Notes From the Middle Kingdom: In this Our Year of Dog

James Kramer is back in Nottingham’s LeftLion, this time discussing the Chinese Year of the Dog, and slathering underwear with Paprika.

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Notes From The Middle Kingdom: In This, Our Year Of Dog

Three Friday evenings simultaneously



In his ears, William had begun to experience a constant, distant ringing. Because it was so low in volume, he could ignore it most of the time and live a life not dissimilar to the one that he had before. It had not made his life any worse. It was also a quality that made him no more interesting or novel to talk to.

He drowned out the ringing by listening to podcasts via headphones whenever he was awake. He only downloaded podcasts that required minimal effort to listen to and didn’t particularly pay attention to what it was they were talking about. When that didn’t work he listened to experimental rap music. Then he listened to pure white noise.

William was struck by the underwhelming realisation that he would have to grow comfortable being alone forever, though he felt glad that this was a decision he no longer had to resign himself to thinking about.

William had a job in telemarketing like almost everyone else that he knew. He decided one day that it would make no real substantial difference to his performance at work whether he answered the incoming calls sitting upright or curled up in a ball underneath his desk and so he crawled under and continued to perform above the company standard.

He had since accepted that this would not be a job for life and secretly suspected that no such thing existed anymore. He had however realised that this job, should it be replaced, would be so with one almost exactly the same except for very small differences such as the brand of coffee that the office provided or the direction that he would be expected to face. Yet these very small and fractional changes worried William the most, for while he felt almost entirely disconnected with his co-workers and the company vision, he liked the assured nature of these minute consistencies of his day.

“Lets go hunt for a job for life” he once said to one of his co-workers, “perhaps shoot it in the face. If we can’t find one then we can declare them extinct and stop always having to worry about their existence.”

After listening very carefully to the sounds of the computers around him, William decided that the ringing in his ears was caused by being in close proximity to people, not machines. He started to mentally record the different frequencies that people gave off and noticed that there were several influencing factors. If the person was sleeping or resting, then the note was pitched lower, whereas if they were talking it was extremely high. It was the worst when other people were eating next to him. Then, it would become irritating and no amount of white noise would drown it out. But William liked to eat lunch alone in the stairwell where nobody could see him needing food, so this didn’t particularly bother him.

William became increasingly invested in the idea of buying a fish that could live and thrive in a very small tank in his kitchen next to the microwave. After work on Friday, he immediately found a pet store that was still open and purchased a fish. The fish was small but looked resilient as if made of out tiny slivers of titanium. He took the fish home and filled a glass bowl with water, then watched it for an unbeknownst length of time.

When eating his dinner, William realised that the fish was omitting itself a very tiny yet noticeable ringing, similar to all the rest of the people that day. It made him for a moment tremendously sad to think that the fish had chosen to be just like everybody else, and so he took it outside in its bowl, but remembering the promise that he had made to the girl at the pet store, he left change for the fish for the no.17 bus and walked back inside.

William was struck by the underwhelming realisation that he would have to grow comfortable being alone forever, though he felt glad that this was a decision he no longer had to resign himself to thinking about. He cleaned away the scraps of food from his plate and thought about falling asleep in front of his computer.

Xiao Jo.

Xiao Jo worked in her father’s Aquarium and Specialist Lizard Store each day after school, while she did her homework and let various animals out of their tanks. The store had originally only sold fish. Then her father ordered lizards that he kept in the unused fish tanks and added the words Lizard and Specialist to the sign on the front of the building. He bought snakes that only Xiao Jo liked. Then he bought six tarantulas that nobody wanted to buy so he drove them out to the countryside and released them. He thought they might be happy there, except for the one that he accidentally ran over while backing out from the field. He scraped up the flattened tarantula and not wanting to litter brought it home and left it in the kitchen under the sink where Xiao Jo found it and screamed.

When she was seven Xiao Jo had been allowed to choose her own English name and liked the way the sounds felt in her throat when she said the name Joe. Joe was both a boys and a girls name she had told her mother, who insisted she spell it Jo. Her father had been the first to start calling her Xiao Jo, or little Jo, which was fine because she was in reality very small.

Her father was never around when she looked after the shop in the evenings, so she liked to let several lizards out of their fish tanks to run across the ceiling. She would take out one of the two small turtles that never got sold and let it crawl across the counter. She would use the turtle to time how long it took her to solve the homework problem that she was trying to complete. This was how she measured time. She used one turtle for maths and the other for languages. She preferred the languages turtle because he was older and would often get tired and take breaks, and Xiao Jo hated all languages.

Once the show is over it won’t compare it’s own life to the lives of the fish on TV and feel disingenuous to its potential as a fish. It won’t in anyway thank you or be relieved.

When the man came in and asked to buy a fish, Xiao Jo asked him what kind of fish he wanted and the man said something about telemarketing and how essentially it was all just voices. She suggested that he buy a Gourami fish. Her father had bought too many of them and they were dying very rapidly in the tank. Every evening Xiao Jo had to scoop out the dead Gourami fish. She didn’t know where to put them, so she just threw them into the bushes outside. Instead of looking at the fish, the man stared at the reptiles and asked if people needed a licence to own one. Xiao Jo didn’t know the answer and so whenever she didn’t know the answer to a question she would give the same response.

“What do you think?”

“Why do people want to buy lizards?”

“To feed them mice. A lot of people hate mice. Mice are small and fragile and make terrible sounds if you hold them by their tails.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“No. But if your father catches you keeping a nest of mice in your drawer, then he will take them out and stamp on them and make you clean the dead bodies away.”



Xiao Jo had asked her father if she could be allowed not to sell fish or lizards or any other creatures to people that she instinctively distrusted on sight.

“I’d just like the fish,” he said and held out a note. Xiao Jo wanted to say that his eyes looked cold, but not cold like a fish eyes are cold. His eyes seemed to be screaming.

“Ok, but please don’t kill it,” she said. “It’s just a fish. It doesn’t get sad after watching TV shows about the lives of other fish. Once the show is over it won’t compare it’s own life to the lives of the fish on TV and feel disingenuous to its potential as a fish. It won’t in anyway thank you or be relieved if you kill it the way a terribly sad person might. It’s just a fish. Fish want to live and eat, but mostly live.”

“I won’t kill it.” The man said, and so Xiao Jo let him buy it. He took the fish away in a small bowl of water, because Xiao Jo’s father distrusted clear plastic bags.


Gourami was a Gourami fish, and hadn’t considered having a different name to the other Gourami fish that he lived with because they didn’t talk much and even then never used personal terms.

That it was a Friday afternoon didn’t concern or interest the Gourami fish. Its tank had been transparent and made luminous via glow lights underneath. Had the tank been larger, the Gourami fish might have liked living in it. Because it was however very small and confined, the Gourami fish too felt confined and didn’t particularly like where it was living, but didn’t have the incentive or the internet to brose popular room share websites.

That the Gourami fish had no real concept of its mother and father to speak of meant that it also carried with it no filial anxieties or loosely Freudian desire to blame its current unhappiness on its upbringing or how its parents have chosen to raise it. The Gourami fish also did not suffer from issues of sibling rivalry. While it made many brothers and sisters, it didn’t identify with them any more than all of the other stranger fish that just might happen to be living in the same tank. The Gourami fish was very capable of not thinking about all the other fish in its life from the moment that they were no longer in it and because it this, the Gourami fish lived a mostly emotionally peaceful life with very little competitive distress.

When placed in a larger bowl in the kitchen, the fish noticed a man staring into the bowl with very wide, dark eyes. The man’s eyes grew and shifted, dome and plate-like but they always remained lifelessly cold. The Gourami fish did not know what the man was looking for in the bowl and so could not help him to find it. When the man was gone, the Gourami fish looked for food, and when the man came back the Gourami fish ate food and was glad.

When the Gourami fish was taken outside to a colder place, the new glass bowl set down near the road, it became aware of the temperature outside of the water and was less happy. Though he had been given the correct change for the No.17 bus, the Gourami fish had no particular place to go, nor friends to see. It wasn’t lonely; it just hadn’t made time to develop friendships in this area. The Gourami fish didn’t particularly want to catch the No.17 bus, but had the exact change to do so, and wasn’t sure what else it should do with the money. It had wanted to discuss the possibilities with other Gourami fish, but was alone in the bowl and so decided to do nothing. It waited for the bus, trying to remember anything particularly memorable about where it had been before, but it could not.



Featured artist  Daniel Seagrove 

James Kramer in Your Impossible Voice

The short story “Kirjaimellisesti” by James Kramer has been featured in the 2018 winter Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 18.07.33issue of Your Impossible Voice. Follow the link below to read the story, or support the good people at Your Impossible Voice by purchasing a copy of their 2018 winter issue.

“Kirjaimellisesti” by James Kramer  

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Notes from the Middle Kingdom, James Kramer in Left Lion


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Our man in Beijing is back in Notts, and he recently spent a week in the LeftLion office…

Notes from the Middle Kingdom returns as James Kramer spends a week writing for Left Lion magazine in Nottingham and turns his eye to the differences in publishing between Beijing and the UK. As ever, please do read, follow and support the good people at Left Lion. Follow the link below for the article.

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A Beijinger in a Lion’s Den



Fireworks in Tianjin

I moved back to England, my wife stayed in Tianjin, China. She wanted to stay with the dog. The dog had been found by a sluice canal behind our home. We had heard it cry and gone looking for it. We took it home, bandaged its leg and gave it food and water. Though it still walked funny we loved it and named it Colin, a reference to a TV show that only one of us understood. Now the dog was in China with my wife who was not speaking to me. I had rented a room that was arguably too small that did not realistically match my age.

After being back for two weeks and not talking to anyone, Beckett came over. I said that he’d missed me and we went and bought goat meat from a Halal butcher in the community market then took it to cook at his place because my room doesn’t have a kitchen and very soon would fill up with smoke. Beckett cooked the goat with cumin seeds and tomato and filled two bowls with instant rice and cooked goat meat.

“I’m having trouble eating things,”

“I wish you’d told me that,” Beckett said, staring at his own bowl of cooked goat.

“It’s just a constant feeling of nauseousness, that seems to be increasing,”

“It doesn’t matter.” Beckett said, and asked why I had called.

I managed to get a job working with children in care. I work from 5 pm till 7 the next morning, then the next day I don’t work at all. Mostly I just have to calm them back to sleep when they wake up screaming. If one of the kids sleeps through three consecutive nights without waking up and screaming, then we give them a sticker of a happy looking elephant. The elephant is wearing denim overalls with suspenders that make him look like Huckleberry Finn. The kids can do whatever they like with the stickers. Some of them chose not to peel them off for days. Most of the stickers end up on the front covers of the ex-library books that we’re donated. Some of the kids put stickers directly onto their clothes and then when the clothes get washed the kids are sad since the stickers are gone. I once tried to fish one of the stickers out of the washing machine but it had already been destroyed. It turned into pulp and fell apart in my hands. I told the kid that I was sorry and he asked if the elephant was dead.

The problem with the video footage that was taken from people’s phones was that it looked like a concert video, a celebrity sighting. I felt distracted by the reflections on the glass too, but maybe that’s just because I wanted to be.

There are currently three kids living in the residency. Their names are Simon, Bethany and Karl. I have secretly named them Grass, Turntable and Tape. I will never tell them these names nor use them in public. I have given them these because those are the things that they remind me of. To explain why would take too long and then afterwards you would not think that I am a good person, which I might not be.

Tape almost received a happy elephant sticker this morning, until Turntable told me that he and Grass had secretly left their beds during the night and eaten the staff’s peanut butter from the fridge and that’s why there were now ants infesting the kitchen. There is, of course, no sticker that we give to children when they get up during the night to steal peanut butter. If a resident breaks the rules we just keep a record in the night journal, indexing it with X. Since I cannot use a red pen anymore I write the word red next to the X. If someone fired me for this, I would thank them for it and feel momentarily free from something terrible.

“You’re going to use me as practice, to work through your own shit, aren’t you?”

Our favourite destination in Tianjin was near to where we lived and was called Italian Town. Italian Town was a block of fake cobbled streets lined with restaurants that served German beer in 1L barrels and shops that sold Chinese looking souvenirs. There was a fountain in the centre of Italian Town and my wife and I took a photograph on her phone. In the photo we’re kissing underneath the falling water. Its cliché but beautiful and was the most important photograph that we ever managed to take. When I look at it now I feel like not speaking to anyone for days.

It was suggested to me that I get a new dog, since I had been here a year and have not really made any significant connections. I visited a breeder, who gave me green tea and told me to come and meet the dogs. All of the dogs were corgis, so I asked if the breeder if she only bred corgis and she said that she didn’t understand why I’d asked the question. I bent down next to one of the dogs to introduce myself and it looked back at me, emitting a very clear message.

“You’re going to use me as practice, to work through your own shit, aren’t you?” The dog said.

“No. Probably.”

“Do’t use me for practice please,” The dog said and so I left it and told the breeder that the tea had made me feel nauseous, which was technically true.

The closed circuit security camera footage of the guard being blown away the glass doors is too brief to be properly understood. It lasts only four seconds long and so makes people think of animated stickers or gifs and so appears as something to be played on an endless loop until the movement behind what it is that you’re watching becomes distanced and abstracted so far out of context that it is then a singularly involved thing. It says nothing about the man whose death the camera recorded, or anything about what it felt like to be close at that point. It says nothing about the heat, the rising fire.

I tell her on the last day we spend together is the same thing I tell everyone who askes. I say that my wife and I crawled down the stairwell on our chests, after the blast. That there was smoke like earth that was burying us.

I go shopping for the week and instead of buying the chicken that I had promised my therapist I would buy I went to a specialist butcher and asked if they killed birds on site. When he told me that they did it nearby I asked if I could watch it happen. The man behind the counter said that no I couldn’t be there, but promised me that the creature died humanely and with only a little pain and I told him that I didn’t care. I left without buying anything to eat and when the following day my therapist asked if I had bought and eaten the chicken I lied and said that I had forgot. I said that if she asked me to do anything like that again I would stop coming and all but disappear. She agreed that she wouldn’t. Then I stop going anyway.

What I tell her on the last day we spend together is the same thing I tell everyone who askes. I say that my wife and I crawled down the stairwell on our chests, after the blast. That there was smoke like earth that was burying us. It made sure that we couldn’t stand. Many other people died in our building say, which is probably true, but at the time I didn’t care. I didn’t want my wife to die, so we crawled on our chests until we got outside, then we lay in the bushes and both of us cried. The floor outside was sprinkled with glass, as an army of alarms signalled to one another. The whole city sounded like a giant, screaming child. I don’t tell her that the dog managed to escape and that we don’t know how, because if I tell her this, she will fixate on this detail as somehow miraculous and try to ignore hundreds of people who died around us. If I mention the dog, people look for a way out of the story, so I don’t anymore.

When people reply by saying that you could see the explosion from space, I ask them who cares. That an astronaut could have looked down and seen what was happening to us, doesn’t matter to me at all. I tell them that all the astronauts in the world can go fuck themselves and then I usually leave the conversation and don’t come back.

I have become remarkable purely because of the fact that I am not dead, when most people believe that I should be.

My wife now agrees to Skype with me once a week. I don’t tell her that she is remarkable because I want her life to be defined by better things. She tells me that she has renamed the dog and given it a Chinese name that I cannot pronounce. I ask what it is, and this is only the second most pointless question that I have heard in the last two days. She tells me the dogs new name and I say that I like it, then we end the conversation by waving and saying goodnight.


Featured artist: Yuri Andries

Jobless in Nottingham, James Kramer in Left Lion

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James Kramer rants from the gutter towards the stars in the latest instalment of “Notes From the Middle Kingdom” in Nottingham’s Left Lion.

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James Kramer seeks work in Nottingham’s Left Lion

we are un-accelerated


Official recorded transcripts of interviews 6th May 2017

Present: Helena PD, Ohio. Detective Sanderson, Detective Alburquest. Suspects Drew Anderson, Clara Liu, Daeg Morris.

Unrelated context has been removed for the relevancy of materials provided. All present were made aware of the recording and gave signed and dated consent.

                       Sanderson: So, he came then of his own volition, was willing to, is what I’m saying. That he accepted what was at stake, the premise of the thing, right from the start I mean. He wasn’t taken out there with hands behind his shoulders, a gun to his back, wasn’t forced, tricked or somehow made unaware of what was going on?

                       Drew: We didn’t need to trick him, in fact I’d go as far as to say we told him outright. That he didn’t require much in the way of a push is true, really. He was all but ready to go himself, had we not arrived, I’m fairly confident. No, I’m sure that he would have otherwise found himself out there in the desert, perhaps not in the particular position that we left him in, but stranded out there all the same. It was something that I believe somewhere deep and very personally inside he felt that for some reasons he just needed to do.

                       Clara: When we explained what was out there, he was totally for it. Near begging us to take him. He all but ran back to the Marriott, to the room where he was staying, a room that contained enough clothes to carry him across the country. A separate room for his P.A. who had to sleep with the boxes of books as yet unsold, to collect this giant, old- fashioned Dictaphone and head out within the hour. He looked comical, carrying that thing. The contraption, it made his neck appear birdlike and strained, the veins throttled by the recording equipment’s requisitely heavy and industrial cord.

e seemed even then to treat it all like some kind of joke. But it wasn’t. Nothing about this was ever intended to be funny. We didn’t want to be entertained.


                      Daeg: I mean seriously, who does that? Who still carries a goddam Dictaphone around with them today? Who considers that worthy of packing, of allocating space? It’s so cloyingly affected. Might as well make it a tape recorder, complete with furry nozzled boom for all the retro-chic look-at-me-ness of the thing. I knew from right then that what we were on the right track. From that point on I felt no remorse whatsoever. Internally I was straight Zen-like and stoically calm.

                    Alburquest: And so who was it then that started it? I think we need to clarify here who it was who put the first one down his throat?

                     Drew: That’s the thing, none of us did. He swallowed the first handful by his own volition I believe. I think at the time he thought it was all just so incredibly funny, hilarious. Demanded that we take pictures of him doing it, on a Polaroid of course.

                     Sanderson: But then so what, you all took over?

                    Daeg: I guess that he didn’t realise quite how angry we all were, that we were angry with him, more that we were angry with the idea of him, the external projection of what it was that he had come to represent. Angry with the whole situation it’s fair to say. He seemed even then to treat it all like some kind of joke. But it wasn’t. Nothing about this was ever intended to be funny. We didn’t want to be entertained.

                    Clara: He laughed at first, but then it quickly went from being anything but funny.

Approximately two months into any given probationary period of employment, your average beat officer on the roster at the Helena city police department has been witness to a near full spectrum of predictable behaviours that those newly arrested are likely to perform when absent- mindedly oblivious to the presence of the cameras located in the easterly facing corners of each of the holding cells in the small and provincially stationed country protection centre, switched on to record any of the nocturnal hours of an unremarkable mid-week p.m. Those individuals still in the process of tweeking are likely to be engaged, if not dismantling the few remaining items of upper-body clothing thread by unwound thread, then working at the soldered bolts of the steel toilet with the ends of their rattled fingers until the stubs of their nails are rust coloured with blood, whereupon they usually then take to biting at those instead, seemingly oblivious to the ammonic tang directly below their noses. Individuals hauled in with serious and all too violent crimes hanging threateningly over their heads tend to sleep it off and find comfort in rest, while irregular customers brought in for an ill- conceived DUI will pace and mutter hung-over to themselves for as long as they are cogently able to do so. To listen to the live audio-feed from any of the precinct’s three separate holding cells on any given non-collegiate football weeknight is therefore a masochistic ritual in subjecting oneself to an auditory tidal wave of semi-lucid, personal narratives of denial and emotional regression with the odd, occasional flat-line snore of your more hardened and professional criminal types.

It is therefore safe to say that neither detective Sanderson nor detective Alburquest allocated even the slightest microcosmic second to sitting before the triptych of barely functioning monitors and tuning into what it was that their very own newly assembled suspects had to say in the privacy of their own cells and instead busied themselves with constructing intricate blends of Nescafe instant gold blend granulated coffee with perfectionist measured quantities of Coffee-Mate power and gently distilled sachets of artificial sweetener.

That the break room held more of a convivial, brothers-of-the-uniform type vibe was also a major draw for both elder statesmen of the Helena community branch, Alburquest going as far as to introduce his own personally bought and brought from home La-z Boy chair to the south-easterly corner of the annexed room, where the chair snuggly nestled itself between the table supporting the recently diminished collection of back-issue ‘hobby enthusiast’ magazines, journals and industry periodicals deemed adequately suitable and not to be ‘lowering the overall tone’ of the break room (re: a recently enforced innovative policy implemented by the state bureau in an attempt to reduce the general testeronically heavy odour of the station’s unisex staffroom areas, said policy having severely cut back on what was found free to peruse on top of the previously mentioned coffee table top) where to the other side of the chair would most likely be found any remarkable variety of spongy, Belgium chocolate frosted, individually portioned snack treats, home baked by one Mrs. Sanderson, despite her own husband’s (sensibly non-vocalised) indifference to all things sweet (never mind continentally suspect and Belgium-esque) and so brought them in to place nearby the feet of his aging partner, thereby finding them a more responsive and gutturally accepting audience, who in a vicious circle then used the increasing expanse of his own diameter and the noticeable strain that it put on the lower regions of his already taxed back as the justifying reason for the home-purchased, complex office/rec-room chair that in turn sitting in for prolonged periods of time brought him within such readily close proximity to Mrs. Sanderson’s devilishly chocolate sponge cake squares on an almost daily basis.

That all three of the recently accosted suspects had been so readily willing, almost verging unromantically on the side of being overeager to explain and postulate in great and verifiably accurate detail the violent and criminal actions that they unitedly had undertaken out there in the desert amidst the obsidian dunes and sporadic rock formations alongside small, isolated islands of tundra and bunch grass and brief interludes of intersecting asphalt also gave detectives Sanderson and Alburquest little to no interest in audibly spying on the trio, the whole procedural pleasure of being
voyeuristically omnipotent having been robbed of the two senior lawmen the moment that each of the suspects (wholly independently from one another, never mind the absolute omission of any kind of pressurised and/or manipulated coercion) began to deliver lengthy and arguably over stylised expository narratives on just how they had taken the visiting celebrity out into the far reaches of the manufactured sands of Ohio’s now almost two decade-old tourist attraction. What had seemed inventive, modern and arguably daring at the time had grown to those aware to vex and irritate, the local residents coming to view it as thinly veiled and gimmicky, its existence tactless and obtuse.


The artificial desert constructed from industriously produced black sand shipped all the way from Guangzhou factory warehouses, an appeal to popular kitsch that had initially done some considerable good for the state in terms of national press and alternative travel-seeking websites but had long since fallen more- or-less to the wayside with its revenue each quarter locked in an evermore permanent-seeming decline, the vast majority of the desert’s once shining obsidian sand now resembled more of a dull and uninteresting granulated coffee and was considered by a great percentage of the state’s inhabitants to have been an ill-conceived and myopic plea to get people to come and visit and spend their summer vacation money on black-desert snow globes, novelty ice-cream coloured via imported squid ink and t-shirts with such catchy slogans as I visited the black desert sands of Ohio and all I got was Silicosis, especially when September winds would bring vast sweeping clouds of windswept dark matter down onto Main Streets and into homes of the various towns that circumvented it, leaving once white picketed fences looking brutalised by a hail of minuscule particles, appearing somehow not dissimilar to a seriously over zealous pelting of shotgun buckshot, and that it was there that the trio collectively engaged in what even the more hardened Sanderson had to remark safely within the collective privacy of the break room, amid gorging mouthfuls of double dark chocolate brownie (Mrs. Sanderson having truly exceeded herself this time) was a real act of actualised sadism that revealed some real heartfelt animosity on behalf of said criminal participants.

“And they told you about cooking the roses right?” Alburquest interjected in response to his partner’s critique of the moral and spiritual centres of these three middle-aged figures, who still dressed themselves in young adult branded Khakis and (arguably) ironically donned gift-bag bundle promotional t- shirts from various technological early-era Silicon Valley conventions, after the first round of questioning had been completed.

“Where is it, do you think that they find out about these things? They have to be getting it from somewhere. You think they find out about that shit online? Go onto YouTube and find some video that explains new ways to get high?”

“Have to be getting it from somewhere,” Sanderson concluded. “Nothing comes from a vacuum, everything’s just a response to something else, and no one’s reading these days. Goddamn rose petals, frying that shit really gets you buzzed?”

“They seem to think so,” Alburquest puzzled. “My wife’s been growing them for years, out in the front. Think I should try it?”

“It’s a fad.” Sanderson said. “A fart in the wind. You tell me, what’s lasting about it? Like bath salts and mamba and all that other junk.”

“I feel left behind by the world sometimes,” Alburquest muttered.

                    Alburquest: So then, what did you tell him was in the desert?

Clara: A café, or more of a diner really, one of those mobile, strip-chrome exteriors, the kind that are considerably both overtly retro and yet still somehow remains timeless. We knew that he’d go for that in a heartbeat.

                    Alburquest: He went all the way out there just for a diner?

                    Daeg: Well, it’s more of a novelty, it being themed and all. They built it some years ago just outside of Atwater, when summer numbers began to clearly dwindle. Felt sort of desperate, but it worked for a while, stole the summer crowd back from Damascus. The interior of the café is decked out, see, to like resemble the inside of the large hadron collider, the one out there in Europe. In fact to say that it’s decked out is to do it a disservice. I heard they actually flew out one of the original technicians, a physicist or something, out from Geneva to supervise the construction, the makeshift reconstruction. They paid him to make sure that the design was as authentic as possible, check that all the plastic drainpipes and cardboard dials were like, in the right place and as genuinely authentic as one can do via a trip to Costco. It’s supposed to be just like the real thing, not that I’ve seen it, the one in Europe I mean, so who knows. 

being surrounded by absolutely nothing, less than zero. He read into that some kind of corny irony about its goddamn spatial isolation, like he saw the absence of presence around it as part of the attraction. Romanticised it all to hell

                   Sanderson: And he followed you?

                   Drew: You bet he did. The distance was all but half the appeal of it, it being surrounded by absolutely nothing, less than zero. He read into that some kind of corny irony about its goddamn spatial isolation, like he saw the absence of presence around it as part of the attraction. Romanticised it all to hell.

                    Sanderson: I’m getting the impression that you don’t feel the same,

                    Drew: Can I tell you what it was like, growing up out there? You realise how mind numbly draining it was to be dropped into all of that wilderness every day of your extended adolescence? Try to comprehend the sheer boredom of it all. You’re from Helena right? Figured. Even Daeg and Clara, I mean they talk about it, but they weren’t raised out there. I would have killed to be in Helena. Just to have a Wal-Mart, a lonesome dairy queen.

                    Daeg: I think he had simply grown tired of that crowd, that particular scene that he’d been a part of for so long, made to take ownership of, or at least acknowledge his role in its social-genealogy. But the sycophantic, self-referential pre-answered questions and the like, he bitched endlessly about that all the way out there. It was if we had arrived as if summoned to give him an excuse, we were perfectly timed.

                  Drew: Like I said, he was ready.

With commodious decades of crime scene investigation between their collective belts, there are few sights within the county of Helena, Ohio that would cause partners Sanderson and Alburquest to pause and take note. The blown out hollow of an imploded meth lab, the patterned mania of a quadruple murder-suicide and neither of the seasoned police professionals would do so much as refresh their lids towards the outstretched tableau before them, cordoned off behind butter yellow tape or mapped in-between chalk white lines. Yet the two detectives were each secretly dumbfounded by the call on Saturday the 6th of May, whose radioed directions found them interviewing the remaining, baffled crowd at a hastily upended paid-for private reading + signing + possible Q/A session held at the Helena market square’s Barnes and Noble, when the guest author in question suddenly left a table loaded with newly printed, as of yet unsold, re-released copies of his zeitgeist- defining novel, now celebrating a victorious 26th year anniversary and decided to accompany three complete strangers into the man-made noir-ish desert, where he seemed if not in part responsible then at the very least complicit in his own arguably gruesome and certainly painful demise.

                     Daeg: Do you know how hard Japanese is as a language to learn? How impossibly difficult it is, to not only comprehend but also actually apply?

                     Sanderson: Why don’t you enlighten me?

                     Daeg: It’s a language of deferral, of implicit reference. There’s more, so much vastly more, than the lexis or any kind of syntactic shelf of knowledge that one has to overcome. An insane amount relies on cultural omission; there are reels of assumed connotations, imperatives of polite, understated non-reference and conditioned refrain. A learner must thrust themselves not only into how to construct meaning via phonemes that until that point are likely to have never graced their lips, but must also then come to acclimatize themselves with an entirely alien set of cultural caveats regarding what is deemed acceptable to say or publicly mention. What I’m trying to say here, and most likely sufficiently failing to do so, is that I mentally as well as financially exhausted myself in the pursuit of acquiring a semblance of this language and that its acquisition in a very real and tangible way took all that I had to give.

                      Sanderson: And what does this all have to do with Mr Coupland?

                      Daeg: He made it all seem so inconsequential! A few throwaway phrases and that’s it! A brief sideline, spoken to a handful of distressed, map-weary tourists and yet so much time is spent on pointless wastes of anti- narrative drivel. I have never forgiven him for that. I never can. I’m not ashamed of how much I had to work to be able to speak what little Japanese I can. I don’t feel the need to bury it, or pretend it was something that I just picked up on the way, that it wasn’t something that I strived for, that I wanted. It’s ok to better yourself. It’s all right to feel worthy of occasional praise for doing something that many other people wouldn’t even consider to attempt. It’s not shaming. I am not ashamed.

                    Clara: Drew knew that he’d dive right in for the diner experience. So we loaded up with supplies, bought tickets for the reading and met him there at the signing. It was easy.

                   Alburquest: Supplies?

                  Clara: The greaseproof wrappers. We figured that we’d need to buy them in Helena where we knew of at least three outlets. There wouldn’t be anywhere out in the desert to do that, most of the vendors out there packed up and left in 09. And we didn’t want to buy them from the diner. We wanted the logo on the wrappers, the logo being there, both on the paper and in his mouth; that was an important part.

                  Alburquest: Whose idea was it?

                  Drew: I can’t remember, maybe Daeg’s, maybe mine, though it could have equally been Clara. We were all so incredibly satisfied with it that I think we assumed collective ownership fairly early on in the planning stages. The shovel however, that was mine.

                  Sanderson: And the hamburgers themselves? What did you do with them?

                  Daeg: We didn’t throw them away if that’s what you’re asking. We ate some; Drew had missed breakfast so I think he had the most. Three, maybe four even. Then the rest we gave away to the homeless on the way to B&N. We’re not inhumane you know, we don’t believe in wasting food.

It was the mention of the greaseproof wrappers that had halted the proceedings, causing the interviews to temporarily cease. Similarly, it was also the issue of contention causing detective Sanderson to massage the pulsating islands of his temples and detective Alburquest to consume increasingly unsafe amounts of homemade chocolate butter frosting, as the partners sat and waited for the official decision to be called in via the state branch’s direct line. When the call did eventually arrive, the voice on the other end of the connection was that of a Captain whom both Sanderson and Alburquest knew to refer to as Captain Almaz, yet neither of the two senior detectives had ever been required to place a face/voice to the name and so were slightly taken aback to be suddenly hearing from the man who addressed them by their familial first names as if longstanding compatriots of garden cookouts, of barbeques and shared off-duty beers. A figurehead whose tone implied warmth and reassurance and an all round sense of calm that the partners found mildly disconcerting and yet strangely appealing, sparking as it did desires to immediately make the voice’s owner if not happy, then at the least satisfied with their choice of actions.

“The primary issue here boys,” Captain Almaz began, “ is that we have to think in terms of going beyond this rash and regrettably now unavoidable tragedy undertaken by these very lost and wayward figures. In short we have to think of state-wide sponsorship. I don’t need to remind anyone here of the 36th annual corn festival that’s already rearing its sizable head over the financial horizon and just how much of it is that our friends over there routinely invest in, not just for the festival’s stake but the whole wider community at large. All of those families hit hard by the recent economic trouble and dwindling annual revenue who are right this instant relying on said sponsorship, the subsidies and the like. Not to mind the little critters who get just a real kick out of seeing all of their favourite friends come down for the parade, what with the kid’s Corn Club Corner and the free samples that those good folks down there are always on hand to deliver. The general feeling here, is that all that goodness, both for the state and its inhabitants, for you and I, is too much to wantonly toss away because of some dumb little misadventure with one little author who frankly has little to nothing to do with life down here anyway. If there’s one thing that I’ve been saying to Margret (Margret’s my wife, been going on sixteen good years of fortune God bless) is that there should be greater regulations on the types of books that we let these kids get a hold of. If a man is going to write something dissociative and purposefully disconcerting like that, then well its not too much of an exaggeration I dare say that he’s taking his own safety more than a little into his own hands, wouldn’t you say there Bill?”

Detective Sanderson found himself agreeing.

“And it was the wrappers you’re saying? Them greaseproof, sticky type things that they found stuffed down the old oesophagus?”

“Yes sir,” Alburquest added, keen to get in on the friendly authoritative figure’s range of conversational reference. “They were from the limited edition Black Charcoal Ohio Burger, in celebration of the desert, priced at $4.50 I believe.”

“I don’t know about you boys, but I hate those goddam sands,” Captain Almaz posited. “We’ll just about take on anything these days to get those tourist dollars rolling on in. It’s a mighty shame, mighty big. But the fact still stands, I’m sure you’ll understand, is that what with the logo’s being on the wrapper there, having them publically removed from the throat of Mr Coupland, would be viewed by certain people as a seriously negative campaign blow to our friends over there in the industry, one that they feel no amount of publically available reading material on just how 100% recycled and sustainable said paper in question really is, and how from the Q3 regulations all of it, the certification via the forest stewardship committee is not really going to offset and counteract. Now you boys can follow that see?”

Sanderson and Alburquest agreed that they both indeed could follow the reasonable logic of both the company in question and of Captain Almaz, who seemed to let out a less than disguised sigh before asking the following question.

“And I daresay there was a notice pinned to his chest? What was still visible of it, the man’s torso above ground?”

“Yes Sir. Though buried waist deep in the black sands, on Mr Coupland’s chest was what appeared to be a job application Sir, filled in and all but completed, for the position of junior fry cook at the No.2 branch of said dinning outlet in Helena sir. They’d been quite thorough in answering it; seemed to have taken the time. Gave a fairly compelling statement as to why they would like to work for the company. Detailed it was sir, as in depth.”

“Now that little document,” Almaz said with careful distinction over the line, “has to disappear now doesn’t it? Nobody else saw it?”

“There were cameras, before we had time to arrive,” Sanderson said, staring to seek out a hint of uniformed camaraderie from Alburquest, who was overtly concerned with listening to the voice at the other end of the line. “But they were too far away from the scene to really make out what was written on it. Could have been anything really…”

“Ah, well that is good news. Well done boys. So, I’m correct in thinking that leaving the note out of the reports is not going to trouble either of you too greatly is it? Seems a shame to make the whole great state here, not to mention all of us who like a little fast food treat once in a while, suffer just because of the heinous actions of these, let’s call them what they are, delinquent hipsters suffer and ruin the fun for so many.”

“Not at all,” added Alburquest. “But there is the issue of the face paint, the cameras would have picked up on that for sure.”

“Face paint?” Almaz inquired, his voice suddenly flat with a deadpan humourlessness.

“Water based sir” Sanderson added. “They’d painted his face to look like the clown.”

The line fell silent, save a slight electrical ring of the break room’s old analogue phone.

“Any particular clown?” Almaz finally asked.

“Yes sir, as with the hamburgers sir, the very same.” Sanderson answered.

“Well f*** me.”


                        Clara: We asked him to climb into the hole and he did it. We said it was for a picture, what with the Polaroid still there. I don’t think he believed us, but by then it hardly seemed to matter. An artist in a hole in the desert, the oily artificial sand all around, with a paper mache large hadron collider in the background and slightly to the left, yet one where you could buy $6 dollar patty melts and genuine, authentically replicated malted milk, or Pabst straight from the can. How could he not just eat that up? But it wasn’t a fun or happy experience. We didn’t enjoy it, and I don’t look back on it now with any sort of sense of completion. I don’t feel vindicated or anything. I have no lasting feeling that we were right in any real way to do what we did. We just felt out of options, and think all of us in some unspoken and highly collective way were looking for someone to blame. Then we saw the poster online and started to make plans.

                    Daeg: It all escalated without our even really being aware of it. Drew took one of the hamburgers and I believe he was going to try to get him lick the salt or the fat off of the greaseproof. He said something about basking him in the sun. Marinating he might have said. Coating maybe. But when Douglas bit hold of the wrapping when we came close and he tore at it he managed to get the whole thing into his mouth without the use of his hands. Kind of impressive really, when you think about it. He was laughing, and asking us to take more pictures. That’s when Clara started to remove more of the wrappers from the car.

                    Sanderson: And the job application?

                   Drew: There are some things that I have come to realise, things that within my adult life have shifted from being options to existing as seriously entrenched facts. I will never own a car in my life that runs without entrenched, mechanical problems or is not passed down to me during the final stages of its serviceable career. The rooms that I inhabit will always be rented, and I therefore will never be allowed to paint in the colours that I like, or remove the physical monstrosities within which that I distain. If and when I have a job, it will most likely be temporary, paid by the hour and will come and go with the seasons. There will be no certainty. The pre-90’s terror of a horrifyingly stable but ultimately meaningless and existentially vapid sense of career certainty will never be one that I have to even consider experiencing. The prospect of stability will be at the best of times, slightly more distant on the spectrum of oncoming problems and remain for most of my days a laughable fear. Opting out is not an option because I have never, nor will ever be in a position of privilege where the essential means of survival are not perilous and unpredictable. I do not get to omit material wealth or status that I have never owned. I cannot despise nor resent a condo which I have never held the keys for. I am ill equipped to be despondent, dissatisfied. I am therefore instead angry. And anyone who looks on me and decides that this was a choice, a conscious form of chosen action, I am going to want to and seek out to correct in a very real and immediate fashion.

                       Daeg: Drew is angrier than I am, but that’s not to say that I don’t understand. I cannot however bring myself to feel any of the catharsis that he has seemed to experience since. I don’t feel any different, better nor worse than before. I still feel just as less, as omitting of something vital, that there is something that should be prevalent in my life, which there is not.

                      Alburquest: Did he say anything, out there in the desert? Once it became clear what was going on.

                      Clara: He told us a story. Once we had him in the sand and he’d managed to put away nearly a dozen of the logo imprinted wrappers, his mouth already mountainous with ants, skin beginning to blister what with the reflection from off the ill-conceived colour of the sand. He told us a story, asked us if we would pause, would wait long enough for it to be over.

                      Alburquest: What was the story about?

                      Daeg: That there was a boy, and that the boy’s mother became incredibly sick as if out of nowhere not too shortly after the boy’s first birthday. That the family had dealt with the situation well, aunts coming to help, uncles stepping in while the father spent long and inconceivably troubled nights in the hospital sleeping on the chair next to his wife as her health rapidly spiralled, getting unexplainably worse for no apparent or reason. And so, even being one so young the boy had grown up with an unexpressed sense that he had in fact caused his own mother’s unexplained sickness and so carried with him a fairly large dose of inexpressible guilt, that he was unable to unburden himself of, given his own liminal understanding as to why it was that he had chosen to personally take on said burden when there were so many other possible causes and reasons for his own mom’s seriously threatening illness. Yet the family continued without any real signs from the boy that there might be anything in the way of seriously wrong. The house was redesigned and a room was equipped for the mom to be comfortable in, and each of the extended family took long and loving turns in the room, talking to her without expecting or eventually even being saddened by the lack of kinetic response. And so the various household errands and requirements were taken up by the father and the boy, with the father soon revealing a significant ineptness when it came to preparing meals for the two of them, leaving this particular household chore quickly to his young son. But cooking for the family soon became not a chore for the boy but a pleasurable experience, one that he looked forward to throughout the school day, even relishing at times daydreaming through the more prolonged periods of boredom during which he was not questioned nor pulled aside, the teachers still feeling queasily uncertain about how to approach their student given the recent level of high-altitude personal tragedy that he had (stoically it seems) had to deal with. However, throughout the following years it became clear that the boy was eating less and less of his own personally cooked meals and though the father ate at mealtimes with recognisable enjoyment and gusto and more than a little pride at the mature and thoughtful role that his son had managed to maintain, he began to notice that the boy placed two plates near overloaded with lovingly prepared food on the table and yet when the meal was over and completed and the time came to clear away the table, while the father’s plate resembled a mashed smear of sauce and remnants, the boy’s own serving was still a good 90% present and untouched, which of course began to trouble him. But then so the boy grew and developed into what might be called a functional, but socially troubled young, adolescent male who, despite the psychological albatross he was schlepping, in fact managed to secure a relationship with a women who in turn found him compatible, kind and even at times a little mawkishly sweet. Yet if she carried with her one small titbit of uncertainty, it was that her emotional and physical partner seemed incapable of sitting down with her at any of the culturally diverse and interesting restaurants that they would go to on the first romantic string of dates and actually eating more than a few cursory mouthfuls, nor would he intake any of the butter coated popcorn when the pair propped themselves semi-slouched on the couch at home, to streamline countless episodes one straight after the other of variously imported shows. At least once a week he treated her with some form of sugary, baked or frozen treat, which she enjoyed and loved sincerely that he took the time to surprise her with, but then feels the experience slightly diminished, for when sat down beside her he seemed only to watch her eat, while tasting nothing of it himself. Naturally she of course began to think at first that he was unhappy with her, perhaps due to her shape, her size, or that she was in some way at fault. This then turned understandably to resentment, as if he was holding something back from her, restricting himself from being totally honest and himself around her and so she begins to resent him ever more slightly with each frozen dessert that he produced, the smell of flour and eggs in the oven beginning to retain a slight sourness that wasn’t present before in the early weekends of their coupling. And what the young man can never tell her, or at least chose never to reveal, is that long after she has fallen asleep in his arms he would sneak away, removing the laptop from off their resting legs. That he left her side to gorge from the fridge or even out of the carrier bag in which the rubbish was stored away overnight before being put outside with the morning. That he would eat until he was physically sick and so desperately ashamed of himself and that should he be caught or forced to explain, he would say that he was undeserving. That the nurturing quality of good food, sustenance made personally and for you by another person who needs and adores you and was so infinitely thankful for your presence on this earth, was not something that he can ever allow himself to be accepting of, even though he knew that eventually what began as a minor irritation, an anti-social tick, will drive her as it has others away from him and that he will ultimately feel forced to let her pack up and leave rather than try to explain his own very damaging and uniquely personal predicament, for he can only barely comprehend it himself.

                    Alburquest: He told you all of this, while you had him out there in the desert?

                    Clara: And don’t you just wish that he hadn’t right?

                   Alburquest: Come again?

                   Clara: Because it’s all so obviously parabolic. The emotionally stilted individual, the lacking ability to demonstrate what we conceive of as an essential social expression of sincerity and affectionate warmth and all of it bottled up in some cutesy modern anecdotal minimalism that is set to somehow resonate with us via the telling, which it does of course because such feelings of uncertainty and personal guilt and self-denial or devalued self-worth are at some level most likely present in almost all of us. It’s not shocking to express that we are all, at some basic level, scared of our inability to be valued and loved.

                    Sanderson: And that’s where the story ended? With the couple just stranded there?

                    Daeg: That’s the part of the story we got to, before Drew forced another six greaseproof wrappers into his face.

                   Drew: I don’t think that he intended there to be a conclusion. I’m not sorry about what I did.

Detective Sanderson lifted from the front seat of his take-home vehicle his jacket, removed from his back due to the sweltering heat of the car as it tracked from the central streets of Helena, Ohio out into what became expansive suburbs, then patterned houses amidst fields of soon-to-be honey coloured corn. With the engine off, he collected his papers and found the keys to the front door, whereby he stood for a moment before hearing the bolt lock dislodge itself and the scuff of the coir floor mat scrape across the under ridges of the Sanderson’s heavy exterior door. Inside he kissed his wife, her face before the television on which played a show that he didn’t recognise nor could distinguishably hear. In the kitchen sink he placed the empty plastic container, the Tupperware still speckled with dark chocolate crumbs and the prints of detective Alburquest’s left hand. He ran the water for a moment, filling the tub till the water rose and yielded to the slight curvature of the plastic’s sides. When he sealed the tap off once more, detective Sanderson listened for the slight sounds of calm that echoed throughout his home. He was aware of his wife’s presence behind him, of her body facing the lit screen. He heard the sounds of televised voices and felt the moisture of the recently- run cold water in the air. Through the kitchen window, across the fields of corn that composed their neighbour’s land, billboards above the highway radiated from underscored spotlights that cast their shadows upwards like moonlight in mirrored reverse and detective Sanderson knew that shortly he would wipe the remaining water from his hands and join his wife on the sofa before the television, and for this he was glad.