When she heard them preparing to go outside, boots dragging across the vestibule floor his aunt called out "Stay off the lake, like I told you," without looking up from her game show. The two went outside, crunched their way through the snow covering his cousin’s lawn and down the short path to the lake itself. They stared at the wan sun, and at the glare it made on the frozen water. Then Art took a shaky step down, balancing himself against the shore with a tree branch he found. He shuffled a few paces across the perfectly smooth, clean ice, and turned. He slipped and almost busted his ass, moon walking to catch himself. From the shore, his cousin snorted with laughter.
“Why don’t you come here and laugh in my face?” he yelled, liking echoes.
“Cause I’m not crazy like you!” his cousin called back.
Art called him a wimp and slid a few feet further out. The ice below him sighed and cracked, loud like a gunshot in the stillness. Art’s breath caught in his throat. Pulse pounding, his body went ramrod straight and stiff. Suddenly burning hot with tension, a drop of sweat rolled into his eye, and after a long, unquantifiable time of staring at the spider web of cracked ice beneath his feet, waiting, waiting for something to happen, he slowly, timidly stepped back toward the shore, toward his cousin, now watching him, wide eyed.
The lake surface here felt solid, so he shifted his weight onto the stepping foot. Nothing. He stepped again, another mincing step toward the solid ground, and again, nothing. He let out the breath he’d been holding for so long that he couldn’t remember taking it and inhaled a fresh blast of cold air. Some of the tension washed out of him and Art relaxed a hair.
The ice gave way.
Art let out a short scream that lasted until he submerged, the freezing water going right down his gullet through his open mouth, running up the cuffs of his pants, through his shirt, soaking everything, the grey iron water so cold it didn't even feel cold, just shocking. Art thrashed around. He sank into the frigid mud at the bottom, kicking up dirt and sediment so thick it blotted out the sunlight and he couldn’t tell which direction was up, so he thrashed harder, twisting and corkscrewing himself further and further into his clothes which bound and tied him up, so that finally he lay in the muck, punching and kicking until he gasped for breath. The cold water flooded in. Now the cold inside him matched the cold of the lake outside him, and as Art’s struggling slowed down and time stretched out, each thump of his balled fist against the sticky, yielding mud took longer and longer, became more and more epic like slow motion in a movie. Too tired to panic anymore he had one last lucid thought, “This isn’t too bad,” before the blackness took him.
He didn’t remember the ambulance crew his cousin summoned, being pronounced dead, the epinephrine shot that restarted his heart, or the coma; he remembered only the cold, the terror, and the dark. The grogginess as he woke up in the hospital two days later, for once glad to see his father and mother, was worlds away.
“No!” Art repeated, “no, no, no.” He slapped at Ray’s chest, and put his face close to Ray’s, hoping to feel breath, but when Ray’s clammy corpse slid the rest of the way off the bench, Art gave up.
He stood, his stomach lurching, leaned against the fence and vomited onto the bike path until the roiling queasiness subsided. He fumbled for his keys and dropped them twice in the slimy leaves unlocking his bicycle.
He looked back at Ray, the terror junkie who'd now gone the route most terror junkies went, lying dead in front of the bench having finally scared himself to death. At his feet, the twonky lay upside down in its satchel. Art thought for a minute, frowning, then went over and retrieved it. He didn't kid himself that this was noble, or what Ray would have wanted; but he needed it. So he took it.
Art pushed his bicycle, too shaken to ride it. It was chilly outside. He needed home. Fran would warm him up. Fran could massage his shoulders or…at least she could listen to him talk about this, Fran liked to listen to him, but…Fran…Fran had left him…or…Fran was still there but he was the one who’d left.
Alexander Jones has a BA in English/Creative Writing. He has a novel making the rounds at literary agencies and publishing companies and is hard at work on his second. He lives in Jersey City.