Husk

Content Warning:  Mature readers only.

Scout stood in front of the cornfield, her red Summer dress bright as a cardinal against the blue-green shadows of the corn. The moon hung in the midday sky, impassive as the pale eye of a corpse. The wind rustled the corn leaves into Wake-whispers, reminding her of the funeral home, and her frayed, knotted hair streamed across her face like the yellow yarn of a ragdoll. She stared down, at nothing, while her friends tried to coax her into looking up for the photo— not smiling, but at least looking into Cynthia’s black-eyed camera so it could obliterate her and recreate her with its pretentious photons.
“Come on, Scout,” Emily said. “Let’s see those pretty blue eyes.”
Scout did not remember buying the red dress, or even putting it on. Emily and Cynthia must have Barbie-dolled her up in it at the last motel room they stayed in. They treated her like a mannequin to be assembled and posed for their cross-country trip pictures. At times it was like they were trying to alleviate their own sadness rather than hers. But grief had her cocooned in its web, and had liquefied her inside until she could feel nothing at all— not even sadness. She hadn’t been eating or taking care of herself, and looked like a haggard, frayed doll left out in the rain. Had a tornado twirled toward her and lifted her up, she would have accepted it with the indifferent resignation of the dead.
“Next stop, more cornfields!” Cynthia joked in her deadpan way.
“So boring out here,” Emily sighed in exasperation.
“What do you expect in Kansas?” Cynthia said.
“Tornadoes, maybe. Scarecrows.” She glanced around. “Like that one!”
Emily pointed toward the corn on the other side of the highway, her jangling bracelets gleaming in the overhead sun. She had dark caramel skin and curly black hair. By and large, she was considered the prettiest of the sorority trio, and could get by wearing any type of dress in any color with any accessories she wanted.
“That is a weird scarecrow,” Cynthia remarked, grimacing. “Girl needs a makeover.”
“So does Scout,” Emily muttered. She went to Scout and put an arm around her shoulders, walking her to the other side of the road. The highway was not very busy right now.
“One more picture for the road,” Emily said.
The scarecrow was behind them as Emily and Scout looked into Cynthia’s camera. The scarecrow was a vague bundle of straw with a straw hat and a chequered dress, crucified on two wooden poles; indifferent to its own pain.
“Say ‘Cheese’,” Cynthia said.
“Heck no,” Emily said. “I’m on a diet.”
She smiled nonetheless, whereas Scout’s face remained vaguely devoid of feeling. After the photo had been snapped, they returned to Cynthia’s bright pink Prius. Piling in, they drove deeper into corn country.

***

“I love your car,” Emily said, sitting in the backseat with her sandals off and her barefeet out the window. The wind tickled her toes and she was grinning like the Queen of Sheba. “It’s just so…pink.”
“I told my dad I only wanted a pink car,” Cynthia said, barely paying attention to the road as she drove. “It had to be new and it had to be pink. People love it when I take it to weddings. I still think it is one of the reasons I get so many wedding jobs. Well, that and because I take the best photographs for wedding albums.”
The wind billowing in through the open window deafened Scout, but not enough. She rode shotgun in the passenger side seat.
“You do,” Emily agreed. “The best. When I get married— if I ever do— then I am going to hire you.”
“You don’t have to pay me,” Cynthia said. “I’ll do it for free.”
“I was going to have dad pay for it,” Emily said.
“Oh,” Cynthia said. “Then I will have to charge double.”
They both laughed, and looked to Scout expectantly. She did not laugh. Their laughter subsided.
“I guess we shouldn’t talk about that stuff,” Cynthia said. Her dark brown hair grazed the low ceiling of the Prius. She was the tall sorority sister, and was unusually tall even by that standard. “It’s not…appropriate.”
“Yeah, but, Scout, Tyler really was a shit stain,” Emily said recklessly. “I swear, he came onto me once at Brian Lauder’s party last year. Whenever he drank, he just became a different person.”
“Or showed who he really was,” Cynthia said. She sounded a little jealous. Not one of her sorority sisters’ boyfriends ever flirted with her inappropriately. They were too intimidated by her height, and too turned-off by her plain-Jane face.
“I need to pee,” Emily said.
“All right,” Cynthia said.
The pink Prius came to a stop at the side of the highway. Emily hopped out of the car, after putting her sandals on, and then waded into the cornfield. While she squatted, Cynthia stared out at one side of the cornfield. Scout stared at nothing.
“Is that the same one?” Cynthia said.
Scout looked toward the cornfield on the other side of the road. A scarecrow was crucified here, too, with a straw hat, chequered dress, and vaguely humanoid straw body.
“Maybe just the same Wal-Mart special,” Cynthia concluded, doubtfully. She rowed her window up and turned on the A/C. When Emily returned, she told her to do the same.
“But I like the wind between my toes,” Emily said.
Cynthia never argued with Emily— she envied her too much— and so she relented and rowed her window down, turning the A/C off, and taking the Prius on the road again.
They drove for many more miles through corn country.

***

“Tyler really was an asshole, Scout,” Emily said, her window now up because she had tired of the wind being between her toes. The A/C was on in the Prius, and the radio was down low, Katy Perry’s voice a wavering whisper beneath the acrid conversation. “A total asshole. Michael told me that Tyler called his dick the ‘Patriarchy’ because he said he had fucked over so many women with it. I shit you not.”
Cynthia involuntarily laughed. She coughed self-consciously, falling to silence.
“He was an asshole,” Emily said, twirling a curl of black hair around her finger. “He wasn’t a frat boy. He was a scat boy.”
Scarcely heard above the A/C, a rustling-grass sigh left Scout’s lips.
“Anyway,” Emily said lightly, “it’s no big deal. I mean, we’re on a road trip! No boys! No parents! No school! Just us!”
Cynthia grinned and nodded exuberantly. Scout remained silent in the passenger seat, staring at— and feeling— nothing.
The sudden blaring of a horn ripped through the quiet cab of the Prius, as did the roar of an engine and the rowdy shouts of voices. Speeding alongside the Prius, a large four-door truck kept apace with the smaller car. The truck’s windows were down and some local farm boys were hanging out the windows like Jack-in-the-boxes, grinning and shouting and gesturing like mad.
“Hey baby, baby, baby!” they shouted.
Emily bounded for the other side of Prius— not wearing a seatbelt— and rowed the window down.
“Hey darlin’!” she crooned in a put-on Southern drawl. “You boys are givin’ me the vapors!”
“We’ll give you more than that!” the passenger-side man said. He wore a Dale Earnhardt hat and a red-and-black flannel shirt. His arms were brawny and tanned— almost as dark as Emily’s legs—and his cheeks pitted with dimples and dotted with stubble.
“Sorry,” Emily said with a feigned pouty face. “Girls’ club only.”
“You sure, baby?” the man said. “I got a big present for you.”
The other young men in the truck hooted and hollered.
“If I want something like yours,” Emily said, “I’ll just jump a baby carrot.”
Emily laughed. She was the only one in the Prius that did. Cynthia looked very worried, eyeing the men as if they might swerve her off the road. Scout merely stared at nothing, the emptiness enveloping all things that her slow eyes crawled over.
“Bitch,” the man said lightly. “Let me tell you something…”
A vehicle was coming in the opposite lane. The young men withdrew into the cab of the truck and the driver slammed the gas. The truck’s engine roared, spewing black diesel fumes behind it as it pulled ahead of the Prius and moved over, in the nick of time, to avoid a head-on collision with an old station wagon. The station wagon’s horn went wild with fury, like a rabid gander with a hunting dog sniffing near its nest. The truck blew another dragon-plume of fumes as it accelerated down the highway, leaving the Prius behind in its black fury.
Emily tittered. “Silly redneck boys,” she said.
“You get off on that, don’t you?” Cynthia said, accusingly. She had slowed the car down to half the speed limit, letting the truck disappear into the distance.
“Blueballing little boys?” Emily said. “Yeah. It feels great.” She stretched her arms over her head, smiling broadly and relaxing in the backseat, laying down. She still had not put on a seatbelt. “Somebody’s got to cut them down to size.”
Cynthia sighed as if exhausted, shaking her head slowly. Scout watched the sun glare through her window, indifferent as it burned her unblinking eyes.

***
“Oh!” Cynthia said, slowing. “An old barn! I love old barns! They look wonderful in black and white!”
Cynthia slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road, backing up against traffic until she had returned to the barn they had passed by a few hundred feet. Hurriedly, she took her camera out and went toward the barn. It was an old broken gable type of barn, its two sides slanted at a bell curve outward, as if both wings were sinking into itself, the conceit of wood soon to collapse. It sat out in a field of green-and-yellow grass, a sudden break between fields of corn. Two large silos stood near it, their silver sides gleaming in the sunlight. They were obviously much newer than the barn itself.
“I need to get an angle so those metal things aren’t in the picture,” Cynthia said, ignorantly. She walked across the property, her back to the corn stalks. The camera clicked every few feet she walked.
“Boooooring!” Emily moaned melodramatically. She then yawned and fanned her breasts with her tanktop, flapping it against her bra.
Scout said nothing. She stared at the scarecrow in the field. It had a straw hat and a chequered dress. She then looked at the barn, seeing the ruinous sides and the moaning mouth. She felt something of kinship in its dilapidation. The difference was that there were cedars growing in the dead depths of the barn, whereas Scout had nothing lifelike growing inside her. There was only decay. There were only vacant shadows.

***

“Missy totally fucked Michael,” Cynthia said, offhandedly.
“No, Michael fucked Missy,” Emily said, an impish smile on her face. The wind through the window fluttered her black hair against her face, and she rolled her head to uncover her smile from the curls. “I heard he likes going in the backdoor.”
“That sounds painful,” Cynthia said, grimacing.
“Only if you don’t prepare for it the right way,” Emily said.
Cynthia gawked in disbelief.
“And if the dick isn’t too big,” Emily added for good measure.
“You mean like Tiny-Dick Teddy?”
Both girls laughed.
“Not that small,” Emily said. “You can do bigger, if you prepare first. Lots of lube, otherwise it will hurt. Sure. But Teddy probably couldn’t please a midget. I mean, it is so small. Or that’s what I’ve heard, anyway,” she added quickly.
“He’s got a nice body, though,” Cynthia said.
“Oh hell yeah he does. Ripped. And such a nice guy, too. Could be the full package if he had…you know…a fuller package.”
“What’s the biggest you’ve ever had?” Cynthia said. “Be honest.”
Emily’s crescent smirk was that of a girl who had been knowingly naughty. “Ten,” she said.
“Ten?!” Cynthia said, drifting into the other lane. No one was coming.
“But I couldn’t fit it all in,” Emily rushed to explain. “I mean, I am not that big of a hole.”
“And you know for certain it was ten?” Cynthia said, skeptically.
“Oh yeah,” Emily said. “The guy was a big dick and had a big dick so of course he had to prove it to me. He even brought a ruler with him to prove it.”
Both girls laughed loudly until a semi blew its horn and Cynthia had to jerk the Prius away from the opposite lane. After a breathless moment, she spoke.
“So how good was it?” she asked.
Emily shrugged. “Kinda painful, actually,” she said. “Like I said, he was a big dick with a big dick, so he didn’t really care so much about how I felt during sex.”
“Okay,” said Cynthia. “Then who was the best you ever had?”
Emily rubbed her chin pensively between her glitter-lacquered fingers. “Hmmm. Some are good in different ways. I guess if I could have it right now, and choose who, then it would probably be Greg. He was sweet in the sheets, and very concerned about making me happy. Plus, he had a pretty good size on him. Above average, but not too big above average.”
“How big is that?” Cynthia said. “And what is average anyway?”
“Average is just average,” Emily said. “But he was about eight. Not too small. Not too large. Above average. And he knew how to use it.”
“Oh,” Cynthia said. She looked enviously at her friend through the rearview mirror. “And what happened to Greg?”
Emily tossed her head left and right, biting her lip. “I kind of slept around on him,” she said. “Didn’t realize what I missed until he was gone.” She shrugged, then perked up. “But did you hear that Christy’s gone to Paris for the Summer? She’s already eaten a Frenchman’s croissant, if you know what I mean.” She shrieked with laughter.
“How was it?” Cynthia said with mild interest.
“Uncircumcized.”
“Ewww.”
“She’s pretty sure he was badmouthing her the entire time. But her French is shit, so he could have been saying anything.”
“What’s the French word for ‘ginger’?”
“Hell if I know,” she said. “I took Sign for my foreign language credits. It’s funner. Like Jazz hands.”
“Show me some,” Cynthia said.
Emily flipped her the middle finger.
“Har, har, har. Very funny.”
Emily shrugged a single shoulder. “It’s a promise,” she said meaningfully.
Scout remained silent in the front seat. Their conversation had drifted over her from a distance, faint and mostly indistinct. She remembered Tyler and their time in bed together. He had filled her up, but not just sexually. He made her feel whole. He made her laugh. When Emily told her she spotted him with a mutual friend, part of Scout had died. It had dried up to nothing and fell away, like rotten leaves. A vacancy remained; a hollowness immeasurable.

***

“Anorexia is not a good look for you,” Emily said, her mouth full of chicken nuggets.
“She’s right, Scout,” Cynthia said between bites of a fish sandwich. “You’ll be nothing but skin and bones if you don’t eat anything.”
Scout sat with her sorority sisters at the table in the McDougall’s restaurant, a carton of nuggets in front of her, untouched. She did not feel like eating anything, especially here. She and Tyler always went for lunch at McDougall’s when they had time for it. Now it just smelled like the leftover grease from yesterday.
“Come on,” Emily said, picking up one of Scout’s chicken nuggets. She held it up like she was feeding a toddler. “Here comes the airplane!”
The nugget zoomed around in Emily’s glitter-lacquered fingers, swooping in for Scout’s mouth. The latter did not open her mouth to receive it. It left a little oil on her lips which burned. She did not feel it.
Exasperated, Emily ate the nugget herself. “Hope you’re happy, Scout. Now I’m going to put on weight.”
Cynthia just shook her head and sucked soda through a straw. Scout did not even drink from her soda. Her lips were chapped and dry and cracking. The skin on her face was loose with dehydration, starting to become rough and wrinkle like a burlap sac.

***

P!nk was blasting on the radio as the sun settled into the corn like a bird into its nest. They had driven the last thirty miles without saying much, letting the music on the radio fill the silent spaces between them.
The corn fell away, revealing a small cluster of houses and fast food restaurants, all hemmed in by the fields. They came to a Pilot station and pulled in for gas. Shadows stretched long from the fields only to be obliterated by the bright lights of the lampposts and pumps. Cynthia got out and paid for gas with her credit card, then began pumping. Emily got out to stretch and to go inside to use the restroom. She dragged Scout along with her.
“Yuck,” Emily said upon entering a stall.
While Emily struggled to squat over the toilet seat, Scout stared at herself in the grimy mirror. She was hollow-eyed beneath the tumult of her blonde hair. Her red dress glowed luridly in the fluorescent lights, looking too real to be a thing hung on the tenuous unreality of her body. She felt as a phantom, and expected a wind to blow her away, the red dress slumping to the scuff-marked floor.
The toilet flushed and Emily stepped out of the stall, looking peeved.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “Don’t any of these mother fuckers know about bleach?”
She washed her hands, then took scout by the arm and left out into the lobby. Emily bought a Diet Coke for herself and a Mello Yello for Scout.
“You look like you could use some sugar,” Emily said. “And caffeine.”
Scout took the cold can that was handed to her, but did not open it. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew she was dehydrated and needed to drink, but the predominant voice overruled all others with its proclamation of earthly futility.
They exited the Pilot’s lobby and returned to the Prius. Cynthia had finished pumping gas and was standing around, waiting for them.
“What’d you get me?” she asked.
Emily cringed. “Sorry, I thought you didn’t want anything.”
Cynthia exhaled in aggravation and rolled her eyes. “Guess I’ll get it myself,” she said, walking off in a huff toward the Pilot.
While Cynthia was gone, Emily and Scout waited outside, spotlights carving the parking lot sharply out of the dimming dusk. Emily leaned against the car as if she was posing for a magazine photo, drinking from her Diet Coke with slow rotation of her head. She did not go unnoticed.
“Hey, it’s that prissy bitch!” a voice exclaimed.
The growl of an oversized truck came closer, roaring as it stopped in front of them. The young men put their windows down.
“Oh gawd,” Emily said in disgust. “I thought you boys were busy fucking pigs.”
“Oh ho, ho!” the man in the Dale Earnhardt hat said. “Girl, you have no idea what you are missing.”
“Bet she’s a dyke,” his friend said from the driver’s side. “All of ‘em are, I’ll bet.”
“Bunch of carpet-munchers!” laughed one of the passengers in the back-cab.
“Better than trying to get off on your tiny dicks,” Emily said, taking another swig of her Diet Coke. She smirked and folded her arms over her chest.
The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat opened his door and climbed down from the elevated truck. He walked with an easy, almost exaggerated, gait toward the Prius. Emily grew visibly alarmed, but Scout watched the imposing man approach with the same blank gaze with which she would have watched a fly crawl across a windshield. Even as he leaned over Emily— his hefty, haymaker arms to either side of her friend’s small frame— Scout could not muster an iota of fear or alarm or even concern for the situation.
“Get away from me,” Emily warned him quietly. “Or I’ll rip your balls off.”
The young man grinned, towering over Emily so much that the fluorescent lights of the pumps were crowded out by his height.
“I don’t think you will,” he said. “Not a little girl like you. Now, you better be nice to me. I’m a helluva guy, you know? You can ask all of my friends and girlfriends. One helluva guy.” He grinned at his friends. “Ain’t that right?”
“Helluva guy!” his friends said in chorus.
“Get away from me,” Emily said, her nose crinkled like a cat with nowhere to run.
“That the best you can say?” he said. “What happened to that smart mouth of yours? It sure is a pretty mouth. Shame it’s wasted on sucking butch twats.”
His friends back at the truck made obscene sucking noises.
“I don’t waste it on butch twats,” Emily said. “The only butch twat here is you. That’s why these lips will never go anywhere near you. I only like prissy twats that know I’m in charge.”
There was a long silence. The man in the Dale Earnhardt hat laughed. He laughed loudly and freely, as if he had never laughed so hard in his life. He then leaned back, upright, and stepped away from Emily. He rejoined his friends in the truck.
“You and me both, sister!” he said, still laughing. “You and me both!”
The truck roared to life and pulled out of the parking lot and down the highway.
Emily sighed. She was trembling, but whether from fear or relief or anger, she did not know. Cynthia came out of the Pilot sipping on a straw in a large Slurpee. She looked at Emily and Scout, back and forth.
“Something happen?” she said.

***

“Damn it, Scout,” Emily said, “you should have said something. You shouldn’t have just let me deal with the pig-fucker all by myself.”
“You did kind of start it,” Cynthia put in. “And Scout’s in no condition to handle anything like that.”
“You’re one to talk!” Emily snapped. “What were you doing in there, anyway? Blowing truckers? You took forever!”
“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to drink!” Cynthia said defensively.
“It’s all syrup water anyway,” Emily said. “It shouldn’t matter what you drink. Unless it’s diet.”
“Are you saying I should go on a diet?” Cynthia said quietly.
“Of course not,” Emily said. “The only weight you need to lose you can’t, because nothing works for losing height except taking off your high-heels.”
Cynthia glared at Emily through the rearview mirror.
“You know I don’t like it when you talk about my height,” she said. “Besides, you’re the one always on your high horse. How’s the weather up there in your own ass?”
Emily made a dismissive gesture with her hands, flicking her fingers outward as if shooing away a crow.
“Synth, I’ve told you before, you’ve gotta go to one of those Tall People dating sites.” She made a disgusted grunt. “I mean, can you imagine dating a guy shorter than you? Gross.”
“I wouldn’t care if he was shorter than me,” Cynthia said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
“But it will matter to him,” Emily said knowingly. “It’s emasculating.” She smiled mischievously. “And, you know, the whole penis-to-vagina ratio will be really out of whack.”
“My vagina’s no bigger or smaller than average!” Cynthia nearly yelled.
“But if he is going to hit your G-Spot…”
“Then he has to be about average size,” Cynthia growled. “I’m not a cave down there. And I’ve had sex with shorter guys. Some have average penises. Some have smaller. Some have big ones that fill me up too much.”
Emily frowned at her friend skeptically. “And when did all this happen? I thought you were a virgin.”
Instead of answering her, Cynthia accelerated the Prius along the road, as if trying to get away from this conversation. They left the conversation like roadkill back at the mile marker and let silence be their entertainment. Scout did not notice either way. She felt empty, through and through. Twilight drew its gray pall over the world.

***

“Oh joy,” Emily said, joylessly. “A Murder Motel. Just where I wanted to stay.” She grumbled and folded her arms childishly. “Next place we stay is going to be a 5 star in the city.”
“Easy for you to say,” Cynthia said. “Your dad’s not the one paying for this trip.”
Emily waved away Cynthia’s words with a limp hand, her jewelry jangling. “Oh, your dad has enough money to buy a hotel chain.”
“He offered to rent an RV for us,” Cynthia said.
“Gag me with the gearshift,” Emily said, finger pointing to her open throat. “I’d rather hitchhike.”
They pulled into the parking lot and parked. The Corn Silk Road Motel was a humble L-shaped run of small rooms. A small clerk’s office stood out in front, near its red-lettered sign that flickered on and off fitfully. Cynthia got out and went into the clerk’s office, bringing her purse. Meanwhile, Emily blew bubbles with her chewing gum, the pink spheres expanding and popping at impatient intervals. Scout stared out the window, lost in the receding horizon of cornstalks and sky. The cornfields stretched on forever here, a sea of black shadows. Scout saw amidst their darkening waves a familiar figure, buoyant in that sea. Its straw hat had been blown away by the fervid winds, and now only the stringy yellow straw hair hung from its bowed head.
Cynthia returned with their motel card, driving around the L parking lot and coming to the middle of the wing. They parked and got out, taking their backpacks with them. Clouds rolled in heavily from the West, black as soil and rumbling as if pushed slowly by gigantic bulldozers in the sky. A storm approached. The air was cooler now than it had been all day and the wind pulled at Scout’s hair and skirt. The first droplets of rain fell tentatively, as if practicing before committing to the heavy downpour.
“Jesus, just in time,” Emily said, shielding her dark hair against the rain with an upraised arm.
Cynthia swiped the card and the brown door clicked open. They entered the small motel room as the sky boomed with thunder and the parking lot was blurred by the sudden outpouring from a cloudburst overhead. The darkening day shimmered with silvery rain like a fish’s scales in the motel lights. They were glad to shut the door in the storm’s face.
The motel room was bare and basic. There was a bed, a recliner, a dresser and a television set. Since they kept only the bedside lamp on, the white walls and ceiling of the room were gray or black. Emily plopped down on the bed and took up the remote control for the television. She turned it on and flipped through the channels.
“What kind of hick motel has only twenty channels?” she groaned. She cycled through the channels a few times, finding nothing worth watching.
“Check the Weather Channel,” Cynthia slurred, her mouth foaming with toothpaste as she brushed her teeth. “So we can know what it will do tomorrow.”
A frown of disappointment on her face, Emily flipped to the Weather Channel. The weatherman said the rain would clear off by tomorrow afternoon.
“Ugh,” Cynthia growled. “I hate driving in the rain.”
“I can do it,” Emily volunteered with a grin. “If you don’t want to.”
Cynthia nearly gagged on her toothbrush. “No. I am the driver. It is my car.”
Emily mouthed Cynthia’s words back at her, tossing her head left and right with sass. She turned the television off and then flopped back on the bed, spreading her arms out and exhaling a disgruntled growl of boredom. Cynthia returned to the bathroom to spit out her toothpaste and rinse her mouth out. She took a shower and Emily sat up all at once.
“I need to take a shower, too,” she said. “But she beat me to it.”
She looked at Scout. Scout sat in the room’s one and only recliner, staring at nothing and thinking about nothing. She did not want to think about anything ever again.
For a while the only sounds in the motel room were the cadences of the rain, the boom of the thunder, and the hiss of the shower. After a few minutes, Cynthia emerged from the bathroom wearing a towel around her body and her hair.
“About time,” Emily said, rushing into the bathroom and stripping down. She took much longer in the shower than Cynthia had. By the time she had emerged— her torso and her head wrapped in a towel— it was nearly Ten.
Emily took up the remote control again and turned on the tv. Flipping through the channels, she found a reality tv show playing.
“Oh!” she exlcaimed. “‘The Bachelorette!’ I love this show.”
Emily and Cynthia watched the program until it went off an hour later. After that, they could not find anything worth watching.
“I’m boooored!” Emily moaned.
Cynthia nodded from the other side of the bed. Then she reached for her backpack. “Hey, I know what can liven the mood.”
Unzipping her backpack, Cynthia dug out a small plastic bag of what appeared to be brightly colored sugar candies. Emily saw what she had and leapt forward, kneeling beside her on the edge.
“Are those…?”
“Yes ma’am,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s green-hazel eyes sparkled. “The real thing? Nothing cheap?”
“I bought them from Doug,” Cynthia said, opening the small plastic bag. She pinched a small pill and dropped it onto Emily’s upturned palm. “They are the good ones.”
“Awesome,” Emily said. She stared at the purple pill for a moment, smiling at the smiley face imprinted on its side. Leaning her head back, she dropped it onto her tongue and let it dissolve. “Fucking awesome!” she said for emphasis.
Rain fell heavy, the puddles in the parking lot glowing red and green beneath the neon sign. Footsteps sloshed and raindrops pattered on umbrellas and windows. The constant thrum of the rain created a white noise interlaced occasionally with the brief sound of tires slicing through pooling water. Thunder boomed at a distance now, having moved on with its temper-tantrum elsewhere.
They gave Scout one of the colorful pills. She looked at it as it lay in her palm. It was small and yellow and smiled with more genuine feeling than she could ever muster. Reluctantly, she popped the pill into her mouth and waited to see what would happen. Part of her hoped she would die. Part of her hoped it would erase her memories, if only for a time. Part of her hoped it would make her feel happiness while the other part feared to feel anything again. It did nothing for a time, and she wondered if she had been given a SweeTart instead. She remained in the recliner for a while, the pill dissolving on her tongue. Meanwhile Cynthia and Emily rolled around on the bed, bare-skinned, their towels flung onto the floor. They cuddled and began to kiss, giggling. The giggles gave way to passionate kissing, and caressing, then stroking and stronger touching in private places.
“Let’s fool around like we used to,” Cynthia cooed.
Emily, entwined with Cynthia’s arms, nestled between the taller girl’s breasts. She showered her with kisses, then rose and went to Scout, pulling her toward the bed.
“Come on, Scout,” she said, coaxing her. “We don’t need silly boys to have a good time.”
Scout laid back and let them strip her. They kissed her breasts and licked her lips above and below. But she felt nothing. She sat up, after a minute or so of their teasing and fondling, and sat on the edge of the bed, stolid and indifferent. Her two sisters did not pay attention to her after a time, too preoccupied with their own pleasure to mind her. Cynthia, being bigger, laid on her back, knees steepled and spread, while Emily, being smaller, squatted down over her face, then sat down, leaning forward on all fours and plunging her mouth down onto Cynthia’s lips, making a Sapphic meal of each other’s sex. Their moans and puckering slurps were faraway in Scout’s mind— like an underground grotto where ocean waves lapped. She sat naked in the minimal lamplight, staring at nothing; feeling nothing. She could not even feel shame or embarrassment when the boy and his mother passed by the window. The careless curtain had not been completely closed over the glass, spread only so much, like labial folds to reveal a vista onto the lovers on the bed. The boy stared, wide-eyed, while his mother pulled at him in irritation until she glanced into the window. Her vexation exploded into horror with a shriek and she yanked her son away and dragged him through the dark rain. None of it mattered to Scout. Her mind was faraway.
Scout remembered how her ex-fiancé could make her laugh. He was so funny. But he was also romantic. He could make her feel the strongest of emotions about the littlest of things. Joy, regret, anticipation, lust, love, betrayal, anger, sorrow. Now things did not seem to happen to her, but around her; life echoed hollowly within her like water dripping from a stalactite in a vast, dark cave.
But she did feel something at last as the ecstasy coursed through her neurons and electrified their senses. It was a deep longing—a vacancy that was so perfect that it ached for form and motion. She saw something, too. She was in a vast field, and that field had been furrowed deeply with an inexorable blade. Her ex-fiancé lay within a furrow, silent and unmoving. Before she could wake him, the earth folded over the trenches, enveloping his inert body until only soil and grass remained. Then a field of corn grew up from where he lay; vast and pointless, bearing husks upon husks of insignificance that somehow assembled themselves into a familiar figure. The figure was a scarecrow crucified upon a cross, its head bowed as if in mourning over the grave from which it sprang. The scarecrow had a willow basket over its head; a weeping willow basket like a bridal veil. Scout walked toward its corn husk body, reaching toward that willow-woven veil. Removing it with trembling hands, she saw herself beneath the cage of withes. Her face was devoid of all emotions, its burlap vagueness an expression of resignation.

***

Scout woke the next morning on the edge of the bed, still sitting up. Cynthia and Emily were both naked, still, and nestled into one another. Scout stood up—wobbly at first and sore—and went outside. The storm had passed and ears of corn had been blown across the slick road. The stalks that remained standing were bent or broken in half, their cobs shucked from the plant. The scarecrow leaned in the field, indifferent to its wet dress and frayed body and tottering cross. Through the dark black clouds the sun glared, as if the glint of an eyeglass from which a child looked beneath the lid of his box of broken toys.
“Fuck you, God,” Scout whispered.
She knew she needed a bath— as she knew any abstract concept, like the numerical value of pi or the formula for Pythagoras’s theorem—but she did not care. Tyler had said he liked her natural smell. He said he did not care if she shaved her underarms or not, or anywhere else for that matter. He liked her soul. Or so he claimed. Now she felt like she had no soul. It had flown the coop, and she did not care if it never returned. Actually, she would have shooed it away had it returned, for it was nothing but a bothersome pest, like a pigeon roosting where it was not wanted and shitting all over the clean emptiness she wished to inhabit.

***

An awkward silence followed the sorority sisters out of the motel and down the road. They did not listen to music. The wind through the windows deafened them to everything but their own thoughts and frets. Emily and Cynthia would not look at each other. Awkward embarrassment was their fourth passenger, and would let no one get a word in edgewise. Beyond the car, the cornfields were battered and beaten and broken, though many of the stalks still remained standing in their confounding multitude.

***

Emily pressed her face against the window in dismay.
“Was there a tornado last night? It looks like there was a tornado.”
The devastation in the cornfield had provoked them to speak. They looked out upon the storm-blasted scene as if they were traveling through an apocalyptic country.
“Maybe,” Cynthia said. She slowed the car down as the pink Prius rolled its wheels over the green debris strewn along the highway. “Maybe three or four tornadoes.”
“Just like the Wizard of Oz,” Emily said.
“There was only one tornado in the Wizard of Oz,” Cynthia said, stiffly.
“I always liked that movie,” Emily said. “I always wanted to be Dorothy.”
“I always wanted to be Dorothy Parker,” Cynthia said.
“But I’d be the Tin Man,” Emily said, tapping the side of her head. “Because I’ve got no brains.”
“You mean the Scarecrow,” Cynthia said. “The Scarecrow had no brains and the Tin Man had no heart.”
“The scarecrow has no heart,” Scout suddenly said. Her voice was whispery and coarse, like wind through rough straw. It was the first time she had spoken to them in a week.
“I am pretty sure it’s the Tin Man that has no heart,” Cynthia said adamantly. “But he probably didn’t have a heart either since, you know, he was made of straw.”
Scout was not listening. She was staring at something out in the cornfield.

***

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” Cynthia said.
Emily’s eyes lit up. “You mean…?”
“Yep,” Cynthia said. “Colorado.”
“All right!” Emily said. Her excitement mellowed out, however, as she saw the cornfields still stretching on seemingly forever. It was still corn country. “It doesn’t look like Colorado. It still looks like Kansas.”
“Just wait until we hit Denver,” Cynthia said. “It will look different then.”
“And then on to California!” Emily said in bubbly excitement.
“We still have a while before we get there,” Cynthia said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“How much farther until we get to California?” Emily said.
“Pull over,” Scout said.
“Next week at this rate,” Cynthia said. “I wanted to stay a few days in Denver…”
“Pull over!” Scout shouted.
Alarmed, Cynthia slowed and pulled onto the shoulder, parking.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Instead of answering, Scout unbuckled herself and flung her door open, nearly falling out of the car to scramble out into the cornfield. Her long blonde hair disappeared into the blue-green clutter.
“Shit,” Cynthia said. She and Emily hurried after Scout, but lost her in the cornstalks. “Do you see her?”
“You’re the tall one!” Emily said. “If you can’t see her, how can I?”

***

Scout’s fiancé Tyler had cheated on her— with a mutual friend—and so Scout had called off the wedding. Though she was very upset, she was also conflicted. She had loved Tyler more than any other person she had ever dated. Part of her was jilted and part of her was ready and willing to reconcile. So, they spoke over the phone for the next few weeks, slowly working toward reconciliation. Then she had accepted an offer for coffee and had gone to the shop to wait for him at their usual table. But Tyler never arrived. Feeling angry, she went to a bar later that night and struck up a conversation with some random guy. They had a one night stand, which she enjoyed as much for the vengeance as for the sex. She could not remember the random guy’s name.
The next morning, while the stranger was still in her bed, she received a phone call from one of her friends. She said that Tyler had died in a car crash the previous morning, likely on the way to meet Scout at the coffee shop. Hearing this, Scout wept hysterically and the stranger in her bed— confused and afraid— left in a hurry. She cried on and off throughout the week until the funeral. While at the funeral home she saw Courtney, their mutual friend. Courtney was wailing as much as Tyler’s mother. The family comforted her while avoiding Scout. She had not known why until she overheard one of Tyler’s uncles say “It’s her fault he’s dead.” Scout was so outraged that she attacked Courtney in front of the viewing casket— closed casket, as it were—and then left the funeral parlor, her fingernails still full of Courtney’s brown hair.
Grief had justified many things. Impatience, anger, apathy, self-loathing, It freed you from many things, too: expectation, hope, happiness, the Present. In the cold wash of grief she had become numb, as if soaked too long in the ice water of a river in February, and she floated in it, insular in her ice cube; contained, impenetrable, apart and drifting carelessly through the chilly void.
Scout found the scarecrow waiting for her in the midst of the corn. Its vague face was a thing of easy relief— no personality or emotions stitched across its burlap head. Void of all human pretense or burden, it shrugged the world off as it slumped down from its cross.
“It will not hurt, will it?” she asked it. She shook her head, as if in answer. “It does not matter. A little pain and then Nothing. It is a fair trade.”
Scout lifted the scarecrow off of the cross, setting it on the ground. The effigy was surprisingly heavy, and she felt a twinge of guilt for her friends— briefly, then it was gone. She then ascended the cross herself, nailed to the boards as if she had always hung from it, the pain familiar, yet faraway. She let the weight of everything pull at the nails, but they were firm and held her grief up without fail. Hanging there, she felt finally lightsome and free; a thing floating above and apart from the world.
Her guilt crucified, the straw woman rose, then, to her newfound feet, feeling the wakening of life in her fibers, her newly-freshened nerves, her quickening heart and veins. She walked toward the Prius—stiffly at first, but loosening her limbs more naturally as she neared Emily and Cynthia.
“There she is!” Emily exclaimed, pointing.
“Thank God!” Cynthia said, her hands on her hips.
“And she’s smiling!” Emily cheered. “That’s what I like to see!”
“About time,” said Cynthia.
They greeted their newfound friend as she emerged from the corn, her chequered dress billowing softly in the wind. The new Scout tossed her blonde-as-straw hair with a shrug.
“What happened?” Cynthia asked. “Did we upset you?”
“No,” Scout said. “I just wanted to go out in the field.”
“Had to pee, huh?” Emily said.
Scout said nothing.
“Well,” Cynthia said. “Let’s get going! Lot’s to see! Lot’s to do!”
Scout smiled so broadly that her two friends looked at her in bewilderment.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Emily asked. “You look…odd.”
“I’m fine,” Scout said, her voice coarse as wind through straw. “I am just grateful to be alive.”

Regrets

Oftentimes I wear my regrets like an
Iron Maiden
to drive home the many points
in my life
when I did as I ought not to have,
or did nought at all,
so the regrets can pierce to the
heart
of many matters,
reminding me with penetrating
insight
to do things differently next time,
and, so, this fanged clamp of
memory
can galvanize as well as
immobilize,
rendering me bloodless, but also
fearless,
for if I regret enough
my threshold of pain broadens
until I no longer fear to roll into the
thorn bushes
of new situations,
whereas if I were to flinch away
from the bloodletting possibilities
I might simply fling myself into
the lurking thorns unseen on the
peripheries,
anemic as a blue-blooded
prince
in regicidal Denmark,
weighted down with his callow
indecision.
And so I crawl through the
deadfall
of my yesteryears
knowing that sometimes the only
closure
we can have for our regrets
is the many scabs
sealing over the wound,
ready to break open
and bleed anew.
You’ve made your bed
of nails,
now lie in it.
Yes,
the bite stings strongly with the
familiar fangs
of my own bear-traps.
I have honed them myself
through a lifetime of brooding
with whetstone relentlessness.
For what are regrets
if not
hunting traps
we set so intentionally
for ourselves?

Mute Melody

20150120_230827-1-1

The lampposts along the boardwalk pinned back the heavy, wet curtain of night, the rainy darkness swelling against their small, sketchy dots of light. He stepped into the seaside bar, shrugging off the rain and the shadows from his yellow raincoat. The bar was deep-sea dark. Jarred candles lit glasses here and there upon the round tables, their little blooms of fiery illumination hinting at anglerfish duplicity. Bodies slumped around the tables, slouching in chairs or littering the floor in careless sprawls. Others laid face-down on the bar, or had tumbled off their stools. The bartender was behind the bar, awash with spilled beer. The scene looked like a forsaken opium den. All of the men’s and women’s faces were surrendering gradually to eternity, their eyes closed and their smiles lax on their euphoric faces.
The speakers on the karaoke stage were silent. No one stirred at the bar, even at the thrum-drum beating of the winds against the outside deck’s awnings. The hammering of rain on the windowpanes was like restless claws tapping on glass. Waves crashed against the poles on the boardwalk, shaking the planks. Nothing else could be heard in the bar except the faint sound of a lullaby song.
He approached the karaoke stage. The woman did not move. She used no microphone and the lilt of her soft song scarcely hinted at itself upon the sounding chaos of the sea. When she saw the man her song did not cease, but hastened, a defiant scowl upon her pale face. She had oily black hair that hung down her back and over her breasts. She wore nothing and her body was as pallid as a fish’s belly in the murk, glowing blue in the dreamy blacklights of the karaoke stage. A disco ball turned above her. Shattered-and-scattered stars glinted off of its silver mosaic sphere, reeling as the waves rocked the boardwalk and the bar.
To see such a scowl, and hear such a song, would have driven most men mad to appease her in any way they could, but he paid neither any mind. He could only see the long scar that split her lips to the right corner of her mouth. Guilt snagged in his heart, but he dismissed it as he raised his hands. Silently, he signed to her to come down. She snarled, revealing a jagged jigsaw of shark teeth between her lips, and continued singing. Some of the people sprawled out in the bar lolled in their chairs; those on the floor groaned in ecstasy.
Stepping closer to the stage, he signed again to her, imploring her from within the revolving twirl of the disco stars. He held his hand up toward her. Reluctantly, she took his hand into her webbed hand, its six vaguely humanoid fingers cool and wet. She stepped down from the stage, but she did not stop singing. He gestured toward the dark room with its multitude of limp, listless bodies, and shook his head, pointing to himself. A resentful frown curled her pale lips, and the ragged scar darkened to a sullen crimson. He touched her face, gently tracing the scar with his finger. He was a tall man with big hands, his fingertips calloused by a life at sea, but his touch would not have woken a baby from its sleep. Her eyelids fluttered at his touch, the dark gleam of her black eyes losing focus. She quivered, then shoved him angrily with her small hand. He stumbled upon a table, knocking over glasses and spilling beer into the laps of a man and woman. They roused briefly before nodding off into surrender to her song once again.
He signed urgently to her, but she turned her back to him, folding her arms. Slowly he approached her again, stepping over a man spreadeagled on the floor. Cautiously, he enwrapped her in his arms, hugging her from behind; tenderly. She quivered furiously, but did not pull away. He tried to sign again, his hands in front of her face, but she caught his big hands in her small ones, halting them and interlocking them over her heart. She smelled of seaweed and fish and brine— all smells familiar to him since he was a boy; smells beloved to him. For he loved all things of the sea: its smells, its vistas, its touch. But he had never heard the sea’s song, and for that reason he sometimes wept at night. He could feel the sea in her body when they made love. It tickled in his toes like the playful froth, and it relaxed him like wavelets upon an arid day. Her lips were as soft as wet sand on his chest and her teeth were sharp as coral on his fingers. Her tongue lapped deeply at his own when they kissed, an eel seeking his heart from the grotto of her mouth. Her fingers— long and lithe and fast— were as an octopus subtly scurrying across his skin. When they climaxed together it was a painful joy after which they both lay inert, his nerves stinging sweetly as if encoiled in jellyfish tendrils.
The sea had taken his father with its passions. It giveth and it taketh away. Of course the sea would claim him, the son, in time. To love her was to drown alive. And he had needed a break; a moment to catch his breath. A return to dry land. No one could love the whole of the sea without it sweeping them away with its riptides and dragging them below with its undertow. And its daughters were the same as their mother. They gave much, and they took away everything.
Like father, like son. Like mother, like daughter.
She continued singing. Her song was not a song in the meaning that most humans knew for a song. It was not a thing of aesthetics to please, but an instinctive tool. As a squid using its beak to crack shells and shred the flesh within, her song pierced the hearts of her prey so she, too, could feed. But her song had not worked on him when he had reeled her up from the sea, and she was human enough to want what was difficult to chase. He was so astonished when she emerged at the end of his marlin fishing line that he forfeited the fight. Yet, the hook had caught in her mouth, and she could not free herself. Kneeling beside her on the deck of his boat, he attempted to unhook her mouth. She fought him, flailing and clawing at him as he tried not to hurt her more than the hook already had. Even now his scars were tiger stripes along his forearms.
When he finally withdrew the hook, she hissed at him, then leapt away onto the railing of the ship, squatting there like a cat ready to pounce. The sun shone down upon her with unsquinting luminosity, yet the stygian depths remained in her eyes and in her oily hair. She had opened her mouth, revealing her teeth, and he had flinched to see their sharp edges. She then began her song, singing to him with the currents of the wide oceans. He could not hear them. Clearly perplexed by his immunity, and angered, she dove into the sea. He ran to the railing to look over larboard side, but did not see her.
She visited him every night thereafter, singing her song with a torn mouth. He remained immune to her song, but not to her dangerous beauty. He fed her from the fish he caught with his nets, and she ate his offerings raw. Eventually there came a night when she crept below deck, finding him asleep on his bed. The jagged fissure in her mouth had almost sealed itself shut. Laying atop him, they spoke to each other in rapturous silence— with limb and loin and wordless lip.
He had taught her to sign, and she had taught him more about the sea than any man had a right to know. He had recoiled from her truths, eventually, and stayed ashore. She remained in the sea, and felt the longing of his song in her heart; that song of silence that he carried with him. His mute melody. It called her ashore, and so she went. Now he was here. Now he would leave with her. He promised he would be with her forever if she would free the others.
So they walked to the door, and out into the thrashing storm. It subsided as they went together down to the shore, leaving the human world behind. The winds died and the rains lessened to the playful pitter-patter of fairy feet. The waves sighed and then loosened in their thrashing clashes. Like a great herd of beasts after a stampede, they slowed and came to an exhausted gait, gradually laying themselves down to sleep. The two figures disappeared into the still waters, taking with them her song and his silence.

The men and women began to rouse, sitting up in their chairs or sluggishly rising from the floor. The storm, the sailor, and the siren were gone. The world was drawn up and hauled out of the fathomless night and into the wakeful glare of daylight— wet, half-drowned, and shivering sickly. A fog thickened around the bay like a vague feeling of sorrow, and the people in the bar wept openly, though they did not know why.

 

 

Warhol’s Soup Kitschen

Paint, copy, print:
the secret formula makes it easy to create
labels
for Campbell’s soup cans
and to cover the rust belt of your
creativity,
the tepid broth
in each bland bowl
handed out with stale
Catholic wafers
so we may all partake in a kitschy
Communion
alongside mediocrity,
the trend set by you, a
bellwether
so utterly cliche
that the trend is dead
before the sheep are
let out of the gate.
You were the first
Social Media Influencer
and have somehow stretched
15 minutes
to over 50 years
of fame.
You got a lot of mileage out of your
high heels,
but if they lack distinguishing depth
should they not be called
flats?
Yet, there is one thing for which
I am grateful to you:
you showed just how eager
those snobby, hobnobbing
knobgobbers really are in the
Artsy-Fartsy world
to guzzle down a generically
commodified can of
mass-manufactured soup
even though a gourmand’s stew of
talent
was being served in every other direction.
Your soulless, assembly line soup
(modified with a dash of garish color
here and there)
was a taste of things to come
because the soup
kitschen
you served in
fed everyone equally
except for the starving artists
you inspired into the jaded world.
For you were starved for nothing
in your life
except even a spoonful of
talent,
and it still somehow fed your legacy
overfull.

Change (In The House Of Flies)

2019-08-09 17.46.48

Dedicated to Deftones

She came in at eight in the evening.  It was midsummer, but the shadows of the city had plunged my little tattoo parlor into early night.
“Sorry, but I already have a scheduled appointment tonight,” I told her.
The fluorescent light overhead was buzzing again. Its filament was going bad, probably. It was giving off that sickly yellow color that would have been cool any other time, but was a pain whenever I was trying to color-match somebody’s tattoo to their requested image. And the buzzing really got on my fucking nerves.
“I need it tonight,” she said. “Before sunrise.”
She did not look like she could have paid for a tattoo, honestly, or a sandwich, which she badly needed. Actually, she looked like an anorexic vamp scouting for twenties. She was emaciated and pale, her bones showing through her short black halter-top like a radiator’s ribs. The downcast light hollowed out her cheeks and eye sockets, and the black contacts covering her whites made her head look like a skull. Her scalp was shaven to the skin, but here and there sprouted long shoots of coarse black hair, somehow missed when she was giving her dome a weeding.
“Not tonight,” I said. “As I said, I already have someone scheduled. We can set up an appointment for next week, if you want. I’m booked up until then…”
She reached into the pocket of her frayed denim shorts and pulled out a fistful of Benjamins— crumpled and dirty, but real so far as I could tell. BJ money, I thought. Drug money, probably, too. Maybe even blood money. I didn’t know. Didn’t ask. They scattered across the silver tray like windblown snakeskins. Counting them at a glance, I saw at least thirty, maybe even forty.
“All tonight,” she emphasized. “All in one go.”
Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted a job like this. Too suspicious and too mysterious and too fucking presumptuous. But the gaunt-faced bitch seemed decided, and had the money to back it up in cold-wash sums. A lot of money. A lot more than what Joey One-Shoe was going to pay to have me touch up his OD’ed girlfriend’s portrait on his chest. To tell the truth, I dreaded hearing the asshat drone on and on about her while I touched up the blues and blacks. The bitch died at a blow party with the jizz of three different guys up her babymaker. And the dumbass sang the gospel about her like she was a goddamn saint. He could really bring you down.
“Give me a second,” I told her. I pulled out my cellphone and called Joey. He sounded so happy to hear from me that I felt guilty for a second— just a second— and then I told him I couldn’t touch up Jackie tonight.
“I’m just not feeling good, man,” I told him. “Maybe I can do it tomorrow. I won’t even charge you. How about it?”
Joey agreed, and I instantly regretted agreeing to work on his tattoo for free. Hell, sometimes it seemed like he was paying me to be his therapist rather than his tattoo artist. The only cure for his fucked-up head was a shotgun slug. I turned to the woman again, putting my phone away.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked. “Hello Kitty?”
It was a joke. I was being facetious. I could tell by the piercings and the ink that already decorated her body that this bitch was hardcore in her bones. Her sleeves showed dia de los muertos women among spiderwebs and syringes and mushrooms and anatomical flesh bisected to the bone. A pony galloped across her abdomen, almost as white as the translucent pallor of her skin. The most prominent tattoo, however, was the sow’s head drawn large upon her left thigh. Decapitated, the beady-eyed head was impaled on a stake, the blood still flowing.
She handed me a wadded-up sheet of paper. Uncrumpling it, I found what looked like a cross with bloated flies swarming around it. The drawing was crude and childish in its scrawl.
“Do you really want this?” I asked. “I mean, I can add some…um…depth to it, if you want.”
“If you want,” she said. She picked up my tattoo gun from my silver tray and pressed it into my hands. “Blow me away,” she said, smiling as if it had a double meaning that I didn’t understand. I looked at the bends of her arms, and saw heroine scars. Her teeth did not seem to be rotten, but then again they had seemed too perfectly white in the artificial light. False teeth, maybe. Her face— once pretty, maybe even beautiful— was a minefield of bright red welts and scabrous meth sores. She had seen some shit, and done shit to herself. A lot of shit.
She took out a glass capsule of what looked like black ink from her shallow cleavage. “I want this mixed in with the ink.”
I couldn’t get a fix on this bitch. Was she crazy? Too many trips into the medical dumpster? Sometimes I had sad cucks come in and try to get me to mix blood in with ink to tattoo them to remind them of some girl that broke their hearts. Sometimes couples asked me to use each other’s blood. I would, if they signed a waiver beforehand, but this black gunk didn’t look like blood. It looked like some kind of fucking nasty ichor.
“I can’t use this,” I said. “I don’t know what it is. It might be unsafe and I don’t want to go to jail for inadvertently killing you.”
Instead of accepting my refusal, she reached into her other denim pocket and pulled out another wad of Benjamins. These she added to the bills already littering my silver tray.
I considered the money, then sighed in resignation.
“You’ll have to sign a waiver,” I told her. “For legal reasons. Whatever happens, it’s on you.”
She signed the page promptly, impatiently. I pocketed all of the bills she had heaped up for me and she laid down on my tattoo bed, face down. Evidently she wanted the tattoo on her back. She wasn’t very specific in what she wanted; only insistent.
My tattoo parlor used to be a dentist’s office. The bed I had was actually a dentist’s chair that reclined out flat. As I prepared the ink, I stared at her torso, trying to plot out how the tattoo would look best. At the back her halter top was nothing but a narrow strap at the nape of the neck. The rest of it was open, revealing the bony knots of her spine and the ridges of her narrow ribs. Her veins were blue beneath her pale skin. I mapped out the revised drawing that I had improvised upon her back with a marker, then I mixed the capsule she had given me with the ink. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.
The ink and the gunk worked well enough on her. Whatever the stuff was, it didn’t compromise the ink. In fact, it helped the stain. But it also stank. Badly. Very badly. It smelled like a rotten carcass left out in the July sun for a few days. Distilled roadkill. Liquid decay. But she did not seem to mind. I knew I would have to throw the gun away after I had finished this tattoo. No amount of alcohol or bleach would clean the gunk from it.
For hours I worked on her tattoo. Pale skin, black ichor, sallow fluorescence. Dizziness came and went, and sickness, too. My eyes ached from strain and the sickly light. But I soldiered through with a cramped claw-hand. She did not flinch or complain, and she wasn’t into small talk. The needle etched over bone-stretched skin and she seemed a cadaver on the dissection table— motionless. It was quiet in my parlor. I did not often listen to music like other tattoo artists because it distracted me. The silence could get on some clients’ nerves, but I preferred the silence. Or the silence that inhabits the city, anyway. It reminded me that there was a world alive beyond the door, and not an apocalyptic void left in the wake of nuclear holocaust. You could hear cars occasionally whooshing by, and the voices of pedestrians walking down the street; druggies begging for money from alleyways. The buzz of the light above my head. The whirr of an industrial fan that pumped fresh air into my parlor from the Summer night outside.
I had to take a moment and step over by the fan, letting the fresh air blow in my face. Nausea squirmed in my stomach like maggots.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I asked her. “Or to get a drink?”
“No,” was all she said.
I took a piss in my studio restroom, and drank a Sprite from my little fridge. Leaning on my counter where I kept all of my paperwork and receipts, I took a breather again. The nausea subsided only a little. My stomach was like a leaky boat that was slowly taking on water, and the passengers were bailing it out, but only enough to keep it afloat. Eventually I might be sick and have to throw up. The light in my parlor was intensely yellow now. Hungover, beer-piss yellow. The woman laid so still upon the black dentist chair, in the honeycomb light, that she looked like an insect in amber. The dentist chair was shaped like an insect, too, I realized. Head, abdomen, and long thorax. Looking at it made me more nauseated.
Emptying the soda can, I threw it in the trash and took a deep breath, then manned up and went to war with the ink gun again. Despite my sickness, I made good progress. The gunk in the ink was strong, but not too overbold for gradients and finer details. The tattoo was very large in proportion to her back, but her back was so narrow and sunken that it was not too big a tattoo to complete in ten hours.
I was adding details to the cross when she suddenly spoke.
“Do you have any addictions?” she asked.
It was not a question I had never heard before.
“No addictions,” I said. “I only take for fun, and not that often.”
“I have used everything,” she said. “But nothing beats what I am on now.”
She said nothing else. She just laid there, dead to the world.
The hours seeped on slowly, like pus. My hand hurt, and my stomach was queasy. I felt tired and dizzy. Had I eaten anything, even a candy bar, I would have hurled. The Sprite had helped a little. I needed the sugar for my concentration, though the aftertaste was like syrupy sap in my mouth now.
It took me a while to realize that the buzzing I heard wasn’t only the faulty light overhead. There were flies in my parlor. I mean, there were always flies around, buzzing and getting stuck on my flytraps, but there were a lot of flies in my shop; a lot more than usual. They mostly flitted around the sickly light, or crawled along the full-body mirror in the corner, or furiously struck the windows looking out into the neon-lit urban night. Some died on the bugzapper I kept in near the back, screaming their sweet agonies as they fried. Living in the city, you had to have as many things to kill vermin as you could get.
But one fly kept buzzing around my ear. I tried to shoo it away, and then I tried to swat it. It was persistent, landing on my earlobe, tickling it, echoing in my ear canal, and even flying through my ear gauge like it was part of a circus act. Pissed me off.
“She thinks you taste good,” the woman said.
I frowned, but didn’t dignify what she said with a response. I had heard a lot worse things from my clients over the years. Drunken sorority girls had the filthiest mouths on the planet. Then again, their upper shoulders weren’t pockmarked with meth sores, either. What she said irritated me, almost as much as the fly.
Finally, the fly landed on my forehead and I swatted it fast and hard, hammering my brow with my palm. The fly was a pulp that peeled away with my hand, and a juice that remained on my brow. Disgusted, I set aside the tattoo gun.
“Give me a second,” I said. I went into the bathroom to clean up, feeling irritable and sick. Reeling a little, I splashed water on my face and tried to breathe through the sickness. The world continued to reel as I returned to work. Everything in my parlor— the tattoo art hung on the walls, the dentist chair, the tattoo tools, the yellow light—overwhelmed me. I felt like I just wanted to lay down and die.
I told myself to suck it up and trudge on. Picking up the gun again, I resumed where I had left off.
“You killed a part of me,” the woman said, her voice barely audible above the buzz of the tattoo gun. “It’s okay. Part of me dies every day. Smashed by careless hands. Burning in bright lights. Born again in the corpses of believers…”
She trailed off. I hoped she had fallen asleep. My head wasn’t feeling great and I was not in a mood for listening to drugged-up nonsense. I just wanted to finish the tattoo and never see this bitch again.
Eventually, I was almost finished. It was six in the morning and I only had a little touch up work to do here and there— primarily just smoothing over the shade transitions and adding highlights with some white ink. Overall, it wasn’t a bad tattoo, especially for being improvised from a rough sketch. I wasn’t going to take a photo of it for the Wall of Fame, though. Wasn’t even worth keeping it recorded in my portfolio. I just wanted to take the money and let the memory of this bad night die away.
I finished, finally, and told her she could sit up. As she sat up, I gave her the usual spiel about treating the tattoo at home, and what not to do, and everything else. She didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, she stood in front of the full-body mirror, gazing at the tattoo while hugging her arms in front of her, so it stretched her translucent skin. The sickly yellow light embalmed her in a weird moment that seemed to last forever. The flies wreathed her reflection, embroidering her like black satin fringes beneath a corpse.
“My transformation is almost complete,” she said.
She looked at me and smiled emptily. I realized that she was not wearing black contacts— somebody had dyed her eyes jet black. That was something I never dared to do. I didn’t trust the dye, or my hand. Blinding people was not the reason I became a tattoo artist. What good were tattoos that you couldn’t see?
The buzz of the light became louder. I flipped the switch for a small lamp I kept by my desk, by the counter, and then turned off the overhead light. The buzz persisted, louder than before. The crackling of flies in the bugzapper intensified.
She walked toward the door, then paused. She did not look back at me as she spoke.
“I saw the Devil once,” she said. “I looked at the cross, and I looked away. He was there, waiting for me. At the burning bottom of the world, where the dung is piled high and the souls are on fire, Ba’al Zebub spoke to me. Blessed me with his essence. In Phlegethon. The river of filth…the river of plenty.”
Beyond the window I could see sunlight bleeding between the buildings and the skyscrapers. Cars passed by as the world roused to a new day, its blood quickening with the dawn. She said no more. She stepped out and the doorbell rang in a way that seemed to wake me up from a long dream. Alarmed, I watched her walk from the sidewalk out into the busy street.
She dissolved as soon as the truck struck her, blooming into a swarm of flies that scattered out upon the city.
I watched her change.

2019-08-09 17.46.04

Wanted: Dead And Alive

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He roasted the horned moon over the billowing tongues of his little campfire, burning the crescent unto a sullen orange— hot as a cattle brand—to sear the purple Western twilight. Shadows hung heavy over the mesas, recalling a parlor where a casket had been draped in heavy black cloth long before Sherman marched through Savannah’s streets. The emptiness of the dead lands echoed within him. It was cold, and yet he did not feel it.
A pale horse nibbled at wispy, dying shoots of grass sprouting here and there from the rough throated pass. Coyotes yipped laughter from among the hills. Winds whispered along the capstoned brows of the mesas. A man laid next to the fire, unmindful of the flickering light that stretched and shrank shadows across his still, silent face. To the man tending the fire this silent man was the most precious thing left to him in this darkening world. Yet, now having him in his possession, he felt neither peace or relief or even that hateful joy of a wrong avenged. Instead, he looked out upon the stars and thought of his wife’s eyes— darkling and sparkling in a tearful agony between life and death. He felt the reach of yesterday’s shades plunging the night itself into a deeper gulf wherein it drowned. All the world was a hollow victory.
Night arced overhead, from horizon to horizon, and embers flitted up like dying fireflies in a futile quest for stars. The last drip of the bleeding blackened scabrously at the outer edge of the world. Numb, he unsheathed his bowie knife and sliced the nose from the still man’s face, all with a quick sawing motion. The latter did not flinch or cry out. The man with the knife then threw the cartilage and skin into the crackling flame, dissatisfied with the measure of his revenge.
“You should have lived longer,” he admonished the corpse.
His voice was a hoarse croak; a halting, stiff thing risen from the dead. He had not eaten or drank or slept in three days. Such things were for the living and he did not think himself alive.
“Should have lasted as long as my wife did,” he continued. “But you was ever a coward. One little gunshot to the leg and you bleed out with your pleas and your fears. No fight in you. Just wickedness and sin and prayers to Christ. As if Christ’d do anything for someone like you. He did nothing for Jolene, did he? Jolene, now…she had goodness and fight to spare. Even after what you did to her, she fought on to try to live. She had more fight in her than Robert E Lee and the whole of the Confederacy combined. Was that why you did it, you maggot-bellied bastard? Envy of her strength?” He sneered without feeling. “Told you I wanted no part in your war. The South could lose the war well enough without my help. And what did you do? Brought the war to my doorstep…and to my marriage bed. You couldn’t even have the decency to die in Savannah. Had to shed your pride and run off, like a salamander without its tail. And after all you done…”
He broke off into a choking silence, holding back the grief and knowing the futility of words given to the dead, as well as to the living. The priest had tried to offer him words. The Word, in fact. But what good was the Word to him? He had healed the best he could, though. His gunhand was a mangled mess after the hammers had their say, but his peacehand learned the ways of the gun aptly. Meanwhile, he had plotted, and he had hated, and he had asked around, contemplating the hungry, unsatisfied graves of the earth. When it was time, he aimed for the Devil’s horns, eventually uncrowning him to wear those horns himself. Many he killed, and here was the second to the last bounty he had left to seek. And while wearing the Devil’s horns was a burden, it was lighter than the most lightsome halo any saint ever wore. His conscience had been clear, and still was after all this bloody harvest.
The third man sat cross-legged beneath the horned moon, across the fire from the vengeful man. He had a headdress of Raven feathers and was shirtless and without pants, his loins covered with a limp blackbird. He grinned like the grinning dead who know the terrible secret which awaits us all.
“A good Hunt,” he said, gesturing toward the dead man without a nose. His eyes did not leave the living man, nor blink in the firelight.
The living man nodded. He felt the eyes of the Raven-headed man peering past his face, and deeper. He did not care.
“But not the Hunt you desired,” the Indian said.
The living man shook his head slowly, slightly— shook it only once.
“We have the Hunts we come upon,” the black-feathered man said. “We find what joys we can in them. They are all we have. Nothing else matters.”
The fourth man squatted down next to the fire, on the living man’s left. He was an Indian too. He wore a cloth of rabbit skin over his shoulders, and a loincloth of prairie grasses. He did not smile. He seemed troubled.
“We should seek out only needful prey,” he said. “Hunting one’s own shadow brings no good to anyone.”
The black-feathered Indian continued to grin, and did not look at the other Indian. “We Hunt whatever we find,” he said. “And if we can find nothing, we Hunt for Nothingness.”
The hare-cloaked Indian kept his eyes on the living man as well. He did not blink, his eyes a dark black. “Sometimes it is best not to Hunt at all.”
“But the Hunt is all that matters,” said the Raven.
“Only to those who cannot forage for a better life,” said the Hare.
“There is no fun in foraging,” said the Raven. “No Game. Games are important. They are all that matter. And when the Game is over, what does it matter? Enjoy the Game until the very end.”
“Sometimes the Game can only be won by not playing,” Hare said.
Raven cawed with laughter. “Remember what happened last time you chose to forage among the Hunters? Remember when you refused to play? They found Prey of their own, and your wife was that Prey. They were Hunters, for what is War but a big Hunt? What is the Hunt but a Game? Choosing not to play is the same as playing, only you are playing to forfeit. There is no escape from the Hunt. You must Hunt. There is no other Game in this world.”
Hare’s nose twitched as if he might sneeze. He did not sneeze. “Sometimes peace is when the Prey escapes the Hunt.”
“No escape,” said the living man. “No escape for any Prey. The guilty must eat the bullet.”
Taking his revolver from his holster, the living man aimed the barrel at his final mark and pulled the trigger, ending the Hunt at last. In the echo of the gunshot could be heard the cawing laughter of a Raven, and the mournful hop of a Hare.
The little fire flickered out beneath the endless dark. The burning brand of the moon lowered upon the body of the man who had taken his own life. His Hunt was now finished.

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