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A weird tale after a story by Don Webb.

Eli Ball could admit to himself that he was afraid of the place, but he couldn’t say why.  Every time he tried to come up with a concrete reason, he found himself diverted, thinking of something else.  He told himself he’d been lucky to discover it.  He told himself that the Starlight Motel was simply abandoned, had been for a long time.  But his fear was as real as the motel itself.  And the moon looked strange that night.

He thought maybe he was losing his nerve.  Sane folks don’t spook over nothing.  Still, there was the cracked asphalt parking lot.  The dry pool half-full of dirt and leaves, its sides lemon-green in the moonglow.  The L-shaped main building with 25 vacant rooms, each one completely empty or full of trash or stacked with pieces of siding from the tornado in ’98 that just missed Amarillo.  Most days, there was a sense of dread over the place like a fume.  Sane folks might spook in that.

Tonight, the crickets had paused one time too many.  And Eli’s ear was getting sore from pressing it to the wall.  A big car had stopped outside in the parking lot, a sedan by the sound.  Two doors opened, then nothing.  No voices.  No doors shutting again or headlights sweeping the building.  No engine starting back up.  When Eli finally summoned the courage to peep over the sill, it was like the car had never existed.  He listened for a long time beneath the window, looking up at the bright yellow moon ringed with clouds like a sad painting.

The ’98 tornado must have been it for the Starlight.  Martha Wills, the last proprietor, went missing right around that time.  Though her kids kept the land on the market, neither they nor anyone else had expressed much interest in reopening the motel.  Over the years, there had been some disappearances, a few unsolved murders in the area, but otherwise it was a place largely forgotten.  At least, that’s what the news story said when he’d looked it up in the Amarillo library a month and a half ago.  

But once Eli found the place, he knew someone must still be interested.  The motel was dead, standing vacant now for 22 years.  Still, it seemed infused with the unlife places take on when allowed to linger, like a derelict ship drifting empty through sun and rain, storms knocking its dirty windows loose, weeds growing up through the asphalt outside.  Now it was home for Eli, the spiders, and whoever had built the shrine in Room 15A.

Eli had been in been in all the rooms to scavenge whatever he could find, which wasn’t much.  He’d entered Room 15A a few times.  The shrine had some things on a nightstand where the bed used to be, but he’d be damned if he was going to touch any of that—a blue ceramic cup that looked like a crocus in bloom, a human skull with a candle the color of old bone melted onto it, a rusty kitchen knife, and a smooth gray river rock that might have come from one of the artificial parks up I-40 past the botanical gardens.

All of it was strange and probably bad luck to keep around, even if it could be explained away as teenage Satanists.  The skull looked real enough.  It was ringed with red ink in writing Eli had never seen before.  Looked like cultist stuff, covered in a thick layer of dust.  Sane folks might spook after seeing those things, too.  In any other circumstances, Eli would have gotten back in his stolen Chevy Vega and hightailed it down the 40 until he hit Oklahoma City.  

During the day, the window to 15A was dark and only the spider webs moved, like tiny beckoning hands in the wind.  And after sunset, the air always had a certain stillness.  It held the scent of the day’s hot dust, something you only smelled in Texas.  Now it was past midnight and the crickets were Eli’s only companions.  And that car—had he imagined it?  He looked again.  Nothing.  Broken asphalt.  Moonlight. 

As soon as the spiders started their mating season, it was hard to even get near units 10-15, the last five rooms toward the far end of the building.  Eli had been camping out in the innkeeper’s apartment for a week before the annual mating season began.  He knew all about it.  In fact, the drifts of spiders slowly creeping across the roads in late June were a minor tourist draw for the region.  But Eli hadn’t anticipated all the webs.  He was originally from Nashville.  You never saw anything like that in back home.  The Starlight’s entire main building got festooned in spider silk.  In the middle of the day, Eli could look out the cracked glass doors in the entry and watch the thick strands dip and rise.

Eli lit a cigarette.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept a full night.  He’d punctured his shoulder and neck at some point along the way.  After dark, the wounds burned something fierce.  But in a way, he was proud of his suffering.  What did they say in boot camp?  The day you take your freedom for granted is the day you lose it.  He figured that applied to nights as well.  Especially with the Army on his ass.  

AWOL was the worst, the cardinal sin.  The Army acted uncompromising, but it would actually forgive a lot.  There was a program for everything.  Everything but this.  Eli smoked and listened to the Starlight creak in the wind, it’s old bones always shifting, sounding like a prowler on the roof.  But he was the prowler—he prowled and therefore avoided getting shipped back to USDB in Kansas, aka Leavenworth, aka a world of shit.  He’d take the darkness and weird cultist junk and spiders any day. 

The innkeeper’s apartment was a small room behind the front desk.  Eli had placed various cushions and yellowed stacks of newspaper on the broken box spring to make a kind of mattress and the place had started to feel more comfortable—a broken home in some apocalyptic science fiction story about surviving the bomb, maybe.  One where the main character could be captured and locked in chains at any moment.

He blew smoke at the fat gray spider that had taken up residence in one of the cubbies of the porter’s desk at the foot of the bed.  Eli could see the outline of its body and long legs in the desk’s web-lined slot—a miniature monster in its miniature cave. It was hard to tell how many different varieties of arachnid congregated in the miles outside Amarillo every year, but tarantulas and garden spiders seemed well represented.  

And then there were the brown recluses, the wolf spiders, and others of a more threatening, alien-looking derivation.  The silent mating call drew them like a beacon over the dirt.  Even the entomologists at Texas Tech who studied the phenomenon didn’t fully comprehend what did it.  They thought it was magnetism, had to do with weather patterns and tectonic plates, something like that.  

All Eli knew, all anyone knew, was that every year the spiders arrived on the roads and in the trees.  They multiplied and webbed entire forests, the mirrors and door handles of automobiles parked for more than a day or two, and the porches of houses.  Spider bites were common.  Bites from brown recluses and black widows, while not frequent, were still an annual concern.  Eli felt that whoever had built the shrine in 15A must have known, must have anticipated, that for a time every year, the only entrants to the room would be those with multiple legs.  But that’s not why Eli felt afraid at night.

The hiss of his cigarette seemed too loud as he listened for anything that might betray the presence of someone else.  He probably wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight, either.  Normally, he slept during the day.  And sometimes he was so nervous, he went a day or two before getting a few hours.  Eli lived like the spiders, silently emerging and disappearing in various rooms, always watching.

Of course, these weren’t normal circumstances.  This wasn’t a normal way to live.  And the US Army had a different timeline planned for him.  Eli needed to lay up for a good long while until the heat passed.  The two CID agents who tried to jump him outside that bar in Lubbock would be coming down the 40 at some point, ready for payback, looking at surveillance photos, talking AWOL to the people in gas stations, showing his photo.  

For all Eli knew, that’s who drove into the parking lot tonight.  So he wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t going to sleep unless he wanted a one-way ticket back to Fort Bliss and from there to the Disciplinary Barracks.  He kept the Vega hidden inside the shell of the motel’s burned-out second building.  The structure must have once housed 16 additional units, but now it just had exterior walls fire-blackened on the inside.  If things went well, he’d leave in a couple weeks.  He hadn’t decided where.

Eli got up and checked the parking lot again—nothing.  Everything was dark and still, including the end of the building, where 15A stood enveloped in webs and shadow beneath the awning that ran the length of the building.  Whenever Eli thought (maybe dreamed) he’d seen a flicker of candlelight dancing on the windows of 15A, the next morning showed no changes.  

The dust and soot on the top of the skull candle was still whorled the same way.  The smooth river stone was perfectly aligned beneath the crocus cup.  And the rusty kitchen knife always rested parallel to both.  Someday, the teenage Satanists might come back for their gear.  Hopefully, he’d be gone by then.

 Eli couldn’t say any of it was all that upsetting in itself.  But there was something wrong about the place in general.  Something about it made him anxious and kept him that way.  It was the same feeling he got when he’d decided to risk a side trip to the public library on one of his nerve-wracking food missions to Amarillo.  

Sitting at the public-access computer terminal, reading a ten-year-old piece on the disappearance of Martha Wills and the decline of Texas’ old roadside motels, he stared at her picture from 1998 for a long time.  Wills had blonde hair going silver, a pained uncertain smile, haunted eyes.  The article said that one day, she just packed up and left, disappearing into the great unknown of Texas and leaving the motel she’d owned for 27 years to the spiders and the dust.  Who did a thing like that?  Someone scared.  Someone running.  Eli saw a person just like that every time he looked in the mirror.

He had a little transistor radio.  He turned it on, soft and low, just so he could listen to the news.  The virus was here from China.  The state was arguing about closing down, Governor Abbott saying he thought it was going to go like the common cold and wasn’t sure about masks.  Restaurants and bars were still open but, the broadcaster added, you should probably look out for germs in public and maybe stay home if you can.  Good, thought Eli.  Everybody stay home, stay away from abandoned roadside motels.  And wear masks.  Definitely.

He carefully stubbed out his cigarette and put the butt on the window sill for later.  Then he turned the radio to the AM classical station, got on the bed, and closed his eyes.  Spiders would crawl over him in the dark, and he wouldn’t sleep much, if at all.  But he could rest his eyes, maybe his mind. 

Putting Fort Bliss (and the U.S. Army) behind him was the biggest decision Eli had made up to that point in his life.  But it was just as his grandmother used to say: the Devil’s gonna give you every opportunity to be crooked.  Now Eli understood just how true that was.  He felt he had indeed become crooked.  Or maybe he’d just gone down one of life’s crooked side-paths and gotten lost.

A four-day weekend leave in El Paso had done it.  It had been like any other leave—getting as drunk as possible with his high school friend, Ortega, who wasn’t in the Army but who happened to live in town.  Since Eli’s primary job had been to guard a nuclear warhead ten hours a day, guarding a pitcher of beer off-base seemed just fine.  But there wasn’t any way to put it delicately: Eli felt he hated the Army more than any other sane human being on the earth.  Moreover, when he got drunk, he liked to declare it loudly to anyone who’d listen.  

The last day of his leave was a Sunday and Ortega had already passed out on the bar.  They’d gone to a cantina named Olive’s, 15 minutes past the city limits into Hudspeth County—a dirty little dive with cinder block walls and a men’s room covered in piss-soaked graffiti.  It was in Olive’s that the Devil laid out some options. 

Eli was in the middle of a lengthy shitfaced disquisition on the worthlessness of government employees in general and the stupidity of the Army in particular, when the wiry bald man two bar stools over smiled, toasted Eli with his glass, and said, “You might want to keep it down.  Slocum over here was an Airborne Ranger.”

Slocum, who’d been Eli’s captive audience up to this point, scowled, put down the beer mug he’d been drying, and went over to the other end of the bar to take an order.

Eli finished his beer and looked down at the bottom of the glass as if more might suddenly appear.  “What’s that got to do with me?”

“Nothin’ much, I guess.”  The man smiled again.  “But maybe it matters to your teeth.”  He had white eyebrows, a leathery face creased with smile lines.  “My name’s Harry.  What’s yours?”

Eli blinked and set his glass gently on the bar.  People in places like Olive’s didn’t smile at you and start up a conversation unless they already knew you or had something in mind.  And that something wasn’t usually a thing you wanted.  Eli nodded at Ortega.  “Teeth?  This is Ortega.  I’m Eli.”

Ortega’s forehead rested on his arm and, from that angle, his slicked-back hair made his head look like something alien—a hairy little beast without a face meant to stand next to you on the bar and listen to your theories.

“Looks like Ortega’s had a few.”

“We’ve both had a few.  What’s your point?”

Harry drank his beer, shrugged, looked at his reflection in the Budweiser mirror behind the bar.  “No point.  Just talkin’.”

The conversation could have ended right there—one of those invisible turning points in life that you only recognize when you look back.  Maybe you think about how it might have been if you’d only made a different choice, taken the other option.  But, of course, by then you’re already AWOL, resisting arrest in Lubbock, and holing up in an abandoned motel outside Amarillo with a million spiders.  

By then, the deal’s sealed.  You’ve bought the farm and it’s coming C.O.D. in the mail.  And the lean bald man named Harry who set you on this path of personal destruction is long gone, vanished into that same Texas unknown out of which everything in the world may have at one time come and into which everything is likely to return.

“I guess you’re kinda fed up with your job.”

Eli gave him a look.  “Guess I am.”

“I don’t much blame you.”  Harry stood and hiked up his pants.  “It seems to be catching.  I got the same problem.”

“What do you do?”

“What don’t I do.”  But then Harry had a thought and sat back down on his bar stool.  “Look, Eli, I won’t shit you.  I served about a thousand years ago.  Now I’m just a slave to my lady.”

Eli laughed.  “A thousand years, huh?  All War-of-1812 and shit?  What are you, a vampire?” 

“No.”  Harry’s gray eyes held a certain coolness.  “The War of 1812 was 208 years ago.  A thousand years ago would be 1020, after Ivats beat back Strategos Gonitsaites at Bitola and Emperor Basil fled back to Ohrid.  It was 56 years before the Norman invasion of Britain, 480 years after the Sack of Antioch, according to popular reckoning.”

Eli motioned for another beer, but Slocum turned his back.  “What’d you say?”

“Nuthin.”  Harry shook his head and smiled.  “I guess you could say my time of service is coming to an end.  Let me get the next one.”

That sounded good to Eli.  The rest of the night was a blur of whiskey shots and pitchers.  And each fragment of the night’s memory would be like a glittering mirror shard the next day, reflecting a small cutting of something much larger and unknowable.

Wandering down the packed-dirt sidewalk of Gateway Boulevard, trying to thumb a ride back to Fort Bliss, Eli saw the green shitbox 1973 Chevy Vega idling with the key in its ignition on the other side of a chain link fence.  And he recalled one of those glittering shards: Harry leaning towards him, grinning, saying, you got only this one life, son.  Make it count.

Eli must have slept. The little radio was off and the sun was going down when he opened his eyes. Something had woken him. Some things. Human things. Voices. He brushed two bright green garden spiders off his shirt, got off the bed without making a sound, and slipped through the entry area to the back, where a little wooden ladder ran up to the roof.

The shorter one was Special Agent Gorges.  The tall one was Fork—whether that was his first name, last name, or just the single vulgar appellation given to one of the Criminal Investigation Command’s professional knuckle breakers was somewhat irrelevant at that moment.  Of far greater relevance were the two drawn Sig P228s, held low as the MPs drifted across the parking lot towards the motel.

Fork stared up at the webs covering the eaves of the main building.  “Just look at all them goddang spiders, Jim.”

Jim Gorges didn’t say anything.  He sidled up to the cracked glass double-door and peered into the entry area as if it were hell and he were Solomon Kane.  He had the look of a career investigator in his squint, the kind of man conditioned to size everything up, reduce it to its essentials, and dispose of it in the most efficient way possible, which is to say he radiated ten-thousand volts of cop.

Even flat on his chest on the roof above the innkeeper’s office, Eli could see that while Fork might run screaming from a floor covered with black widow spiders, Jim Gorges would wade through anything and be home before dinner.  These were the two CID agents Eli had slipped in Lubbock.  And here they were—all the way from Fort Bliss in their brown Interceptor, now ticking down behind them in the lot.

“This musta been some little place back when.”  Fork’s eyes darted from shadow to shadow, occasionally lingering on the errant strand of web drifting past his face.

Gorges only sighed and murmured, “Shut up, Fork,” as if he were saying it in a dream.

They moved down the face of the motel, working their way from one room to the next.  They kicked open doors, pointed their guns into each of the units, ducking around plump spiders hanging in their webs.  

Eli knew it was only a matter of time before the agents made their way to the other building and found the Vega.  If it had been reported stolen, and if that were already connected to him, it was all over.  They’d surround the place for miles, call out a manhunt.  At minimum, the car proved there was someone around, someone Gorges and Fork would want to meet.  From his place on the roof, Eli figured the possibilities.  And none of them came up good.

He could hear Fork down in the doorway of 15A saying, “Ho-lee shit, Jim.  Now we got indications of occult activity?” and Gorges saying, “Quiet.”  Gorges knew somehow—knew with that high-voltage cop ESP of his—that someone was hiding nearby, listening maybe.  Eli could almost feel the old agent’s mind reaching out like an invisible hand, feeling around, poking into each of the rooms, asking, Where are you, my scared little man?

Eli dropped silently onto the corrugated roof above the entrance to the lobby.  The agents had rounded the far side of the “L” and were no doubt making their way to the other building where they’d discover the stolen car.  

There was nothing to do now but run.  He landed on the concrete ramp to the Starlight’s entry with a quiet thump, but he hesitated.  Should he take the time to run in and grab some of the things he’d gathered—a Maglite, a clasp knife, the groceries he’d stored in the innkeeper’s busted refrigerator?  Weren’t these things just as potentially revealing as the car?  Could he do without them?  He couldn’t think.  This was all too fast, too soon.  

Fork’s voice came from the other side of the motel: “There’s a whole ‘nuther building over there, Jim.” 

A wave of fear passed through Eli.  No more thinking.  He had to run.  He wasn’t going to prison for some groceries and a flashlight.  

But then it happened.  Whether due to something the agents had done or some hidden switch Eli had accidentally brushed, a burst of electricity shot through the motel’s main building.  The lights in the lobby flared on.  The rusty metal fan in the ceiling above the front desk started to rotate and shredded the webs around it.  From somewhere in the innkeeper’s apartment, Diana Ross and The Supremes began a deafening “Stop!  In the Name of Love.” It must have been linked into the motel’s PA system.  Eli hadn’t even known that there was a PA system.

Stunned, he stood in the parking lot with the sun going down behind the Starlight, every room blazing like a cruise ship on New Year’s Eve, and Diana Ross’s voice filling the air from the web-covered speakers under the eaves. 

Baby, baby I’m aware of where you go each time you leave my door

The light and sound held Eli in place, made it impossible to think.  All he could do was witness the spectacle.  He couldn’t process this.  He couldn’t think about the agents or imagine running.  It was a strange undead miracle, strange, unnerving. 

I’ve known of your, your secluded nights.

For a long moment, the Gorges and Fork didn’t even exist in the same reality while Eli took in the light, the music.  There was only the song rolling across the parking lot like a hard wave and the motel lit up against the dusk. 

Haven’t I been good to you?  Haven’t I been sweet to you?

Like everyone, Eli had heard the song before.  But the lyrics seemed strange—too perfect, too tailored for the moment, as if the motel had finally found a voice and it was speaking directly to him.  

I’ve tried so hard, so hard to be patient.

And what should have been a love song moved through the air like something hostile, even resentful, suffused with terrible meaning, the voice of a dead thing longing for the touch of living flesh.

Then, just as abruptly, the power sputtered, the lights flickered, and everything shut down.  The music stopped—replaced by screaming.  It was high-pitched and slightly hoarse, the keening of an animal being pulled into an abattoir, the knowing hopelessness of a condemned man protesting his innocence, even as his head is being pushed onto the block.  It was Fork.

He hobbled around the corner of the building towards Eli, his Sig held straight down at his side.  He looked pale, eyes wide, unblinking.  Fork’s screams lasted until he had nothing left.  Then they continued without sound, his mouth wide open.  

Behind him came Gorges, equally pale, moving like a broken marionette.  He also held his gun.  And he seemed as though he’d been filled with a horror so profound that it went beyond words, beyond screams, into a feeling that perhaps only silence could adequately express.

Eli watched them approach, still overcome by the weirdness of the moment, even though part of his mind—the part that had saved him in Lubbock, the part that would always look out for him and tell him to run—told him to do that now. 

They stopped ten feet in front of Eli, Fork two feet in front of Gorges, and their wild eyes focused on him.

“Hey, man.”  Eli raised his hands and took a step back.  “You guys alright?”

Fork looked down, then to the side as if he were about to say something to his partner.

Gorges seemed as though he had heard something from Fork.  His head swiveled a few degrees.  But neither of them blinked or closed their mouths. 

“What’s with you guys?”  Eli took another step, the voice of his better judgment screaming Go!  Now!

Then Gorges slowly raised his gun and pointed it at the back of Fork’s head.

“Stop,” Eli said.  

Gorges wasn’t looking at Fork.  Fork wasn’t looking at Gorges.  They were both looking at Eli.

“Please.”

Gorges pulled the trigger and the spot just above Fork’s left eyebrow exploded.  He fell face-down on the broken asphalt of the parking lot, blood pooling.

Eli wasn’t sure if he’d said please again or something else or just made some kind of sound that meant dread and grief and have mercy all at the same time.  

A tendril of blue smoke curled out of Gorges’ Sig.  He still pointed it at the place where Fork’s head had been, his arm locked straight out.  But he was still looking at Eli.  And, for a moment, Eli thought he saw a flicker of humanity in the older man’s eyes, an attempt, somewhere deep down at the core of his being, to communicate.  But then Gorges put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

When Eli was 18 years old and still in high school, he hadn’t even thought about the Army.  His father was still around, trying to make it as a car salesman in Nashville, and his mother hadn’t yet begun drinking Old Crow every night in the bedroom.  If asked what he wanted to do with his life, Eli would have said he wanted to be an architect in Atlanta like his uncle Trent.  But nobody asked.  He went to one of those lost American high schools that seem to offer young men a choice between the military or prison.  And if they choose the former, they feel like they made the right decision, at least for a while.

“Do that for a standard enlistment and get a trade,” his father had said.  He steered Eli toward the Army because, “What the hell else are you gonna do?  Go to Harvard?”  And Eli had to agree.  He didn’t want to sell cars and becoming an architect seemed like an unattainable dream by graduation day.  Two of his friends were already doing adult time in Whiteville for robbery.

So when the recruiter came on campus to shake hands and throw the football around with anyone who wanted to get out of class, which was everyone, Eli took the Army brochure to the mall without telling anyone and filled out the forms.  Two days before graduation, a recruiter called him.  It wasn’t the same guy.  This second recruiter didn’t seem like an all-American football hero.  His voice was high and nasal.  He said, “So, um, Elias—what do you think you might want to do with this great opportunity?”  “Go to college,” Eli said.  “Yeah?  That’s fantastic,” said the recruiter.

But that was ancient history.  Now the sun had almost completely set and the shadows cast by the bodies of the two dead men lengthened on the broken asphalt.  Eli thought about boot camp, all the empty sayings he heard there, which were supposed to make you feel tough and inspired, but which actually just came from some movie.  

Pain is weakness leaving the body.  There is no I in team.  Your job is not to die for your country; it’s to make the enemy die for his.  How much weakness had left Gorges and Fork in the time Eli had knelt by their bodies, crying for the two assholes who’d been hunting him?  He’d never seen a human being die before. 

Both of their bodies twitched.  And, at one point, it seemed like Gorges was about to open his eyes and sit up, even though the back of his head no longer existed.  His closed mouth started moving the way a very old person will seem to shape a word with his tongue before speaking it.  When Eli saw this, he slipped off his knees into a sitting position and slid back on his rear about ten feet.  He couldn’t take his eyes off the dead man’s mouth.

Gorges’ head didn’t move.  His eyes remained closed.  But his mouth struggled to say something, to perhaps speak some final word, the last thought he had before he was struck with whatever malady caused him to shoot himself.

And, though Eli had been crying softly, without much self-awareness or the ability to think of what must be done, he began to scream.  The mouth had started to open, the chin moving slightly, the lips struggling to part one last time.  

Eli sobbed, tears still wet on his face.  Then his eyes opened wide and he began to shriek.  Two small hairy legs had poked out between Georges’ lips.  And as the corpse’s mouth began to open, tiny spiders no bigger than half a pinky nail streamed out of Gorges’ nose.  Spiders crept out of Fork’s pant legs and over the side of his cheek like a slow skeletal hand.

Eli continued screaming.  He screamed until he lost his voice, slapping off the garden spiders, wolf spiders, hobo spiders, spiders of all kinds that had begun to cover him.  They were moving now that it was dusk.  Shaking, he stood and watched the surface of the parking lot shift like a gray ocean.  This was the spider migration.  This was the time Eli had learned never to come outside.  And now he was standing in the middle of it.

Gorges and Fork were almost completely covered.  They no longer looked human—now more like oddly shaped logs awash in a stream of undulant shadows.  And Eli would have run directly into the motel had the song not suddenly crackled to life again—Stop! In the name of love, before you break my heart!—light streaming out of every window, revealing thousands of spiders around him, in the empty pool, on the roof of the Starlight itself.

He ran for the innkeeper’s apartment without trying to do anything about the bodies.  Remaining outside was a very bad idea, unless he wanted to end up like the agents.  And yet something inside him was still screaming that the Starlight Motel was the last place he should be running towards.

That night, Eli paced through the shadows, tried to listen to the radio.  He sealed off the innkeeper’s apartment as best he could, double-checking the windows, putting his Army windbreaker along the bottom of the door.  But there was no keeping out the spiders.  In the silence, he imagined he could feel them, a predatory intelligence aware of him, focused on him. 

This was their countryside, their world.  The great mating and migration time may have been as much about redistributing spiders through the landscape as anything else.  They were supposed to be moving north-east towards Amarillo; though, the city would never see them.  This was a local phenomenon.  

And, though it seemed to draw some tourists to local hamlets like Portales, Dimmitt, and Muleshoe, where one could buy black widow key chains and postcards with pictures of spiders covering outhouses and trailers, that was about it.  At least, that was all that the Amarillo Globe-News had to say on the matter when Eli had tried to learn about the place.

It wasn’t until the sun came up that he began to nod off for short periods.  He knew he had to get moving, that his time at the Starlight was up.  If he didn’t touch the bodies, maybe the scene would show he had nothing to do with Gorges shooting Fork.  But he didn’t want to look outside.  Eli had never been overly afraid of spiders, but he was now.  The image of the large black wolf spider crawling out of Gorges’ mouth kept coming back. 

Things like that didn’t happen in nature.  And what about the lights, the song?  It wasn’t rational.  He should have already been on the road.  But rational would have to wait.  He felt that sometimes a man needed to set things right in his own mind before he could understand them.  Sometimes you just had to act.  

Just like what Harry said to him that night back at the bar: you only have one life.  You only have a limited number of chances to make sense of it.  Besides, in order to get to the Vega, he had to cross the weed and scrub veldt behind the building and enter the other structure.  No doubt, the place was completely infested. 

And Eli also had a feeling about Harry, some implicit conclusion lingering in the back of his mind, something not right, something Eli should have seen that night or should have remembered.  He’d met hundreds of people during his time in the Army, but that single night of drinking with Harry—the night which motivated Eli to desert and which led directly to Eli’s current predicament—also kept coming back like some palimpsest of memory through which the outlines of a deeper, more disturbing truth could be glimpsed. 

He swung his feet over the edge of the broken box spring.  He’d kept his boots on just in case he had to run.  There had definitely been something wrong about Harry that Eli still couldn’t quite place, a weirdness beyond the baseline Texan weird of drifters in bars.  

Eli contemplated this as he approached the window.  And if he’d taken perhaps a minute more to think about Harry, he might have solved something, at least in his own mind.  He might have remembered everything that happened that night at the bar.  He might have come to some insight or conclusion that could have saved him and prevented what happened next.  But Eli hadn’t slept.  And who in that situation—lacking sleep, having seen a murder-suicide up close the night before with spiders and Diana Ross and terror for hours—could have thought very long on any subject? 

He parted the curtains and peeked out and felt like he might start screaming again.  Out in the parking lot, a few spiders still crept towards Amarillo.  But the bodies of the agents were gone.

He searched everywhere—in the drained pool, in the agents’ Interceptor, even in the rooms of the motel.  But Gorges and Fork were gone.  Had Eli dreamed all this?  Had the entire episode been a nightmare fueled by spiders and stress, by the sheer lonely creepiness of the Starlight itself?  He stared into the pool, watching a large brown tarantula make its way around a paper bag crumpled into the bottom layer of dirt and leaves.  Then, as if in answer, as if the motel were responding to his thoughts, Eli saw the flicker of light through the open door of Room 15A out of the corner of his eye. 

He felt surprised that he even noticed it.  The sun was up and the day had begun to sharpen into a bright Texas morning.  But the flash had been unmistakable when it happened, the kind of power surge that precedes a system-wide short.  It seemed to validate the weird lighting, maybe even the music.  Still, none of it made sense.  Whoever now owned the place certainly wasn’t paying for electricity that no one would use.  It was only when Eli began to get close to the end of the “L,” remembering how he’d closed and locked 15A, that the fear gripped him again.  He could smell incense burning.

Maybe it was the stress, the indecision, seeing Agent Gorges shoot Fork and then himself for no reason at all, and the disappearance of the bodies.  Maybe it was the spiders, the electrical surges, the ghost music.  But Eli snapped.  Or it might be more accurate to say that his emotions overpowered his discretion.  He ran into the motel and found the Maglite then strode directly down to Room 15A, kicking a slow green spider out of the way as he went.

The door to the room was standing open a few inches.  He paused, then shouted: “Listen!  Whoever the hell you are, you best come out.  Quit playing and come on out.  I don’t have time for this, goddammit!”  But of course the only answer Eli got was a faint electrical buzz, almost a hiss, from somewhere inside.

He sounded just like a scared cop.  And, for a moment, Eli wondered if that’s what people like Gorges and Fork had to live with on a regular basis—the fear that comes from not knowing what’s behind the door, who’s waiting in the dark, or what sort of grisly scene will be revealed when the lights finally come back on.

Sweating, he switched on the Maglite and toed open the door, ready to swing at anything that might jump out.  Nothing did.  Room 15A looked completely undisturbed.  The flat river rock on the makeshift nightstand shrine.  The soot-swirled candle melted onto the skull.  The rusty knife.  The blue ceramic cup that looked like a crocus.  All of it seemed positioned just the way it had been the last time he’d gone into the room.  Even that unsettling feeling was still there, familiar now in the way a graveyard can seem ghastly and intimate at the same time.

Eli could smell the incense, like in a church; though, he couldn’t tell where it was coming from.  And where were Gorges and Fork?  People who’ve been shot in the head don’t tend to get up and hustle away when no one’s looking.  Of course, the room had some spiders, tiny like the kind he’d seen streaming out of Gorges’ nose—provided he hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing.

He shined the Maglite into the shadowed eye sockets of the skull, listened to the electrical buzz pop and fizzle somewhere in the wall.  That wasn’t a hallucination.  Eli could believe that he was losing his mind.  He could believe that in the hazy interstice between being fully awake and slightly asleep, surrounded by a spider migration, and in constant fear for his freedom, it was possible that he’d begun seeing strange things. 

Even on the best of days, the mind-numbing routine of sitting at a desk outside a storage facility for a W78 ICBM warhead could mess with his mind.  Keeping himself steady was part of the job—not drifting off so much that he lost awareness of his area, not letting the silence, the white plaster walls, the sound of his own heartbeat drive him mad.  Guarding took a special kind of endurance that Eli had to build up over time.

So he fell back on that now.  Standing in Room 15A, he denied the tide of paranoid fear rising in him with the electrical fizzles and pops.  He pointed the flashlight down at the moldy gray carpet and closed his eyes for a moment.  Eli reminded himself what was real: the carpet, the feeling of his feet in his shoes, the breeze that made the spiderwebs float like living things.  

The Starlight was strange but it was, after all, just a building, a structure made by people.  It wasn’t alive or possessed or trying to eat him somehow.  Whatever Gorges and Fork had gotten into—maybe some crazy drug, maybe a kind of PCP that made it possible for them to both get shot and then just shamble off into the flat weed-choked field beyond the motel or down the 40—there had to be a rational explanation.

When he opened his eyes, he didn’t smell the incense anymore.  He stepped out of the room and took a deep breath.  The agents’ Interceptor was still parked diagonally across three spaces in the lot.  He wasn’t hallucinating that.  It meant Gorges and Fork were real and were still missing.  But now Eli felt more stable.  He felt like he might be able to cope.

He strolled back to the glass double doors that opened into the lobby.  And even though he might have started to smell the incense again—extremely faint, but possibly there, at a distance, brought by the errant breeze that seemed carry all smells and sounds from the back of the main building—Eli denied it.  It was all in his head.  It had to be.  

In the evening, before the spiders got too frisky, he’d scour away any trace that he’d ever been there, pack up the Vega, and be down the 40 towards Oklahoma City.  He’d sleep until then.  It was a good plan, a rational plan, a plan that was utterly destroyed when Diana Ross and the Supremes thundered through the PA system once again.

Eli sprinted around the back of the building, vaulting over spiders, piles of old siding, pyramids of  roofing rolls stacked there decades ago for a renovation that never happened.  He could hear the pre-echo of a turntable buzzing somewhere toward the back of the building every time Diana sang Before you break my heart.  But Eli couldn’t place exactly where it was coming from.  The speakers under the eaves were too loud.

The Starlight wasn’t a large or complicated building.  Its “L” design was the same as that of any of the smaller roadside motels one sees throughout the country.  But he felt he must have missed something.  In his initial reconnaissance of the rooms, he hadn’t expected anyone to be living there or anything to be strange.  He’d been distracted by the weirdness of 15A, the hordes of spiders, the need to make sure that the motel continued to look abandoned and desolate from the outside, even while he’d been hiding in the innkeeper’s apartment. 

The sun was at its zenith when Eli stopped midway along the back of the building, and then the music cut out just as Diana was going into another repetition of Think it over!  He heard that record buzz, that pre-echo, coming from a particular spot in the wall. 

The back side of the Starlight was partly covered in ancient shingles, white paint curling up from them in a thousand brittle tongues.  Eli thought of frozen tongues—tongues that would tell stories about the place, about what happened there over the years, if only they could.  But maybe they were singing.  It was always the same song, the same record, from somewhere in the wall.  He must have missed a room or part of a room—something important and not obvious. 

He rested his palms on the tongues of paint and felt them crunch.  This is how he’d be standing if Gorges and Fork were arresting him.  Eli bowed his head, listening, thinking that his life had gotten very strange.

It took him an hour to find the secret room.  It was accidentally secret in that it hadn’t been designed like that but, over the years, the wind had blown enough dust against the back of the motel that a certain gray crud had plastered the spaces below the tongues of white paint.  What the sun hadn’t blistered the wind had filled.  Unless you were looking hard for the seam of a door, you might have concluded that the back side of the Starlight was just an unbroken mass of rotten shingles and grime. 

But Diana gave it away.  When Eli got close enough, he could hear an old-time speaker hiss, a faint crackle of feedback just on the other side of the wall, and the quick distorted burst that might have been the distorted beginning of “Stop!  In the Name of Love.”  The way it started up again and again seemed like language—a demon tongue backmasked through the wall just loud enough that he almost thought he could imagine what it was saying.

He found the long seam that he thought was the edge of the door and followed it down through clumps of shingles still clinging to the wall.  There was no handle or knob.  And it was clear that the door had been designed not to stand out.  Perhaps there had only been a latch and a hole where someone could hook a finger and swing the door outward.  Now it was all packed solid with dirt.

Eli kicked the seam and jarred the wall enough that gray patches crumbled off.  He kicked it a second time and something heavy on the other side hit the ground with a crunch.  Still, he wouldn’t stop.  He kept thinking about the agents, wondering where they were, fearing that they might hear him and come shambling around the corner at any moment. 

Of course, people for a mile in every direction would notice the music every time it started up.  Eli could hear it now—a moment of trumpets, of Mary Wilson’s and Florence Ballard’s Stop!—rolling into the air before abruptly cutting out.  It made him kick the seam harder.  

Now Eli could see the edge of an old-time screen door emerging through the dirt, a cheap aluminum frame with two large squares of mesh screen and a spring arm inside that made it shut slowly even when you wanted to slam it.  Everyone had a door like that when he was a kid in Nashville.  And he knew from his childhood that since it didn’t have a hollow metal knob, it must have an indentation with a tiny handle for pulling the door towards you.

As Eli kicked off the dirt and pounded on the screen door, he came to see the edges of that little handle under a stubborn shingle with four completely parallel tongues of white paint lifted against the elements.  He smashed the paint and pulled the shingle off with both hands.  Then he used his index finger to claw dirt out from around the tiny handle and pulled on it with all his strength.

After a few painful moments, Eli slowly got the door open.  Powdered gray by an avalanche of dust, he stood before a room that had not been opened in over two decades.

It was narrow and many-sided.  It resembled a closet more than anything else and it might have been shaped something like an octagon if  the planes of the walls could have been followed out to their points of intersection.  But that was impossible given the enormous rust-covered water heater and the stacks of old magazines up to the ceiling. 

In an older building, in an earlier age, it would have been a boiler room.  There might have been an imposing jet-black furnace for central heating; though, the Starlight was neither that old nor that quaint.  The water heater had a thin metal sheet bolted to its side with a rusted 1971 embossed on it in italics.  When Eli shined the Maglite directly on it, he could also make out the name MAYTAG and a serial number.

None of this was surprising in itself.  There was nothing unnatural or uncanny in any of it, even in the bank of black mold that entirely covered the ceiling.  Motels had to have hot water.  A narrow room with a big heater would have to be discreetly accessible to maintenance.  Even the steel cot with its thin mold-streaked mattress that could have come straight out of a barracks at Fort Bliss seemed reasonable.  A night janitor or on-site maintenance man might have slept there a few nights a week.

The strange thing was the turntable sitting on top of a fake wood-grain hi-fi cabinet.  There was no way it could have been plugged in.  And yet it had obviously been drawing on some forgotten electricity.  

Who had put on More Hits By the Supremes?  Eli had already been asking himself that question, but he hadn’t fully believed there would be a 1970s-style record player with a tiny dusty plastic turntable cover and a light strobing to life on the plinth.  The tonearm seemed half alive, trying again and again to read the fourth track, the platter spinning up and dying as if an electrical giant under the cement floor were snoring voltage through the wiring every few moments.

As if in answer to Eli’s thoughts, the ancient bulb in the ceiling flared again, the platter spun, and the song started—slightly distorted trumpet blast, backup singers, Diana Ross’ perfect pitch rising in the ghost echo of the stylus a split second before the actual sound.  And then dead—the light bulb dark, the platter slowing. 

He walked slowly to the turntable, raised the cover, and pressed the wide STOP button, which popped up with a loud click.  The tiny strobe light stayed off.  The record was old and covered in gray dust.  This little still life was as mysterious as the shrine in 15A.  How many strange things can happen in a roadside motel over the years?  

Even if the answer is many, everything Eli had seen required human hands and a human mind to set up, including this.  He repeated to himself that he didn’t believe in ghosts.  The light bulb in the ceiling flared again.  He watched the filament glow orange then die.

That might have been it—the turn, the break, the moment of exhalation when the curtain parted or the smoke cleared and Eli considered that the shapes around him in the dark were merely fueling his imagination.  If he’d stood in front of the record player for much longer, thinking about ghost electricity and the hole above Fork’s left eye, he might have hallucinated the stacks of old magazines into a sarcophagus against the wall.  

He might have felt a penetrating stare coming from the robed figure across the room that was just an ironing board beneath a dusty sheet.  And that enormous pile of garbage off to the left of the hi-fi cabinet—Eli didn’t know what that was at first, but it didn’t look very wholesome in the shadows.  It was only comprehensible when the light bulb flared.  Even then: crumpled papers, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes folded in half, the corners of plastic grocery bags sticking out like shriveled rabbit ears, all of it frosted with gauzy webs.  It looked as much like an insect hive as a very old pile of refuse.

And for most people who accidentally catch a glimpse of the eldritch substrate beneath common experience, such an exhalation is enough.  A pile of trash is revealed as nothing more than a pile of trash.  The fast-moving lights in the night sky are merely sounding balloons.  The figure in the carpet is simply the patterning effect of the mind.  The shadow in the mirror is just a trick of the light.  But for the others, for those like Eli, who have, due to fault or fate, received a certain shock—some blunt force that knocks them awake and out of the trance of everyday life—the figure in the carpet will sometimes turn its head and show its horrible face.

There were spiders in the room and they must have been large.  That was the thought that rose in Eli’s mind when the light bulb blazed and a half-smashed Coke can rolled down the garbage pile.  It clattered on the floor and Eli’s skin felt prickly, his scalp tightening, his mouth dry.

He stared at the can.  It looked old, faded, maybe as old as the Starlight itself.  It had a red-and-white diamond design around the Coke logo and a ridge around the top—something from an earlier era.  And though the bottom half was smashed, it seemed strange that the can would roll off the trash pile on its own.  It looked too large and heavy for a spider.  There was something wrong here beyond the obvious strangeness of the place, the music, the spiders, the dead agents.  Part of his mind had put it all together, maybe subconsciously, but another part of him wouldn’t correlate it, would accept the realization.

The sun had been at high noon when Eli entered the room.  Now he could see purple shadows on the ground when he looked back out the door.  What was going on here?  How long had he stood in front of the turntable, staring down at the electric blue MOWTOWN label in the center of More Hits By the Supremes?  How long had it taken the can to clatter onto the floor not far from his left boot? 

Eli drew his gaze from the Coke can, along the floor, to the bottom of the trash pile as the light in the room faded once again.  Finally, he found the spot where the can had been, a dark hole in the webbing like an eye socket in the skull back in 15A.  He could just make out a small fringe of torn spiderwebs around the edges.  When the light came on again for a few moments, Eli was able see into the hole and recognize the pale fingers of a hand curled inside.

He remembered the Maglite and set it on its base by the turntable so that it shined on the ceiling, illuminating the room with a weak papery light.  The ceiling was brocaded with spiderwebs, but Eli couldn’t let himself focus on that.  Everything he’d seen now fit together with terrible clarity.  There was a dead body in this room—one either fresh enough or old enough not to have revealed itself immediately through rot. 

Staring at the pile of trash, he picked up the garden shovel just inside the door.  Someone had hidden a body here.  Some maniac.  Some murderer.  Maybe the same person doing weird occult shit in 15A.  Maybe the same person who took Gorges and Fork, covering them up as well in some other room of the motel.  Every possibility seemed equally believable, equally horrifying.

Using the shovel, Eli began to gently, slowly push the trash off the body like an archaeologist exposing the doorway to a tomb.  He gripped the tool with both hands, left over right, as if he might have to drive its blade into the corpse should the dead suddenly decide to walk.  

I’m not thinking right, he said to himself.  There’s nothing right about any of this.  But he kept pushing the garbage off to either side of what he imagined was the body sitting upright in a chair.  Spiders ran for safety.  The bulb in the ceiling flared white then faded orange.  And then, in that lost room, in the motel that hadn’t been used in 22 years, he realized what had become of Martha Wills.  

She hadn’t run away.  She’d decided to stay permanently—or someone had made the decision for her.  Maybe it was the same person that covered her in trash.  The Devil’s gonna give you every opportunity to be crooked—at least until he takes all your choices away and gives you spiders. 

The faded floral-print nightgown was in better shape than the corpse inside it.  All the soft parts of the body had rotted away long ago, except for the full head of fine white hair.  Now it was just a hard, leathery thing, pale in parts and dark gray in others where dust and decay had gotten trapped beneath the skin.  

The dry Texas summers in that enclosed room had petrified what used to be a human being into a reclining statue.  And, though Eli wasn’t particularly afraid of dead bodies, something about the way the face turned towards the door, eye sockets fixed on whoever might have once been standing there—made him step back until he bumped against the hi-fi cabinet.

It made sense.  Who could turn away from a sight like that?  Who wouldn’t back up, holding the shovel with both hands against everything the desiccated corpse implied—the lost provenance of an unsolved murder in a place where a murder-suicide had just taken place, the brooding dread that hung there still, the dead voice of Diana Ross from a turntable that should not have been turning. 

Eli had begun to hyperventilate.  He bumped the cabinet and the enormous twin stacks of National Geographics toppled onto him from behind, causing him to fall forward and knocking the wind out of him.  It happened so fast that he didn’t have time to break his fall.  His forehead collided directly with the side of Martha Wills’ chair.  The whole thing, body and wood, collapsed beside him from the blow.  And Eli’s consciousness snapped off like a switch.

“Everybody says you only live once, but if you live a shitty life, I guess once is enough.”  Eli leaned over the bar and filled another pitcher of Bud.  Slocum saw him do it and started to say something, but Harry held up a few tens in a little fan and put them down on the bar.  Slocum went back to the other end to wash glasses and practice his long-distance glare.

“Maybe,” Harry said.  “But, you know, it tends to go down a lot easier if you try to enjoy it.”

“Beer or life?”

Harry took a long sip, grinned, shrugged.  

Eli laughed.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed out loud.  It wasn’t hard to find somebody to drink with when Ortega wasn’t around.  But it was hard to find someone entertaining.    All soldiers were the same.  This bitch.  That bitch.  Back in high school.  The Cowboys next season.  Take a shot.  So-and-so got blowed up five times last year.  Big Voice don’t know shit.  All that.  

Eli was sick of the language, sick of the perspective.  And even though Ortega wasn’t in the Army, he pretty much talked about the exact same range of subjects plus his car, which he could talk about for hours.

Harry, on the other hand, was entertaining. There was something different about the old guy, maybe in the eyes, maybe in the sly, confiding smile that only showed in the corners of his mouth.  Looking at Harry was like seeing two people at once, a kind of double vision even without the alcohol. One image was the nice old guy sitting at the bar.  The other was some kind of stand-up comedian or card hustler busking on the street. 

As Eli got drunker, Harry seemed to get funnier, younger, quicker—kept buying Eli drinks and slapping him on the back, saying things like, “Don’t worry about a thing,” and “I know what it’s like to be on leave—hey Slocum?  Slocum!”  But if Slocum were paying attention, he must have made a decision to stay irritated.  He wouldn’t come down to their end of the bar.  He wouldn’t even turn when Harry called his name.

Ortega was out.  And when Ortega passed out—which was every time they went to the bar—it meant he was going to have to be carried.  So it was just Eli and Harry as the club crowd started to transform Olive’s from a reasonably filthy, yet quiet, dive bar into a techno dance club.  Slocum turned on the blinking Red Bull machine.  A DJ in a florescent yellow hoodie and a sideways ball cap was setting up turntables on an elevated concrete platform across the room.

“I think it’s time to get Ortega a cab.”  Eli slurred, tried to stand.  He couldn’t remember when he’d gotten this drunk.  Must have been the shots of Black Velvet they’d been ordering—two for every beer.

“Nonsense.”  Harry stood beside Eli, holding him steady with an iron grip.  “I’m completely sober.  I’ll get you home.”

“No, man.  You’ve been right there with us.  You’re not sob—”  And Eli realized that they were outside in the dirt parking lot in front of the bar.  Harry was still holding onto Eli’s arm with one hand.  And with he other, he gripped the back of Ortega’s neck as if he were a puppy or a doll.

“Hey.”  Eli tried to dislodge Harry’s hand, but it was as if the three of them had been born fused together like that, some kind of Siamese triplets with Harry as the dominant mutation. 

“Stop struggling.”  Harry’s eyes were all black like an 8-ball hemorrhage, and his words no longer sounded like those coming from a kindly uncle buying you beer.  Now they slid between his teeth, low and sibilant.

Apparently, they’d already traveled a mile up the highway back towards town.  Ahead, the city of El Paso glittered in the darkness.  And behind them, the big square sign that read OLIVE’S was a tiny rectangle.

And then there was something Eli couldn’t remember, the thing that happened as they stood together in the middle of the dark highway.  He could recall the stars, how they seemed unusually large and bright so close to the city—the vivid image of the night sky that stayed with him in spite of the booze and the tiredness.  But after that?  Eli didn’t know how they’d gotten so far down the road.  But he could remember noticing that the Big Dipper was directly above them and that even the crickets were silent.

Ortega moaned and Eli looked over at him still dangling from Harry’s iron grip. 

Then Harry said, “Look at me.”

Eli opened his eyes.  The record was playing.  Diana was singing.  The lights of the motel were pulsing bright, fading, pulsing.  Look at me, Harry had said.  What had happened after that?  The dried-out corpse of Martha Wills was lying next to him on the floor like a lover.

He stumbled out of the room, a searing pain in his head.  The sun was going down again.  He’d lost the rest of the day.  When Eli looked back, he saw that the entire motel was covered with spiders, a shifting, almost hypnotic, mass.  Thousands.  Millions.

Across the weedy dirt, at the far end of the motel, Gorges and Fork stood by 15A, watching, the hole over Fork’s eye a black smudge in the dusk. 

I’ve known of your secluded nights.

Eli started to run towards where the Vega was hidden in the burned out second building under a blue plastic tarp.  He fell in the scrub and got up again, his hands bleeding.

“I can’t!” he screamed as he ran.  “I can’t stay here with you!”

The lights flared.  

He leaped over moving patches of spiders, batting them away before he pulled the tarp off the Vega.

Think it over.  Think it over.

He jammed the key in and the Vega rumbled awake.  Eli turned on the headlights, put it in reverse, and killed hundreds of spiders as he backed directly out, past the Starlight, and did a three-point turn in the front asphalt lot.  He hit the I-40 at speed with a trail of smoke and dust.  

A full tank of gas, gripping the wheel to stop his hands from shaking, he put three hours of dark highway, the pedal all the way down, between himself and the Starlight Motel.

“Look at me,” Harry had said as he pulled Eli close with his iron grip.  Harry’s eyes were black and two small fangs, pincers, protruded from his mouth.  “Yes.  You’ll do.”  He’d dropped Ortega and, in his left hand, he held a perfectly shaped black rose.  “You won’t remember until it’s time.  But hand her this and it will be done. Consummatum est.”  He pressed the rose into Eli’s hand.  Dazed, Eli watched twin streams of blood roll down where the thorns pricked his palm.  Then Harry bit his neck and everything stopped.

It was a strange recollection.  Unreal.  And, in spite of everything, Eli felt it couldn’t have happened the way he remembered.  It made no sense, a scene out of a B horror movie.  But when he looked down a noticed the exquisite black rose lying on the Vega’s passenger seat—something he hadn’t been aware of or noticed up to this point, despite all the miles he’d driven in the stolen Chevy—Eli began to wonder whether he was truly insane or possessed or in the grip of some force that he was ill-equipped to understand.  

But he could still hear Diana singing, far off, as if Martha Wills were calling to him through the song, as if the song had been written and performed just for them.  It was only when Eli saw the lights of the Starlight Motel up ahead, flaring and pulsing in anticipation, that he felt he was beginning to understand.

 

A story about everyday heroes and the good people who egg them on.

 

“God,” Cecilia said.  “It’s him.”  She gripped my hand. 

Lynette leaned forward and exhaled a funnel of smoke.  “You think he’s gonna call somebody out?” 

“Shit yeah.  Look at him.”

Everyone in the courtyard was.  Tenants stood in the Langston’s windows, waiting for Esteban Dominguez to pronounce what they assumed would be his next sentence of death.  He stood in the center beside the stubby bird-shit-covered fountain, staring up at the apartments, his fists clenched. 

12-year-old Jeannina, who lived up on the fourth floor and whose mother wisely never let her play downstairs, yelled, “I love you ’steban!”  Doubtless she was telling the truth.  The ecosystem of the Langston Apartments was very sensitive.  Drop someone like him into it and people immediately ran to the windows.  It was better than TV.

“Lip!” he shouted.  “I don’t want to do this in front of your grandpa!”

“It’s Jackie,” Lynette said.  “Esteban warned him last week.”

“Come on, Lip!  Get out here!”

Cecilia shook her head at Lip’s foolishness. “Kid better do it.”  “He’ll never live it down, he doesn’t.  He’ll be a story forever.”

“He won’t be a story.  People around here are too tired to make up stories.”  I took one of Cecilia’s Camels out of the box.  She lit it for me with a tiny Bic that had Hawaiian flowers on it.

Lynette nodded.  “They’ll make up one for Jackie, though.  That’s for damn sure.”

Jackie Lipson was 16 and thought he was some kind of gangster.  He lived in the Langston with his senile grandfather and his girlfriend, who’d dropped out with him the year before.  They spent a lot of time at the rec center a few blocks over with the other juvenile delinquents.  The only thing I ever heard about Lip was that he did a lot of graffiti.  I couldn’t imagine what Esteban wanted with him. 

But I almost loved Esteban, too.  For as much as he liked to strike heroic poses and be looked at, he seemed to lead a charmed life.  He didn’t carry weapons.  People said he’d never been shot.  And in his own, weird, comic book way, he was trying to make the neighborhood a better place.  In all the depressing penury, he was a bright spot, bigger than life, and I’d be lying if I said that some part of me didn’t agree that he deserved the attention.  Esteban got an A for effort.

The neighborhood needed someone, especially the Langston.  So why not him?  In order to lead a decent life, the Langston required a herculean amount of self-discipline—more than most people had.  My room, for instance, had an ongoing cockroach scenario.  They were large, intelligent, and had acquired a certain immunity to poison.  They ate it right up.  But as long as I didn’t leave out any garbage, standing water, crumbs, or have any open cuts, they treated the room as a staging area for other more critical maneuvers. 

Perhaps because of this or because of something known only to them, the rats stayed out.  People complained about the supposed building-wide rat infestation, but in the five months I’d been staying at the Langston, I’d never seen one.  Just the pitter-patter of little feet in the kitchen at 2 AM.  Otherwise, my hot water worked.  My neighbors kept quiet.  And I took care to be mindful of life’s merciful trade-offs.

“Hey Esteban!  Hey!  Over here!”  Cecilia waved like she was flagging him down on the highway, leaving zig-zags of smoke in the air.  She had a particular obsession with Esteban that ruled out anyone short of People or European royalty.  They were destined to be together.  He just didn’t know it yet.

I looked at the curling flowers tattooed on Cecilia’s forearm.  She’d briefly put her hand on mine, and it had felt good in a secret way that would never show on my face.  I’ll admit that was the reason I didn’t listen to my better judgment telling me now was the time to go up and deliver a speech to the roaches.  When was the last time a pretty girl held my hand, even for a minute?

Esteban looked over, grinned, waved, then nodded at the Langston.

“Lip!  I don’t got all day!  Be a man!”

He was, without a doubt, the angriest person in Missouri, but he loved the ladies.  If you nominated him for the angriest ladies’ man on the face of the planet, he might win.  That was just his style.  Esteban had been arrested for murder twice.  But, because he lived in a different reality, some cross between the old West and 18th century Spain, where one could engage in lethal street fights and be considered a neighborhood hero instead of a killer, he got off both times.  The story was he’d killed a pimp and a drug dealer.  Everyone said, “Good for ’steban.” 

All I knew was that he worked out a lot, didn’t seem to have gainful employment, lived with his mom on the other side of Nimcato Cemetery, and was impossibly, devastatingly handsome.  At 6’3” with wavy black hair, a square jaw, and the physique of a proletarian hero in a Communist propaganda poster, Esteban seemed like he should be wearing a cape instead of starched khakis and a white dress shirt.  But that was the only way I’d ever seen him.  I imagined his closet: half white dress shirts, half khakis, all starched, ironed, and perfectly aligned by mom to aid him in his fight against crime.

The cigarette was good.  I never bought them, but my lunch break friendship with Lynette and Cecilia was giving me lung cancer anyway.  Still, there’s something incredibly pleasant about a social smoke.  If you can control yourself, put yourself on a meter, all kinds of drugs can be enjoyed, even the coffin nails.  My grandma, who smoked one pack of Luckys a month, used to say nobody who smokes once a day is a smoker.  By that definition, she wasn’t.  And now neither was I.  But most people can’t regulate.  Most people run like wild dogs over the hills.  Grandma said that, too.

“You think he’s some undercover cop?”  Lynette winked then glanced at Cecilia.

“You mean like Charles Bronson or some shit?”

“Chuck Norris back in the day.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Like in The Octagon.  Maybe he knows kung-fu.  Catch a bullet in his teeth.”

“Nah, that was The Last Dragon,” Lynette said.  “Maybe The 36 Chambers of Shaolin.”

Esteban pointed up at a window.  “There you are, you little shit!  You want me to come up and pull you out?”

Cecilia groped for her pack of cigarettes.  I slid the pack against her hand.  She didn’t notice right away.  Then she extracted a fresh cigarette with two fingers, keeping her eyes on the drama, a smile on her face.

Far above, there was a faint high-pitched cry, as if muffled by several mattresses, the ghetto version of “The Princess and the Pea” where the pea talks shit: “Ima kill you, bitch!”

That was all Esteban needed.  He ran for the Langston’s lobby.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You sure that wasn’t Buckaroo Banzai?”

“You both need to shut the hell up.”  Cecilia turned back and frowned at each of us in turn. 

Lynette grinned.  “Buckaroo Banzai was a classic, man.”

The Langston Apartments was a dirty place, no doubt about it.  It was dirty from the William Lucy House next door on the western side, a skid row nursing home like you’ve never seen.  Dirty because clean is next to impossible in places like these.  Clean living and the downward spiral don’t mix.  And I knew someday there would be an accounting, some kind of judgment that would clear it all away. 

It wouldn’t come from the street, from the likes of Esteban Dominguez.  Instead, the good people of Hauberk, Missouri, would simply kick the tenants out and tear the structure down.  Put up mirrored glass, a Pilates studio, a bistro with garden seating.  They’d install an uncomfortable college girl dressed in black to remind you that a reservation is necessary.  Then the sorrows of the Langston would be gone forever, along with the unfortunates who called it home.  For the moment, however, they all still lived there, locked tight on that downward spiral.

“Lunch break’s almost over.”  Cecilia sighed, flicked ash onto the table.

“Shit,” Lynette said.  “We can be a little late.  Nobody’s gonna die.”

The days were still warm.  Because I’d studied English in school, I now had a job in a call center that required my presence four nights a week.  I spent afternoons reading in the courtyard, mocking the world at lunchtime with Lynette and Cecilia, who were care nurses in William Lucy House.  They were the hardest cases I’d ever met.  They regularly egged each other on, competing to see who could be the toughest, coldest, most cynical misanthrope on the block. 

Today, however, was special.  It was as if the gods had preordained it to be particularly awful.  I suppose this is because the downward spiral is a spiral and some days are therefore better than others.  As soon as I saw Esteban Dominguez walk through the courtyard’s open wrought iron gates, I knew this wouldn’t be good.  And now he was in there, doing something horrific to Lip, cleaning up the neighborhood. 

No matter how they tried to erase the Langston, even if they burned it down and shot the ashes into space, the sense of it, the sheer echo of its presence, would linger like the scent of something rotten.

“What about all those old folks shambling around like Day of the Dead?”

Cecilia rolled her eyes, took a drag, blew smoke in my face.  “They’re like bumper cars.  They just go bump up on everything.”

“Then we put them back in their rooms,” Lynette said.

“Yeah.  They get tired bumping up on tables and chairs.”

By now, everybody in the building or the surrounding area, even some of the residents of William Lucy House, had come out to watch.  With the exception of Art the drug dealer across the courtyard, Esteban might have hospitalized or otherwise exiled every other dealer, pimp, or toy gang member south of 32nd Street.  Maybe Lip was the only one left.  But he wasn’t really a gang member.  He was just a dumb kid.

Art sat all day, hoodie up, across the brick courtyard at the farthest patio table, blinking into his cell phone.  Lost souls came in through the courtyard’s wide-open gates on a regular basis, did a hand-off with him, and were out in a flash.  Nobody cared.  Few noticed.  His side of the courtyard was dark for half of every day because the U-Pack-It Self Storage facility on the eastern side blocked out the sun. 

I absently watched the torment on his face as he no doubt considered making a run for the gates while Esteban was up in the Langston delivering justice to a 16-year-old.  Art’s perplexed expression and little mustard beard seemed to float in the shadows, illuminated in his hood by his phone’s screen, like a monk discovering the Grail.  He was definitely discovering something.  But what Art had come into this life to learn, only he could know.  Maybe not even him.  Shadows on shadows that September afternoon in the Langston Apartments.  And nobody knew what lurked in the hearts of men, least of all the men.

Someone started screaming incoherently out one of the open windows.  A little girl.  Could have been Jeannina, but there was no way to tell.  Lots of families lived in the Langston.  Then a single shoe, an old, ripped up Nike running shoe, sailed out and bounced next to the concrete fountain.  A comment.  Some kind of omen. 

Lynette giggled.  “It’s on now.”

That it was.

I hoped the next thing to come flying out wouldn’t be Lip and wondered if anything went balls-up like this over at William Lucy House when the bumping finally stopped and one of the residents had a moment of hideous clarity.

From my interactions with Lynette and Cecilia, I’d come to understand the nursing home next door was place to pay grandma back for all those years of criticism and meddling.  Undead geriatrics shuffled into the apartments’ courtyard, two or three a day, not knowing where they were, heavily medicated or needing to be, sometimes covered in their own feces. 

Nobody wants to end up like that.  At least, nobody wants to know they’ve ended up like that.  And so, as they wandered in, staring down at the courtyard’s broken bricks, muttering at the sky or at the dry concrete fountain filled with trash, I liked to remind myself that there must be a modicum of grace left in the world.  If you’re going to spend your last days talking to stones and covered in shit, better to think you’re somewhere else.  Or not to think at all.

It took Esteban approximately five minutes to pull Lip down the stairs and out into the courtyard.  Esteban’s white dress shirt was ripped open, exposing his perfectly sculpted hairless chest.  Lip’s girlfriend, Susan, who I imagined was always up there doing high school dropout stuff, came out, too. 

She’d caught something in the eye, a streak of blood smeared down her cheek.  But that didn’t stop her from shrieking.  Susan was clearly a master shrieker.  She sounded like some kind of flightless waterfowl at the time of year when they pick fights with each other and pound their wings on the surface of the river.

In the present case, Susan was pounding on Esteban’s shoulder with her right hand while she kept her left fixed in a death grip of Lip’s hair—Lip, who was screaming, “Ima kill you” over and over, rather unconvincingly, I thought.  Esteban had Lip in a headlock, his other hand tangled in the front of Susan’s sweatshirt to keep her at arm’s length and prevent her from being able to hit him in the face.

They came lurching out like a highly mutated, six-legged beast that shouldn’t exist, but, due to the inhumanity of post-industrial life, the spiritual pollutedness of the Langston, and the essential radiant evil at the heart of urban Hauberk, they screamed, they staggered, they forced themselves toward that Nike running shoe like destiny. 

And the onlookers cheered.  Cecilia and Lynette cheered the loudest.  It didn’t matter whether Lip deserved this.  He was going to get it, which made people happy, their own pain alleviated for a brief moment of someone else’s: straight-up Schadenfreude in the afternoon.

Esteban had done this exact thing before.  I’d been sitting in the courtyard the day he dragged out Timon Washington and beat him senseless with a heavy rubber dildo in front of his screaming mother.  Whether the dildo belonged to Esteban, Timon, Timon’s mother, or to some other unnamed party was never decided. 

Why the beating took place also remained mysterious.  People cheered nonetheless.  They simply concluded that Timon had it coming.  Misbehave and you get the dildo.  Bread and circuses.  Public lashings.  Picnicking at Bedlam to watch the tormented lunatics act like beasts.  Nothing new. 

Timon left town after that.  You don’t get your face rearranged with a sex toy in public without the next step being a bus trip.  Someone gave Esteban a sack of oranges to thank him.  Jeannina professed her love.  He was a hero.

Just like today.  He kicked Susan about five feet to the side.  She landed on her knees and fell over, still shrieking with a handful of her boyfriend’s hair.  She couldn’t stand up and just assumed the fetal position.  Meanwhile, Lip was trying to struggle out of the headlock.  But Esteban was bigger.  He’d been an athlete at Hauberk Technical High (baseball, but still) and had about a foot-and-a-half and 60 pounds on the kid.  Now that he didn’t have to deal with Susan, he could reinforce the headlock with his free hand.

“Fuck him up!” Cecilia screamed, then plucked a stray bit of tobacco off her tongue.

“Yeah!”  Lynette added, coughing, shaking her head.  “Do it ’steban, you hunky stud!”

She was red in the face from laughter.  She looked like a demonic chain-smoking leprechaun.  Whether she was laughing at Cecilia, at the sad drama unfolding in the courtyard, or merely at the vicissitudes of life that had conspired to bring such absurdity to bear in this particular time and place was unclear.  Reasons didn’t matter.  Quality entertainment did.

I felt like I should do something, but what could I do?  Esteban was now punching Lip in the face while holding him steady in the headlock, and one of those things was making the kid purple.  I didn’t know how to fight.  And for all I knew, Lip really had done some shit. 

At least, that’s what I told myself.  Another part of me—the lover, not the fighter—was watching Cecilia out the corner of my eye.  She was flushed, really into it the way people get when they sit in the front row at a boxing match.  They want to taste the blood, feel the sweat.  They get involved.

Was there a civilized, non-lethal way I could get her that involved with me?  Unlikely.  I had more of a chance with Lynette the Chortling Leprechaun, which was to say, no chance at all.  I thought Lynette might have been married.  Cecilia probably wasn’t, but who could say?  The fact that she was getting off on seeing a young man be severely beaten suggested marital involvement.  Marriage often seems to produce avid boxing fans.

Susan crawled towards us and tried to stand, but couldn’t manage it and slumped down on her hip.  Maybe she’d broken a knee.  Cecilia leaned forward as far as she could and flicked her cigarette butt.  It bounced off Susan’s forehead, but the girl didn’t notice.

“That’s not nice,” Lynette said, still grinning.

“I’m not nice,” said Cecilia.

And that was the truth.  Though usually not-nice people, I said to myself, have a secret heart of gold.  You just have to get to know them.  Salt of the earth.  Do anything for you.  Right?  Lip was probably like that.  He probably had a great sense of humor.  When he wasn’t high or threatening to kill people, he was probably a pretty cool guy, probably knew all about The Punisher and the X-Men, probably drew a lot.  Most graffiti guys like to draw.  And Susan was basically very pretty with long black hair that shined, almond eyes, olive skin.  She probably had nieces and nephews who thought she was cool.  Who wouldn’t want to drop out with a girl like that?

I wanted to say to Cecilia, “The world is a wonderful miracle and everyone is beautiful.”  Instead, I watched Esteban punch Lip again and again until the kid’s face got smashed in and you couldn’t tell a bloody cheek from a bloody lump. 

The headlock had probably saved his life.  If his head had been against the courtyard bricks, it would have been all over but the shouting.  Across the courtyard, I noticed Art slipping out the gates like a nervous lizard, grateful, no doubt, that his time had not yet come.

Esteban dropped Lip straight down like a bag of rocks and started to piece his shirt back together with what buttons remained.  That’s when the applause really kicked in.  I finally got off my ass and tried to help Susan up, but she just frowned, told me to fuck off, and dragged herself over to Lip, who was lying on his back with his mouth open, bleeding a lot.  I sat back down.

87-year-old Martín del Rio, who lived on the second floor, owned a .357, and liked to say people could break into his place but they’d never come out, walked over to Esteban and shook his hand.  I heard him say, “Estamos agradecidos. Necesitamos ayuda.”  We’re grateful.  We need your help.  And I knew that, also, was the truth.

They looked down at Susan, her cheek resting on Lip’s chest.  Then the old man clapped Esteban on the shoulder and walked back into the apartments.

Cecilia leaned over to Lynette and whispered, “Should I go say hi?”

Lynette nodded.  “If you want to, now’s the time.”

“What do you think?”  Cecilia said to me.  “Should I do it?”

“Never stand in the way of love.”  My eyes were calm, my mouth relaxed, the horrible octopus buffeting the insides of my heart with its dark tentacles remained imperceptible to the ladies of William Lucy House.  Cecilia nodded as if I’d said something profound instead of a line I’d read once on a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. 

Susan was sobbing loudly and it was clear that Esteban was about to stride away triumphantly into the late afternoon.  If Cecilia was going to do anything, she needed to do it now.  Nancy Cortez, one of young Jeannina’s aunts, came out and handed Esteban a paper sack of potatoes.  “Hey ’steban!” Jeannina called from her open window.  He smiled and waved up at her.  But Cecilia stayed in her chair, paralyzed, staring at him like he’d descended on a cloud.

“He’s just so beautiful.”

“For fuck’s sake.”  This was turning out to be the funniest day ever for Lynette.  “Just go talk to him.  What are you?  Ten?”

I got up again and, for a second, terror passed over Cecilia’s face when she thought I was going to bring Esteban over.  But I felt like if I didn’t do something for Lip, the octopus might escape.  Susan helped me roll him over.  He was gurgling.  When we got him on his chest, a river of blood flowed out of his mouth.

Esteban glanced at me, then turned and walked out the courtyard.

“I don’t got a car,” Susan said.

“It’s okay.  I got bus money.”  Everybody knew the walk-in clinic was four bus stops away down between the Providence Cinema and the Kodiak Hotel, another apartment building just like the Langston but uglier. 

Windows were closing.  Life was already falling back into its usual rhythm.  Lynette and Cecilia didn’t want to get near Lip.  So they just waved on their way back to the bumping oldies.  Lynette winked, blew me a kiss.

That afternoon, sitting in the waiting room of Urgent Care next to Lip and Susan, I decided not to take any more cigarettes from Cecilia or Lynette or even to have lunch in the courtyard again.  The roaches might get frisky if I brought a sandwich up to my room, but theirs was an honest frisk. 

I felt that Lip would be alright, eventually.  Maybe this was a turning point.  Someday, a dumb kid just like Lip would probably put a bullet hole in Esteban Dominguez.  Of that, I was sure.  I didn’t want to be around when it happened or have to go to his funeral and listen to what a great guy he was.  Everybody would be sad that day, which would be as funny as it gets.

A new story in Terror House Magazine.  Click here and read it on their site: https://terrorhousemag.com/two-women/ 

A story about spiral dances.

 

I threw the beer can.  It was half-full, just like Dorian’s head.  So when it hit him, the damage was minimal.  A brain in a half-full head is a self-parking mechanism.  It floats—not in intelligent space, not in some New Age cogito-esque void full of purple smoke and glittery points of cosmic consciousness—but in an oily brine exuded by all the old lizard desires.  In Dorian’s case, this meant racism, football, bros before hoes, and the ability to quote Rush Limbaugh chapter and verse.  Dorian was an idiot, a bully, a formulaic high school tyrant.  And I hit him with a beer can in the summer of 1992.

Only we weren’t in high school anymore.  And Dorian had fucked himself up on oxycodone so bad after senior year that he now had a lazy eye.  And I couldn’t afford college.  And it had therefore become manifestly unclear who was having the last laugh, since Dorian was making five figures selling Toyotas with his dad on I-49 and I was pushing a mop in Kansas City three nights a week.  Ha ha.  Right?  Modern life.

So the can.  I’d never thrown a football straighter than a piece of cooked spaghetti, but the Miller can hit Dorian behind the left ear with military precision.  And then he turned, about to hulk-out, with that lazy right eye probably giving him enhanced peripheral combat vision and his girlfriend, Lorena, shrieking like an agitated monkey: “No, Dor, don’t kill him!” And so there we were.  But why I threw the beer can is somewhat more complicated and has to do with Ally and why we were angry and always dressed in black.  (At that moment, Ally was in the car, watching, dressed in black.)

Black was our color and zero was our number.  Nowhere was where it happened and nothing was the result.  Our unspoken credo since 10th grade.  Ally and I lived it like two little nihilists until we finally had sex in her attic and became something else.  On October 14th, 1990, to be exact.  Probably around 2:00 AM.  And it wasn’t bad at all.  I don’t think it’s strange to have recorded the date in Herr Diary.  Strange is relative.  And we were definitely strange according to everyone else in our school.

Dorian crossed the distance between us in a flash as soon as he saw who’d thrown the can.  Because, a year after graduation, our high school pecking order was still hanging over us like some podunk Great Chain of Being. And the bros half of bros before hoes would have invalidated his status as a higher-order lifeform if said bros learned he backed down from me.  But maybe that unique moment in time, in the Silver Hill Mall Parking Structure B, was part of the greater anomaly that had begun to warp my life, losing me the only woman I ever loved, and blasting me out of the Midwest forever like some doped-up chimp shot into space just for the yucks.  Who’ll ever really know anything in this fallen world?

At the moment, though, the only monkey sounds were being made by Lorena.  Ooh, baby, dooon’t!  He came on like the Amtrak.  And later I’d write in Herr Diary that I wasn’t sure exactly why I hit him with the car door of all things.  But now I’m fairly convinced it was because I was terrified, realizing what I’d started, and I’d been trying to get into the car as fast as I could.

Force met force in a Newtonian kneecap singularity in which the 1965 Malibu door prevailed as the immovable object.  I’d never seen someone’s leg buckle backwards at the knees before, but the Chevy had an oblong ridge along its doors at just the right elevation for hulkamania.  Too bad for Dorian.  It hurt him.  But I regret nothing.

They called us freaks because we didn’t know goth from shinola.  But we did have a one-tone wardrobe.  We took German instead of Spanish, philosophy instead of P.E.  Black coffee in the mornings and The Cure’s Disintegration, Ministry, KMFDM on cassette in the upper parking lot. 

Toward the end of junior year, Ally got into Anton LaVey and started wearing an enormous goat-head pentagram, referring to herself as the Übermädchen.  We got matching tattoos in Fraktur on our left shoulders that read, “Nichts.”  I read The Virtue of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and Return of the Primitive.  I decided that the world was cruel and nasty and that being able to accept this truth without stepping in front of the Amtrak on it’s 6:00 AM rumble outside our little town of Hauberk, MO, meant I was a superior being.  Then Ally discovered an essay called, “Bitchcraft” and declared that she was a Satanic witch.  And we had more sex.  And she called it black magic.  She cursed the whole football team, her mother, the principal, and “others.” Who those others were, Ally said she’d never reveal. We were seniors, then.

Dorian writhed on the ground, screaming, holding his knee with both hands.  Lorena was so upset she stomped her feet, making her tan lines jiggle as she wailed in simian grief.  I stood behind the door for a moment, looking down at Dorian.  In the passenger seat, Ally lit a cigarette.

Then I snapped out of it, jumped in the car, and shot through the parking structure, bottoming out at the end of the B-level ramp and swerving into the night.  We never did see Lethal Weapon 3.  To this day, I can’t bring myself to watch it.

“That was . . . um . . . manly?”  She rolled down the window because the ashtray was full.  Ally’s hair was long and eggplant purple.  It whipped around her head, hiding her expression.  But I knew what it was.

“Just don’t, okay?”

“Go ahead.  Drive faster, Mike.”  Her way of saying I was driving too fast.  She called it “lesser magic,” some speaking-in-opposites thing to control you.  If I drove faster, I did what she wanted.  If I slowed down, I did what she wanted.  Then she could say to herself, See?  Sheeple are easy.  In truth—and I have admitted this to Herr Diary more than once—I threw the beer can because lately Ally had moved me from the people village to the sheeple pen.  And I didn’t like that.

“What do you want from me?  I know your fucking tricks.”

“Oh, really.”  She flicked the cigarette out the window.  “I don’t want to go home.”

“Well, I don’t want to take you home.”

“I’m not completely fed up with you, Mike.”

I punched the gas and ran the stop sign at the entrance to I-49.  “I’m not fed up with you, either.  I feel great.  It’s been a great day.”

I had half a tank of gas and I was thinking of driving all the way to Kansas City at suicide velocity just to prove I couldn’t be manipulated, that I was the immovable Newtonian object that moved where it pleased.

But then Ally said, “He’s never going to walk right.  You’re aware of that, aren’t you?” 

I began to feel low, like I was worse than Dorian, roids and Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding.  Now I’d never rise up on any Great Chain of Being.  Never go from mineral to vegetable to mop-pusher to night watchman or whatever modicum of ascension I could have achieved if I’d only controlled myself in Parking Structure B. 

So I turned around and took Ally home like good sheeple do.  When we got there, she smirked, gave me a big theatrical wink, and said, “Catch ya later, tough guy.  Call me,” which I think meant she never wanted to see me again.  But you couldn’t be sure of anything when lesser magic was involved.

I sat in the car until the lights in her house went out, breathing in what I imagined were the last traces of her cigarette fumes.  Though, it could have just been the ashtray.

I went to jail.  And it wasn’t funny.  When I got out, I needed a new job.  I got temp work with a company that repaired farm buildings that had been damaged by tornadoes.  Part of my job training was memorizing interesting tornado facts.  Like, did you know that tornadoes have been reported in every state of the Union?  Did you know that a tornado can occur at any time, but they are most likely to occur between 3:00 PM and 9:00 PM?  That every tornado has its own color, sound, and shape?  That the safest place to be during a tornado is far underground or in a foreign country or, optimally, far underground in a foreign country?  That tornadic winds can accelerate a piece of straw up to 300 mph, effectively turning it into a toothpick projectile of death that can tack your guts to a telephone pole? 

You don’t know these things because you’re normal.  But having gone to jail and emerged as a tornado specialist, I had entered the paranormal.  We pulled a lot of straw out of the corrugated metal walls of barns and granaries.  The sun shone through the holes like god’s shotgun blast.  We rebuilt houses, gathered the appendages of farm animals that had been torn apart and deposited on roofs, and inspected bathtubs for tornado durability.  Missouri is in Tornado Alley and if you don’t have a sturdy bathtub, you’re asking for death.  If you get caught in your house, the bathtub might be the last resort for shelter; though, there have been accounts of people being hurled extremely long distances while hiding in their tubs.  There is no easy solution when your bathtub is hurled. You’re sheeple at that point. You’re Nichts.

Through all of this, I thought about Dorian, about Ally, about the future.  I had regrets.  I wished I could give Dorian back his knee.  I wished I had told Ally I truly loved her and wished I’d suggested we take a break from backwards-talking bullshit and Ayn Rand and Die Übermädchen.  I confided these things to Theo, an anorexic dreadlocked hippy who I worked with and who got me the tornado job because he also attended my court-mandated anger management course.

We’d be re-stuccoing the side of some farmhouse and he’d say, “Mike, are you mindfully releasing your anxiety triggers by allowing an abundance of positives into your conscious buffer?”  And I’d say, “Yes, Theo, I’m trying to actualize as many focused positives as possible in this segment.”  Only, we’d be using compressed-air stucco blasters.  So it would sound more like, “Mye-SHHKEEREEYIT-allowing a-SHHHKOYIP-ositives into your-FLISSSHOP-uffer?” 

But I’d know what he was saying because people in the anger management course always said the same things.  I could have just talked about my “uffer” and Theo would have nodded.  After a week of power-stuccoing, you’re half deaf.  I wanted to feel good by confiding in Theo.  Instead, I think the parts of my past he did understand just made him smoke more weed on break in his truck while trying to bring positives into the current segment.  I think I was depressed.  I think I was trying to give myself a “consciousness upgrade” as my anger coach called it.  But jail, the thing that wasn’t funny, had changed me. 

Dorian’s father got a lawyer who got the district attorney who got the police who got me.  Dorian probably had the most expensive legal team in Missouri.  The judge called it a “neutral street fight” in the hearing.  The state chose not to bring assault charges against me.  But there was the matter of battery with a car door, which was mitigated by it being my first offence and by the fact that it was impossible to prove I wasn’t just enveloped in white-knuckle terror, trying to get away from 268 lbs. of enraged ex-lineman hulkamania; though that’s not exactly how the judge put it.  On my public defender’s advice, I pled down to “public affray” and got two months in Moberly Correctional, a year of anger management, and a $3000 fine to be paid in monthly instalments of $50 for the next five years.  My public defender told me I was lucky. In retrospect, I think he might have been joking.

Ally never visited me, but she could have.  The level 2 minimum security unit in Moberly Correctional was very relaxed.  It was a mellow incarceration and the pepper steak was okay.  I shared a cell with a nice Italian kid not too older than me who’d forged a bunch of checks in Saint Louis and got in a high-speed chase with the Highway Patrol while tripping balls.  During the day, I mopped, cleaned the toilets, and did groundskeeping.  In the evenings, I read books from the tiny prison library: Eat, Pray, Love, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Great Gatsby, The Razor’s Edge, How to Score with Women Under 30—the most used book there but strange, I thought, for a male prison—and The Spiral Dance by a New Age feminist in San Francisco who called herself Starhawk.

We were doing clean-up on a corporate dairy farm outside St. Joseph after a twister had de-legged five or six Holsteins, which meant we had to wear hazmat suits.  It was just me, Theo, and two guys doing community service, which meant they disappeared as soon as we started unloading the biohazard bins from the truck.  So it was basically just me and Theo.

“Damn.  It never ceases to amaze me how much there actually is inside a cow.”  Theo heaved a carcass into one of the big red bins.

“Hey.  You ever hear of some chick named Starhawk out in California?”

Theo thought for a moment, scratched himself through his hazmat.  “Yeah, I think so.  She’s cool, right?  Witchcraft.  But the real militant feminist shit.  Give us equal pay or we’ll hex your balls off!”  Theo wiggled his fingers like a cartoon wizard.  Only he couldn’t do it very well with heavy gloves on.  So he added, “Ooooh,” and walked around with his arms sticking out straight like Frankenstein’s monster.

“I’m serious.  You ever read The Spiral Dance?”

He stopped doing the monster and looked at me through the clear plastic visor of his suit.  I wasn’t joking.  I wasn’t releasing my anxiety triggers. 

“No.”

“You should.  It’s good.  You ever read any Ayn Rand?”

Theo looked at me a moment longer.  Then he dug into the dirt that had been under the carcass with his shovel.

“You can keep that shit.”

Back in Moberly, The Spiral Dance had started me thinking.  What if Ayn Rand had been wrong when she claimed that guns or logic are only two ways people can deal with one another?  Starhawk’s vision was different—a single universal yoni constantly becoming aware of itself in greater degrees of particularity, a spiral dance of vaginal creation in which love was the force of individuation, the glue between the “myriad separate things of the world.” All in, that sounded pretty fucking reasonable.

Sitting in my cell, listening to the Italian kid snore while I read, I suddenly wanted to believe it more than Rand’s “Judge and prepare to be judged.”  I’d been judged.  Now I wanted to be a Wiccan vagina-hippie in a fairyland San Francisco where public affray wasn’t a thing and I didn’t have to imagine Dorian walking with a cane for the rest of his life.  But in the margin beside Starhawk’s passage in which she called us all unique “swirls of the same energy,” someone had printed in barely readable ballpoint: So how come my brother got no hands?  Because of swirls like me, dear friend.  I’m a bad swirl. A bad, bad swirl.

After a month of upgrading my consciousness and de-tornadoing farms, I decided I had to find Ally.  I didn’t know what I’d say.  But I felt I had to say something.  Instead, I’d find Dorian, which was not what I intended—or would ever intend if given the choice anywhere on a timeline between now and eternity.

But before that could happen, Theo blew up on me.  He hadn’t said much in the week since I’d asked him if he’d ever read Ayn Rand.  Then an Enhanced Fujita EF-3-level twister came through Hauberk at 165 mph.  They called it the Marlena Tornado, after the small town just south of us that took the brunt of it.  Like Marlena Detrich—a hot dead blonde now resurrected as a killing wind.  Another bad swirl.  It took off several roofs, but luckily nobody got hurt.  We were in the truck, headed to a cornfield run by some genetics company, when Theo pulled into a ditch, got out, started screaming and pounding on the hood.

“What you don’t fucking understand, Mike, is that Ayn Rand completely disregards the question of metaphysics!  That’s her first basic stupid fucking problem!”

I locked the truck’s doors.  Happy pot-smoking Theo had become a werewolf.

“What about Descartes, huh?  What about Hume?  What about motherfucking Kant?”

“Theo?  Hey man.  I think you need to, you know, inventory your anxiety triggers.”

“Critique of Pure Reason, asshole.”

I was torn.  Did I leave my best and only friend on the side of the highway raving about Ayn Rand failing to account for the Existentialist position on concrete human values?  Or did I need to subdue him somehow, tie him up with strips of clothing and put something in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue?

He rattled the driver’s side door handle.  “Open up.  OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR YOU OBJECTIVIST.”

“I am not, nor have I ever been, an Objectivist.”

“Don’t LIE to me, Mike.”

“Truth!  Kant is logically consistent in his argument that human beings are valuable in themselves!  But Rand contradicts this assumption when she argues that altruism is immoral!  Breathe, Theo!  Breathe!”

After a moment, his therapy kicked in.  He held up his hands as if to say okay, okay, and took a few deep cleansing breaths.

“You are a white cone of joyful light!”

He closed his eyes, breathing, mouthing the words: I am a white cone of joyful light.

“Your anger is not you!  It is a feeling passing through you!”

My anger is not me.  It is a feeling passing through me.

“Anger is a choice you can decide not to make!”

Anger is a choice I can decide not to make.

The mantra seemed to work.  Mr. Vignus, my high school philosophy teacher, used to say that philosophy could save your life.  Only now did I understand.

What was a book like The Spiral Dance doing in a prison library anyway?  It made less sense than How to Score with Women Under 30.  Starhawk’s book had a creased spine and dogeared pages.  It had been read a lot of times since—according to the stamp inside the front cover—making its spiral way to Moberly Correctional back in 1979.  Maybe all people, no matter how deviant, are in search of some kind of connection.  However, it is worth noting that on the shelf directly above The Spiral Dance, right beside For Whom the Bell Tolls, were four tattered bright orange copies of Mein Kampf.

Theo didn’t speak for the rest of the way.  I just sat in the truck, staring at the fields outside Hauberk, bewildered. I felt sure of only two things. My anger was not me. And lesser magic was a bitch.

A story from my first collection, Gravity.

It was hot. That was foremost in my thoughts. A sheer, raw, violating hotness that wobbled on the cement quad and in the still dry air above it. I focused on getting across without fainting. I fixed it in my mind. I didn’t have to ask why there weren’t any birds in the Flushing sky. I knew they all had heatstroke, carpets of passed-out sparrows under the campus trees. Even the shade pulsed with heat. I’d accepted the hottest day in Michigan history the way one accepts an incurable disease or a prison term or a bad marriage. I stopped fighting. I let it own me.

As I reached the rusted double doors of Animal Science, the world seemed to tilt. Darkness rushed into the edges of my vision, and the numbness of heat prostration began to twist through my skin. Panting, I sat down on one of the benches in the building atrium, wondering if my three-mile hike from the adjunct lot was destined to put me in the hospital. The central A/C was broken, but there were box fans every 30 yards, and I felt truly grateful to the Animal Science secretaries for providing the hot air current. Hot air that moved felt better than hot air that didn’t.

I would have thanked one of them, but the secretaries seemed oblivious, radiating a certain continuous misery—large, overdressed women with pained expressions, drifting slowly through the halls. They seemed to move in a complex pre-set loop from one office to another, leaning in doorways, fanning themselves, adjusting their clothing, their bangs stuck to their foreheads. It was clear they’d set up the box fans because they’d been ordered to—not due to some hidden motherly goodness or basic human decency. One of the fans had already blown over. It rattled facedown, blowing air against the floor.

The Animal Science atrium was an enormous vestibule beneath a dirty glass cupola that read FLUSHING CC in green block letters. There were graffitied wooden benches at the four corners of the area where the classroom wings intersected, and there was a vaguely Cubist fountain of burnished steel rectangles in the center. As it hadn’t worked since the Ford Administration, the students used it as an enormous trash bin. Today, it had been covered by a red drop cloth as if it were the hidden reason for the President’s speech, some miracle invention to be unveiled, a secret weapon destined to eradicate everything old and broken, and bring perfection to the unwashed of south central Michigan.

The summer students of Flushing Community College were nowhere around. They’d no doubt been dispersed hours earlier by campus security, all class meetings in the building summarily cancelled. There was an important occasion underway, which meant no sideways ball caps and bellybutton rings, no heavy eyeliner, no tribal barbed wire tats and low-rise revelations. Everyone in the atrium wore business attire but me. And if the portly assistant deans and accountants and assorted adjusters in their suits and pearls seemed uncomfortable—secretly perspiring in their boxer shorts and pantyhose—they at least tried not to show it when the President looked their way.

This was the President’s Hour and the only attendees were apt to be those on the President’s administrative staff or those hoping to ascend. About 30 of them were present, milling, casting furtive glances in her direction. It was a yearly reception held for an hour in the middle of summer session for any employee with a grievance. Naturally, it was catered. A long cafeteria table held pyramids of crullers, nickel-plated salvers of creampuffs, watermelon slices, cheeses, eight different types of cracker, fancy lion-footed tureens of Guatemalan coffee with upside-down cups on saucers.

The President was currently holding forth at the far side of the atrium. Her voice carried over the hum and rattle of the fans—all peaks, no valleys, a voice that stayed in the higher octaves as if it resonated from a rare ornamental glass caught in the wind. She was talking about austerity and solar panels.

“In 25 years,” she said. “An amazing ROI.”

Helen, a tall pale woman in her early 30s, who managed the Presidential office and dressed only in dark primary colors, smiled and nodded vigorously. Oh, yes. The ROI was amazing, wasn’t it. Just amazing.

All of the food was free and nearly all of it would go untasted. The President’s Hour spread was legendary at the college. And it remained the stuff of legend, probably due to the fact that no one dared raise a grievance with Madam President. It seemed that there could never be a good reason for an employee of FCC to speak with “All Heads Are Bowed,” as a colleague of mine had named her.

No one in the English Department knew I’d come. It would have been scandalous if they’d discovered me crossing over for crullers and cool slices of peppered roast beef with avocado spears, an unforgivable violation of the general surliness expected in all dealings with the administration, doughnuts notwithstanding. But I was an adjunct, unemployed through the summer, and it was there. Food. Whole platters of it that would be dumped by College Catering Services as soon as the President got back in her blue Mercedes and drove home to her house on the river. Eating trumped solidarity just as the transmission of my ancient Honda had trumped groceries earlier in the month.

I raked my hair back and re-tucked my soaked button-down. I was sure I had no more liquid left in my body. I looked like I’d fallen in a puddle, my shirt and the tops of my khakis half-soaked through. I stood slowly, waiting for the dizziness to recede, my hand on the back of the bench.

“Reprioritizing,” said the President. “Austerity measures? Absolutely.”

She was a small woman, though extremely vigorous looking with short gray hair and piercing blue eyes. One could see that she’d once had normal human feelings and responses. But, at some point, she’d made the choice to rebuild herself as the perfect weapon—the way people will in law and finance who attend seminars on how to win through intimidation. Her page on the college website said that she admired Ayn Rand, Walt Disney, and Davey Crockett, trained privately with a sifu of Bak Mei Kung Fu, ran marathons, did Pilates every morning. She was currently enrolled in an online course for developing a photographic memory. When her eyes swept the crowd, people shifted their weight, looked away, put their hands in their pockets.

I undid the clasps on my shoulder bag. It was just about time to execute the mission. Normally, my shoulder bag held course texts and student papers. But today it only contained three extra-large heat-resistant refrigerator bags. The plan was to fill them as quietly and quickly as possible. The hike back to the car would melt everything in the bags down to a hybrid food substance that, while unpleasant, would remain reasonably edible. I’d eat a slice of it every day with some tap water. If all went well, it would sustain me for two weeks.

They were talking about money, which made them dangerous but wholly focused on each other like lions circling a dead impala. I could hear their bestial roars: “efficiency review,” “resource management,” “new Gant charts,” “reapportioning our assets.” Soon the President would say something that would draw everyone’s attention with a veiled reference to layoffs—trimming the fat off the impala of some department’s temporary employment. And the rest of them would lick their chops with glittering eyes. It was as inevitable as any herd ritual, the instinctual pattern of it written deep in the DNA of the college administrator. Perhaps it was just as inevitable as the appearance of the wild adjunct, impending starvation having made him foolhardy around the larger predators.

I squeezed out my shirt cuffs and rolled up my sleeves. I would have to be fast and smooth, unremarkable, bland. Most of all, there could be no hint of intellectual or academic energy about me. That was as dangerous as a deer arriving late to the watering hole with a cut on its rump.

Marvin Wilson, one of the assistant deans, smoothed the ends of his moustache and patted his tie. “Yes, indeed, Madam President,” he said. “You got that right, for sure.” Marvin was partially deaf and once said during a faculty address that hearing aids gave him headaches. So he went without and compensated by using a Victorian hearing trumpet and speaking very loudly. At close range without his trumpet, Marvin could give off a nervous cheerfulness that made him seem about to snap. The possibility of a violent psychotic break was his only natural defense against other administrators with more formidable capabilities. Though, as Marvin was also unseasonably fat, one wondered whether a right hook from him wouldn’t result in immediate death. I imagined that the President often made him cry.

When the heat rises to such a degree in Flushing, crying is hardly out of the question. Even if a grown man like Marvin were to strip down right here in the atrium, weeping and running his hands over all his slick white corpulence, no one would blame him very much. No Michigander would do aught but invoke the usual curse on all things democratic, homosexual, and Californian—concluding that good Marvin must have been at least one of those things in the closet after all. Of course, the fact that I was born and raised in southern California hadn’t helped my job prospects in Michigan after getting a PhD there the year before. But so it went.

The President took her place behind the podium set up before a bank of 30 folding chairs padded with white cushions that read FLUSHING in the same block letters as on the cupola. She cleared her throat into the microphone and said, “I will speak to you now,” causing everyone to immediately stop their conversations and take seats.

“Let us bow our heads in thanks for surviving another fiscal year.”

All was silent except for the rattling box fan that everyone continued to ignore, since righting it would have meant getting up and moving out of the President’s aura. It would have meant performing an overt, subservient act. During the President’s Hour, all visible actions took on an amplified significance in the pack logic of the administrator, signs of how the pecking order would be for the upcoming academic season until the great migration back to the atrium next summer. So the fan stayed face-down, rattling loudly. Even Madam President ignored it.

“Let us be thankful that the state subsidy has increased by 4.6% and that enrollment has remained consistent, giving us a projected windfall of 6% per annum.”

All heads were indeed bowed. The President closed her eyes and extended her hands over the seated administrators like a charismatic minister delivering a holy benediction. No one saw me glide up to the food except one of the Animal Science secretaries way down the east wing hallway. I could see her staring, frowning. At that distance, she could probably only see how I was dressed and little of what I was doing. She no doubt thought I was a student drawn like a stray hyena to the outskirts of the kill.

“And let us remember how fragile our jobs are, how easily we could be made redundant or be replaced. And let us give thanks that our good attitudes and hard work have not yet brought this upon us. Amen.”

“Amen,” replied the crowd.

“Well,” said the President, “it is encouraging that in the five years we have been holding the President’s Hour, not one grievance has been voiced. It shows how committed we are to solving our own problems. And in this economy, with nothing certain, that’s the right way to be.”

A round of light applause rose up from the crowd and Marvin’s thunderous, “Here, here, Madam President, here, here!” Then she looked right at me, but I almost had my third bag full. I’d turned such that, from her side of the room, my actions weren’t visible. I had my back to her and appeared to be staring intently at the dropclothed fountain, while my hands moved quickly and efficiently out of sight at waist level. I didn’t have time to worry.

Besides, the President was right in the middle of the yearly spell of intimidation she wove over her subordinates. She wouldn’t want to jeopardize it for a cheese plate. Then again, the approaching secretary had no such compunctions.

“My subject today, as you may already know, follows from the email I sent all of you the day before yesterday on the matter of austerity measures—finding out what isn’t, who isn’t, working and applying the right corrective metric.”

The Animal Science secretary wore white, a voluminous blouse and skirt meant to conceal the unflattering parts of her body. But its effect was rather to make her seem even larger than she was. The woman moved forward like a gunfighter, hands held open by her sides. She led with her stare, her expression fixed in a pointed frown. She came down the east wing hallway, stalking me, not looking away for a second.

I filled the third bag just as the President broached the subject of faculty hiring freezes and dispensing with non-essential adjuncts, which made everyone applaud feverishly. I’d cleared out the back quarter of the table. Bag three was cheese and pastry—the most problematic bag, given the heat. But I couldn’t allow myself to think about that. Thinking about the food spoiling before I got it home would have made me cry like Marvin. Bag two was all cold cuts. Bag one held rolls and crackers.

I might have even tried to guzzle a few cups of black coffee if the secretary hadn’t noticed me. But there she was about 30 yards away and closing. As I crossed the atrium, casually (yet quickly) walking behind the fountain in the direction of the west wing hallway, I kept my eyes on the floor in front of me.

“These are hard times,” said the President, “which means you are going to have to be hard. When we institute District Plan 44, you’re going to have to do some difficult things. And you’re going to have to face some members of our community who unfortunately think they’re indispensable.”

I’d almost made it across the atrium when I looked up and saw Marvin half-standing, turned, one hand white-knuckling the back of his chair. He was staring right at me, his big watery eyes wide with shock, his mouth slightly open under his light brown moustache.

“Now there are going to be cuts. And it will be up to you to speak to those being cut in language they can easily understand. You will not be using institutional jargon”—polite laughter from the crowd—“or financial terms that someone with a Masters in philosophy can’t be expected to wrap his head around.” More laughter broke out, this time with some clapping. “Instead, each and every one of you will have prepared a simple statement of fact that you will repeat if confronted in the office or hallway or elevator. Moreover—“

It was then that she noticed Marvin, who was now fully out of his seat, fumbling for his inhaler with his right hand and gesturing frantically with his left.

“Marvin? Did I give you permission to stand?”

Marvin sucked in a blast from his inhaler and I disappeared into the west wing hallway. Half of the crowd had probably seen me. But no one wanted to join poor Marvin in the place of judgment and scrutiny. As soon as I entered the hallway, I broke into a jog. The secretary had almost crossed the atrium behind me. There were no fans down at this end and the air itself was a barrier—a hot thick cloud pressing in from all sides. Formaldehyde from some of the laboratory rooms gave off the rich odor of old urine. And the deep bouquet of cow dung from the student dairy seeped through the walls.

In the distance, the President’s voice boomed: “Sit down, Marvin!”

I could hear the secretary’s shoes flapping, gaining ground behind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what she’d do if she caught me. But I had a feeling it would result in campus security, public humiliation, no employment in the fall, and—worse—having to give the food back, even though no one would want it now. No one had wanted it in the first place. But the secretary came on anyway. It was the principle of the thing. The rules. The food had to be dumped. And no other creature in the college ecosystem believed, ruminated constantly on, lived and breathed the “principle of the thing” more intensely than the department secretaries. At Flushing CC, the rules were all they had. It was harsh, but it was the Law of Nature, cruel and beautiful and wild.

But knowing all this didn’t stop me from ducking into an open classroom once I was around the corner and out of her sight. Hopefully, the secretary would pass by and assume I exited the building way down at the end. Each wing of the Animal Science classrooms had two hallways connecting to each other at 90-degree angles. Since there were four wings, if you pictured the building from above, the only image you could imagine would be a swastika. I tried not to dwell on this.

It was an old stadium classroom dedicated apparently to farm animal biology. A sign on the wall said the capacity was 300 people. I wondered if 300 people had ever, in the history of the planet, converged in a single room to discuss the innards of cows and sheep. I ran down the aisle, looking for a place to hide just in case the secretary got wise and doubled back.

Luckily, the room hadn’t been refitted with motion sensors that automatically turn on the lights. There were shadows made by the red exit signs glowing above the doors I’d just come through and on either side of the stage. And the stage platform was illuminated by a feeble ceiling light directly over a plaster cow the size of a small truck. Next to it, in a cardboard box, were detachable portions of its hide, half of its skeleton, and various oversized plaster organs.

The cow’s enormous glass eyes looked as if they were about to begin rolling in agony, the beast suddenly realizing that it had been taken apart and left there on display. Bathed in hot shadows that smelled of formaldehyde and animal excreta, the room seemed more like a vivisectionist’s chamber than a classroom—a black hell where the insides of living things are slowly removed layer by layer before a stadium crowd.

I hesitated for a moment, looking up at the cow, and then ran to the exit doors on either side of the stage. They were both locked. I was about to run back up to the top and peek out into the hallway, when I heard the door I’d come through click. Someone was slowly opening it, talking back to another person in the hallway. It was the secretary speaking to someone male. How could she have gotten campus security so quickly? I climbed up on stage, but there were no curtains at the back of the platform, no other doors.

Standing beside the cardboard box that held the organs and one side of the cow, I considered the complete absurdity of my life. After 15 years of higher education and two advanced degrees, the best job I could get was that of a temporary employee at a community college in rural Michigan. Now I was stealing food because there was no more money in the bank and I’d eaten all my backup lentils. Once the lights came on, there would be nowhere to hide, no way out. I put my arms around the cow and tried to steady myself.

Should I try to eat as much of the food as possible to fortify myself for the impending ride to the police station? A wave of dizziness passed through me and I felt a bit nauseous. I began to breathe heavily and worried that I might pass out, that I was starting to hyperventilate. I hadn’t hyperventilated before. If I was about to hyperventilate and lost consciousness, this would be the place—hanging onto a gigantic plaster cow in a dark room that smelled like shit.

“Okay,” the secretary called, “you look in there. I got this one.”

And then I got an idea. It was a really large cow.

The secretary found the light switch just as I snapped the outer hide of the cow into place. With the internal organs and half of the ribcage removed, it easily accommodated me as long as I was able to maintain a fetal position over my shoulder bag. The inside smelled like mold and half-melted crullers. The permanent part of the ribcage that didn’t detach pressed into my back. And the hard plaster mold of the chest cavity had a painful ridge directly beneath my knees. But the important thing was that I was completely hidden.

Light streamed in through the hollow nostrils of the cow and the tiny cracks and spaces that had formed after years of animal science. I listened to the footfalls of the secretary on the nylon-carpeted steps that ran down the aisles between the bleacher tables. Luckily, she didn’t approach the platform, didn’t smell the melted chocolate or hear me breathing.

I followed her huffing and cursing as she moved from one door to the other. Evidently, she hadn’t exerted herself this much in some time. But there she was: one condemned to a life of stapling documents, changing toner cartridges, and taking petty condescension, going out of her way to stick it to someone even less fortunate. The king of the beggars is always a tyrant. The prisoner in charge of the work detail always makes use of the whip.

She came back to the open space before the stage and paused. I held my breath. She must have been staring straight at the cow. The pain in my knees was intense, and I tried not to think about walking again would be like.

“Motherfucker.” The way she said it told me both that she hadn’t caught on and that she was giving up. A motherfucker with emphasis on the second part—more fucker than mother—a spontaneous cry of universal frustration. All hunters know that sound. Raptors probably made it when their quarry found a hole in the rocks. Tigers might have roared it at the cruel sun while apes shook the branches of trees and motherfucker-saying humans fired rounds into the mist just so the report could sound the depth of their anger. No blood today. Today, the impala goes free.

I heard the door up at the top of the stairs click and I forced myself to count to 20 before I popped the side of the cow off and lowered it to the stage. After being enclosed in there for a few minutes, the outside air tasted pure and sweet. There was a lesson: even a cup of dirty water is welcome in the desert.

My knees buckled and shook when I put my weight on them, taking my first steps into the light like a newborn calf from my plaster mother.

Motherfucker.

The question was: who was the father? By the time I got back up to the hallway, I had my answer. It was the President. The secretary and campus security were nowhere to be seen, but the voice of the President echoed down the hallway. She was still back there, the Mother of Abominations fathering monsters with all heads bowed and a metric for every inappropriate erection or eructation.

“Let us go forth,” she was saying, “and remember what it is we’ve been hired to do. And that, above all else, we must be hard if we want to be good.”

The administrators streamed out into the heat and I with them. No one looked at me twice. I did not exist, which was just as well. Sometimes insignificance has certain advantages. I walked around the front of the building, avoiding the barbwired student dairy pasture. The administrators were dispersing quickly, a cloud of navy broadcloth and silk untwisting in every direction like a drop of coloring in a glass of water. No one wanted to stand in the sun no matter how much more gladhanding and social jockeying remained.

I took the most direct route to the adjunct lot, a narrow cement walk that ran from Animal Science, around the weed-choked amphitheater that hadn’t been used in years, and down the line of parking lots ordered in terms of importance—administration, permanent faculty, staff, campus police, plant operations, students, farm equipment and machinery, and then adjuncts and seasonal help.

On my way through the administrative lot, I saw them: the President striding forward ahead of Marvin and two young women in business suits and identitical bobbed haircuts. The three of them were struggling to keep up, speaking over each other, trying to get the President’s attention. Then another wave of vertigo passed through me. The President and her courtiers seemed to grow smaller as the edges of my vision grew dark. I put my hand against a tree and thought about dehydration. Even the parking lot trees—selected expressly for their hardiness and ability to live their whole lives in small concrete rings in the asphalt lots—seemed about to go up in flames. The bark felt as if it were burning the palm of my hand.

I closed my eyes. When I opened them, a short balding man in a coal gray suit stood facing me beside the open door of his Acura. He tossed his suit jacket onto the passenger seat, pulled off his blue clip-on tie, and tossed that in after it. Then he whistled.

“Need a ride?” He smiled, looked me up and down, nodded at his car.

“No.” It came out in a dry croak. My throat felt swollen, raw.

He shrugged, ran a hand over the top of his head and flicked off the sweat. “You might like a ride.”

I was afraid to let go of the tree. I said no again and looked down.

He squinted hard at me. “How old are you, anyway?” Then he got in his Acura, whipped the car in reverse out of the parking space and, with one last hard look, shot down the row towards Campus Drive.

I sat down three times on the walk back to my car and drove home in the slow lane. When I got there, I opened the windows in both rooms of my apartment to catch the faint draft that sometimes reached the sixth floor. Then I put my shoulder bag in the empty fridge and lay down on the hardwood next to my bed. It was cool there, the only cool spot in the place. I stared up at the pocked white ceiling, listening to my downstairs neighbors have their daily screaming fight. They’d go until someone slammed a door and something broke against it. And then she would sit right beneath me and sob as the birds of Flushing woke up from their prostration beneath the trees and the neighborhood cats stretched awake, their tails twitching in the heat.

* Note: this story originally appeared in The New Ohio Review, 12 (2012): 101-109.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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— Helen Pluckrose

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

― Noam Chomsky

“Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up.”

― Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Subjects

“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum