Slow Entropy Stories
Slow Entropy Tom Mahony
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the publications in which the following stories appeared, sometimes in different form: 34th Parallel: “Angry Loner” Bartleby Snopes: “Hippie Market” Boston Literary Magazine: “The Bowl,” “Swell” Cantaraville: “Thinking-Man’s Metal” Decomp: “Scrape,“ “The Appointment,” “The Procedure” Diddledog: “Call Me Stone” Eskimo Pie: “John Flowinghair,” “Static” Flashquake: “Tijuana Dog” Foliate Oak: “Jury Duty,” “Smitty’s Dad” In Posse Review: “Idiot” Laughter Loaf: “The Girl” Pindeldyboz: “Genius” Six Sentences: “Alma Mater” SFWP: “Well-Coiffed Mullet” The Oddville Press: “The Bicycle” The Rose & Thorn: “Dense,” “Dilemma,” “Release” Word Catalyst: “Trestle” Copyright © 2009 by Tom Mahony. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. Cover photograph by Andrew Schmidt Book design by Daniel Casebeer Set in Book Antiqua First Thumbscrews edition: August 2009 www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews
Swell Static Trestle Dense Dilemma Cove Beach
5 6 9 12 14 17 18
Angry Loner Redwood Forest Release Biohazard
20 22 23 25
Tijuana Dog Idiot Well-Coiffed Mullet Call Me Stone Jury Duty Hippie Market John Flowinghair The Bicycle The Procedure Genius The Girl
27 31 32 34 36 38 41 42 46 49 50
Alma Mater The Appointment Birds Country Miles
52 53 57 58
The Bowl Smitty’s Dad Thinking-Man’s Metal Fat Bottomed Girls Scrape
60 64 68 72 73
It’s such a fine line between stupid and…clever. David St. Hubbins, This Is Spinal Tap
The swell marched across the Pacific, massive, the biggest in decades. Enough to get the excitement flowing and the fear rumbling. It would hit the coast in a matter of days. Surfers discussed it at bars and jobs and beaches. With each beer quaffed and each hour closer to doomsday the bravado grew bigger, an arms-race of swagger. This was the challenge theyâ€™d been waiting for their entire lives. Old grudges would be settled. Reputations would be made or lost. Men would discover what they had and what they lacked and after the swell things would never be the same. They made preparations. They cleared schedules. They hugged small children. But when the swell arrived it was cloaked in wind and cloud and rain. Days of it, unsurfable. When the storm left, so did the swell. Not this time. And a collective sigh of relief descended over the coast.
The shark hit him from below, pitching him off his surfboard. He locked eyes with it. Then it clamped his leg and yanked him under. He struggled but couldn’t break free. Thoughts raced through his head. They were not about regrets nor his family for he had neither but about the vexing riddle of life and what it meant. Because he’d always wondered. The shark pulled him deeper. His lungs burned for oxygen. A crushing weight on his chest. Terror. Pain. Blackness. No pain and no thoughts just a warm feeling but he didn’t think about this just felt it and then nothing. He woke on the surface still leashed to his board. In the distance he saw the mudstone bluffs fronting the beach and spires of redwood lining the valley. A moment of calm. He felt weak but alive and saw the dark sheen of blood on the water. Oh shit oh shit. His head swirled. His heart pounded and pumped blood into the ocean. He tried to relax but the harder he tried the more it pumped. He heard a sucking churn and turned to the breaking wave as it slammed him into the reef. The pain ripped through him. He needed air and land but just kept tumbling.
Finally he surfaced, mustered his fading strength, and slid onto his board. Another wave broke and the whitewash pushed him toward the beach. He struggled from the water and up the sand and wanted to sit and rest but knew he’d never get up. A woman walked down the bluff with a big shaggy dog. He called to her and waved. Then he collapsed. Blue sky and no thought just a calm feeling like a warm day under a shade tree and he wanted to stay there awhile forever just so peaceful to live here no fear and where was this place. He woke in a strange bed in a strange room. The sheets crinkled when he moved. A woman hovered over him wearing scrubs so loud he almost recoiled. “Welcome back,” she said. He felt disoriented. Dry-mouthed. Numb. “From where?” “Coma.” “How long? “Three weeks.” He glanced around the room. Bright and sterile. A doctor arrived and poked and queried and scribbled. The room turned chaotic for awhile then everyone left and it went quiet. He stared at the ceiling. Felt a wave of hopelessness wash over him. A familiar pessimism. Then he remembered something: that place. Where was it? Had he imagined it? He tried to think about it but the more he thought the less he felt. When he stopped thinking, a stillness crept into him and there he got a glimpse. At the glimpse he wanted more. He reached for it but it vanished into mental static. Nothing left but the cold fluorescent lights and the crinkly sheets and the sterile everything and an image of the shark as it tried to eat him alive.
Suddenly a loud mechanical beeping and commotion and earnest people in his face poking and yelling. Then blue sky and sunlight warm on his skin and no thought just feeling and was really this happening or the whole thing some weird dream it didnâ€™t matter just complete and utter peace. The water was cold and dense around him. He surfaced, paddled into the line-up, and straddled his board. He felt odd, just had the strangest sensation while sliding under that wave. He glanced at the beach. At the mudstone bluffs and spires of redwood. A woman walked down the bluff with a big shaggy dog. Sunlight burned through the autumn sky and warmed his skin. He turned toward the ocean and waited for a wave. His mind was clear.
The two boys walked along the railroad tracks in the soft dawn light. They carried surfboards beneath their arms, wetsuits in their backpacks. Waves rumbled in the distance, a new swell unloading on the cobblestone reef. They reached the train trestle spanning the marsh. It was the quickest way to the surf, but a long stretch of narrow track. Billy stopped. Seth kept walking, then paused and glanced back in irritation. “You coming?” “Let’s walk around.” “Takes too long.” “I think a train’s coming.” “We have time. Let’s go.” “I don’t know.” “Quit being a pussy. You’re afraid of everything.” “Bullshit.” “Yeah, you are. And where’s that ever gotten you?” “I’m still alive.” “So am I. But I’m sick of you holding me back all the time. Sick of it. I ought to just leave you here for good.” Seth turned and walked onto the trestle. Billy waited a moment, then followed. They heard a train in the distance. They walked faster. “It’s coming, Seth.” “Quit worrying. We’ve got time.”
They started running across the trestle. The tracks began to vibrate. The boys were halfway across when they saw the train. “We’re dead,” Billy panted. “Dead.” “Shut up and keep running. We’ll make it.” The horn blew. They ran. “I’m jumping,” Billy said. “Don’t. We’re almost there.” The train was less than a hundred yards away and closing fast. “I’m jumping.” Billy dropped his board, scaled the railing, and leapt into the marsh. Seth kept running. The train came at him, fifty yards away. The trestle shook. The horn blew again, the headlight glaring. Seth reached the end and darted down an embankment as the train raced past. A second later it smashed into Billy’s surfboard with a hard dead crunch. Seth’s heart pounded, his knees felt wobbly. He watched the train rumble over the trestle and disappear around the bend. Then he leaned over and puked into the bushes. After a minute he regained composure and scrambled down to the marsh. Billy hacked through tule and cattail, struggling in the deep mud of the shallows. Seth helped him onto dry ground. “You okay?” Billy nodded, teeth chattering. “I told you not to jump, idiot.” Billy shrugged, looked miserable and pathetic like always. Seth couldn’t deal with him anymore. He turned and started toward the point. A set shoaled in the distance. He stopped and watched the first wave break. It looked perfect. Nobody out. No Billy or anyone else to bug him and drag him down with need, with expectation. Just him and waves and pelicans.
He glanced back. Billy was trying to dry off with a dripping towel that only made him wetter. He shivered in the cold gray dawn. The kid was such a kook. Seth eyed the trestle. All quiet now. Like nothing had ever happened. Like nothing ever changed. He hesitated for a moment, then approached Billy. “Here.” He unzipped his backpack and handed over his towel. “Take this.” Billy took it and muttered thanks through his chattering teeth. “Let’s go,” Seth said. “Swell’s pumping. It’ll get crowded soon.” “My board’s ruined.” “You can use mine. We’ll take turns.” They started walking. Seth glanced back at the trestle, one last time. Then he turned and trudged over the sand toward the point.
They said the place couldn’t be surfed. Too dangerous. Anybody who tried was a fool. Perfect. Just what he needed. He jumped into the ocean and navigated shallow reef, shifting current, chronic whitewash. After a brutal paddle, he reached calm water and straddled his surfboard. A crowd had gathered on the bluff. He couldn’t tell if she was among them. Could only hope. A set stacked on the horizon. He floated in the channel and studied it from a distance. Waves broke in shallow water, thick and hollow, with minimal room to maneuver before the reef ran dry. It might be surfable. Might not. He didn’t know and didn’t care. He glanced again toward shore, the bodies packed and milling like seabirds in some coastal rookery. She’d left last week amidst false allegations and righteous huff. Would not listen to reason. She was pretty and smart, but dense sometimes. Fucking dense. Another set arrived, yanking him from thought. He let three waves pass unridden, stroked into the fourth, hopped to his feet, and freefell down the face. He survived the drop and leaned into a turn. His fins hit rock and he tumbled forward, pulled over the falls and slammed onto the reef once, twice, three times. Barnacles tore through his wetsuit. The surfboard shattered over his head. His lungs burned for oxygen as he flailed underwater. Finally he surfaced, coughing and gasping. Waves pushed
him toward a cave and certain death. He fought the current, managed a last burst onto the beach. He crawled onto the sand, vomited saltwater, and struggled for breath. His body stiffened from cold and pain. With some effort he stood, collected the remnants of his broken surfboard, and trudged up to the bluff. The crowd loitered about, maybe fifty people. They stared at him blankly. As if perhaps they’d just witnessed a modest accident in which they had no stake. He scanned the faces. She wasn’t there. Remained entrenched in her stubborn bunker, unreachable. In three days, she’d leave the country for good. If he didn’t get to her first. The pain vanished. He just felt numb. “That was stupid, man,” a friend said. “Really fucking stupid.” He shrugged. “And irresponsible.” This from a guy who’d never held a paying job, and at thirty still lived with his parents. The crowd began to drift off. “Why don’t you just call and talk to her,” the friend said over his shoulder. “Before you kill yourself.” Yeah, simple as that. He grunted in exasperation and watched bodies shuffle down the dirt path like refugees. Soon he stood alone on the bluff. The sun sank into the Pacific. He admired it for a bit, then gathered his broken board and limped home beneath the twilight, plotting his next surf. A spot up the coast, more brutal than here. Maybe she’d show.
Nate just wanted to surf, but Ella wouldn’t stop talking. He loved her, valued her opinions, but shit, not now. The waves were cranking. He peered out the window over her shoulder, unable to focus on her words. A set dumped on the sandbar. Perfect lefts. Nobody out. Swell of the decade. “So,” Ella asked. “Do you?” Nate shifted on the couch and studied her face. Blue eyes, pooched lips, a slight furrow to her beautiful brow. He needed to respond, but had no clue what she was saying. Something about him being a bad listener. Sketchy ground here. Just agree. “You’re right.” She frowned. “About what? Are you even listening?” Careful. Finesse it. “Of course.” “Then tell me, do you?” He nodded. “Yes.” Nate felt relieved, unsure what he’d just agreed to. But it brought him closer to resolving the discussion and entering the ocean. He labored all week at his bland white-collar job, acted the dutiful boyfriend on nights and weekends—it was smothering all of it—and he needed a break where he didn’t have to think about a relationship, discuss his shortcomings, or fix the damn printer. He needed an ocean dip on this perfect spring morning. He sipped coffee and discreetly checked his watch: 8 A.M. He glanced out the window again. Three surfers trotted down
the beach and paddled out. Still uncrowded, but the wind would show soon enough. “So,” Ella said, standing. “Shall we?” “Absolutely.” She smiled. “Good.” He smiled back. “Great.” She walked into the bedroom. That was easy. All his stress for nothing. Outside, another horde staged on the sand ready to paddle out. A puff of wind textured the Pacific. Not much time. Nate fetched his wetsuit from the backyard, slid it on, and returned to the house to grab his surfboard. Ella waited by the door, holding her jacket. She frowned. “What are you doing?” Delay. Stall. “Huh?” “Your wetsuit. Why are you wearing it?” Obfuscate. “Why do you think?” “I don’t know. We’re leaving.” “I know.” She groaned with exasperation. “Then why are you wearing your wetsuit?” Nate fiddled with his ear and tried to conjure up some respectable reply. Should he come clean? Tell Ella he would discuss their relationship—every excruciating detail—but the words could wait, the wind couldn’t? He was in the dog house for legitimate reasons, reasons he could not quite remember. She had valid points. He would address them. But couldn’t they wait an hour? He shrugged. She threw her jacket on the couch, stormed into the bedroom, and slammed the door. Muffled sobs leaked from the bedroom. Out front, on the beach, more stragglers arrived. Another wind gust, the tide not getting any lower.
Nate sighed. Time to make things right. He peeled off his wetsuit, poured a cup of coffee and added heavy cream, the way Ella liked it. He made toast with her favorite blueberry jam and loaded everything onto a tray. As he passed the refrigerator, he scrutinized the tidebook hanging from a magnet. He did some calculating. Perhaps an evening session. Might still be good, depended on the wind. Depended on a bunch of things. Swell of the decade. As he studied the tidebook, he noticed the date, and it hit him what Ella was talking about. Her words suddenly made sense. Today was March 20th, the vernal equinox. They’d agreed last year, during a tough patch in their relationship, that if they were still together on the next vernal equinox they’d get married—just head to the courthouse and sign the papers—and start making a baby. She mentioned it a few times over the past year, obsessed with the date—the first day of spring—saying it symbolized rebirth, renewal, revitalization. And she kept babbling something about “celestial geometry.” He humored her, not necessarily opposed but vaguely indifferent. He couldn’t plan for next weekend, let alone next year. But Ella…Ella didn’t mess around. The knot in his stomach hitched tighter. From what he was missing, or what he might’ve already lost? He didn’t know. Didn’t know if he was suited for this domestic life, didn’t know if that carefree time, back in the bachelor days, could ever be reclaimed…didn’t even know if he wanted to reclaim it. Nate didn’t know a damn thing for sure anymore. He caught a last look out the window and headed into the bedroom. He needed to find out.
The first time he took his son surfing at the cove, the boy was five. They were in the water only a minute when a wave knocked the boy down and freaked him out. He wouldnâ€™t go back in the ocean for three years. The father tried to get him back in the water. Because he thought it would do the boy good. Because other than the boy, it was the only thing that gave his life meaning. And he wanted to pass it on. Eventually the boy returned to the ocean. He was reluctant at first, but got a little braver each time, then became obsessed with it. They surfed together every day. The boy got better than the father. Then he grew up and moved away. The old man still surfs the cove, but with diminishing skills. He feels like a kook sometimes. And the place seems different now. Foreign. A new jetty blocked the sand flow and damaged the wave. Itâ€™ll never be the same. Nothing will ever be the same. But sometimes the boy comes home and they surf the cove together. Effortless. Perfect.
They hiked across the pumpkin fields, along a narrow path through coastal scrub, and down a gully to the empty beach. He sat on the sand and slid into his wetsuit. She slid into hers. Neither spoke. The only sounds were neoprene sliding over skin and the steady din of breaking waves and squawking gulls. They waxed their surfboards, walked to the water, and paddled out. The ocean was glassy, the waves consistent. A set jacked on the sandbar. She caught the first wave and surfed to the beach. He caught the next one and exited beside her. They paddled back to the lineup. This was the first place they’d ever surfed together. Over the past three years they’d come here often and usually had it to themselves. They considered it their beach. A communion with nature and each other—a refuge from life. Perhaps enough to save them one more time. They surfed all morning. The waves reeled, the type of session normally savored. But neither watched the other’s rides or commented about the gliding pelicans or cumulus building over the golden hills of the coast ranges. A sea otter surfaced and swam between them. Normally they’d watch and laugh whenever otters appeared. But neither acknowledged it. They just stared at the horizon. Something buried deep—that night of indiscretion six months ago, seemingly resolved—could no longer be covered
in beach sand. The ocean had eroded it and, in that moment, exposed it to sunlight. The surf session ended. Everything ended. They trudged up the path toward the highway. Pumpkins grew round and fat in the fields. Wind stirred from the west and pushed a wedge of stratus onshore that coated the landscape in gray. They got in separate cars and drove away.
The knock on his cabin door broke the mountain silence. He rose from his chair and answered. Four young women stood on the porch. “Our truck broke down,” the tallest one said. “Do you have a phone we could use?” He shook his head. “No phones up here.” “Oh.” The woman frowned and shifted, looked at her friends. “Okay. Thanks anyway.” They turned to leave. Years ago he never saw the humans this far out. Now they came in larger and louder groups invading from the lowlands. The cabin hardly felt remote anymore. It was harder to hide. From what? He didn’t know. He no longer hiked to town to re-supply because each time there were more humans and each time he returned to the mountain a little more depressed. Now he only lived off what he could grow, forage, or kill. He watched the women walk away. “Wait,” he called. They stopped and glanced back. “Where’s your truck?” He fixed the truck in five minutes. The women thanked him profusely. He nodded and returned to his cabin. The sun set over the ridgeline. He sat on his patio sipping pine-needle tea and watching twilight bleed over the
mountains. Clouds thickened from the north. Some hard weather coming down. It grew crazier every year. Things were changing. Heâ€™d lived here fifty years and could see it in the wildlife, forest, snow pack. He could smell it in the air blowing up the valley on warm summer afternoons. These changes would not benefit the humans. He was no genius but knew about exponential growth and knew it ended badly. Heâ€™d seen it happen to wildlife and sensed it happening to the humans the way he sensed changing weather in his knee. This invoked neither joy nor sadness. Just the same grim acceptance he felt while killing a deer and cutting meat from the carcass. He considered the humans increasingly strange and with each passing day he grew less like them and more like the deer. He felt a twinge of nostalgia. For the way things used to be. For the house he grew up in and the forests heâ€™d roamed as a boy. When he was one of them. But there was no going back. A threshold had been passed. He knew something with certainty. Things would end badly for the humans. And nothing could stop it. He sipped his tea and watched darkness overtake the mountains and clouds blot out the starlight and felt in his knee the first blast of weather coming down cold and hard from the north.
He hikes with his young son through the redwood forest. They come upon a fallen tree and examine the wood. He teaches the boy how to count the rings to determine the tree’s age. The boy is stoked, finds another downed tree and counts the rings, giddy with his new knowledge. They continue hiking. The forest smells of damp earth and new foliage. They reach a creek and throw rocks into the water, seeing who can make a bigger splash. He used to let his son win, but now the boy is an equal competitor. He talks geology, telling his son how the mountains rise by plate tectonics and then slowly weather down until there’s nothing left of them, but the boy isn’t interested. The boy just wants to throw rocks. They toss a maple leaf into the creek and watch it float downstream. They study a banana slug and wonder aloud what it’s eating. They stand above a hole in the ground and speculate about its inhabitant. They come up with increasingly wild theories and laugh in the quiet forest. As they hike back toward the trailhead, he chastises the boy for walking too close to the poison oak. They reach the trailhead, the car, and reality. Not many more of these, he thinks, wishing they could stay in the forest forever.
Water flooded over rock and shook the granite beneath my feet. I studied the rapid, a class-five monster. My heart pounded. Clients and fellow guides chatted oblivious beside the rafts. I led this rafting trip. Everyone depended on me, assumed I’d find a route, scout for hazards, run the show. They blindly awaited my verdict, but shouldn’t. I was scared shitless. The canyon walls loomed above, the sky laced with cirrus. Stringers of pine and fir snaked through the Sierra Nevada granite. I both loved and hated this place. More like an addiction I couldn’t shake. I had some weird knack for river guiding. Everything came easy, except the fear. I could never shake the fear. Quartz sloughed off the rock beneath my pacing feet. I shivered in my wetsuit. I wanted out of here, wanted my couch, a beer, the remote control. A voice nagged from deep down. Run, coward, run. Yes, yes. Scale the canyon walls and keep running: from this rapid, this responsibility, this life. That could work. I wasn’t suited for adventure. Had the skill but not the stomach, the gift but not the balls. I studied the ridge. I could reach it, drop into the next canyon, and never return. It seemed so easy.
Abruptly I turned and scrambled upslope. Grabbed onto rocks and roots and branches. Pulled myself away from the river. Higher. The talus tumbled around me. Somebody called my name. I stopped and glanced back. Everyone watched me. I just stood there, frozen. A distant red-tail screeched like some prehistoric heckler. I took a few hits of mountain air, crisp and sharp, ice in my lungs. My pulse slowed, head emptied. And in that silence a flash of clarity: I controlled almost nothing in this world. Never had, never would. I’d fought that truth far too long, like pushing water uphill. But no more. A beautiful release. The sun angled lower. The shadows grew long in the canyon. They called my name again. Time to go. I eyed the ridge one last time, then donned the mask—that perfect front, that seamless lie—and headed down to the rafts. Nerves vanished to some hidden place. I cracked an involuntary smile. It would all be over soon. One way or another.
In the newspaper he read about a massive earthquake in South America. He went to the store and purchased the ingredients for an earthquake kit. On cable news he saw endless coverage of the latest drug resistant, flesh-eating superbug spreading throughout the world. He bought a biohazard suit and three cases of hand sanitizer. On the internet he read about terrorists plotting a nuclear attack on his city. He built a massive bomb shelter in his backyard and stocked it with supplies and electronics. His email contained a message listing hundreds of foods that doctors now considered carcinogenic. Almost everything in his refrigerator was on the list. He tossed it all into the garbage, went to the market, and bought twenty pounds of organic broccoli. Then he called his health insurance broker and upped his coverage. For months he huddled in his bomb shelter wearing his biohazard suit, eating organic broccoli and watching events unfold on cable news. Society was in tatters, or so it seemed from the coverage. But he was prepared for the apocalypse and would milk every last second on earth. One day, while he was watching the news and chewing that rancid broccoli, the television died. He fiddled with it to no avail. He tried the computer. Nothing. The power was out. He panicked. Without the latest news updates, how would he know what to worry about?
As he paced in fear and confusion, he heard a noise outside. Wary of terrorists and germy refugees, he considered grabbing his shotgun and barricading himself inside the shelter. But curiosity got the better of him. He unlocked the door and peeked outside. The noise came from over his backyard fence. His neighbor was tending her garden, singing and dancing to some outrageous disco music. He was surprised to see her, thought everyone was sick or dead or cowering underground. Maybe society hadnâ€™t finally collapsed. Maybe heâ€™d just forgotten to pay his electric bills. He watched her sing and dance, scratching himself beneath his biohazard suit. The thing had begun to chafe. Sunlight made it worse. And it stunk like hell. He stripped it off and stood there naked, smelling the scent of flowers and earth, feeling the fresh spring air wash over his skin. It was strange, feeling something, not thinking it. He glanced back inside his shelter, instinctively craving a breaking news update. Desperate for it. But he realized, standing in the fading sunlight, that it was too late. Disease had already infected him. He tossed his biohazard suit in the trash and left the bomb shelter and his emergency supplies and breaking news updates and bloated insurance coverage and walked up the hill and sat down on a rock and watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.
I studied the building from the Tijuana sidewalk. The windows were barred; several letters shorted out on the listing marquee. A mangy dog licked my feet. I shooed it away. It slunk down an alley. I felt guilty. Pete fidgeted beside me. “Should we go in?” “Yeah.” I had to do this. “You bring the rubbers?” I nodded. “Thick ones?” “Industry standard.” “What should we do?” I headed for the door. “I’m going in. Stay here if you want.” Pete followed. Inside, the place was dark and dank, as nasty as I’d imagined. We slid into a cracked vinyl booth and ordered beers. Three whores in clownish makeup sauntered up and squeezed between us. They purred, hustled drinks, fondled crotches. Pete reveled in it. I shooed them away like the dog. Only one girl interested me. I sipped my beer and scanned the place. A whore danced on a small stage in the corner. She looked like an errant grandmother. The dozen patrons huddling in booths seemed angry or just vacant, dead inside. The music was too loud for the speakers.
I finally saw her, by the bar. She was sixteen, but looked thirty. I walked over and sat beside her. “Hola.” She smiled. Jaded. Cynical. “Hola.” “You speak English?” I’d exhausted my Spanish. “Si.” “Can we go someplace private?” “You got money?” “Yes.” “We go upstairs.” I followed her up a staircase and down a hallway flanked by rooms. We entered a room. She sat on the bed and started removing her dress. “No,” I said. She looked confused. “I just want to talk.” She shrugged. “Cost the same either way.” I handed her a photograph. She looked at it, then me. “What’s this?” “You know.” She shook her head, but obviously recognized him. “It’s your father.” I hesitated. “Mine too.” Her eyes widened. She studied the picture. “He left my mother when I was ten,” I said. “He came down here and met yours. Seen him lately?” “Not since I was a little girl.” “Know where he is?” “No.” I felt disappointed and relieved. If I knew his location, I’d pay a visit. And I might just kill him. I handed her an envelope. She looked inside. Her jaw dropped. “Ten thousand dollars,” I said. She fingered the money in disbelief.
“Use it to leave this place.” She gestured vaguely around the room. “This is my home.” “This is no home.” “It’s mine.” “Not anymore.” She began to cry. I shifted awkwardly on the concrete floor. In the next room, some dude grunted his way to a quick climax. The air hung pungent with bodily fluids. I wanted to vomit. “Where would I go?” she said. “I have a place across the border. You can stay as long as necessary. Forever, if you want. I’ll help with whatever you need.” “I can’t.” “Why not?” She shrugged. “Meet me outside in ten minutes,” I said. “You’ll be safe. I promise.” She just sat there. I touched her arm. “Okay?” She flinched. I removed my hand. She rubbed her arm like I’d hurt her. After a few moments, she sighed and nodded. I left the cesspool and loitered on the street. Pete emerged from the building, grinning. “How was yours?” I shrugged. He rambled through every detail of his experience. I tuned it out. Pete was an idiot. But he was my best friend. Somehow, I needed him here. “Let’s go,” he said. “I’m waiting for someone.” “Taking one home? Can I have a poke?” “Shut up.”
She never showed. I searched the building, forcing my way into rooms, bribing whores for information. She was gone, along with her few possessions. Nobody knew, or revealed, her destination. The bouncer finally threw me out. Sunlight showered my face, evaporating the whorehouse funk. The search was over. Depression overtook me. I wanted to know my sister. I’d learned of her existence long ago and always wondered. Took years to track her down. But, if she left this place, I could sleep at night. Pete waited on the sidewalk. “Round two already? You’re an animal.” I headed for my truck. And then north of the border, home. For good. “Shut up, Pete.”
He hadn’t seen himself in days, ever since his lone mirror had shattered. When he finally scrounged a new one, his appearance shocked him. Not that he’d ever looked in the mirror much or fussed over his looks. But this was disturbing. It deepened his recent spate of mid-life crisis. The red shirt he’d worn in heavy rotation was a disaster. It bulged out like an oversized clown suit that was bright. Very bright. What appeared red up close looked an emasculate pink from a distance. And he’d started slicking back his hair to keep it from his eyes. But, rather than lying flat, it puffed into a vaguely sinister bouffant. He resembled some deranged street performer. He turned to his wife. “How could you let me walk around looking like this?” She shrugged. “I’m not the fashion police.” “That speech I gave last night? In front of all those people?” He gestured at his shirt, his hair. “Like this?” She just brushed her teeth and stared at him. She shrugged again. “Why didn’t you tell me I looked like a fucking idiot?” “I thought you knew.” “No,” he said. “No I didn’t.” She finished brushing and rinsed in the sink. “Well,” she said, turning to leave. “Now you do.”
The red light felt endless. I flipped through the radio dial— sick of the same old stuff—and paused at a soft hits station. It blared some power ballad from the 80’s. Not my music. I reached for the dial but hesitated, vaguely captivated by the hypnotic mélange of synthesizer, melodramatic falsetto, mechanical drumbeat. Definitely not my music. Back in high school I was strictly into metal. The hard stuff. No synthesizers or sentimentality, just power chords and teenage anger. Album covers filled with gun-toting skeletons, that sort of thing. Drifted to angstridden alternative rock in my twenties, stripped acoustic stuff in my thirties. But now that I was pushing forty… The singer’s name escaped me, but his image was burned into my mind: leather jacket, earnest look, well-coiffed mullet eerily rigid under the stage lights. My buddies and I used to ridicule him back in the day. And he deserved it. But now, something about his voice… I cranked the volume and nodded to the rhythm. The beat intensified and I found myself gazing into the distance in contemplation. As the chorus arrived, my lips moved involuntarily to the words—flubbed a few but that didn’t matter—and my head bounced with such vigor that I strained my neck. I ignored the pain as the song barreled into crescendo. Goose bumps erupted on my arms. A tear formed in my eye. I wiped it away and belted out the lyrics. They emerged precise, heartfelt, dredged from latent memory.
As I rode the song to its denouement, movement caught my eye. I turned and saw a carload of college girls idling beside me. They roared with laughter. At me, not with me. And not in a isn’t-he-a-cute-older-gent sort of way. The other way. I quickly lowered the volume and changed the station. The stoplight turned green. The girls sped off, still laughing. One stuck her head out the window and blew me a kiss. Sheepish, I puttered behind in my generic sedan crammed with baby seats and a subtle but persistent reek of sour milk. At least I wasn’t driving a fucking minivan. Still had that shred of dignity. As I drove off, my chagrin mixed with something indefinable. Nostalgia? Bitterness? Resignation? I flipped back to the soft hits station. Another power ballad churned away. After a few moments of vacillation cum self-loathing, I added the station to my stereo preset list. But only preset number six, the farthest to the right. Far enough that I’d have to stretch a bit. Make an effort to push the button. Not in the top five, the preferred choices within easy reach. But number six. The last option. Maybe on a late night solo drive somewhere, jacked up on coffee, the window rolled up. Yeah, number six. I could live with that.
Call Me Stone
He’d been calling me Stone for weeks, and my name isn’t Stone. The first few times he said it, he sort of mumbled it and I didn’t realize the misnomer until later. I’m not sure where he came up with Stone. My name sounds nothing like Stone. At first, I scrounged for ways to tell him he’d been calling me by the wrong name, but the right moment never came. With each passing day, as our friendship grew, the prospect of revealing the truth grew more daunting. How would I explain weeks of cowardly deception? I couldn’t. So I never did. Now we were certifiable bros and I was, officially, Stone. Once I dropped my resistance and accepted the name, everything fell strangely into place. Somehow I felt right as Stone. I changed my mannerisms, my habits, saw things through a new lens. I felt funnier. Cooler. The ladies looked at me differently. I was, after all, Stone. It was a fresh start at life. My old hang-ups and problems disappeared. It was magic. But one day, while my friend and I loitered in a bar, a colleague from work approached me. “Hey Frank,” she said. I froze in disbelief. My alternate realities were colliding. Maybe it was the shock or maybe the stiff ale swirling through my head, but for a moment I couldn’t remember who I really was: Frank or Stone? Or somebody else?
I turned to my friend. He looked at me, puzzled. He looked at my coworker. She looked at me, then him, then me again. We all looked at each other. I turned away and stared at the bar and hoisted my beer in silence. As if I could make the problem go away by ignoring it. That method seemed to work for me back in kindergarten. A few seconds later, my coworker walked off in apparent confusion or disgust or both. My friend studied me. “Frank?” He saw my driver’s license lying atop my wallet on the bar. I’d left it there after getting carded. He picked it up and scrutinized it. Then he stared at me with a mixture of surprise and hurt. “You’re not Stone.” I scrambled for a response. Not to explain my deception but to conjure up additional deception to continue as Stone. My fake world was crashing down upon me. But I came up with nothing. Stone was dead. Stone wasn’t coming back. Stone never really existed at all. “You’re right,” I said reluctantly. “I’m not Stone.” Things were never the same between us after that.
I sit in the courtroom with fifty other suckers with civic pride and/or a fear of ignoring the jury summons. The judge monotones from the bench. I slouch in my non-ergonomic chair, vaguely indifferent, until he mentions the trial will last six weeks. Six weeks? I bolt upright. My indifference turns to fear. Six weeks trapped under bureaucratic control? Like being held hostage at the DMV. The judge asks if anyone has a reason they can’t serve. Hands shoot up, at least half the gallery. A woman with an emergency root canal scheduled tomorrow. A man with prepaid tickets to Vegas. Some excuses are weak or downright bogus—a guy insists he must let his dogs out five times a day or they’ll shit all over his Corinthian leather couch—yet many are accepted. I scramble for a valid excuse but conjure nothing remotely honest. I’m what the founder fathers had intended, an ideal juror. Great. I’d kill for an emergency root canal right now. The crowd dwindles and my chances for selection increase. The clerk calls out names. A hush settles over the room. The chosen shuffle to the jury box as if condemned. I lock eyes with the dog guy. He’s a wreck, looks ready to vomit. We exchange a grim nod. Please god, don’t pick me.
The box fills up. My name isn’t called. I rejoice; I’ll be home by lunch. But my relief is premature. As potential jurors are questioned, half are cryptically dismissed. More names are called to replace them. Dammit. Please god, don’t pick me. Some grumbling from the crowd; they, too, had thought they were home free. The judge admonishes that jury duty is a civic responsibility and a privilege. The fate of the Republic rests with conscripts like us. We should be proud to serve. It’s what separates us from North Korea, etc. I study the defendant. He’s about my age, looks normal enough. How’d he get in this position? That could be me someday. My despair is replaced with a touch of guilt. The judge is right—my civic duty, a privilege, what separates us from North Korea. I remember something my old man once said: there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s got to push aside self interest for the greater good. Yes, of course. The greater good. The clerk resumes reading names from his list. I close my eyes. My heart jackhammers in my chest. I clench my chair with a white-knuckled death grip. Please god, don’t pick me.
The hippie market is next door to my office. I buy a sandwich there almost every day. There’s no other place nearby to get food, and I’m too lazy to make my own lunch. The deli at the market is excellent. The people are friendly, and though they prepare the sandwiches with a plodding slowness characteristic of devout stoners, they also maintain a stoner’s freakish attention to culinary detail. The tomato slices are works of art. There’s only one problem: the granola woman who works the register is always inviting me to one rally or another. She’s really into rallies. She’s really pumped up on “causes.” I’m neither for nor against her causes. I just want to pay for my sandwich. Today I stand in line behind several people. Today I will ask her to please refrain from soliciting me for future political rallies. The line moves forward. I’m up next. I don’t want to alienate this woman—she seems nice enough, and sincere in her beliefs—but I have to say something, as the situation has become untenable. I dread purchasing my daily sandwich. But I must be careful in my technique. If things go wrong, I’ll have to face an even more awkward exchange on future sandwich runs. I reach the register, preparing for the confrontation. But she doesn’t invite me to a rally. She seems subdued, just mutters a greeting and rings up my purchase. I wonder what happened.
Has someone else complained about her pamphleteering? Has she become cynical and apathetic overnight? “Everything okay?” I ask. She shrugs. “I got laid off today. They’re cutting back on staff.” I’m struck by the news. I feel bad for her, and tell her so. Though I can’t deny a certain relief, I regret my past irritation with her. She’s a thoroughly decent person. I almost feel nostalgic for her proselytizing. “I hear they’re looking to hire a receptionist next door,” she says. “You work there, right?” I hesitate. We are in fact hiring. “I’m not sure.” “Not sure that you work there?” “That we’re hiring.” “There’s a big sign on the window advertising the position. I saw your name listed as the contact. I recognize it from your debit card.” “Oh. Right.” “What do you think? Do I have a chance at the job? I could really use the money.” I clear my throat. “What are your skills?” “I can do it all. I was a receptionist for five years before I started here.” This is getting bad. “It’s dull work.” She points at the cash register. “You think this is exciting?” I start to panic. My mind races. I can’t think straight. “We get along, right?” she says. “Other customers are so rude when I talk politics. You always seem interested, like we’re on the same wavelength.” Same wavelength? I should’ve spoken up long ago, as apparently every other customer has. At least this woman is firm in her beliefs. I’m always weaseling out of confrontation and stand-taking. Who’s the kook here?
I have to come clean. I could not possibly work with her. Avoidance and apathy have cost me dearly throughout life. I either take a stand now or I never will. The line stacks up behind me. I glance at the irritated faces. Everyone’s watching me. They know the score. One by one they’ve made peace with the woman by politely telling her to shut up. I envy them. As they glare at me, I can read the look on their faces: what kind of man are you? What kind of man, indeed. I turn back to the woman. “When can you start?”
He drove a small white convertible of a certain vintage prevalent in the 1980’s. Other than him, we’d never seen a man drive that type of car. It was common knowledge that 90 percent of the drivers of that particular model were beautiful women. The other 9.9 percent were decent-looking women. And then along came this guy. He had long flowing blond hair, and as such we called him John Flowinghair. When he’d pull into the parking lot, we’d catch a glimpse of that flowing blond hair, and we’d stop what we were doing, expecting to see a beautiful woman emerge from the car. We’d say, okay, here comes some eye candy. But then out would pop John Flowinghair. He was a big man, straight as they came, and loved the ladies and draped himself in manly pursuits: football, baseball, guns. And he was a dick, a bully, quick with a fist. Yet he drove that car, of which a more emasculating mode of transportation had not been manufactured in recorded human history. We had no beef with anyone or how they lived their life. We accepted people for who they were. But we demanded logic and order, and the situation was illogical. The man’s behavior was impossible to reconcile with that car. It just didn’t fit. Put him in a pickup truck and everything dovetailed nicely. But that car… We never understood that guy.
My wife stood on the porch as I pulled into the driveway. “Did you get it?” she asked. I wrestled the box from the car. “Right here.” She smiled. “Perfect.” Then she frowned. “Why is it in a box?” “I didn’t want to pay the assembly fee. It’s a scam.” “You sure you can put it together?” “Do you think I’m an imbecile?” She nodded. “Sometimes.” “Well, not this time.” I lugged the box into the living room, opened a beer, started a fire, and turned on some music. A festive ambience. My son was asleep. He’d wake on his birthday with his new bicycle assembled, could ride it straight out the door if so chosen. I opened the box and dumped the contents onto the rug. “Here,” she said, handing me the directions. “No thanks.” “You don’t want them?” “Nope.” “Why not?” I shrugged. “The principle.” “What principle?” “Self-sufficiency.” I crumpled the directions and tossed them into the fire. “It’s a guy thing.” I went to work. The parts were more numerous than expected. And more mysterious: all manner of rubber, metal,
and plastic. Strange cabling. Two bags full of screws and bolts. I managed to get the frame together. But from there things went south. I struggled and cursed, finished my beer and cracked another. What kind of bicycle was this? I hadn’t ridden one in at least a decade, maybe two. Things had changed. The new math. But I forged ahead. Some of the parts required tools I neither had nor had ever heard of. After two hours, I managed to cobble most of it together, but couldn’t get the seat or the handlebars to fit. My wife watched from the couch. “There’s a part missing,” I said. She shook her head. “I doubt it. Maybe you just put one in the wrong place.” “No. A part’s missing.” I looked around the floor. Empty. “Too bad you burned the directions.” I grunted in irritation and stared at the bicycle. The hour grew late and the case of beer emptier. I pressed on in frustration. I took to muttering. Certain tests must be passed. The world threatened chaos and entropy. The sun could explode at any moment. I controlled little, my bunker under constant assault. Not much to brag about, but it was mine. I claimed fifty percent of household power, and toy assembly was a key pillar of strength, the linchpin of my sovereignty. Any change in the established order would upset the balance. I might have to start cooking meals, or, god forbid, cleaning urine off the bathroom floor. Elected governments have been overthrown for less. I took the bicycle apart and tried to reassemble it from scratch. But this time I could only get half of it together. “There’s a part missing,” I growled. She didn’t respond.
When the clock struck midnight, I was hammered. I lurched around the living room, cursing and flailing. My wife had long since gone to sleep. For perhaps the fiftieth time I scoured the box for the missing part. Nothing. I tossed it into the fire. It lit ablaze, a major inferno. Flaming bits of cardboard floated through the room and burned holes in the carpet. I swatted at them like a lunatic. Then I passed out. I awoke on the living room floor with a blistering headache. Drool crusted on my chin. My son jumped on my chest. “Wake up daddy. It’s my birthday.” My mind was foggy, but last night slowly came into focus. The bicycle. When the boy saw it partially assembled, the repercussions would kick in. Things would never be the same. “A bike,” he said. I rubbed my eyes and glanced over. The bicycle was fully assembled next to the fireplace. He got on and rode across the carpet, burned out like some post-apocalyptic landscape. “Hold on there, partner,” I said, struggling to my feet. “Let’s take it outside.” My wife stood in the hallway, smirking. She must have crept down last night and finished the deed over my comatose body. My brief joy was overshadowed by the new world order. My stomach churned. We took the bicycle outside and the boy rode up a hill, turned around at the top, and started descending. My wife kept smirking, reveling in her bloodless coup, fingering the contours of her new fiefdom. I would be exiled into the bathroom with a mop and bucket. The boy rode down the hill and within seconds the handlebars fell off and he slammed to the ground. Hard. His screams echoed through the morning neighborhood.
Her smirk vanished. There was a moment of chaos, a power vacuum. Then a subtle shift back to the old order. I felt a horrible guilt about the relief and satisfaction that washed over me, even as my boy lay sobbing. We ran over to him. He was not seriously hurt. As I reached to comfort him I paused to reclaim my share. Not pretty, but it had to be done. Because the world verged on constant chaos. The sun could explode at any moment. And I controlled almost nothing. I turned to my wife. â€œI told you a part was missing.â€?
They sat in the backyard on a hot summer afternoon. He quaffed a tasty lager in a chilled mug. His wife drank beside him. Their two boys terrorized the yard as usual—chased a cat, threw rocks at each other, pounded on the fence with a baseball bat—but he barely noticed. Felt pleasantly content. “God I love those kids,” he said, draining his beer. “We’re so lucky.” “You want another?” she asked. He handed her the mug. “Thanks. Maybe toss in an extra lime this time. I’m feeling frisky.” “Not beer,” she said. “Kids.” He stared at her, surprised, and shook his head. “Two is enough.” “We could think about one more.” “No.” “Why not?” “We’d have to get a bigger car.” “And overpopulation. We’d be adding to the problem.” “Yeah, that too. But mostly the car.” “I guess it’s settled,” she said. “We’ll stick with two.” “Absolutely.” “Then it’s time.” “For what?” “The procedure.” “What procedure?” She nodded at his crotch. “You know.”
He felt perplexed for a moment. Then it dawned on him. “Oh.” “Unless you want to have more kids.” “Definitely not.” “Then it’s time.” “I’m not gonna let some guy slice and dice down there.” “Slice and dice? He’s not making a veggie omelet. It’s minor surgery. Painless.” He scoffed. “Yeah, right.” “It’s true.” Like a crafty magician she pulled a pamphlet from her clothing and handed it over. “I found you some literature.” He glanced at the cover. A gratuitously detailed diagram of a scrotum. “Cormac McCarthy is literature. That’s… propaganda.” He pushed it away. “You’ve got that department covered.” He hesitated, felt a flash of panic. Glanced over at the two boys, pounding chunks out of the fence with the bat. He yelled at them to stop, then turned to her. “Right?” “Yeah, but not for long.” “Why?” “Because it’s a hassle, and there are unpleasant side effects. So if we’re through having kids…” She nodded at his crotch. “The procedure.” He shook his head. “No way.” “Then I guess you’ll just have to go without.” ”Without what?” She gestured at her body. He grunted. “Are you blackmailing me?” “Yes.” “Good luck. I’ll outlast you. I’m a camel. I can go weeks, months. In college I abstained for a year. No problem.” “Wasn’t that because of a fungal infection?” “It wasn’t fungal,” he said defensively. “It was a vitamin deficiency. It turned out to be nothing.”
“You’ll give in eventually.” “We’ll see about that.” “And when you do, we’ll just have to use the natural methods. Prayer. The lunar cycle. They work about half the time.” The boys grabbed the cat and threw it into the pool. “Knock it off!” he called to them. “And if they fail…” She shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind another kid. Maybe two.” A rock sailed over his head and cracked the window behind him. He glanced at her. At the boys. The window. His pleasant contentment evaporated. He extended his hand. “Give me the fucking pamphlet.”
He lounged on the couch watching television and eating pizza. The end of another blissful week of unemployment. No prospects on the horizon. He wasn’t worried about it, was, in fact, living the dream. Beside him, his wife cursed through some technical manual she’d lugged home from work. The television blared a local news story about an old codger who ran a landscaping business using women in bikinis. Business was booming. The story devolved into a flurry of gratuitous video of halfnude women pushing lawnmowers. He gnawed on pizza crust, rapt, and released a chuckle. His wife glanced up. “What?” He nodded at the screen. They watched the story until it cut to a commercial. He muted the volume. They sat in silence. “There is simply no denying it,” he said at last, and he knew there was a tinge of awe in his voice. “That man is a goddamned genius.” She studied him blankly. “Genius?” “Yeah.” “If he’s such a genius,” she said, “maybe he could score you a job.” He scratched his facial stubble, scrounging for a retort, some soaring rhetoric about dreams, destiny. Maybe then she’d understand. But his mind fogged over. He grunted and flipped the volume back on. She smirked, shook her head slightly, and returned to her manual.
The café buzzed with activity. Patrons ordered coffee, rustled newspapers, chatted in corners. But Jack focused only on the girl. She sat at the counter reading a magazine. One of those sensationalized news weeklies. Jack never followed the news, but respected those who did. She looked over. Jack smiled, a bit toothy. She smiled back and returned to her magazine. She had creamy skin, angular features, a lazy cascade of raven hair. The type of girl he pictured on a plaza bench in some hard-to-pronounce eastern European country. Striking. Jack squirmed in his seat from too much coffee. He wanted to talk with her, but needed to take a leak. Desperately. The bathroom was tucked down a corridor on the far side of the café. By the time he returned, she might be gone. San Francisco was a big city. He’d never see her again. He fidgeted at the table, uncertain. She glanced over and fixed her brown eyes upon him. He loved brown eyes. She smiled and turned away. Was that an invite to approach? He became increasingly enamored of her quiet intensity, how she licked her finger before turning a page, the pooch of her lips as she read. Enamored of the fate that brought them together. This girl was meant for him. Jack felt it deep, true. Where could this go? Courtship, marriage, children, grandchildren? From this beginning, a profound altering of the future. What if their daughter became president? Grandson cured cancer or walked on Mars? Big things emerged from small beginnings.
He gnawed on a bagel. It had the consistency of pine heartwood. Some guy at the adjacent table yelled into a cell phone, shouting the kind of intimacies Jack would not dare reveal in his own closet, let alone a room full of strangers. Jack was torn. Approach her now or relieve himself first? This decision had implications—for the future of politics, medical science, space exploration. He had to speak with her. But his bladder… Unable to wait any longer, he stood, hurried to the bathroom, and took care of business. He washed his hands and slicked his hair in a way that made him look groomed but vaguely stupid. He made adjustments. Better, but still a little stupid. It would have to do. He returned to his table, feeling pleasantly drained. He eyed the counter. The girl was gone. He scanned the café. No sign of her. Dammit. His heart sank. His life, and that of the planet, was irreparably altered. He forced down more coffee, glum, trying to ignore the ravings of the cell phone idiot. Time to go. As he stood to leave, a tall blonde entered the café. She strolled by and smiled at him. Well, well, what’s this? Her lips were full, her green eyes vulnerable. He loved green eyes. Jack sat down. The café buzzed with activity. Patrons ordered coffee, rustled newspapers, chatted in corners. But he focused only on the girl.
I stood on the corner watching the world go by. The biggest piece of crap jalopy Iâ€™d ever seen drove past. Rust had claimed most of the roof, black smoke belched from the exhaust pipe, the wheels wobbled as if ready to fall off. The longhair driver had a spacey grin plastered across his face. The license plate frame said: Alumni, San Diego State University. Ah, I reminisced fondly, the old alma mater.
I fidgeted in the chair, awaiting my appointment. Across the room, a heavily pierced receptionist babbled on the phone. A dog licked its ass at her feet. Seemed a little unsanitary. What kind of doctor’s office was this? My neck ached. I could barely turn it. Bankrupt and uninsured, I lacked options until yesterday, when a friend slipped me a half-off coupon for a visit with Dr. Mike Bell. I scrutinized a degree on the wall. Mike Bell, DC. DC? What happened to MD? I looked closer. There. DC, Doctor of Chiropractic. Huh. Sounded sketchy. And the school was located in Thailand. Thailand? What had I gotten myself into? The neck pain felt unbearable. Had to be serious. Nerve damage. Meningitis. Cancer. God, was a tumor causing the pain? I rubbed my neck. Something hard in there. I should be at a real doctor right now. An oncologist. A cardiologist. Someone with a medical degree. From Harvard. I deserved nothing less. I studied the office. “Alternative” literature covered the coffee table, bulged from wall-mounted racks. I respected alternative medicine, to a point, but couldn’t ol’ Mike toss in a few medical journals for show? I searched for anything reassuring, but only saw pamphlets on “wellness,” “life energy,” and something called “subluxation.” This place had the scientific rigor of a tattoo parlor.
I paced the room, heart thudding. Doctor visits—especially, I now realized, those to Doctors of Chiropractic—terrified me. I found the human body foreign and disturbing. At least I trusted an MD. But a DC? I eyed the door, wanting to run. If I ran, I couldn’t be diagnosed with cancer or anything else. But my neck… As I sat back down, the door to the inner office opened. A guy emerged and called my name. I jumped up, feeling defensive. “Yes.” “Come on back.” The guy extended his hand as I walked by. He wore shorts, flip-flops, and the loudest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen. “I’m Mike.” I shook it. “Eric.” I wore identical garb. But, instead of feeling chummy, fraternal, I got nervous. What kind of doctor wore flip-flops to work? How about a lab coat, at least? We walked down a hallway toward the examining room. I felt better. This seemed like a regular doctor’s office. Inside the room, my ease vanished. The instruments looked odd and vaguely medieval. And the examining table resembled something used for lethal injections. “Grab a seat,” Mike said. I sat on the table. “So, what’s bothering you?” I explained the problems with my neck. The pain, the stiffness. Mike nodded, took notes, asked questions. “Okay,” he said. “Take off your shirt and lay down.” I felt alarmed. “Why?” “Because I need to examine you.” “What do you think the problem is?” Go ahead and state the obvious, Mike Bell, DC. Tell me I have meningitis and cancer. Even a chiropractor could figure it out. Mike laughed. “I don’t know yet. That’s why I need to examine you.”
I nodded, reluctantly removed my shirt, and lay down. Mike felt around. Probed. Jabbed. Violated. Performed a few oddly tender moves. I didn’t like strangers touching me, especially dudes, but Mike had delicate hands… What the hell was I thinking? I took a deep breath and refocused on my paranoia. Mike grunted and muttered. “What is it?” I nearly shouted. “What’s the problem?” “Just relax,” he said. Relax? How could I? Those were unmistakable grunts of concern. He finished up and opened the door. “I’ll be right back.” I sat up, anxious. Where did he go? Was my condition so complex he needed to call a real doctor for a consult? Scratch his head through some medical reference? If he came back and said, “I’ve never seen this before,” I would jump out the window. The seconds ticked by. I began to sweat. Mike returned, holding a model of a spine. Dammit. Spinal injury. I’d be paralyzed by dusk. Mike sat down. “Here’s your problem.” He pointed out neck hardware—joints, muscles, vertebrae—uttering technical gibberish. Sounded bad. Horrible. Would I ever walk again? “What’s the treatment?” I envisioned surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, amputation. “A deep tissue massage should fix it. Loosen up those muscles and joints. You’ll be fine.” Huh? A massage? I felt dumbstruck. “That’s it?” Mike smiled. “Yep. We have a great massage therapist here. I’ll make you an appointment.” “Okay,” I said, relieved. My neck felt better already. The room seemed just a tad brighter. Had those birds been chirping outside a minute ago? My life seemed great, my
future open. Thank you, Mike Bell, Doctor of Chiropractic. Sorry for doubting your skill. I stood and turned to go. “Oh, and by the way,” Mike said. “I noticed a suspicious mole on your back. Looks like a melanoma. Better get that checked out immediately.”
Dawn broke over the eastern horizon and spilled through the bedroom window. Jays and blackbirds sang over the hills, waking him at the cusp of a new day. The possibilities were endless and the future wide open. The birdsong grew louder, cajoling him to get up and inhale the sky and live every glorious moment to its fullest. He rolled over, pulled up the blankets, and wrapped the pillow around his head. â€œFucking birds,â€? he muttered.
“What about her?” I said, gesturing two lanes over toward a curvy woman in her early twenties sporting tight pants, wonderfully big hair, and a shot glass in each hand. My buddy shook his head. “Too young. Haven’t you learned anything? You need a woman with some mileage on her.” “Hard miles?” “Not too hard.” “City miles?” “More like country miles, fresh air and open space.” The woman drank her shots and bowled a strike. She danced around seductively and gloated to her pack of hot friends and blew kisses at the perverts hunched vulture-like at the bar. I knew what such a woman could give and what she could take and what was left after the balance sheet reconciled. Or maybe I knew nothing at all. I stood amidst the flashing neon lights and loud techno music and vague stench of dirty socks wondering why I remained a bachelor on my fifth game of bowling, fourth decade of life, third pitcher of beer, and second plate of greasy fries on a Tuesday night in late December with the moon glowing bright and clear outside. I grabbed my bowling ball and tossed it down the lane. It bounced twice, pulled hard left, and rattled down the gutter. My buddy heckled me in his usual way. As I watched it vanish, pin-less, into the void, the truth hit me like broken glass. I glanced over and saw the woman eyeing me.
She smiled and held up a drink in tribute to my gutter ball. Her expression seemed to say: Come on over and Iâ€™ll topple your head pin. I grabbed my beer, raised it to her, and drained it in one gulp. Then I turned, nodded to my buddy, and walked past the ball rack and aging bar perverts and curvy drunken strikethrower and headed out under the glimmering moon toward the country miles beyond, endless and unbroken in the distance.
Back in high school my friends and I used to ride skateboards in a big concrete ditch we called The Bowl. At the time, I hadn’t realized it was a flood control channel. I hadn’t really considered its official purpose at all. It was just a place to ride skateboards. Not that I couldn’t have figured it out if I’d thought hard enough, but the point is I didn’t care, as long as we could skateboard there. But I digress. Anyway, one summer day a pack of us were skating The Bowl. We were about to quit and head home when Amber showed up with a pack of her friends. I was in love with Amber. We all were. She had long brown hair and tan skin and blue eyes and was just smoking hot by any reasonable standard. None of us had ever talked to her. We started showing off a bit while the girls watched, going higher, faster, deeper. But they looked bored. They yawned. They studied the sky. They fidgeted with their bags as if preparing to leave. Panic spread through us. This was our chance—the first and maybe last—to connect with Amber and her friends. Once we unlocked that door, the rewards were limitless: parties, notoriety, dry-humping. We had to raise the stakes, get attention. “Let’s skate the death zone,” Joey said. A hush settled over the group. The death zone was further down the channel where it steepened before going
underground. Holes and cracks we called death holes littered the concrete. To our knowledge it had never been attempted. “Who’s going to do it?” Smitty asked. Joey turned to me. “Go for it, man.” “Why me?” “You’re the best skater here. Do it for the good of the group.” “The good of the group?” “Yeah. Maybe the girls will stick around. One of us might score.” “I’m taking all the risk. What do I get out of it?” “Glory. A hero’s welcome. And first dibs at Amber.” “So you won’t try and weasel in?” Joey shrugged in a kind of vulnerable, faux-innocent gesture he used on unsuspecting girls. “Of course not. I’m not even interested in Amber. I’m angling for Lisa. I like a bigger girl.” Lisa wasn’t bad, but certainly no Amber. Joey was a lying bastard. He had high standards and often scored above his genetic station. He was my best friend, but I didn’t trust him at all. He’d finagled girls away from me more than once. “I don’t know…” “C’mon man,” Joey pressed. “Don’t be a pussy.” “I’m being a pussy? Why don’t you do it?” “If I had your skill, I would.” Joey was buttering me up. He skated just as well as me. Well, almost. I had a reputation to protect. I glanced over at Amber. At perfection. I’d never muster the stones to talk with her but maybe my skating could do it for me. I hesitated, studying the death zone. This could end badly. Some safety gear would’ve been wise, but back then nobody wore pads or, God forbid, a helmet. If you tried to strap one on somebody would’ve walked over and kicked your ass.
Seriously. We were idiots. As I stood there paralyzed with doubt, Amber and friends started to leave. Now or never. “He’s going for the death zone!” Joey yelled to them. The girls stopped and turned. They knew about the death zone. Every kid in town did. It was sort of the Forbidden City of the local deviant youth culture. Everyone stared at me. There was no backing out now. Joey had made the choice for me. Jerk. As usual, it was all about him. I didn’t know whether to thank him or punch him in the mouth. I locked eyes with Amber. A smile spread across her lips. Ambiguous. Like the Mona Lisa. What did it mean? Pull this off and you’ll be groping me by dusk? Keep stroking, chump, you’ll never get this? I didn’t know. But I had to find out. I walked over to the drop-in. The place went silent. The sun seemed suddenly brighter, hotter. A faint trace of sewage in the air. I stole one last glance at Amber, took a deep breath, and dropped in. A clean entry. I rode up the opposite wall, grinded off the top, and worked down the channel. My turns were smooth and tight. I entered the death zone. My skateboard shimmied beneath my feet. I weaved through the death holes. My focus was total. Zen-like. The end approached and I felt the first glimpses of glory. Delusions of grandeur. My focus waned as I began planning for Amber. For my hero’s welcome. I could smell it. Could taste it in my mouth as I nailed a death hole and slammed head first into the concrete. I was in a coma for two months. When I finally woke, Joey and Amber were together. Completely in love. They got married after college.
A few weeks ago I saw them at our twentieth high school reunion. Amber was as hot as ever. She really hadnâ€™t lost a step, even after pushing out three kids. But let me tell you something: she was a bitch. She had Joey running all over, fetching food and drink, treating him like a stray dog. Nothing satisfied her. Vain Joey had been reduced to errand boy. As Amber barked at Joey across the table, my wife and I glanced at each other. Sheâ€™d known all about Joey. I could tell by the way she bit her lip that she considered this hilarious. And as I stared at my wife that night I realized one thing. That death hole was the best thing that ever happened to me.
We were fifteen when Smitty’s dad took us on our first Baja trip. For weeks leading up to it, me and Smitty and Joey jabbered about what to expect. None of us had a clue. As the trip approached, our initial mumblings morphed into brazen predictions about perfect empty waves and adoring packs of senoritas flush with beachside backrubs. We were from the suburbs. There wasn’t much excitement. We crossed the border itching to surf. But Smitty’s dad had his own agenda. He detoured to an orphanage outside Tijuana. “Be grateful for what you have,” he told us as he shoved boxes full of clothes and toys into our hands. “Because some people have nothing.” All morning we schlepped boxes up flights of stairs. We grumbled the whole time. It’s not that we didn’t want to help the orphans. We just figured they could wait a few days for their stuff. Tide, wind, and swell couldn’t. It was a physics thing. At dusk, we finally reached our campsite. We stood on the bluff watching waves break into a giant bay. The swell looked pretty solid. A surf would cleanse our desert grime, ease our travel funk. But with darkness near, it was too late to paddle out. We cursed the orphans and ridiculed Smitty’s dad behind his back.
We ate dinner at a shabby restaurant in a nearby fishing village. Smitty’s dad warned us off the carne asada and suggested fish tacos instead, but we wanted carne. Mostly we wanted to defy Smitty’s dad. Bad call. Within two hours we were all throwing up outside our tent. Except Smitty’s dad. He’d eaten the fish tacos. When we woke the next morning, the swell had dropped. Still surfable, but not the perfection we’d expected. Didn’t look much different than the crap we surfed back home. But the waves were empty and the place felt exotic and we fancied ourselves surf explorers. As we scrambled for our wetsuits, Smitty’s dad told us to hold off. It was Sunday and he wanted to talk a little God. See, Smitty’s dad used to run with a wild crew back in the day. Rumor was he’d logged a bit of hoosegow time and found religion in a big way. None of us begrudged his beliefs but we came to surf. We glanced impatiently over his shoulder at the empty waves while the sermon dragged on. And it dragged. I don’t remember what he said but I do remember one thing: he kept holding up a pen in one hand, dropping it, and catching it with the other hand. Each time he did this, he locked eyes with one of us. Full-on death stare. Then he turned to the next guy and repeated the process. This went on for awhile. Seriously. It felt a little creepy. I didn’t get the point at all. Something about gravity? To this day I don’t know what the hell he was talking about. When he finally finished and allowed us to surf, the wind had started stirring. And worse, a pack of surfers arrived and paddled into the bay. Our bay. We’d gotten there first. We moaned and griped but Smitty’s dad chastised us. “Look around you,” he said, gesturing to the desert and ocean. “Enjoy what you have in this moment. Because it won’t last.”
It didn’t stop the griping. We were pissed at Smitty’s dad. We finally got in the water, but the crowd and wind killed the fun. I watched Smitty’s dad grab his board and scramble down the bluff. Supposedly he ruled his local beach back in his youth. Some kind of C-list pro surfer. He went on to run a small empire of fast food restaurants, had done well for himself, was living the suburban dream. As I watched him paddle out, I felt this weird anticipation. Maybe it was hope. I wanted to see Smitty’s dad kick ass in the ocean like he used to. Somehow I needed it. Needed to believe in the world ahead. But he never even made it out: within seconds of paddling, he got sucked into the rocks, lost his board, and ended up on the beach. I didn’t know what to make of Smitty’s dad. A few minutes later he waved us in. Turned out he’d broken his leg on the rocks. We had to drag him up the bluff, stuff him in the car, and head straight home. Smitty drove the whole way back. Pretty cool for him, but the trip was ruined. So much for perfect waves and back-rubbing senoritas. But Smitty’s dad was philosophical through the pain. “It’s part of the experience,” he grimaced. “You’ll appreciate the next trip even more because of this.” By this point none of us were listening to a word he said. Now, thirty years on, Smitty’s dad was dead. Cancer, I think. He died a few weeks before I took my son and his friends on their first Baja trip. I tried to teach them about the culture and wildlife but they just stared at me blankly. The waves at the bay had been ruined by a marina, complete devastation. We surfed a different stretch of coast. Not nearly as scenic. I caught the first five waves of the trip—paddled circles around the boys, just schooled them—but on the sixth I floundered like a kook and blew out my knee.
I sat on the bluff drinking beer and watching them surf. The waves were good. The boys had it all to themselves. When they came in, I overheard them ridiculing me behind my back. I still donâ€™t know what to make of Smittyâ€™s dad.
The plan was to sneak me into the Iron Maiden concert. I had no ticket and the concert was sold out. Joey worked concession at the amphitheater and had inside connections. We paced his garage, plotting and scheming. We hatched scenarios and scrutinized them and scrubbed away the bad stuff until one option remained. “You hide in the back of my truck while I drive into the employee parking lot,” Joey said. “And then what?” “I walk to my concession stand. You wait in the truck until the show starts, slip through the parking lot, and you’re in. Easy as that.” I hesitated. It sounded simple enough. But nothing was ever simple with Joey involved. “What if I get caught? I heard the security guards brutalize trespassers. Smitty’s brother used to work there. He said they beat kids all the time.” Joey waved dismissively. “Once in awhile.” “Once in awhile?” “So they bitch-slap you a few times. What’s the big deal? It’s Maiden, man. One night only. Sold out. This could be your only chance to see them. Ever. Who knows if they’ll tour again?” I hesitated. Fear versus history. “Fine,” I said. “I’m in.”
Joey picked me up in his truck the next evening. We drove to the amphitheater. Joey chattered away. I nodded nervously, sick with fear. But it was Maiden, thinking-man’s metal. I had to do it. As we neared the place, Joey pulled over and I hopped into the bed of the truck, covered with a mini camper shell and lined with storage compartments. I wedged into a cramped and sweltering compartment. It seemed to take hours to drive a couple of miles. The truck slowed and stopped. I heard voices, probably the security checkpoint to the employee parking lot. I held my breath. The truck shifted into gear and accelerated. I exhaled in relief. A minute later the truck stopped, the engine died. “All clear,” Joey said. I poked my head out of the compartment. “We’re in?” “Yeah. Just stay here until the opening band is finished and Maiden takes the stage. There’s a gate over there with a security guard.” He nodded vaguely across the lot. “The guard should leave when the main event starts. Walk through the gate and you’re home free.” “Okay.” Joey walked off. The opening band started playing. I sat in the truck listening to the distant rumble. The set ended and the place went quiet again. The minutes crawled along. Agonizing. Unbearable. Then the amphitheater went dark. The crowd roared, drums started pounding. Showtime. I slipped from the truck, crouched down, and searched for guards. All clear. I trotted through the parking lot. The music thumped in the distance. I longed to be there, just one last obstacle. I saw the gate up ahead. No sign of the guard.
Perfect. Maiden blasted through their first song. My fear vanished and I surged with anticipation. I had visions of front row seating, multiple encores, gorgeous heavy metal tramps whored-up in full concert regalia. Maybe, just maybe, I’d score more than a free concert this evening. Almost there. Twenty feet. Ten. Five. As I reached the gate someone grabbed my shirt and yanked me backward. “What the hell, kid?” A security guard spun me around and shone a flashlight in my face. I froze. “You trying to sneak in?” “No.” “You work here?” “Maybe.” “Maybe?” My brain wasn’t functioning. I panicked. “No.” “Then what are you doing?” I shrugged. “Fess up.” There was no weaseling out of this. I could only beg for clemency. “Okay, you caught me. But can you cut me a break? It’s Maiden.” He lowered the flashlight and fixed me with a cold hard glare. “C’mon, man,” I pleaded. “What’s the harm? Let me go and we’ll forget this ever happened.” He kept glaring but in the flashlight glow I saw the first trace of pity in his eyes. “You must’ve done something like this as a kid,” I said, the groveling coming easier with my desperation. “Let me go, just this once. It’s Maiden. A once in a lifetime experience.”
His face softened. A faint smile spread across his lips, perhaps harkening back to his own halcyon days of concert tomfoolery. Youthful indiscretions. This guy got it. Heâ€™d grown older but hadnâ€™t forgotten what it was like back in the day. I felt a burgeoning bro-moment, an intergenerational connection. A passing of the baton. The pass was completed by his fist crashing into my jaw. I folded to the ground. He yanked me up by the hair and marched me to the exit gate and shoved me through and slammed it shut. I trudged home five miles in the dark. There would be no Maiden that night. No gorgeous heavy metal tramps. The pain and disappointment and humiliation might conceivably offer life lessons, broad in scope and crucial to personal evolution. Revelations about responsibility, honesty, better strategic planning. But all I came away with was one insight, narrowly focused, that served me well in later years: If you want to score heavy metal tramps at a Maiden concert, you have to buy a ticket.
Fat Bottomed Girls
Smitty and I played chess in the park. A summer breeze rustled the sycamores towering above us. “I can’t believe she left me,” he said, reaching for his bishop. “For once, I thought something would last.” “Well, what did you expect?” I said. “You started singing ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ when she walked through the door. Everybody at the party heard it.” “It was a joke.” “Not a good one.” “I like Queen,” he muttered. “So shoot me.” “Gladly.” I nodded at the chess board. “Make your move.” He hemmed and hawed and finally placed his bishop. I responded without mercy and slaughtered him in three moves. “Bastard,” he said, studying the board trying to figure out how I’d beaten him. It wasn’t difficult. He made the same predictable, hamhanded moves every game. He grunted and shook his head. “She wasn’t right for me, anyway. I need to find a woman who understands me. Accepts me for who I am.” “Who the hell’s gonna do that?” Smitty glanced up at me, wide-eyed. Then he frowned and nodded slowly and set up his chess pieces for another drubbing. “Let’s play again,” he said. “You got lucky last game.”
Me and Smitty sat in a downtown bar on Wednesday at two in the afternoon. The place was dark and musty and littered with middle-aged men drinking in silence. Smitty quaffed three beers to my one. I pushed away from the bar. “I’m gonna go.” “Stay awhile,” Smitty said. “I need to get back to work.” Smitty winced. Three months since he’d gotten laid off. He’d worked the job his entire adult life, a loyal employee, but when things got tight they dropped him like a brick. I felt bad for him but also a little jealous. I hated my job. Had bigger dreams. “Okay,” I said, sitting back on the stool. “One more beer.” We ordered another round and watched images flashing on the television. The sound was off. Everybody in the bar stared at the screen. The show involved a bunch of celebrities seated around a big table playing backgammon. Some kind of tournament. The celebrities were all smiles, really living it up. I couldn’t tell what they were saying. They laughed and played backgammon and mugged for the cameras. “I’m taking a martial arts class,” Smitty said. “Why?” “Just looking for something…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. Something real. Got plenty of time these days.” “How is it?” “So far it’s been all about focus and breathing and stuff. And
that’s okay, to a point. But the other day I asked the instructor, you know, when do we learn how to kick somebody’s ass?” “And what did he say?” “He just kind of stared at me. Then he walked away. I think he was trying to tell me something with that stare.” “What?” “Beats me. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Maybe he was showing that you can stare some guy down until he buckles. I think it was one of those Zen puzzles. A problem you chew on until you figure it out and achieve enlightenment.” “Or maybe he just thought you were a jackass.” “Yeah,” Smitty nodded absently and pulled from his beer. “Maybe.” We watched the television. The celebrities looked like they were exchanging good-natured insults. Inside jokes. Hollywood stuff. There was no denying their charisma. No denying they were cooler than you. “Not that I want to fight,” Smitty said. “I’ve never fought anyone. But if I was ever walking down the street with my kid and some guy started a scrape…” His voice grew edgy. “I’d want to know how to pummel him. I want to protect my kid. No matter what.” He slammed his beer on the bar. The sound echoed through the room. Foam sloshed from the bottle and onto the counter. Fellow boozers eyed us warily and one by one turned back to the television. “What was that about?” I said. “I don’t know.” The bar went quiet. Tense. Everyone drinking and watching the television and drinking some more. Screen images flashed like a strobe in the dim and windowless room. It felt like some weird dungeon we’d never escape. I wanted to ask the bartender to turn up the volume. I needed to hear what the celebrities were saying. They seemed
downright giddy. They seemed to know something about life. Something I wanted for myself and for Smitty. But the show went to commercial. Some gorgeous woman hawking skin cream. My arm itched all of a sudden. I checked my watch, had to get back to my cubicle. The place I’d always dreaded, but now…not so much. I turned to Smitty. “Maybe it’s time to start looking for another job.” He grunted. “I toiled at that place for fifteen years. Not for the money but because it’s who I am.” “You gotta suck it up and move on. That’s how you protect your kid.” ”I believed in the work. It was my identity.” He looked at me, pleading. “How do I just move on from that?” I shrugged. Had no answer. The bartender changed the channel. Cable news. Breathless coverage of some massive flood in India. Total devastation. Corpses stacked like sandbags. The reporters looked ecstatic. I drained my beer and stood. I placed my hand on Smitty’s shoulder in an awkward man-condolence. I opened my mouth to speak, to offer some bit of wisdom or advice or comfort. But no words emerged. There was no comfort in here. Nothing real. I glanced once more at the flashing screen. The images raced on and the corpses stacked higher and the reporters cheered and in the bar the men tipped back their drinks and studied the television and ordered another round. Then I turned and walked down the hall and through the door and out into the sunlight.
Tom Mahony Slow Entropy Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in California with an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in dozens of online and print publications. Visit him at www.tommahony.net.
Fiction / Stories A massive swell marches toward the Pacific coast; an angry prophet withdraws from humanity—from the beach to the wilderness, these thirty-one stories—seven of which are published here for the first time— display the range of Tom Mahony’s imagination. “An astounding collection of stories ... Wildly inventive.” —The Drunk and Lonely Review “Cannily crafted ... These stories couldn’t be more propulsive or brilliantly imagined.” —Eileen D. Escabar, author of Sentences “Exquisite, multifaceted tales.” —Benjamin Shepard, author of Jenny Lewis Sings the Blues
Published on Jul 31, 2009
Published on Jul 31, 2009
A massive swell marches toward the Pacific coast; an angry prophet withdraws from humanity—from the beach to the wilderness, these thirty-on...