My eyes are not my own
For twenty five cents and
The clockwise spin
Of their wrists
Folding their wings
To vacate their duties
Among the stars
Taking witness to
Petal-ed beauties floating
Down rocky streams
Only to sail out
Among the endless blue
Vastness to salt
The lens shift to black
A tickle on the back of my head
I reach to scratch
To find drops of water
Even when it isn’t raining
A mixed CD is loaded in the stereo as a pint, the color of volcanic soil and filled to the brim, is placed before me. The first song, a punk rock redo of an 80’s pop song. The bartender bounces his head in time to the music. The bar is wood and brick and feels organic. Vintage advertisements for foreign beers decorate the walls. There are pool tables (with red rather than green felt), dart boards, foosball, shuffleboard, and a computer trivia game that sits at the end of the bar, sending out electronic calliope music, enticing players. There are two bartenders, a younger bearded man in a well-worn ball cap and a taller, thinner man whose face betrays his inner thought that maybe, just maybe, he has been at this job too long.
I nurse my beer, coaxing it along, slowly welcoming it as though we were virgins on our wedding night. It is dark, strong and slightly bitter. It is also familiar, an old friend whose complaints and curmudgeonly ways are well known, accepted and embraced by me.
The mirror over the bar sits higher than most and without a slant, thus my reflection is only visible from the eyebrows up. I swivel in my chair, my drink held like a prop, and scan the room, hoping to find a friendly, or at least interesting, face.
There is a woman to my left who sits with two men. The men are short, clean-cut and non-descript. Something in their appearance makes me think that they would be dull conversationalists, the kind you discuss the weather, the economy or perhaps sports with. They strike me as men devoid of passion, alive but not living. The woman was more interesting. She’s wearing a black and white dress and short denim jacket; meaty, full thighs descend into legs, slopping into black heels. She has thick brown hair that falls past her shoulders and I fantasize about how that hair would look splayed over a pillow. There is something off in her appearance however, every part of her, her shoulders, her arms, her head, her facial features seem too large, not disproportionate, and not overweight merely oversized, like a preschool toy. There is no ring on her finger, so neither of these men are her husband, perhaps one of them is her boyfriend, maybe the one who sits farther from her, the one in the sky-blue polo shirt that looks a size too small.
I turn back and watch the bartender watch the room. They are experts in humanity, more so than any psychologist, sociologist or priest. Just by scanning the room, arms crossed, a towel draped over their shoulder, they can tell who is going to have one beer and who is going to have one too many. Hourly, they take turns going outside to smoke and shake their heads, complaining about “the fucking people that come into this place.” Every one of them could write a book about what they’ve seen and heard standing behind that bar.
The song changes: Warren Zevon.
Another group arrives, middle-aged businessmen in blazers and blue jeans. You can practically smell their bank accounts as they arrive to brush elbows with the middle class. They are slumming it, eager to talk to those who make their livings with their backs and their hands, only to return home later and giggle with the little woman at the memory of those they had encountered. To them, a construction worker or sales clerk is as fascinating and thrilling as an exhibit in a turn-of-the-century freak show. There is one woman that catches my eye. She hangs on the arm of a man with a hard face and soft hands. She is one who has buried her head in the sand when she saw age approaching. Her too-tight jeans, low neckline and dyed hair scream of artificiality, she advertises more than she can deliver, like a great deal on a used car. Her lips are a little too red and her hips a little too wide, but there is something about her, something alluring that makes you want to fuck her, roughly, from behind, to let her know that yes, she was desired, but not for long. Perhaps it is the same impulse that leads us to walk along the tops of walls or swing from monkey bars. It’s there, play with it, but forget it as soon as you walk away.
I did not come to this bar to meet a woman. There are other bars, some within easy walking distance of this one, where men and women arrive alone, but leave together. In those places, the décor is tacky, the music is too loud and everywhere you look you see the tits and ass of giggling women and the cocksure grins and forced casualness of men. The typical woman would be one with a too polite, condescending smile, one honed from years of waiting tables, a tan that is bought and paid for and clothes that are too short and too tight. Her attempt to make herself extraordinary merely emphasizes her plainness. The typical man is tall, with baggy jeans, wearing an oxford shirt un-tucked, sleeves rolled to his forearms with a tee-shirt on underneath. His hair would be short, gelled and spiky. I’ve sat in there before, a fly in the ointment, a homunculus amongst statues. I’ve waited in a far corner, observing, a zoologist amongst the apes.
The song changes: The Beastie Boys.
There is an old man a few seats down from me who is drunk, loud and coarse. He yells his opinions about “the goddamn faggots” and “fucking shitheads,” to his buddy, a younger pudgy guy with big ears who laughs, urging the old man on. The old man has a white moustache and long gray hair that sticks out from under his Panama hat in a pony tail. Others in the bar shift uncomfortably, pretending not to notice him. The bartenders move slowly, circling him, the weak member of the herd who must be expelled. The pudgy one senses the encroaching authorities and stands, wobbling, suggesting that they leave, adding, “This place sucks anyway.” The old man nods, sending a disdainful look over the other patrons as if suddenly aware of how repugnant he found them. The atmosphere relaxes as soon as they leave.
My beer is half-gone. The silent television in the corner shows highlights from a football game earlier in the day. The songs changes again, this time it is an unrecognized singer, lamenting that he has lost his woman and therefore, has lost his way. I nod sipping my beer. I try to think of a woman that I have loved and lost, but come up empty. There are those I’ve touched, loved with fingers and lips, but never my heart. I think of a recent one, Tori, she had a boy’s face but a woman’s body. There were the two of us in my bed, which sits on the floor as I have no railings. Her pale body was opalescent in the moonlight. I remember removing her shirt, revealing the pink satin bra she wore under it, and moaning at the sight of it, “Oh, baby.” Pink was never my color of choice for women, but for some reason, the sight of her on my dingy mattress, light flooding in through the bare window, filed me with wonder and passion. For a moment, I was a young boy again, staring at the images of women in the underwear section of the Sears catalog. Women became new, exciting and unknown again.
I don’t even notice that my beer is gone until the older bartender speaks to me. Making a gun with his thumb and forefinger, he points to the empty glass in my hand and asks, “Another?”
No, I think, but nod.
The music changes. More upbeat than the previous song, but not loud. This music is unobtrusive, background but not invisible, like a soft breeze that makes the trees hiss happily.
A new pint is placed before me, expectant, like a puppy eager to play. I smile and drink, letting my eyes scan the photographs taped to the wall behind the bar. Most of these photos seem impromptu, with genuine smiles, peace signs and hugs abound. The women in these photos are attractive, but not beautiful. The type of woman you would happily go home to, but not the type you’d find in a magazine. The men are delicately scruffy with balanced casualness, goatees and old tee-shirts.
More happiness to my right. A small group of friends has encountered another small group, a high-pitched chorus of “Hey!” ascends at they embrace. They begin grilling one of the members of the group, a tall thin man whose clothes hang from him, suggesting recent weight loss, about his wife and new baby. They are doing well, he tells them, and they are visiting relatives upstate. My inner cynic wonders if this man will take this opportunity to cheat on his wife, while my inner optimist smiles at the joy this man radiates as he recounts for his friends the first time he saw his daughter. My optimist wins out, and unseen to either group or the man himself, I raise my glass to him.
Over at the pool tables is a young couple, obviously on their first date, all smiles and awkwardness. Her green scarf resembles the arm of some monster created by Jim Henson. His shaggy hair sticks out from under a faded ball cap, he is scruffy, but deliberately so, manufactured to appear less than perfect like a façade on a movie set. They play pool, she watches him shoot with admiration, smiling. I wonder how accustomed she is to being treated this well by boys, if I had to guess, I’d say only a handful in her life have ever paid attention to her, I think this not because she’s unattractive, but because of her demeanor, the smile that says she isn’t used to this. Beautiful women, the ones for whom men are a hobby, are always on the lookout for a better deal. It’s her turn and he watches her shoot, and there, behind the boyish smile and casual flirting was lust. When she leans over the table he is imagining how it would be to be behind her, beneath her, on top of her. His quick glances at her breasts, ass and thighs don’t go unnoticed by her, but she is far from offended. She relishes it, enjoying it, bending over further than necessary, smiling at him the whole time, her eyes sparkle with…what? Was this love, the seedling of a lifelong romance? Or would it be over as soon as he flushed the condom? There is attraction, obviously, growing beyond the merely physical.
I’m envious of the boy with his mop of hair and falsely aged clothes. I want the pretty girl to smile at me like that, or one just as pretty, prettier. I take a big, greedy swallow of my drink to compensate, my cheeks puffing out like a chipmunk.
“I always knew you’d wind up a sad lonely old fucker in a bar,” Faye had once told me. Faye; who I’ve known since high school and have loved continuously since, even if now I’ve grown from longing for the day she’d be mine to merely day dreaming about how she’d look naked. Faye knows me well, but not as well as she thinks she does. Why have I loved Faye for so long? She’s thinner now than she used to be, but she’s still got baby fat, her nose is a little too big, she never keeps appointments, returns phone calls and tends to disappear for months on end. Why? Who knows. Thinking about Faye, the only woman I ever wanted to love makes me finish my drink.
The song changes: The Boss.
Next to me, a group of men I didn’t notice approach strike up a loud conversation about whether or not Pittsburgh was right to trade such and such player. I’m not paying attention. Football was never my game. I wave the bartender over. He sees my empty glass, nods and brings me another. Good man.
Beer! Good for what ales you! my father used to say, one of his wittier puns.
Just as the beer is placed on a fresh coaster before me, I see Keith come in, carrying his plastic grocery bag, one with uncountable wrinkles, showing its numerous re-uses, packed with comic books. Some are bagged and boarded, some just shoved in there. He works in the newsroom of the local NPR affiliate, having started there as a teenager back when Nixon was first elected, but he won’t discuss the news. He won’t say much, not until he’s read his stack of comics and drunk at least two pints; even then he’d rather discuss Jack Kirby to Jack Kennedy, Graham Ingles to George Bush, Sergio Aragones to Spiro Agnew. I nod to him as he enters and he smiles in return. Many people use bars as libraries, not me, I find it too noisy and the people to fascinating to focus on a book. There’s Penny, for example, she was engaged once, but he ended it, must have been about two and a half years ago now, she’s up here, usually on Fridays, sipping red wine and reading the classics. She and I had a lengthy discussion once about Voltaire, I found Candide funnier than she did, although she assured me she “appreciated the humor.”
I’m drinking my beer faster now, I can feel my eyes getting heavy. I have to take a leak, so I place a coaster on top of my glass, bar language for “I’ll be right back.” There’s no music in the bathroom, and the life noise of the bar is muffled, like a memory you’re starting for forget. I piss, somewhat disappointed that the stall is free of graffiti. I return to the bar to find the area I was sitting is now occupied by a group of twenty-somethings, one of which, a fat redhead with curly hair, pushes my glass aside as if it’s very presence annoys her. Without a word, I reach around her to get my drink. Without a stool, I feel lost, adrift, unsure of where to stand or where to look.
The song has changed. It’s Tom Waits, one of my favorites. I drink my beer quickly, scanning the room, hoping to find someone else to study, but the room seems well categorized. The CD skips, the bartender walks to the stereo, annoyed, and goes to the next track. I place a twenty on the bar, using my half-empty beer to anchor it. Hands in my pockets, I walk out into the cool evening and head home.
On Tuesday, March 2, 2009, Nicole Marie Loretta Leonard woke hearing music from heaven. Whether the music was angels singing, harps playing, or merely a passing car with its speakers turned up a little too loudly, Nicole knew exactly what the music meant. Someone she was close to was going to die soon. She feared it was her friend Doug, who had been having problems with his liver for some time. Panicking, she decided to drive to Jacksonville, FL, to see him.
Nicole must not have planned her trip from her home in Candler, NC, well, for she soon found herself lost. Winding, confusing roads lead her to the bottom of a mountain. Off course and unsure of what to do, she stopped to ask for guidance.
“Please, Lord, give me some direction,” she prayed.
Instantly, a spirit appeared in the passenger seat of her burgundy Toyota.
“You are my compass,” it said.
Nicole had encountered spirits before, so this one didn’t surprise or frighten her. Experience and intuition told her it was a good spirit. She decided to “go along for the ride,” as she later told readers on her MySpace blog. Two hours later, Nicole and the spirit found themselves in Laurens, SC. The spirit disappeared, so Nicole stopped at a gas station for a pack of cigarettes.
Nicole is blind in one eye, which can make her look wild and heavily medicated. Riding for two hours in a car with a spirit didn’t help. She encountered a police officer inside the gas station. Looking into her eyes, the officer demanded to search her car. He asked if she was on narcotics.
“I don’t even know what a narcotic is; my brain makes all that shit naturally,” she later recounted.
Finding nothing, the officer let her go. Nicole drove down the road and saw the spirit again. It was a “dark, green, sparkling shadow, hanging out in the grass” outside the Gray Court Church of God.
Inside the church, friends and family of David Leopard had gathered to mourn his death. David 57, had died Saturday, February 28. The spirit told Nicole it needed to say a few, last words at the funeral. Without explaining whether it was David or simply a friend of David’s, it asked her to go into the church, where a crowd of people dressed in black milled around, waiting for the service to begin. Immediate family members had not yet entered the room. Nicole walked through the crowd and felt negative energy, which she attributed to greed.
“These people aren’t here to mourn a loss,” thought Nicole.
Nicole walked through the sanctuary to the open coffin. Facing the coffin, she said a short prayer. She turned to see people near the front of the room who were wearing more colorful clothing. Positive energy emanated from them.
Nicole’s dog had knocked the antenna off her radio the night before, so Nicole had the antenna in the front pocket of her overalls. Standing in front of the coffin of David, Nicole realized the antenna was the perfect prop. Nicole pulled it out of her pocket and stretched it long. An old lady with large, white curls, big ankles, and a stuffy, black, pleated dress was playing a piano on the stage. To the tune of the music, Nicole waved her arms in broad strokes like a conductor as a gift to the deceased. The lady continued playing as if oblivious to Nicole, and Nicole soon decided her dance was complete. She tapped the deceased man lightly on the forehead, pushed the antenna back in, and put it into her overalls pocket. Without giving an explanation to the stunned mourners, she walked down the aisle and out the door.
Outside, the spirit was waiting for her; it wasn’t pleased with her exit. Grabbing her by the shoulder, it pushed her back into the church.
“Get in there. You’re not done yet,” it said.
Frustrated, Nicole walked back into the church, which was now heavy with negative energy. Nicole felt bombarded by the negativity. She picked up a Bible from a pew and sat, leaning against the arm rest and propping her feet on the seat of the pew. After a little thought, she decided she didn’t blame the spirit for being upset. It must have been the spirit of the dead man, and he must have wanted to say a few, last words to the people with the colorful clothing. Determined to complete her mission, she took the Bible with her to the podium and opened it in the center.
“What more do you want me to say?” she asked the spirit, who took over her body in response.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” said the spirit through Nicole.
Nicole forced the spirit out of her body.
“He’s still alive,” she announced. “It’s his choice if he wants to live or die.”
The casket had been closed when Nicole left the church, so Nicole ran down the steps of the stage to the casket. She threw off the roses on top, lifted the lid of the casket, and placed two fingers on his forehead. She began another prayer.
David’s niece Tammy Fausel grabbed Nicole’s arm. She briskly guided Nicole outside and pulled a cell phone out of her large, black purse.
“What is your relation to the deceased?” asked Tammy, dialing.
“A compass,” replied Nicole.
“I would like to report an incident,” said Tammy into the phone. “We need police officers here immediately…”
Nicole realized it was time to go, so she ran to her car. The police intercepted her going south on 385, back on course to Jacksonville. According to their report, Nicole told them, “I just felt like it was the right thing to do at the time,” when they asked her about her bizarre behavior. Later, Nicole didn’t remember what she said to them, but she agreed it sounded like something she would have said. The police arrested Nicole and charged her with disturbing a funeral and disorderly conduct. She spent the night in jail.
The episode created a minor stir, hitting national and international news feeds. Bloggers who picked up on the story called her a “funeral fairy.” Where did she get her magic wand, as news reports described her antenna? Was she a Wiccan? Was she crazy? Several people requested Nicole’s presence at their funerals.
Telling her side of the story, Nicole explained on her blog that she was diagnosed a year ago with Bipolar 1 with psychosis. According to WebMD, “A person affected by bipolar I disorder has had at least one manic episode in his or her life. A manic episode is a period of abnormally elevated mood, accompanied by abnormal behavior that disrupts life. Most people with bipolar I disorder also suffer from episodes of depression. Often, there is a pattern of cycling between mania and depression.” In another article, WebMD says people experiencing psychosis may have “hallucinations, delusions or some other break with reality.”
To Nicole, reality is a subjective term. “There are no boundaries between what is real and what is not. We manifest our reality,” she patiently explained. However, she said she dreams when she’s awake. Even though she considers her dreams to be a gift from the higher power, she thinks she needs medication to survive in society. Without it, she says she might be put in a mental institution because others don’t see what she sees. Nicole says, “I’m on medication now and the spirits come less and less with every day gone by.”
Was there really a spirit guiding Nicole on her random expedition to a funeral in Laurens, SC? Was the spirit David Leopard, wanting to say a few words at his funeral? Psychologists, psychics, and philosophers can debate. Nicole is not awaiting their verdict; she knows some truth exists in her fantasies, regardless of what others think. She says her friend Doug is still alive, but, sadly, her dog died.
Princess: Really? Was that the best you could do?
Dragon: What’s your problem?
Princess: What is happening to chivalry these days? Doesn’t anyone have any manners or just common courtesy anymore? If you’re going to abduct a fair maiden you could at least do it well!
Dragon: You don’t know what you’re talking about. I did the whole thing perfectly! I don’t care if this is my first time, I have instincts. I know what I’m doing.
Princess: Well, I’ll have you know that this is only the seventh time that I’ve been sacrificed to a marauding dragon, and I will not have you do it improperly. I have standards to maintain, a reputation to uphold. I will not have it said that I fell victim to a sloppy abduction.
Dragon: If you’re a fair maiden, you ought to be mild and gentle, meek and fair of speech. You should be more worried about what they’ll say about that. You didn’t even swoon at the sight of me! I know as dragons go I may not be much, but I’m still a powerful and fearsome monster.
Princess: You’re right. You are great and terrible. Utterly horrifying. I can hardly bear the strain of your presence. I’m sure it was just chance that I haven’t fainted yet. Do you want me to faint now, or later?
Dragon: You should have earlier. Not that it much matters at this point.
Princess: Ok, then we’ll just come back to that later. We’ve got much more important things to discuss now. For instance, what is your plan, exactly? I mean, now that you’ve kidnapped me, what are you planning on doing with me? Are you going to devour me soon, keep me as your slave for years, lock me away in a secret tower—
Dragon: Now that you mention it, I am getting hungry. I got out of there in such a hurry that I forgot to grab some lunch.
Princess: I’m sure you are after such an otherwise brilliant success. But I think a different plan would be best.
Dragon: I’m the dragon here and I can do whatever I want.
Princess: Of course you can. I just think it would be better if you didn’t eat me.
Dragon: You get yourself caught by a dragon and then you think you’re so smart? I think I know what I can and can’t eat.
Princess: Of course you know all of the rules about what dragons can and can’t eat, but I’m special. I’m different. I’m sure it’s already plain to you that I’m not really a princess.
Dragon: Wow, that’s convenient. And you just happened to be in a castle surrounded by guards and servants. And you just happen to be dressed in finery with a crown on your head. And it just so happens that everyone bows to you and calls you “your highness.” You seem in every way just like a princess.
Princess: I know; I’m supposed to. I’m the decoy.
Dragon: Decoy? I’ve never heard of a decoy princess before. That sounds like a very unrespectable profession. Are you sure that’s even allowed?
Princess: I’m pretty sure. That’s what they tell me anyway.
Dragon: Well, I can still eat you. In fact, I definitely should. I do not want to condone this ridiculous “decoy princess” tactic, and the best deterrent would be to eat them.
Princess: Well, I’m sure you know this, it probably just slipped your mind, but eating me still presents a problem.
Dragon: That’s just silly. We dragons aren’t exactly snobs about what we eat. Besides, it would be only honorable, on the principle of the thing.
Princess: But you remember the peculiar sensitivities of a dragon’s stomach, and what happens when he eats a false princess, right?
Dragon: Of course I know. I’ve eaten plenty of fair maidens! You may not be as satisfying or as tasty, but I’m not that particular.
Princess: Are you particular about dying? [Pause] You see why I can’t let you eat me. You seem to great a young dragon to die so soon.
Dragon: I would be flattered if I didn’t think you were just trying to avoid an untimely death. I’m not sure I should believe you.
Princess: Oh, but I saw it happen to a dragon once. It was very unpleasant just watching it. Why don’t we discuss plan B instead?
Dragon: Keeping you here, you mean? I guess that’s better than nothing. Or I could lock you away in a tower, where you wouldn’t be an annoyance with your constant objections.
Princess: Yes, and then what?
Dragon: And then you spend years here, or there, until I am defeated or you are rescued. I’m not sure I like it that much, but it’s tradition.
Princess: But think about what would happen if you held captive a fair maiden who was not really a princess.
Dragon: You’re not that bright, are you? I imagine just about the same thing that would happen if I held captive a real princess.
Princess: But, on the contrary—
Dragon: I am sick and tired of your “contraries.” You need to behave like a damsel and sit there quietly while I decide what to do.
Princess: I know, I feel kind of silly saying all this, and I’m sure that there are lots of things you know that I don’t—
Dragon: Just get to the point!
Princess: Well, who would rescue me?
Dragon: Is that all? Well, it’s not my problem.
Princess: But if no one comes to rescue me, you can’t have any epic battles to be sung across the land. And as I grew old and ugly in your cave, you wouldn’t even be able to keep a real princess.
Dragon: That is just uncalled for! If I can catch you, I can catch a real one.
Princess: Of course you can catch her, but where would you keep her? You can’t keep two maidens in one lair.
Dragon: Oh really? You can’t tell me what to do. Just watch me.
Princess: But knights and princes steer clear of oddities like this. After all, how could one of them, in good conscience, rescue two fair maidens when they could only marry one of them? And everyone knows they will not work together. And then if we weren’t rescued, how would you get on with a growing domestic life? You’d end up spending more and more time at home, and less and less time out enjoying life, pillaging and destroying—
Dragon: Aha, but you’ve said, it’s possible one of them would rescue you and marry you. Not that I would want to live with this tongue of yours. You are far too opinionated and talkative for my taste. But a knight won’t know that before he rescues you.
Dragon: No! No more interruptions! No more objections! This is the way it’s going to be! You can’t possibly talk your way out of this one, there is nothing left to object about. It’s perfect! It may take a while before some knight decides he can’t get a real princess and rescues you instead, but I’m a dragon, I have centuries of patience.
Princess: Patience is a virtue—
Dragon: That’s the first nice thing you’ve said all day.
Princess: But this is the last thing, and it’s really important. Knights will only rescue maidens who are still pure.
Dragon: You have got to be kidding me! Didn’t I just tell you to stop talking? You can’t even take directions! Wait—what?
Princess: Only a woman who retains her girlish innocence and untainted perfection can hope to be rescued. How can a noble knight marry a woman without these qualities?
Dragon: I see. Now you’re going to force me to free you because of your dysfunctional personality?
Princess: I—yes, I’m afraid it’s true. I’m not rescue material or good for eating, or even a real princess. I’m quite worthless, and it’s rather humiliating.
Dragon: If I were you I’d be humiliated too. I’d be past humiliated. I’d want to die. So why don’t you just hold still and be quiet and I’ll put you out of your misery.
Princess: Please don’t do that.
Dragon: I will, to put us both out of our misery!
Princess: But my death is the only thing I have left, if you take that away—
Dragon: I’m about to give to you. Then I won’t have to hear your voice ever again!
Princess: But if you waste my death like that I’ll be forced to haunt you. If I’m going to die, I want to die for a purpose, to have a death that is noble and meaningful. To die without a higher reason like feeding a dragon or saving one’s city is to waste death. My whole life is a waste up to this point. I couldn’t bear it if my death is too.
Dragon: I don’t really care about how you feel about it, I just want to be rid of you; you wouldn’t dare threaten me with that! I’ll find some way around it after I kill you.
Princess: And besides, even if you did manage to get rid of my ghost, it would take you hundreds of years. And in that time no respectable kingdom will have any dealings with you. Knights and princes will never come near a haunted dragon, especially one that killed damsels at whim. You would be cursed, haunted, and lonely. You really don’t want to just kill me.
Dragon: Yes I do! I haven’t met anyone this annoying, frustrating, and painfully inconvenient in my whole life! But living with yourself is probably curse enough, seeing as you’ll never be married or rescued. So, I’m going to go kidnap a princess in the next kingdom, and when I get back I had better not see your face or hear your voice ever again or I will kill you, haunting or no, sickness or no, curses or no! Now get out!
Princess: [As he walks off] You know, you could–
Princess: That makes eight.
Dwayne wiped the sweat from the palms of his hands on his pants legs. He looked at the sliding glass doors of Mega Mall, sniffed, and thumbed his nose. The doors spread apart smoothly as he entered Mega Mall for the first time and probably his last. The security drones turned to focus their lens on him. His heart raced up his throat from inside his chest.
“Relax.” He told himself “the bots look at everyone.” His heart didn’t stop pounding, though. Like most men Dwayne knew exactly what he was shopping for. He had no desire to browse. He was on a self- imposed mission for making one wrong mistake to many times to count. He rounded the women’s clothing department. Glancing over his shoulder he couldn’t believe that fashion was torn shirts and pants. “It’s 2089!” He thought to himself. “You’d think they would’ve sewed those patches up by now.” He shook his head and headed for the big black and white sign hanging from the ceiling that read “Photronics/Electronics”. There was a six-foot high wall that ran the perimeter of the department leaving only a ten-foot entrance. It was cleverly disguised as shelving, but Dwayne knew a fence when he saw one. Only one other person occupied the department with him. She was a short plump brunette saleswoman who looked like she hadn’t moved from the stool since she first got the job. Her face appeared very manish and Dwayne thought he saw a 5 o’clock shadow. Her head sunk so low it made it look like she had no neck at all.
Next to her stood her replacement, just as soon as the mainstream had worked all the bugs out. It was an A.E. An automated employee. She had her fake smile stretched across her plastic face. Perpetually standing up with her left hand by her side and her right hand on her hip. This blonde hair blue eyed talking mannequin could answer simple questions, without moving her mouth; like the location of merchandise, or the price. They can also spout information, like directions or prices at other stores as most every machine in the world is “wi-fi”ed into the internet, but you ask little questions like “How was your day?” or “How do you feel?” And that thing usually starts beeping at you and powers down. That’s what the woman on the stool is for, to hit the reset button.
Dwayne passed by them coolly, without making direct eye contact with either of the employees. He walked to the back of the department, down the aisle with all the discounted Entertainment Discs. At the back of the department was the longest and tallest wall. It was also where they kept all the Living Liquid Crystal Video Cubes, a five -sided photonic video screen that would play five different vid channels or E.D.s simultaneously. Some people would paint one wall of their living rooms because of the projection feature available at the touch of a button. Dwayne had never actually looked at the V.C.s only because he could never afford them. Then again he had recently picked up a “mondai” habitat that was rapidly approaching about the same price. Dwayne’s hands started to shake a little as the thought of that Japanese blue powder came into his mind. The rush as he inhaled just a few particles of “mondai,” every fiber of his muscular system pulsing at once letting Dwayne feel every pump of his heart as an orgasmic wave. He quickly put his hands in his pockets and began walking around the department once more. It was fairly quiet. He had decided the best day to do his “shopping” would be a Sunday evening when most people would be at home and out of his way. He knew Mega Mall didn’t have the money for a security system with a full drop in energy cage, but there were enough cameras. There were three just on the vid screens, all the A.E.s had them and Dwayne counted at least five in the ceiling just on his way to the department, decoratively disguised as ceiling lights. They didn’t matter though. They’d have to catch him and if there was one thing in this world Dwayne Delaruse knew how to do, it was run. He just wasn’t sure if he could maintain his top speed while carrying a forty-kilogram V.C.
Dwayne made his way back up to the A.E. and mannish looking customer service desk clerk who was now running through her e-palm with a motion that almost looked like she was scratching the same itch over and over. He walked back down the aisle of E.D.s and feigned interest in a few of them before approaching the desk.
“Hello and welcome to Mega Mall. How may we assist you?” The voice of the A.E. was of a female woman who had had way too much coffee. She was trying to sound up beat and perky but Dwayne knew it was just advertising. The mannish woman, whose name tag read “Heidi”, did not look up and in fact picked up her cup of coffee right in front of her.
“How much are the clearance E. D.s in the back discounted?” He looked directly at Heidi hoping she would look up, but the A.E. answered long before Heidi finished her sip of coffee.
“Take an extra twenty percent off all our already marked down clearance entertainment discs.”
“How ‘er you doing?” Dwayne asked the automated woman with a grin.
“My day is going well sir thank you for asking.” The plastic woman responded placidly. At this Heidi looked up from the three dimensional screen that was emulating from her hand. “Nice try.” She snorted. “They updated the software a few weeks ago to cut down on glitches.”
“Really. Cause I hate these things. They never send me to the right place.”
“I hate them as much as the next person but the company paid for them and wants to keep them up and running.”
Dwayne grinned at the A.E. “Then maybe you can tell me how you feel about the election?”
“Election includes Governor Dean Worzy, Republican, and Democratic Senator Phil Dilton. Analysts speculate that the percentage of black people voting for Phil Dilton is 21%.” The A.E.s eyes flashed red and she started spouting off various statistics of the election based on polls that had been recently taken and opinions by various important dignitaries posted on the Internet.
“Oh God! She’s going to be at that for another hour. Thanks a lot. Not only do I have to listen to this, but I have to reset her too when she’s done.”
“Job security.” Smiled Dwayne. “You know I wanted to get one of the V.C.s in the back.”
“Anything to get away from her,” snarled Heidi. He followed Heidi down the aisle of gaming accessories and stopped at the locked clear plastic case that held the V.C.s. Heidi passed her I.D. badge in front of a black square on the case. There was a light click and Heidi opened the door.
“Which one did you want?”
“That Lynron there. That’s the only one with the projection feature, right?” Heidi scanned the other boxes briefly.
“It looks like it.”
“How much it weigh?” Heidi looked at Han quizzically. “I got this table at home it can only hold so much weight.” Heidi read the box and then said quickly.
“Not as heavy as I thought. I’ll take it.” Heidi pulled out the box and placed it on the floor. She slowly stood back up and Han began to sweat. He could almost smell the minty smell of “mondai”. Heidi let out a loud groan holding her lower back as she stood.
“Every year these damn things get heavier.”
“I could carry it for ya. I use to run ball for the Boston Belair.”
“Oh you were a professional tramp ball player. I always like that sport. The mid air collisions between some of you guys. Did they hurt?”
Dwayne chuckled, “Even with the pads on.”
“I’d love for you to carry this box, but article 6 section 7.5 of the Mega Mall manual states that I must maintain possession of said merchandise until receipt of payment.” Heidi smiled. “I’ve gotten in trouble for it before.” Heidi bent down and picked up the box with a grunt. She waddled back up to the counter where she put down the V.C. on the counter and sat down once again. She pulled out a booklet and ran through the pages. The A.E. continued on its political information rant. Heidi quit flipping pages and pulled out a white piece of paper with a bar code. Dwayne looked from Heidi and glared towards the exit.
“It can’t be more than a hundred and fifty meters to the door.” Dwayne thought. “I run the fifty meter in under six seconds. No quicker way than the way I came in.” Dwayne looked back toward Heidi and heard the A.E. say sweetly “Living Liquid Crystal Video Cube Eight thousand five hundred thirty one dollars and nine cents.” He heard the price and his heart began to race. He could feel the sweat accumulating on his palms and under his arms. “Will it be Credit or Direct transfer?” the A.E. queried. Heidi looked to Dwayne as he reached behind to his back pocket. His mind racing, “I don’t need this. I was a star tramp ball player. I out scored them all… What about Wanda? What about Robert’s little face? What if I get caught? This isn’t small shit. This is eight large. I wouldn’t see my son for a long time…But they can’t catch me. Nobody can catch me out here. I’m fast! I’ve always been fast.”
The sweat was pouring from Dwayne’s forehead as he struggled to get his wallet out of his back pocket. Heidi looked at him and cocked her head a little to the left and slowly said, “Are you okay?” It was with this that Dwayne realized that he wasn’t okay. He wasn’t allowed in tramp ball. His wife left him with his son and he was out of money! The worst part was he hadn’t had any “mondai” in almost three days and his body was beginning to de-tox. Dwayne’s hands began to shake more violently. It was this sign that Heidi had been trained to look for and reached for the com box. He saw the panicked look on Heidi’s face and in an instant Dwayne realized he was going to be kicked out of Mega Mall without the V.C. He grabbed the thirty-five kilogram V.C. and dashed off for door, his heart pounding in his chest.
“Why do they put this shit in the back?” but Dwayne couldn’t even hear his own voice his ears were ringing so loud. He made his way past the women’s apparel. He didn’t hear the store wide siren that was blaring. He missed the red flashing lights at the end of every aisle. The store became a blur as Dwayne ran as fast as his legs would carry him. He carried the V.C. close to his chest and held on tight. He could see the exit and knew that all cameras were on him. The bots on either side of the door only moved their lens to get a better shot of Dwayne. Just as he came up to the sliding glass doors and his hopes were at their highest, he realized the doors were not opening for him. The V.C. crashed through the glass panel first with Dwayne’s hands breaking the glass. As Dwayne came through the razor sharp opening his foot hit the bottom of the door and he tripped. He tucked, rolled, and came to rest in the very spot he started. He stopped to take a breath. The only thing he could hear was the sound of his heart thumping. It died down just in time for him to hear the sirens of the approaching police. Dwayne was back on his feet with the V.C. in his arms, ears thumping and running through the parking lot. He heard a noise over a muffled mega phone somewhere behind him. He assumed they were saying stop, but that only made him run faster. Dwayne dodged and weaved through pedestrians walking up and down the streets or Chicago. He couldn’t recognize where he was going. All the buildings were flying by at a speed he had never seen before. Dwayne could only focus on the sirens behind him and how loud they were beginning to be. There was a lull in the pedestrians and he looked up at the passing street sign and smiled. He was only two blocks from his buddy’s house. He could hide there until the heat was off. It was the last time Dwayne Delaruse would smile for a long time. He heard what he thought was a rock hitting the pavement next to him, and then a really loud pop. The next thing he knew he was falling towards the side walk. He landed on the backs of his hands which were then crushed by the V.C. and then finally by the weight of his own torso. Dwayne started gasping for air and rolled off the V.C. He heard the sirens getting closer and a few people were getting off their vid-phones to see what was going on. He tried to stand up but could only flop back down on the ground. All he could think was “Who tripped me? I’m going to kill ‘em!” He flipped over on his back and sat up, taking huge gasps of air. It was then that he caught sight of his lower legs laying six feet away from the rest of his body. He tried to scream, but he just didn’t have the oxygen and Dwayne lay down to wait for the police. He blacked out before he ever saw anyone.
Dwayne Delaruse woke up in Chicago Memorial with an I.V. in his right arm and energy cuffed left hand. He didn’t speak to anyone. He didn’t say anything to his ex-wife when she came to visit or his son. He didn’t say anything to his court appointed attorney. He didn’t even ask any questions when the doctor told him they couldn’t put his legs back on.
“The muscles had inexplicable exploded and are in such a disarray that they couldn’t be organized for a reattachment.” Dwayne could tell the doctor had no remorse about the news he delivered. He was offered prosthetics but when they found out he never had insurance they were withdrawn. When the bleeding had subsided they transferred Dwayne over to the state penitentiary where due to an extremely streamlined judiciary system, he was given a skin graph and sentenced to nine years, no parole. Dwayne had heard from no one for almost four months after his sentencing.
One morning, without any explanation at all, a guard wheeled Dwayne into one of the interrogation rooms on the old side of the jail and he could have cared less. His wheel chair barely had enough room to move around. Dwayne didn’t hear the door close when the officer left. The room was well lit by a single overhead light. He paid no attention to the four-foot reflective glass window or the criss-crossed bars over it. His chiseled black features were motionless as he sat in front of the stainless steel table. The only things that Dwayne could focus on were the two white gauze bandages that covered up the two stumps that were, only four months ago, his legs. He reached down with his cuffed hands and tried to touch what was left of his legs. All he got was a little blood on the ends of his finger tips. He wiped the blood onto the concrete wall next to him adding to the red crusted mural that speckled three out of the four walls. He slowly put his energy cuffed hands on the table and hung his head low with a fixed gaze on his lower half. Dwayne waited. They kept him waiting for more than two hours. By the time the door opened Dwayne’s shirt was drenched with sweat from the lack of air conditioning. The door to the interrogation room burst open and a thin white man wearing a gray polyester suit, swinging a black fake leather brief case, swooped in. In one smooth motion he opened his briefcase, spread out the contents of two black file folders and placed his briefcase, with built in Touchbook, on the table. Dwayne could recognize a few of the papers. They were his driver’s license, social security card, and his T-ball contract. The little white man pulled a hand held voice imprint module out of this right coat pocket. He released a little door on the side of the imprint module and pulled out a thin cord that plugged into the Touchbook. He pressed the record button and flatly dictated, “Agent Don Vaughn. Case Number TKM9I87. Subjects name is Dwayne Delaruse. Post incidental interview. August 11, 2089.” His words appeared on the Touchbook as he said them. Agent Vaughn placed the recording device on the table half way between himself and Dwayne. He began to look over the papers he had laid out in front of Dwayne.
“Look at this. Two thousand years of evolution and the bureaucrats still make you fill out hard copies. Alright Mr. DeLaruse.”
“Dwayne.” He corrected him without looking up.
“Alright, Dwayne. I’m not here to judge you nor am I with the district attorney’s office. I am here simply to document your account. I am here to record the past four years as you can best remember them.”
“Read the papers.”
“Mr. Dwayne it says here that you have attended several medical experimentation groups from ’82 to ‘85. Is that so?” Dwayne stared blankly.
“I see.” Agent Vaughn adjusted his glasses and quickly jotted down a few notes on his Touchbook. “In 2085 you went onto play professional tramp ball. Correct?”
Dwayne smiled a little. “Yeah that’s right. They said they hadn’t seen anything faster.” His smile faded. “But, they just used me… to sell sports drinks.” Agent Vaughn made a few more notes.
“And when you say they used you. What do you mean?”
“You know who I am. I’m Dwayne Delaruse. Fastest man in professional T-ball.”
“You were the fastest man in T-ball.” Dwayne clenched the muscles in his jaws and slowly made two fists in his energy cuffs. Agent Vaughn just stared at him in a moment of silence. “Have you noted any side effects in the last four years?”
Dwayne said noting. Agent Vaughn didn’t move except his right finger making notes on his Touchbook. A voice came over the intercom. “Vaughn, do you need the needle?” Vaughn raised his hand and finished his notes. He looked calmly up at Dwayne.
“This has nothing to do with your apprehension nor with the vid screen you stole. I could care less about your petty crime. I’m here about your legs.” Dwayne glared up at Agent Vaughn. “What about my legs?”
“Now, Mr. Delaruse according to this report from the police you were carrying a 35 kilogram vid screen and running almost seventy kilometers an hour when and I quote”, Agent Vaughn looked over the papers in front of him “your legs exploded sending blood all over the street and buildings.” You were then knocked unconscious when your head hit the sidewalk. Does this sound correct?” Dwayne looked down at the torn pants and white gauze surrounding two stumps. He sat quietly not moving. “Mr. Delaruse does this sound familiar? Mr. Delaruse? Dwayne!? Shock him and let him know we mean business.”
Dwayne looked up defiantly from his legs. There was a long pause in which Agent Vaughn took off his glasses and pressed stop on the recording device.
“Look after you’re done telling me what happened maybe,” Vaughn smiled smugly, “I’ll tell you why your legs exploded.”
“You did this!” Dwayne had come to life for the first time since his arrest. He lunged for his interviewer but the electro-shocks in his cuffs came to life long before he even got half away across the table. Dwayne seized in his chair for a minute and then slumped with a little drool hanging out of his mouth.
“Dwayne. Dwayne. Dwayne, are you with me?” Vaughn snapped his fingers a few times. Dwayne groaned lowly at first and slowly said,
“Yeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhh. I’mmmm with ya.”
“Please remember that those are just the warning shocks. Any further action like that and you could fry where you sit for a simple vid screen theft.” Agent Vaughn smiled and organized his papers and placed them in the black folders from where they came. “Now if you will kindly explain why you were stealing a 35kg vid screen at seventy kilometers an hour?”
“You got a stick?”
“I don’t chew, but I do carry around a pack of cheapies for just such occasions. I’ve found that it helps people in your situation loosen their tongue.” Vaughn pulled out a pack of Gnaw-alls out of his briefcase and handed a small brown tube to Dwayne.
“Thanks.” Dwayne threw the whole stick in his mouth and started to chew vigorously.
“I’m sorry I didn’t bring a spit cup with me maybe you should…” And as if on cue Dwayne spit a huge black wad onto the wall and smiled at Agent Vaughn.
“Looks like I don’t need one.”
Vaughn smiled and hit record on the device sitting in the middle of the table.
“Now Mr. Delaruse, have you always had the strength you exhibited in the police chase?”
“No.” Dwayne spit on the wall again.
“When did you notice a change?”
“I needed some money so I offered myself up in ’84 as an experimental guinea pig.”
“What experimental drugs did you take?”
“Most of them were just skin creams and hair dyes. My hair fell out once and I got a couple of rashes but there was this one time that was different. I only did it once. Dexametha something or other.” Agent Vaughn pressed a few buttons on his notebook.
“Yeah maybe. I don’t know I took the pill and woke up in some white room. The nurse said I was free to go whenever I liked. She gave me the credit transfer and I left.”
“Did you happen to catch what the date was when you went in for your surgery?”
“Surgery? I never said nothing about no surgery?”
“You must have. My Touchbook tells me that Dexamethapropylene is a heavy sedative used primarily before surgery.”
“But I never had any surgery. I’d have scars or something.”
“Surgery or no surgery, after this visit that’s when you noticed you could run faster?” Dwayne let another spit wad fly.
“I didn’t notice it until about a year later when I was running with my buddy. We were just having fun racing, you know, and I took off. I was running faster than I ever had. I had been working out a little. I figured it was the vitamins and the new tread mills at the gym.”
“You said you didn’t see any scars. Did you notice anything peculiar about yourself? Any side effects?”
“Not really. Although, my ears would ring really loudly. Coach hated it because I couldn’t hear people in the T-ball games, but when you’re as fast as me you don’t need the other people”
“Deafness?” Vaughn entered it into his Touchbook. “You never had any spasms? Your legs never randomly kicked people?”
Dwayne cocked his head to the left. “They’re my legs. They do what I tell them to.”
“Of course they are. Your drug screen tested positive for “mondai”? When was the last time you used?”
Dwayne let out a loud chuckle. “It’s been almost five months.”
“How about prior to the arrest?”
“It had been three days.”
Agent Vaughn turned off the recording device. He placed it into his briefcase and then placed the black folders on top.
“So, that’s it. I told you everything you needed to know. So, what happened to my legs?” Agent Vaughn looked down at the newly crippled man and smiled.
“The truth Mr. Delaruse is that you did in fact have surgery on your legs.”
Dwayne exploded at his interrogator. “No scars! No surgery! What really happened?!” Agent Vaughn smiled and headed for the door. He opened it and paused in the doorway. He looked at Dwayne and then at someone who had obviously been standing behind the one-way mirror.
“Show him.” Agent Vaughn said to the man. The overhead light began to dim and an antique three-bulb projector lowered down out of the ceiling. Agent Vaughn closed the door. With the lights dimmed Dwayne could see Agent Vaughn through the one-way mirror. He was standing next to the guard who had wheeled Dwayne into the room and a third man Dwayne didn’t recognize. He paid them no attention once the numbers started counting backwards in the lower left hand corner of the projector’s screen. Dwayne almost couldn’t make out the numbers from all the blood and stick juice on the wall. When the numbers reached zero he heard a voice from the projectors built in speaker.
“Operation Augment.” Dwayne didn’t recognize the voice but he did recognize himself lying on a silver steel table much like the one in front of him. The red bulb had burned out in the projector and Dwayne lay there in shades of blue. The voice continued. “Early tests have proven conclusively that mammals can be augmented by technological implants known as “syn-chords.” The camera panned over to a group of rats inside a very large plastic cage. “These mice have shown exceeding progress in their muscle development. Because the implants are powered by adrenaline, it’s been proven that the more afraid the rats are the faster they move.” The camera panned back to Dwayne and the voice went on. “Dwayne Delaruse. Subject 45-CY. The government has informed us that it can’t afford to lose anymore of their space marines. We have resorted to testing on unknowledgeable civilians.” A thin Asian doctor in a long white coat and facemask stepped into view holding his latexed hands up in the air. “Are you ready Dr. Xin?” The Asian doctor gave a nod and Dwayne could tell the camera had been put on a tripod. The man who was speaking came out from behind the camera. Dwayne recognized him as the same man that was now standing next to Agent Vaughn. He came walking into the camera view wearing the same outfit as the Asian doctor. “Let’s begin.” said Dr. Xin. Dwayne could feel the color drain from his face. He watched in hues of blue as the two men lasered his thighs open. His eyes transfixed as they inserted what looked like eight thin silver tubes into each one of legs. Dwayne turned to look at the three men standing behind the one-way mirror. The guard was no longer standing there and the doctor who was performing the operation on the screen was jotting something down on a Touchbook. Agent Vaughn was the only one looking back at Dwayne and he was smiling. Reveling in Dwayne’s horror. Dwayne looked to his legs and then back to the screen just in time to see the movie end. He looked back at Agent Vaughn and met his gaze for a brief instant before the lights came back on. Dwayne could only see his reflection then.
“Our guess,” said Vaughn over the interrogation room intercom, “is that your increased adrenaline levels combined with the “mondai” de-toxing is what caused your legs to explode.” Dwayne continued to stare at his reflection in the one-way mirror.
“So, now what?” Dwayne spit his entire chewed up Gnaw-all onto the ground. “Ain’t you gonna help me?!” Dwayne screamed at his reflection. “You did this to me!” He almost fell forward out of this wheelchair. Vaughn said nothing.
“The United States government would like to thank you.” Agent Vaughn’s voice broke the silence over the intercom. “For your sacrifice, because without your little mistake we never would have found any bugs with the system. Our entire space marine division could have ended up paraplegics like you.” Dwayne Delaruse, who didn’t shed a tear when his parents died, began to weep only slightly.
“Don’t be surprised if you get a bill for six billion dollars.” Dwayne didn’t need to hear Agent Vaughn to know he was laughing at his own joke.
What is the point of learning this?
Why not teach me something useful
like how to be a good father
or how to make a Denver omelet.
Some basic auto repair skills
would be most helpful
Or at least teach me how to find
a good mechanic.
Teach me to keep the women in my life
from walking away.
Or how to get a great deal on airfare.
You know, I never did learn
how to play the piano
or to make a flaming rum punch.
And how does one get a spaghetti stain
out of a white tee-shirt?
I’d like to know what that girl
looks like naked,
the one over there who looks just as bored
as I am
and I want to know how it feels
Teach me how to corrupt computer files
so that I never have to pay bills again.
Show me how to avoid an IRS audit.
anything but this.