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.

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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.”

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                        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.

This is Not How You Become Free

1.

Those attending in the theatre wear latex gloves that give off dunes of talcum when strapped on. That the skin is already alive and fresh from the prescribed anti-bacterial wash that is mentholic and tingles means that the talcum power sticks to the skin on the hands and forms a slick kind of sand that gravitates towards the wrist the longer the gloves are worn. As well as the gloves, each person in the room has their face partially covered by a blue pastel mask. The mask is papery and thin and crinkles like wrapping paper whenever the person behind it inhales. What movement there is the room seems incredibly swift and seemingly brief. There is a great deal of purpose to what is going on. It is almost worthy of grace. When things do go wrong, everybody manages to focus even more on what is happening. The room falls intensely silent. When the woman at the centre of the theatre looses enough blood that critical is not an exaggeration, there is no one who feels the need to verbally acknowledge this. Everyone knows what is going on and what it is they should do. While the woman is dying on the table, one of the nurses finds herself questioning, if the woman would want to know, be told if she could hear and take account, of what was happening to her and all that was being done to stop it. The room is incredibly bright, and all of the surfaces shine with a brilliance from the reflected beams of concentrated light. There is Dettol in the air.

Sarah Lyn Hale was a member of the 4% minority of fourteenth floor employees who vocally preferred to spend their time firmly rooted in the Beijing central office of Oburst & Shyam, looking out as it did over the complex strip of mirrored glass that was the financial district of Ruihai, the street with its leaning architectural structures often heating the pavement to such a boiling temperature that fragments of the asphalt would break off and attach themselves in skewered clusters to the stilettoed feet of those passing overhead, rather than taking the paid and highly reimbursable outer-regional contracts as did so many of her peers. For most of S&O’s north east regional personal translators would prefer not to stay cooped up in the city, especially during the greenhouse months of June and July but instead travel at the companies expense to any of the four rented office spaces situated in Changchun, Zhongzhou, Jinan or their most northerly and tundra-esque frozen locale of Harbin, with its Russian Orthodox churches and borsht/vodka dining options, never mind the elaborate ice sculptures that brought throngs of domestic tourists each year, a winterly festival that always ending up killing at good couple of migrant workers, crushing them under falling blocks of ice while trying to build a homage to 1970’s era apple computers out of frozen bricks 3 meters in density.

ultimately insignificant kind of delay that found you sitting on the plane in your own allocated seat only for the vehicle to taxi endlessly around the tarmac, making you feel somehow infantile and high-chaired, unable to resolve your seated pangs of discomfort and increasingly indignant rage.

Trips to these destinations were also prized by most for although the subsequent journey to & fro Beijing was almost certainly guaranteed to contain mind numbing delays that would become arduous and intellectually taxing, the airport staff remaining inexplicably vague as to why the delays where occurring (S.L. Hale remembers jotting down her own personal favourite answer as seen displayed via a wall of frozen monitors that the delays were happening because of some reasons, and for the following month would use this as a byword around the office, forgetting that she had never explained the genesis of the joke to anyone and so aptly quit interjecting it into conversations and then laughing less than mutedly to herself) as the delays naturally rolled into the third and then fourth hour, keeping you locked in the airport waiting bay with little more than a snack dispensing vending machine selling boxed versions of instant noodles with no sign or boiling water in sight, or better still the kind of middling and ultimately insignificant kind of delay that found you sitting on the plane in your own allocated seat only for the vehicle to taxi endlessly around the tarmac, making you feel somehow infantile and high-chaired, unable to resolve your seated pangs of discomfort and increasingly indignant rage. And yet they were so prized for they offered for any employee of O&S feeling the psychological endurance of familial life the safe refuge of an internationally recognised five star hotel bedroom, with its various amenities all emitting comfort and individual value/worth via the attention to bodily pampering. For some, the promise of a plush bed, whose sheets were pressed and tightened by hands that were not your own was enough. Others felt drawn to rainwater celling mounted showers in which you stood in a block of carved granite made to look and feel like marble and allowed body temperate steam to surround your soft and increasingly tender skin. It was the promise of an evening to yourself, spent laid serpentine or spread out legs flayed, dressed only in the complementary hotel bathrobe, being free without guilt to eat a whole sidecar of pre-bought junk food in front of premium access television that was enough for some of Sarah Lyn’s peers to actually lie to their significant others about the required number of mandatory days allocated per monthly quota so as to run up the overtime spent servicing corporate clients for weeks on end.

Yet for S.L. Hale, the Beijing office granted her certain comforts that the business funded excursions couldn’t match. It wasn’t so much the knowledge that her own private, non-hot-desked cubicle would be there and unused and that everything it contained, from her personally stocked cabinet drawer of Gel-Rite Obsidian brand roller pens to the single roll of scotch tape that she used to quickly remove ill-conceived notes from off her notebook (hating the use of liquid paper for its thick and obvious corrections that if anything drew more attention to themselves than covered any errors up from attentive eyes), it was more that the office’s ideal location was situated safely two subway stops away in opposing directions from fairly important locations in her current, daily life. Line 10 to the right took her back home, the subway almost spilling out onto the doors of her gated and severely exclusive residential complex, and two stops on line 1 from the same interchanging station would place her at the doorsteps of the McKerry’s International Healthcare Centre, where O&S had commandeered a fairly sweet deal on international level medical coverage for all of their fourteenth floor employees.

Miss Hale had, after the first tentative year, felt no discernable qualms about subsequently maxing out her annually designated maximum expenditure, employing O&S swift direct billing service in streamlining her near weekly membership to those faces regularly seen at McKerry’s. She had pre-booked and attended a great deal of general and/or specific body checks with their dedicated staff of general practitioners, EMT specialists, cardio consultants and neurologists, many of said check ups she would confess were, if being truly and sincerely honest with herself, known to be before calling to arrange them, wholly superfluous and entirely unnecessary.

The real draw however for Miss Hale, was that treatment at McKerry’s really did live up to the overused abbreviation of treating you as if you were very important to them and a real and actualised person whom they wanted to take care of and look after in all sorts of small but meaningful ways. S.L. Hale had fairly quickly realised that more than the treatments themselves, or the reassuring memos emailed off to the offices of O&S immediately after a check up had been completed, reassuring her that everything was fine or that nothing was found, occasionally using S.L.H.’s near favourite word clear (beyond the word clear, Sarah Lyn more frequently enjoying including the words broil, incapacitate and capillary though she could not accurately tell you why nor justify beyond the unadulterated enjoyment of their phonetics as to why she liked these words as much as she did) it was in fact the personalised experience of having a dedicated nurse dressed in what looked not unlike Shanghai turn of the century nurse’s uniforms, decorated timelessly with starched corners and a pointed white paper hat, walk you from comfortable seat to sofa, offering you dispensable paper cones of cooled, hyper-mineralised water that she found so incredibly warm and satisfying. She knew by now all of the nurses by their individual, non-badged names and liked to think that should she show up without prior-appointed arrival, they would not only be able to pull her own title from the either, but would do so with a welcomed smile to their otherwise inconsequential afternoon.

following on from the famously catastrophic missteps such as Li Hong’s Premium Sorghum Wine being labelled as able to “Strip the skin from off your ancestor’s insides” to the widely published campaign by Song, Yau, Meng who promised to instil “Stronger foundations into national orifices”

Since the 1980’s expansionism of the Chinese domestic market, a full on nepotistic scramble had taken place in one of the primary few near untouched economic resources that could be said to be worth of global status. What had previously been not only domestically inward facing, but also nationally monopolised, suddenly found itself open to export any given number of minimally regulated products overseas, paying little in the way of production overheads, labour fees or surplus costs. And so with this there came a need for brand names and logos, adverts and marketing pamphleteers that read with the same kudos and conviction of the original Chinese text line. During this early and highly explosive period of international competition, the vast majority of companies in an ill-conceived vein to save a little yuan, shipped out their translations to in-house individuals who may/may not have embellished more than a little their own L2 English language proficiency. So, following on from the famously catastrophic missteps such as Li Hong’s Premium Sorghum Wine being labelled as able to “Strip the skin from off your ancestor’s insides” to the widely published campaign by Song, Yau, Meng who promised to instil “Stronger foundations into national orifices”, many tabled CEO’s began realising the apparent need for someone a little bit more in the linguistically technical know how, and so turned to outsourcing their commercial translators for major international campaign lines.

The second flaw in the story however, came due to the fact that a great many of these translators also didn’t have the real-world skills to do that much better of a job and so looking to account for what were steadily becoming rather favourable pay checks at the end of each month, they began to scour the academic field’s journals in search of a means to justify what it was that in the end was all they were capable of producing. Most agencies therefore fell back onto the popular Germanic 70’s Skopos; a theory that essentially summarised meant that solid ends thereby justify the means (go see: Vermeer, go see: Nord). This gave said translators a blunt sword to lexically hack away at whatever the original source text included so long as the translation brief given by the client was loosely adhered to. No longer did it mater that the original domestic brand name cited “confusion ideals” and “filial virtue”. Knowing todays American youth-orientated market, why not slap on some cut + paste plagiarised lyrics from an obscure Chuck Berry B-Side in order to (in) correctly acclimatise it to its new 1st world target audience? However, this still lead to a pretty heavy dose of socio-cultural brand miscommunication, with toothpaste brands unintentionally citing the feminist black power movement of a bygone era (“Black sister has the power”) to a non-amphetamine synthesized diet pill promising to make you “Not quite as fat as obese” if you persisted with its recommended daily dosage.

And seeing how this market was ostentatiously shifting from Japan to China in the early 1980’s, Karl K. Oburst decided partnered up with George Shaym, whose own South Indian translation firm had been making keen mafioso killings of its own domestic competitors, and set to wooing a collective drunken and well-fed entourage of mid-to-high level Chinese bureaucrats in the industry heavy north end of the People’s Republic of China. But it wasn’t until K. K. Oburst happened to stumble across a newly accredited theory of translation that the firm really lifted themselves stellar above the shoulders of their rivals.

A slightly perverse and not too secret a known fact about Karl Oburst (see: both the male and female toilet cubicles of the fourteenth floor of O&S, the graphic illustrations in the men’s room stalls being of a more detailed nature, while the punch lines in the women’s are inarguably better), was that in order to be able to complete his mandatory 6 a.m. ablutions, he had to be actively (see strenuously) engaged in reading aloud to himself one of several university press restricted publications, namely The Modern Translator, Translation and the Act of Transformative Equivalence or most likely, if the previous evening’s meal was protein heavy and rich in poly-saturated animal storage: Translation as Transcendental Enlightenment and the Lexis of the Soul (which carried by far the least committed readership and so had to spend a good third on their pages in appealing for academically sincere charitable donations) in order to complete the purpose of the visit and so go about his day.

It was, while scanning the pages of January’s TTELS that Karl Oburst came across the newly postulated theory of Ecological Transformative Non-Equivalence, which initially at its intellectual genesis was little more than a mishmash of the various contemporarily popular approaches to objective real-world translation studies (if there can ever be said to be such a thing) by a post-grad student located in Hong Kong Normal University, who rather than formulate his own mastery thesis, had simply taken the key buzzwords from three of that semester’s lectures and ploughed them roughly together, figuring that he could work out later what it all meant and what it was that he was actually saying.

And arguably the post-graduate succeeded, for K. K. Oburst was extremely taken with the holistic approach to translation that the article proposed. It suggested, that in order for any act of translation to be deemed authentically valuable, then the translator must act as meditative vessel, rather than composer, between the agent (see: paying client) and the intertwining spheres of a) the decreasing sphere of influence (the source text’s socio-cultural lexical content) and b) the arising sphere of affirmation (the translated text’s own lexical/cultural connotative meanings). That the translator should do this by being in the very presence of the instigator (see: agent/see: client) but should understand their translation brief not only through a series of detailed interviews with pre-tested questioners and a detailed algorithmic decompartalisation of the company’s previous advertisement audiences, but rather through a weekend of lower-back pain inducing, intense group meditations, along which the required Taoist monk might be required (or your most monkish looking staff intern who doesn’t see posing as a holy disciple as too demeaning to any sort of principles that he/she might affirm to), in order to truly understand not what the instigator thinks the translated campaign should contain, but what the product itself wishes to say.

While mockery did of course arrive in spades to the spam laced inbox of O&S during the initial proposes of this approach, it was only after the successes of Promod pharmaceuticals, Litchi Delicious beverages and Mei Yao Software Solutions did others really start to take note of O&S and watch them with an increasing distrust towards this new spiritually washy take on what had previously been thought of as simple language acquisition. This is not to say of course, that any of the fourteenth floor employees of O&S actually, sincerely believed in what they were doing. Most had been drafted in from other various sectors of language testing, expat English teaching or international business schools and came to O&S with limited to zilch translation experience, held a brazen understanding of Mandarin Chinese (enough to perhaps order a pizza and get only half the toppings wrong) and were then trained and dolled up through O&S’s notably surface/appearance obsessed training program with the savvy gleam of international prowess. But these were the brave few that Karl and George decided would be best suited to this new ostentatious venture. In part directly because their lack of translatory experience and therefore any given respect for the doctrine, the new employees of S&O took to their new positions as syntax gurus and lexical mystics with ease and were soon sitting lotus posed on office room floors throughout the four stations in the north east region, the new offices having been purchased so that the instigator (see: client) might be more easily able to meet with their vessel face to face.

Each week there ran a poll, a running collection to see who could incorporate that week’s word of the moment into their current ascribed project. For the week of July 23rd, which once again found Sarah Lyn Hale siting in the waiting room, this time in line to see Dr John Stallman, McKerry’s very own EMT specialist consultant, the word was tarnation. The chosen word was selected at random from Eric Mascari’s Madagascar Madness theme park gift shop souvenir coffee cup that contained thin slivers of paper on which every member of staff allocated to work that week should write a particular word in the hopes they might be selected (S.L. Hale had punted for incapacitate for what seemed like sixteen successive weeks and had as of yet had no such luck in being plucked from the offensively garish mug whose sides where detailed with goggle eyed animals atop a phallic looking log flume). That the method of delivery was so very childish party game-esque in its nature was intentionally conceived by the staff, who believed that should they ever be caught in the act, they could simply claim that they were following moral No.3 of Mr Oburst own personally crafted manifesto, which he had blown up and blasted across the south facing wall of the fourteenth floor, the third rule of O&S being:

“Remember the child in you who stared at the TV during commercials, and knew that if he could not and did not immediately have that thing and only that thing, then the world would cease to love him and he would reject it evermore.”

Mr K.K. Oburst would never have claimed, he later stated when being interviewed alongside G. Shaym for a small-time industry brand periodical, that he particularly valued succinctness when it came to delivering his company message.

The word tarnation had been written on one of the tiny slivers of paper and deposited into the coffee stained mug by Eli Hickman. Not only could he honestly state that he enjoyed the word and that it gave him great satisfaction to say it quickly, elongating the stressed consonant, but he did so also for when it came time to select the word for the week of July 23rd, Eli had found himself thinking of his parents dilapidated town house in Ohio state, and of the local electrician (though perhaps not originally qualified by trade) who found it impossible to cease talking while working on whatever electrical fault it was that you had asked him all the way out for. When the first of many non-lethal shocks would enter his body, the octogenarian craftsman would leap back from the socket and inadvertently shout tarnation. He would then return to the socket with minimal/no recognition towards either the shock or the expulsion of the word and the spell, young Eli found, was captivating.

“You see, the problem with turning up the soil too much is tarnation it doesn’t retain any of its natural lustre. So that when you come to seed it the following tarnation don’t nothing grow there till its too late, you see?”

And so the gauntlet had been set and the twelve translation vessels scheduled to work that week had gone out into the field, balling the world around in their skulls, pre-empting how they might figure it in to whatever sort of mindless mid-level plastics factory floors they were about to spend a weekend on, lighting incense and asking about target revenues. This was the task that Sarah Lyn Hale was also internally debating, while she sat and waited for Dr J. Stallman’s previous patent to finish up and stop eating into her valuable lunch hour before she had to return to the fourteenth floor and run copy for an online video hosting network that had chosen the overly cutesy name ShoSho.

The reason behind Sarah’s visit to Dr Stallman, was that she had, over the previous week, developed not a ringing in her ears, but what might be described as a rumble, not dissimilar to that of a dense electrical storm, heard someplace far off in the horizontal distance. The sound wasn’t piercing or loud and didn’t affect her at work or at home the way she’d read similar conditions had affected others. Not one to listen to loud music via headphones, nor swim in non-five star hotel pool water, she was less inclined to believe it to be an infection, or tinnitus, or any sort of damage to the drum or inner ear. And yet there it was; this low, gently reverberating sound like a baritone voice being sung two hallways down.

“Miss Hale, good afternoon once again. Sit up here will you please. Is it the sound again Miss Hale?”

“Yes”

“Still drumming away is it?”

“Yes”

“Well now, lets take a looksee shall we.”

Dr Stallman leaned Sarah’s head to the left and began to inspect her ears. She closed her eyes and gently exhaled as she felt his breath, not distastefully on her neck. She considered for a moment that if she thought how he had seen other patients before her already in the a.m. and would see more in the hours of the afternoon, long after she had returned to her own office and therefore was not here to sit in this chair and be inspected so closely, the thought would have left her feeling somehow hurt and slightly cheated. And so Sarah L. H. decided not to think, and instead allowed her fists to unclench on the arms of the plastic coated vinyl chair. Before he turned her head clockwise to peer into her right ear, he paused and rested himself on the edge of the vacuum table beside her.

“Miss Hale, would you mind if I told you what happened to me this morning?”

“I guess. Yes, I would like that.”

“Well you see, this city for all its size, gives me the privilege of being able to walk from my domicile, that is my house, my home, to my work, here, where I am with you now. Here. It’s a short, fifteen-minute walk, along a single road, a rather large one really, with bridges of a more complex nature than I care to understand. And yet there is always such a large amount of, well…”

“Please, amount of?”

“Of Shit, Miss Hale. Lets call it what it is, shall we? Shit. Faecal matter. Defecation either from one significantly large dog or that of a very well fed infant. But there it is, every day; shit. Outside, there in the sunlight, immovable by the strongest of downpours, lying hidden in wait under soot coated snow. But it’s there, it’s always there.”

“I see,”

“But the thing is, the damned thing, is that it moves every day. It can never be counted on to be in the same place twice. It’s like a chessboard that every night gets violently shaken and then the following morning all of the pieces are in different and unexpected places. How am I supposed to play, Miss Hale? How I am supposed to compete?

“It sounds unfair.”

“Exactly Miss Hale, unfair is exactly the word. But then so you see, the only way that I can avoid all of this…this shit, is to constantly stare down at the ground, bent over like a crane inspecting the waters. Walking like this and being as tall as I am, I look ridiculous Miss Hale. I look absurd. A joke.”

“And this upsets you?”

“No, not at all. Life throws us all our own amount of shit to duck and weave past; I know this as well as anyone who has managed to survive this long. No what upset me was that yesterday, while I was walking (neck bent down, face almost inches from the pavement) this motorcyclist, one of those eclectic Vespa-type things, he was driving on the pavement and had to swerve violently to avoid colliding with me.”

“Jesus. Was he angry?

“He was Miss Hale. Incredibly so.”

“Did he shout at you?”

“Loudly, in many ways that I did not understand.”

“So this is what upset you? The driver, shouting at you?”

“No Miss Hale, that didn’t upset me. As I said, a man of my age has been shouted at many times before. It’s not something that comes to bother us anymore, the world of others, things said in haste.”

“Then what was it?”

“He just seemed, Miss Hale, to be so…so sure of himself in the world. So confident in that ah, what’s the word? That solipsistic view. That the world had done in wrong in placing me before him. And that I, hapless an inconvenience, was easily understood as different to him and as alien and not part of the whole damn thing. I envied that. His being apart from me. I envied his confidence that he mattered, mattered more because he saw it so. I wanted to be that sure of myself as being there and being present. I wanted to be him, at that precise moment, I surely did…”

“Dr Stallman?”

“There are so many things, Miss Sarah, that I don’t think I want to learn,”

“Sarah?”

“Yes Miss Hale, your ears seem not to be blocked and there’s no damage to the inner ear nor the drum, so I’m going to prescribe some B12. Rest, and come back in a week and we’ll take it from there. I know that Dr Julian (See neurologist) would be happy to see you again if we have to progress further. It’s been a pleasure Miss Hale, as always.”

2.

Lattanzio-6To alleviate the intense boredom that comes with near chronic insomnia, Sarah L. Hale
has found that she enjoys writing emails under fictitious addresses to previous clients in the guise of international diplomats and foreign dignitaries. Conducted either at night or primed and then picked over in the early morning, these messages are long and often purposefully unyielding so as to leave the addressee feeling stranded and strangely bewildered before they’ve managed to reach the end. This is not by accident. The central goal of Sarah Lyn Hale’s covert emails is to leave the reader in the self-same state that she is that through the act of writing them trying to escape. That after the editing and sending off of one of these pieces of ill-informed and seriously misleading texts she feels ever so weightless and free and able to breath in a way that is clearer and more rewarding than any other point she can recall within her adult life is a notable feature as to explaining what makes this habit so increasingly dominant within her free and private time. She has, over the period of just the last six months alone, allowed herself to be many other people. In consideration of the tone, S. L. Hale has discovered that she predominantly likes to assign herself the textual voice of men, often in their late forties, as this allows her a briskness that might not be condoned unless it came from a well-stocked, wide shouldered male who had reached the crescent peak of his working career and was comfortable enough with his large physical form, believing that his wife would never fail to find him if not attractive then at least sturdy and that invaluable quality “reliable” and so doesn’t really give a damn anymore about what he says or whether the rest of the world chooses to accept it. It has also not gone without Sarah Lyn Hale’s attention, that this is the persona that allows her to be least like herself in almost all available respects.

Besides the portly middle-managerial type, Sarah has also staged herself as a journalist, fact checking for the Washington Post who inquired at a local TV station if they had managed to secure any more accurate figures as to the swarm of espa mandarini that seemed to have absconded to mainland China, tired of its idiomatically associated pray of Mongolian Yaks in favour for the well-fed dignitaries of the nation’s capital.

Have you noticed in increase in necrosis, cardiac arrests or other forms of public haemorrhaging?

what was the embassy’s literature suggesting its expat’s should do when met face to face with a curious but perhaps possibly lethal pig?”

The reporter had asked, amidst a 2,000-word explanation as to why the insects had bypassed other nearer Southern cities in favour of the Capital of China (Virulent anti-Sinoism? She has postulated). She also often favoured emails sent from the correspondence of a Mr G. Lea, a public heath expert dividing his time between working the college lecture circuit and performing heroic acts of civic duty in terms of pre-emptively warning those are risks of national outbreaks. It was Dr G. Lea who had recently asked a local (country’s) embassy high-ranking official for the procedure on how to distribute information on protecting their country’s expatiate population from the resent outbreak of Zoonotic diseases. The email drew attention to the experimental introduction of HEV (See: Hep E) to swine in Russia in the 1990’s. Lea noted that similar following studies conducted by both the US and Nepal had found a good 33% of the pigs in the Kathmandu Valley had retained the condition and though differing from previous strains of the disease, the newly introduced version was not incompatible with HEV US-1 and -2. While the risk was still technically sub-clinical and required a great deal of contact with the animals, given the lack of subsequent analysis as to how transportation of the virus could technically hop into the larger human population, what with the overall lack of meat-industry safety/hygiene standards generally practiced, what was the embassy’s literature suggesting its expat’s should do when met face to face with a curious but perhaps possibly lethal pig?

Lea’s own personal advice was to execute the animal in order to minimise the risk of further, more far reaching infection, but that the brave individual willing to risk his own personal safety for the protection of others, needed to be:

Far enough away from the animal should any ensuing bloods splatter or bacterial off-spray reach their clothes or skin or godforsaken be ingested

And so it was here, somewhere towards the end of yet another excessively long email, that Lea suggested the best and most minimal re: personal risk method to exterminate the possibly lethal domesticated farmland animal, was to:

Lure it underneath a large multi-lane bridge, possibly via a trail of offal or perhaps even salted dog treats would do, and then climb the stairs of the bridge while the animal gorges itself on the strategically positioned pile of said meat snacks and drop a significantly large and seriously heavy block of concrete onto the animal’s masticating face.

Just two nights prior to June 23rd’s midday consultancy with Dr Stallman, Sarah had again awoken the voice of G. Lea, who this time had sent multiple emails, a risky first time venture, for with every additional contact address CC’d in (all stolen from O&S intra-net system of company contacts) there grew exponentially the chance that one of them might happen to call and ask another as to where and how they had first heard of a Dr G. Lea, and with a quick (non) firewall guarded search would have found little to indicate that there had ever been such a person in existence. It could however, also land on the other side, towards Miss Hale’s favour in that seeing the extensive lists, on which there was guaranteed to be someone more important or high-ranking or possibly more in the know than the one reading the email and therefore the individual might treat it with greater importance and less like irrelevant spam that if it had been sent to them alone.

On the evening of July 21st, Dr G. Lea’s pertinent distress call was to warn all of those relevant, that a vast cloud of opportunistic pathogens was approaching the capital. Originating in the killing sheds of Beijing’s outer regions, the aggressively militant form of Psudomonas aeruglinosa or Psudo a. for short, as G. Lea referred to it throughout the rest of the extrapolating email, was a highly resistant pathogen, multi-drug strong and one that brought with it all kinds of hospital over-crowing symptoms such as pneumonia and various unpleasant sepsis-like ilk. With the nearby locations of Hebei, Shandong and Henan providing a good 21.6% of China’s overall pork production, G. Lea suggested that the resulting tide of sickness, ill-health and child/elderly death could be catastrophic. The real concern, he continued to state, was that the pathogen seemed to have become increasingly resilient to all the usual forms of decontamination and now the domestic and international medical community (of which he considered himself to be a pillar of) had little to no real idea as to the true limit or array of side effects that infection might lead to. It is, in essence, he stated via line 206 of the increasingly distressing email:

A very dangerous grey zone to be in,

If reaching the kidneys, lungs or other bodily tracts, the effects could be lethal, concluded Dr G. Lea as Sarah Lyn Hale breathed out with a deep sigh of relief, feeling the chair already begin to drift from out beneath her as she pressed send and watched the email dissipate freely away from her control.

“And you’re still not sleeping?”

Diane Reed asked as she and Sarah listened to the fountainous spray of a municipal truck, as it slowed down to douse the street’s central line of Robina bushes, her question lost under the churning sound of the vehicle’s emptying tank and so not heard.

“And the sound?”

“The sound is still there.”

“What’s it like, exactly?”

“Like something very far away and still very near.”

“Stallman is good,”

Diane added, while examining the length of her own cigarette to that of Sarah’s, the internal calculations of how much more time they had left to spend outside visible behind her expression.

“Did you tell you about the accident he had? The motorcyclist?”

“He said that the driver nearly hit him.”

“Ah, so it’s become a near miss now. I’m sure by tomorrow the driver won’t even make it up onto the concrete?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Stallman, John rather. He and I share the idea of reductionism in our daily life. I’ve been doing rather well lately so it’s not surprising he has to out do me. Competitive son of a bitch. I managed to redact last week’s horrific presentation with Lagra plastics and so of course he goes and makes a whole near-catastrophic ‘questioning of self-type event thing’ just slowly sink back into the either. I’m sure the cocky prick won’t even be able to remember telling it to you in a week.”

“You talk to Dr. Stallman, privately?”

“Its more like we try not talking. Talking leads to the exposition of details, emotional mapping, plotting out territorial states of being. We both attend these group meetings, he and I, where the whole purpose is to try and put all of those things behind us.”

“I had no idea,”

“Good, that’s a start. Now, take your condition for example. I’m really breaking the whole code here by going into it but what the hey. So, sleeplessness, palpitations of the heart, impeding hypochondria, it’s not good. Would you say that you’ve been feeling anxious?”

“Anxious, yes. Maybe,”

“Anxiety, this is not good. It carries with it implications. Implications of mental unrest, of medication, of coping strategies. All of these things are undesirable yes?”

“I would rather not feel this way, yes.”

“So Anxiety, the word itself; get rid of it. Retract if from your internalized lexis, your own personal dictionary. Gone. It never existed. Now, if the word is not here, then neither are all of those things above. Do you follow?”

“So, what am I feeling?”

“Say ‘ill at ease’, or better yet, oh yes say weltschmerz, god yes say that.”

“Isn’t that just as bad?”

“Oh honey no, it’s just a stand in, just for now, for while you’re getting anxiety out of the world. Weltschmerz is currently neutral, a newborn word from your lips. Have you told anyone that you’re suffering from weltschmerz?”

“No,”

“And when you do, it’s time for that word to be extinguished too. And then another and another, until life becomes incredibly simpler.”

“Then how to describe to others what you’re feeling?”

“I’m sorry honey, I don’t understand. Tell them what?”

Diane’s cigarette had long since been extinguished, and now along with Sarah’s too being stubbed out against the side of the building’s wall, she took her arms intertwined back towards the lobby entrance hall towards the fourteenth floor.

“Most people, they spend so much time trying to grow and improve things, speech especially. They want to sound confident, certain, the master of their own thoughts. But really, how can that ever be achieved? Let it go, just one little word at a time. It’s so much simpler in the end.”

Lattanzio-5

On the morning of July 25th, the local district officials for all major districts of the metropolitan Beijing area went into action of an immediate kind. They closed schools, placing helmeted security guards by the entrances and staffing additional areas with non-certified volunteers (mostly reaching the end of their fifties) to whom they gave arm bands that safety pinned onto their shirts and allowed them to stand outside and smoke like they would do any other non-critical day only this time with an additional sense of purpose and self-worth. Admittance to all hospitals were limited, with many being turned away at the gates, limping to the roadside to hail taxis that would never arrive, their drivers having been forced to stay at home under penalty of lost licenses, leaving all inter-city roadways eerily empty like the track before a race. Personal cars were allowed accessibly on the street only if accompanied with sufficient documented ID that declared the driver to be resident of the city limits and only then if the individual could prove they had reason to be there, which of course many could not, and after the first dozen or so public arrests went viral on various networks of social media, those already out in their cars with their children in tow, quickly u-turned back home, not wishing the privilege of driving to be revoked. Children wore facemasks for the first time indoors and ate only instant food that was hermetically sealed in plastic before July 2017. Said food was consumed quickly, before the masks were hurriedly slipped back on, the elastic over the ears leaving bruised red track marks that the kids would compare at school the following day. There was a noticeable absence of persons in the street. Those of a more conscientious nature sealed the rims of their windows with reels of blue duct tape, while others took the day to stay at home and watch TV, or better yet play with their phones for hours without interruption. For Sarah Lyn Hale, the day was most forgotten. She spent over half of it asleep, finally having rocked herself down from the high and tense feelings she had been having the previous day by sending off yet another two emails, this time as the representative from an insurance agency informing her client, who happened to be a prominent Capital news broadcaster, that his claim had gone through and he would be soon awarded absolute and total damages. The central thrust of the email had no so much this time been about the details of the case, of which Sarah had spent little time recounting to him (for surely he would already know) but it was more concerned with being slightly unprofessional in inadvertently telling the recognizable broadcaster that she was sorry, that she could not imagine what it was to have gone through such terrible loss. That it was, in her words, only unimaginable to then continue and to find ways of maintaining and of coping after such an ordeal, all of which was geared to hopefully make the local journalist query and internally question what it was that the real/intended recipient of the email was supposed to have gone through and then perhaps leave him with a gnawing, sickening discomfort of having been via Munchausen’s proxy a part of this person’s whole emotional upheaval and stolen moment of release.

Sarah L. H. ended up sleeping so late that after she had woken and washed and eaten a little of what was cold and already cooked stored in the fridge, it had already begun to grow dark, and while the curfew had been lifted, the absence of people out on the street was in nowhere near as profound as it had been around midday, when apart from the turning over of traffic lights, there had been little movement outside at all. After opening her inbox and finding there on the top of the list an email from her father checking in for a call via Skype, Sarah connected and waited for her father to pick up. She dressed herself from the waist upwards, so as not to upset her father, but left her hair disheveled and pulled back, as this was how he had seen his teenage daughter most often when just awoken and still half asleep and so she did not feel like trying to come across as any more presentable.

“Daughter of mine, are you there?”

“I’m here. You can hear me?”

“No. The connection’s fine.”

“What?”

“Good, things are good. There is news and things are progressing. I’m thinking of removing the carpet from the halls,”

“You said in the email that it was important, the reason for the call”

“When is there not something important? All the time, everyday, I see importance all around me. I sense it. Yesterday with the carpet…”

“Dad. I mean with me. To talk to me,”

“You’ve not been outside today have you? Keeping indoors, windows closed and all that?”

“I’ve been indoors. Working. Why?”

“I don’t know but maybe if I’m six hours behind on other side of the planet and I saw it, I thought maybe you’d know what I was talking about. This inattention to the details of your own life, it makes me worry sometimes…”

“Dad,”

“The news. It said the whole of Beijing; shut down, just like that. It’s incredible really, that the people would listen to their government so completely, to such an extreme. It’s impressive really, impressive but terrifying perhaps.”

“It’s nothing. It’s a mistake. The government does this sometimes, checks to weigh its sense of control over things.”

“Well, it worked! Very well I’d say. What is the view like from your window? Tell me.”

“It’s the same I guess. Cloudy, street’s a little empty, its nothing.”

“It looked serious on the TV”

“It’s the way they describe it. It’s nothing.”

“I remember being locked inside during the demonstrations of 82. Bunch of far right fascists, brutes really. Marching and marching. They threw Molotov cocktails made from beer bottles in the streets. Half of them never went off. Poorly made things. It felt so good the next day, being out of the house, so freeing, like being released from a cage,”

“You told me that story. But it’s not really the same, it’s nothing like it.”

“I just don’t trust what it is people say.”

“That maybe is not so unwise.”

“And then so you’re sleeping better? More rested, being inside all day? The anxiety is getting better?”

“Yes. I mean, no. Not anymore, I mean it’s getting better. That’s what I meant to say.”

“The doctor told you that?”

“No, he… he said weltschmerz.”

“Come again?”

“weltschmerz. It’s called weltschmerz. That’s the word for it.”

“Weltschmerz, I used to know this word. Hang on, I’ll look it up.”

“No, dad, don’t, don’t worry. It won’t last very long.”

“You can do this on your phone now,”

“Please. Don’t.”

“I was always impressed by your use of language. Being able to locate yourself in the word, express yourself. A lot of people struggle with it,”

“It’s late, I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t worry now, not now, dear daughter of mine.”

3.

The scheduled client for July 26th was set to arrive at 9:00 a.m. meaning that Sarah L. Hale should be preparing individual meeting room AB, giving her a good fifteen minutes with the authentically stitched tribal blankets, the floor cushions, the un-scrolling of the quasi-non-religious/non-lamaistic Tibetan ceiling to carpeted floor scroll, and finally the lighting of much incense around meeting room AB, more commonly referred to as the blue room (each room’s interior decorating was ultimately the same and so what defined the blue room as ‘blue’, and the adjacent individual consulting room as ‘mauve’ remained a mystery to all but Orbust and George.

By ten, after several concealed micro-packets of wasabi-coated peas (concealed not because of any official non-consumptive office policy, but purely because Sarah L. H. didn’t like other people to watch her eat, less the phobia being tied to her actual eating but more the voyeuristic attention of having someone else actually in the room, there with her, having to masticate with all of the sounds produced, the inhalation and stomach sensations and all that came with it just being too much), it became clear that HeiTian Air Purification Systems were either delayed beyond reason or had never intended to come, both of which Sarah thought about for as little time as possible, before cleaning up the ‘blue’ room and positioning herself once more at her desk, scrolling the months’ previous submitted proposals for further campaign strategies, seeing if there was someplace where retroactively the word tarnation could be inserted.

By 11:30 a.m. the slow drumming inside of Sarah Lyn Hale’s head had so increased, that the Gel-Rite Obsidian rollerball pen on the left-hand corner of her own private cubical seemed to be vibrating in resonance to the bass tone that only Sarah L. H. could possibly be hearing. Diane Reed had dropped by Sarah’s proposing the possibility of a cigarette and an iced, branded coffee, one with lots of cream and refined sugar served in a tall and domed plastic glass and Sarah had been forced to dismiss the conversation, trying to explain that the noise in her ears was making it not only hard to hear, but also to actually get speech out herself, given the impossibility of hearing her own voice over the drone.

“Honey, see Dr. Stallman again. Your appointment this morning cancelled right? He really is so very good at disappearing.”

“Come again?”

“Making these things disappear.”

So it was that Sarah scrolled through her contacts and once again made an emergency appointment at the McKerry’s IHC for that afternoon, and soon was sipping mineralized water from a paper cone outside of the office of Dr Stallman. The hallway contained only two chairs, on which sat Miss Hale and another woman who held beside her a stroller, though the infant child was out of the chair and highly active, entertaining himself with a newly discovered game. The game was to steal, or just maybe to take, the potted geranium from the table next to the receptionist’s desk and run around the corner, out of sight behind the intrusive wall of Stallman’s narrow corridor office. Then when she, the receptionist, stood up to come over and return it, the boy would run back and place it before the table where she would have to bend down, pick it up and place it back next to the rack of company info-magazines and glossy bejeweled tissue dispenser. Sarah watched the boy run back towards the table again, the drum in her ears eclipsing everything but the complaints of the nurse at reception and the dull thud of the boy’s trainers on the carpet as he ran once again out of sight. The nurse said something to the boy’s mother and Sarah watched as the mother mouthed something inaudible, her face seeming exhausted and drawn with thick lines of sleep, and so when the boy returned once again to steal the plant pot, Sarah considered jutting her right foot out and placing it accurately in front of the boy’s trainers to trip him up, hopefully catching the terracotta end of the potted plant, perhaps not someplace fatal, but certainly scaring and memorable. The office door of Dr. Stallman then became open as he appeared, guiding a gentleman out by a hand on the shoulder.

“If these things don’t seem to be real, why let should we let them trouble us, hum?”

The man pointed to his ear.

“Yes well, that either will get better, or it won’t. Either way yes? Miss Hale, or should it Sarah by now, please come in,”

Sarah Lyn Hale lay back on the familiar examining chair and exhaled a sigh of genuine relief. She was glad that she was here, not still in the office, and felt welcomed and once more again in a familiar and recognizable place.

“The ear yes?”

She nodded, as Dr. Stallman began inspecting the inner corridors of her ear.

“Not that good, I’m afraid. If indeed the drumming is still there. It is still there, isn’t it Sarah?”

“What? Yes.”

“What about if I talk this loud? Can you hear me now?”

“…”

“Not just something we want to be wrong is it? A little hypersensitivity? No? Damn. Oh well. Worth a try.”

“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“My fears are here being realized my dear. It’s not good, not at all. Psudomonas aeruglinosa. Big P, little a, that’s how I always remember it. But it’s really not good I’m afraid.”

“I haven’t done anything to it. I haven’t even touched it since last time. That I’ve a good patient, perfectly complicit.”

“Yes well you see, that’s all good and fine. But the issue is, is that the last time we were here for a whole different set of problems, weren’t we? Calling it something entirely different now I shouldn’t think. You went out yesterday no? Ignored warnings and the like? Most probably yes?”

“No. Not a step outdoors.”

“Sarah, I think we both realise now that that can’t be true.”

“I didn’t go out yesterday.”

“This condition (lets call it what it is) can be contracted numerous ways, one of which is intrusions into the otitis externa, that’s inner ear to you, by unclean apparatus, but I hardly think that we need examine the root cause any further,”

“Yesterday wasn’t anything. I know this”

“I’m afraid it was Sarah, it was almost definitely was. Because it’s the cause behind what looks to be some permanent damage to about 90% of your hearing, yesterday that is, the alert and all. Saw the name of it, P.a. right there on the news. I thought, ‘I know what that is’. It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it? Feeling informed before being told. Still, we all have our own areas of personal expertise, I’m sure you have your own too.

Dr. Stallman looked down at Sarah, still in the chair, who stared back at him, not saying a word.

“I feel that I am, how shall I say, unequipped now to answer your questions from this point on. We do have a grief councilor here, newly appointed. She’s very good. I go to meetings with her all the time.”

“I just want my ear to be fixed.”

“Not really an option anymore, I’m afraid. But these things happen, don’t they. What’s best is just to move on. Get on with things. Maybe I can tell you something that might help. Last week, I forget the day, I watched a man walking along the side of the road, just staring at his feet, not looking where he was going at all, eyes fixed rigidly on his shoes, or thereabouts. Strange, frightful really, that he could be blocked out, so isolated from the rest of the world. I believe that he was so confused that he had to stare straight down at his feet just to maintain. Think of all the things that he’s missing. Life, just passing him by. But my point is Sarah, if he can continue, to press on, then so can we can’t we? By which I mean you, whatever happens. What do you say?”

4.

When he inhales, the sound is papery and thin. Things move swiftly and are incredibly brief. There is Dettol and pastel blue. Light can be seen, gravitating towards the centre. For approximately twenty-five minutes afterwards, your hands will still smell like mint, no matter how much water you use to rinse, and you rinse well, as you’ve been trained to do. The smell of blood can be metallic and somehow crisp, an astringent. I am worthy of grace, a person in the room might have uttered under their breath. And there was brilliance in the air.

 

Artwork by Micae Lalattanzio.

Under Wings

Oejerum3
http://oejerum.dk

It could be seen as an inevitable thing, as solid and real and present as the coffee table, an ornamental feature that was absent of books but littered with magazines. Free magazines with lose articles of advertising packed in neatly between the leaves. Magazines which had been and were routinely given out, passed over the banister at the peak of the upwardly reaching escalator of exit A of their nearest underground station in the upmarket and highly westernised east side of Beijing, near the Sanlitun area.

Yet the facts of this were true to him, like lumps of coal they left a palpable residue on his skin and so his person as he rotated them, curling them over and up against one another till their surface became eventually smooth and gentle. Facts just as fine and caustic and darkly fearful as another small boy might fear night terrors of wild animals, deranged and free having escaped from neglected zoos, or furious purple bolt lighting, the colours made garish and otherworldly by the combination of high congestions of urban heavy metal 2.5 pollutants and the natural chaos of a thunder storm, to the kind that cracked and whipped down upon various points in the middle distance with a cruel kind of teasing about the way it licked the city’s mountainous limits. That the young boy’s bare legs came up to the base of the table concerned him, as he reached that extremely anxious and uncomfortable age and the awareness of his growing and maturing presented the Boy with an increased dimension of urgency to his already fixated obsession. The facts were that the boy sincerely felt, that time was obviously limited and that his was far more limited than most.

For his couch to television positioning, now the decision would have to be made as to whether to sit upright, vertical and straight, move the table further away, or even insolently prop his feet up upon its marbled Birchwood and glassy concave dip. The Boy of course would do none of these, choosing instead to simply stop watching T.V. But this was the conclusion that he was already reaching, without really having even considered the table at all. Fixated bodies all after all, tend to give furniture and comfort very little time or consideration.

so as the young child interviewee looks both deeply meaningfully and somehow vaguely absent at the same time into the eye of the camera, the Boy once again begins to question, whether the face he is currently observing, is now that of a frozen body, an expression that is now dead

Our Boy was watching a film, downloaded and stored on a USB in the shape of a mouse that was plugged into a custom designed socket by the side of the set. It was one that he watched already, many times in fact. Therefore, this was a recording that he could watch with a kind of familiarly boredom that felt somehow comforting and indeed safe. The USB drive was at all non-watching times kept safe in a cabinet by his computer, and the drive’s socket to be blown free from dust before each usage. After finishing a quick snack of name brand and expensively purchased rice cakes, topped with rough peanut butter, both of which the Father bought to make the kitchen cabinets (those that he never actually opened to visiting guests, but still believed that their presence would be felt) seem more cosmopolitan, believing that a strict dietary emphasis would connect the Huang family vicariously to New York joggers and smoothie makers half way across the world, joggers living and running in a country that he himself had not yet had the opportunity to experience, and rice cakes and rough peanut butter that he himself would never acutely eat. This snack the Boy sometimes washed down with cold and sugary ice tea or the thinnest watery milk possible.

He would soon release the images and their resonating sound up onto the screen and recline to the cool wave of the opening credits washing over and descending upon him through the room’s five tiered speaker system, set up by the Father to create the absolute and perfectly harmonious balance between the output of the medium and a person’s limited ability to intake. The Father, sometimes late at night, forgetting that he had a family and over a hundred neighbours sharing the same tower block, loved to use the system to entertain his incredibly important late night visiting guests, normally portly businessmen with solidifying dinner stains still on their shirts and baijiuo spirit wine still on their breathes, by employing the attractive and very impressive speaker system, to bolt out stunning renditions of all the current KTV favourites, for he was in fact quite the talented vocalist.

All the carful considerations of the room had been lengthily undertaken by the Father, through months of meticulous planning interposed with sporadic flourishes of inspired and chaotic change. Just because a ceiling-to-floor wall mounted decorative woodcarving had already been measured, positioned and mounted, didn’t appear to the Father to present any significant reason why it could not be turned 90 degrees and shifted four inches to the left before the rice for lunch had boiled. As the events coordinator for the Beijing Foreign Experts Investment Buru, whereas his own father had himself been an iron ore distillation worker, a job that caused his own life expectancy to be seriously reduced; last minute simply meant innovation and a clear sign of good fortune. This approach had meant that the colours of the walls, the decade influencing that particular season’s choice of antique period piece furniture had all been moved frequently and with notably sporadic haste. Each time the Father hired a new personal style guru, a partial creature, more of an autonomously leaning cigarette with the stalk of a man or a women attached and dragged begrudgingly behind a trail of feathery ash, these were figures always sheathed in black silk with a single decorative red flower stuck with a pin somewhere on their person, these were those who sneered when the Boy called upstairs to operate the intercom system so as to let the interior decorator inside who was currently waiting by the gate, staring into its fish eye lens and attempting to make out via the tin pan speakerphone, essentially inaudible dialogue.

Because of this persistent tide of new surfaces and textures, cloths and matted throwback vintage seat covers, the Mother now mostly retired to the bedroom, where she had had installed a small wall mounted television and a kitsch little bedside fridge. She also felt in there more comfortable to smoke, away from the eyes of her son, who could so distinctly smell it leaking through the boards of the floor, slowly setting upon the room like the finest tentative snow. The Boy now only occupied the central communal room between the hours of five and nine, after which his father would arrive having spent another dinner in the company of their employed decorator who would have likely presented him with the latest e-journals on trends and swaying fashions. Both would then arrive in a flurry of strong alcohol and weak ideas. On their best, most inspired nights, the Father would immediately in a slightly over the limit haste begin hacking at the carpet or the curtains with a kitchen knife, not only while shouting back over his shoulder to the thin, chain smoking designer but also inhaling massive quantities of the microscopic fibres being flung into the air until his breathing would become so affected that eventually he would ultimately always feel the need to be sick. By this point in the evening, with the Mother tucked away in comfort nicely under her own covers, the boy would be in his bedroom in close-textual study of the night’s new online articles, headphones pushed firmly in, hard enough so as not to be distracted with his Father’s raising voice and subsequent coughing fits.

The Boy now carefully eyes up the first appearance of tonight’s young child interviewee, a name that he feel by now as if he knows fairly well, if not a little overly intimate due to the incessant and near obsessive re-watching of the pre-recorded AVI sample video. The digital video clip being streamed and then downloaded some four years earlier, but the filming having taken place a significant time prior to the Boy’s discovering of it, so as the young child interviewee looks both deeply meaningfully and somehow vaguely absent at the same time into the eye of the camera, the Boy once again begins to question, whether the face he is currently observing, is now that of a frozen body, an expression that is now dead, that is one of a corpse.

Approximately 256,000 children die from leukaemia in a year, or somewhere within that region. The televised child’s shaved head is so clean and sharp, that you can’t catch a glimpse of any remaining follicles attempting to poke their way back through the skin. It’s as smooth as a doll’s. The televised child is calm when he speaks and this fascinates the viewing Boy. He watches the screen for any slight give away, not a tick no clue, not a sign of the massive repressed anxiety that he is currently undergoing about the whole death process. Even after so many viewings, on this video he remains studious and seriously attentive. The Boy moves his hands nervously, uncomfortable under the backs of his thighs as they are pressed against the couch. He wants to get up, walk to the kitchen and collect a snack-size pack of overly salted peanuts, but doesn’t want to deal the salt that will be left upon his hands. Once he attempted to regulate his dietary intake according to the latest studies and printed statistics on which food groups aided or deflected the possibly of C, but the more the big L began to dwarf more general C fears, the inefficient and general loose terror of C as a whole, the less his diet concerned him. While it was of course not going to help, the occasional binge of brightly packaged snacks, the kind that the plastic crinkles so satisfyingly in your hand as your already oil slick and salted fingers clumsily try to tear them open, seemed a small ask given that such a lamentable fate was most surely set out for his ever nearing future. The Boy can now real off with an internalised index, splatterings of web journals and public hearsay, there is little to no proven evidence between dietary habits and the big L, so there’s no point in denying himself these brief and fleeting pleasures. His desires overcome the whole salt deal nuisance issue and he eventually helps himself to two albeit very bite-sized packs. Meanwhile, on the screen, his filmic counterpart’s immediate family are introduced, both in their capacity as fodder for tiresomely detailed by-the-hospital-bedside montages as their son’s raises yet another brave-but-fearful tear-inducing glance in medium close up direct to camera and in the torrid attempts at homeward bound emotional distress, seemingly always reaching boiling point when there’re in or by the pool located in the gardened exterior to their house. Arguments here rarely seem to occur in other places, their needlessly complicated accommodation, of which the Father would have an obviously more focused attention than the current viewer (our Boy suspects that their exuberant and lavish housing is allowed for us to cast aspersions upon their prior lifestyle pre-son’s C, as the camera too often lingers on the pool, the in-house bar or the suggestive wooden sauna door) is all but ignored unless it withholds a suitably decorative background to add to the on-screen nail biting trembling and suspended lower lips of forced to camera immediate worry and despair.

The secondary reasoning behind the boy’s negation of a carefully controlled and observant diet was that within his daily life, his excursions demanded greater fuel than he was ultimately providing them. He began to lose weight, appearing lethargic and often apathetic towards social interactions. He avoided going out with peer appropriate friends for massive bowls of noodles swimming in a soup of tiny chunks of fatty pork, doused with taste enforcing MSG, or joining the Father in one of their monthly family meals wherein he, the Father, would apologise for his absence, but only within the sober portion of the 1st course.

Nor was it the strained absence from all superfluous interaction that lead the Boy to skip recording the food journals, the notes and the charts, rather it was that they might factor in as a distraction, a smoke screen for greater trouble already residing within. As the Boy had noted within his first week of the early infant stages of his research, the many and varied symptoms, those like really all out in neon screaming signals, the telling signs of the big L were so often vague and difficult to detect or register as not to bother documenting. They could appear perfectly mundane, simple results of a less than healthy or perfectly conducted and coordinated life. Signs such as growing dyspnea or mild pallor the Boy came to worry might be overlooked as mere responses to his valiant and almost monk-like diet and that he or any tired doctor, as a fallible human technician, would simply account his appearance to a form of anaemia, which could be secretly cradling the speculative hand of the big L.

When his eating had become so minimal that the Boy suffered headaches and became routinely doubled over from severe muscle cramps, he eased up some on the overly restrictive diet. Yet it was the subtle expanse within the lymph node area that had lead the boy to demand from his parents that first of many hospital visits, refusing to leave the house or even get properly dressed until they had made the pre-booking call. Though now he vehemently states that he does not remember, he had in fact reached such levels of hysteria, that he had had to begin to regularly enforce a threat of burning down the apartment and had gone as far on one particularly panic stricken evening to ignite a pair of the Father’s favourite crimson silk curtains. They had taken aflame quicker than the Boy really expected them to and continued to drip into the vastly expanding flame, until the Father ran in and pushed his son with the open lighter away, ripping them down from the walls where he stamped upon them with possibly the worse choice of shoes, managing to destroy not only the remainder of the curtains, but also in the process, his favourite pair of American imported hemp sandals. Even before the flames had been fully extinguished, the Father of course had already ran through and mentally considered what could be done with the newly cleared space and after his son had been sufficiently disciplined for his callous but acutely perceptive actions against the poor choice of curtains, for as the father now noted had from the beginning been all-wrong from the colour scheme from the start, he set apart a late night session of drawing of the walls with a pencil, planning out prospective features and layered throw designs.

There is no immediate or neatly defining point as to when or where these ideas began, no ready genesis or point of intellectual gestation. Just that one day the Boy came to realise, as most do at some far later juncture, that he will die.

The Boy cuts through additional sections of the programme that deal with other families in possibly equal states of distress but not that specific topic of interest which the Boy feels might mirror his own developing condition. A thousand faces all multiplying the whitest teeth flash by him in an immediately forgettable succession. Although the documentary has only just begun, the Boy has already begun to consider not finishing it today, for he can recite every single line of dialogue, both from the C infected child and his insincerely mourning parents. The Boy does not like to consider or think about why the parents appear so insincere on screen. He found that the first time he seriously considered this for any significant period of time, his relations with his own parents became that much more additionally stressed, adding an additional layer of anxiety that the Boy just really didn’t need. He’s since found that it’s just easier to hate these specific parents, rather than trying to gain any possibly true but highly painful conclusions from their attitudes or apparent behaviour to their hairless and painfully thin child.

There is no immediate or neatly defining point as to when or where these ideas began, no ready genesis or point of intellectual gestation. Just that one day the Boy came to realise, as most do at some far later juncture, that he will die. Yet within the Boy’s specific case, he was also infinitely and severely palpably aware of how soon his departure would find him. How the arrival would be way before the late date that most people can able to sufficiently convince themselves of in order to aptly acclimatise to this eventual and crushing certainty. The Boy was perfectly resolute, in his bones and tissue much more than his mind or intellectual capacity, that the event would arrive before the later stages of puberty took hold, and most likely within the next two years.

It was perhaps because of this that the big L had taken such centre stage in his early research into childhood fatalities. Within his home in the upscale end of the city, many of the other valid and worthy contenders had come to early elimination. Malnutrition, contaminated water, hereditary blood infection or the lasting descending effects of chemical poisoning were just not as tangible to the Boy. And while the air contamination, a rich basket of polluted PM2.5 particles could indeed be seen as a significant and tangible threat, the Boy just saw all his present poisons as adding or supporting the rise of infant C, that they could not satisfy the boy’s tangible knowledge that death would be a pale and perfect childhood thing. He had scanned his families’ medical records and apart from minor trends in those heart problems of later life, of which he had all but placed upon a similar bend to heavy smoking, long hours and a propensity for alcoholism at expensive restaurants with people such as decorators and high end plastering executives, there was little to inherit. Though he saw the reflected pleasure in knowing quite early on the object and form of which your death will take, with each drink and cigarette a measure of control. But these findings offered little in the way of validation to his present uncertain situation, and of course this boy was raised in the age of C as perfect sister to the late afternoon True Movies channel showing of the terminally ill child, with that perfectly bold head and those angelically shaved eyebrows.

His first panic had involved checking the ridges of his hairline every morning and attempting to measure them clumsily with his school ruler. He then marked the distance from his other facial features in the back pages of his math’s textbook in a spare five minutes before his mother would take him on the underground to school. It was not until the research began had the boy realised that the hair loss, specifically the spectral doll-like loss of the eyebrows, was a result from the following chemotherapy and drug treatment rather than the disease itself, as he had thought not to ask anyone, feeling the question a little too stupid and obviously revealing. Upon his discovery, he had torn out the last ten pages from his textbook and burnt them, terrified that an all too invested dustbin man might for some reason discover them and in absolute disbelief at the stupidity and ignorance of the author, have shown them around the office, then finally pined them to the service station notice board directly next to the tatty and worn out sign-in sheet. The hair studies had long since gone the same way as the dietary requirements, as the Boy began stripping away everything but up to date doctrine and study, the viewing of recorded afternoon C films and the inevitable pleasure in knowing that there was little he could afford to do but wait, swing his feet carefree under the glass surface of the coffee level table which was still missing its collection of photographs and popular interest literature.

That at least one fifth of those who are soon to suffer are undiagnosed is not something that the boy spares little thought to. What is calm and breathable within him is the clarity of his rising illness. There are no spaces left for errors in the moments passing when he envisions hospital wards and the briefest flutter of white curtained sheets. He wonders if he will be upset when he is unable to stand. The thought of many pairs of arms having to lift him up out of bed and into a sparsely cushioned chair is at once an ugly reflection upon his growing return to infancy and a perfect clasping moment of pure love, of many other bodies leaning in with their warmth into his, supporting him, raising him and gently lowering him like a cared for and precious thing. The loss of his bowels and of semi-public defecation doesn’t trouble him. For this he is ready, it’s almost one of the side affects he is willing to embrace. A complete release of responsibility, of forcing himself through the daily acts while still pretending that there is anything decent just because a door of light pinewood is closed, a shabby lock of iron slipped into place. When he sits by his computer in these late nights, the open subscriptions running endless conflicting arguments, new causes and implementations, new treatments and possible remedies, he can almost feel the extremely low frequency waves warming him like the gentle glow of a heated fan, a radiated doughnut of orange flame, bristling up against his skin. The heated base of his laptop, of which he knows is due to its overuse he pictures as this, imagines it’s soft leaking into his skin, riding its way up through the tips of his fingers to his lungs and developing bones. That there is the swelling of a life but within and apart from his own, pulsating richly inside is something close to love. He feels the breathing of all appliances that surround him many of which he trusts, are helping him move steadily and inevitably along.

Acute was the first word that really drew him in. In its notions of easy drive and effortless success the word sounded beautiful and limitlessly stunning. Dreams of speed and dazzling light racing through electrical wiring replaced his boyhood nights of flying. Instead, he pictured microscopic symphonies of unimaginable complexity desiring to circumnavigate the labyrinthine corridors of his nervous system, to defiantly and callously turn his body into lumber. He dreamt of his spine as a vessel, penetrated and infused with rare toxic chemicals brushed with fantasy and unknowing flux. He stayed up late to watch online collections of filmed operations and transplanted procedures for relapsed patients and pictured himself as blind and subordinate to unexplainable and perfect oblivion. He considered what it would be like to feel nothing at all.

And it’s not a fear of dying. That’s never been any part of it. At the beginning the boy sat at the kitchen counter while his mother stood by the frosted living area bay window and considered as to whether he would be sad if she knew he was dying, and decided it was best not to tell her. Only when he had deemed the hospital visits a necessity had he stressed any inclination that anything might be wrong, and even then he kept his inquires brief and confused, forcing them to leave the room when he spoke to the doctor, demanding a specialist. The doctor wanted the family present, but after the curtains and the incident with the fire, both parents had decided to take a slightly more distanced position when their precocious child demanded personal space. The doctor had stressed that in order for an appointment to be made, the parents would have to be present, and it was at this point that the Boy’s research had become internalised to his own room and thoughts. Since then he has let no one interfere. The mother, now stubbing out a cigarette, would give her son a quick smile as she heads over to the sink. The Boy didn’t at any moment want her to feel any pain over this. He wishes that it could be as painless and as accepted for her as it is in his own mind, but he is notably aware that it won’t be. He’s worried that they’ll embarrass themselves in pointless fights and tantrums, just like the parents on the late afternoon True Movies channel C films, so at first he studied them just as intently, to work out how to help them reach mental and spiritual resolution in the course of ninety minutes, but the answer was never substantial and he rapidly became bored with the same orchestral swellings of their tearful yet accepting embraces. The Boy knows that he could not bring himself to suicide when the diagnostic is made. More to the point, for him to reach that pinnacle a specialist would have had to have entered, by which stage his parents will already know. This is why, the central crux, that all elements of possibility must be siphoned away. There can be no doubt in any conclusion, the boy must know before anyone else. His mother stays in her room now anyhow, which removed the push for these thoughts to enter. The Boy can now concentrate with far greater ease, upon the screen and the families tightly bound moments of quiet, restrained dignity.

With the AVI downloaded documentary almost finished, he washes off the last remaining grains of salt under the tap over the sink. While doing so, he thinks that it would be a good idea if he could get hold of some old bones, calf or any other small, domesticated farm animal. He’s aware that though their structures will be different to his own, still he thinks, that to run his fingers over and through the raw marrow, will be an enlightening experience and one that might help him to understand. His research was never one born from fear, hypochondria, or a need to grasp methods of prevention. He simply wants to be ready, to feel it and know it when it’s coming and to experience all of it in perfect beautiful objectivity. He wants to be aware of his accelerated deterioration, to know its shape and focus. The Boy does not want his illness to be something hidden or obscured. The idea that any drop of information may be kept from him throughout the process, in some naïve attempt to spare a young and fragile mind scares him. He wants to know, to really understand. To gauge the effects in difference between methotrexate and 6-mercaptopurine, to view asparaginase and cyclophosphamide as separate islands afloat a great sea of perpetual depth. To be able to recall the name prednisone as the Greek Goddess of which his mind first pictured when he spoke the name alone and silently to himself. As he dries his fingers on the underside of his shirt, he hears the latch to the first lock opening and the ringing of the Father’s voice, as he talks over his shoulder to whoever he’s had in company and brought back home to show the uneven levelling of the passageway from the hall up to the living area. With his bedroom door now closed, the computer remaining on, humming benevolently in the corner, he opens it on an article on genetic mutations in SPRED1 and early signs of predisposition, and the Boy is beautifully calm once more.

Sung Neon Fish

 

jeremy_enecio_02
jeremyenecio.com

 

 

Have you eaten yet?

Yes.

What did you have?

Meat.

Indiscriminate?

What?

Sorry.

What kind?

And so went on most of the resent conversations shared between William “Bill” Casey and his precursory long-term girlfriend and/or companion Eun Kyung, compassionately referred to as Xiao Eun by the aforementioned Bill. Rising early in the a.m. long before the sun had stirred enough even to attempt to wilfully force its way through the tired waves of omnipresent quarter particle swaths that pillowed the firefly canopies of the northern city’s most far reaching towers, Bill was up and yet not so fully awake as he found himself to be presently staring into a mirror with an eastward facing tail end of a toothbrush gripped canine-like between his teeth. That he needed to rise so unconsciously early was in part a direct result from the ever decreasing conversational pool that he found his line available to fish from when trying to keep a steady thread of light-hearted and amiable dialogue afloat with the young Xiao Eun and so had taken to regularly posting her vintage, bleach tinted snapshots of his various purchased meals and snack plates throughout the day, an action that was fairly in the 90% guaranteed to provoke a positive reply from Eun in the format of a basic sentence, or at the very least, a smiling emoji in the shape of a bear, dangling out there amongst the surrounding minimalism of conversational space.

Following on in part from their lack of actual substantive conversing, but also in aid via what Bill’s Scottish-descended Canadian mother had once described as her first born offspring’s prerequisite to suffocating his more tender feelings with very significant quantities of only the most high octane calorific and sugar powdered snack foods such as Uncle Papa’s caster sugar dusted brioche cake, or large lung-sized air-tight packets of Chubby Buda twizzle bisects, that had led to Bill’s steadily increasing intake of both decent meals and mid afternoon snacking, all of which had been justified originally as a means towards damming the rivers of his and Eun’s depleting romantic conversations and yet more recently had flooded over into barely disguised gorging of the most unhappiest of food-to-individual relationships that Bill had prior to ever known.

So with the combined efforts of attempting to resuscitate the various energies of their sudo-sexual text based flirtation that had so sweetly characterised those early days of their coupledom, and now on top of that was also employed in the painful squashing down of that hitherto mentioned amassing doubt and paralyzing fear that their best days were long since behind them, never set really to return, all of which had left poor Bill at a meagre twenty two years of age with a rather rotund pot belly that adamantly refused to give way. The weight, that excess bulk, had also decided not to disperse evenly, so rather than proving Bill with an overly stockier, daresay even a little cuddlier body form, it had instead solely settled around the front centre of his waist and stomach, leading to the mark of his stomach protruding outwards like the tantalising bull eye in the middle of an inverted hourglass that curved and expanded outwards in all of the worst and most impractical areas.

Her life, she often felt, had been a series of well-coordinated blows to negate any possible choices that she might have to possibly consider independently.

And to this Bill had found himself awake at what he considered to be a wholly ungodly grim hour, when he set himself about the task of doing what might marginally be called sit ups, with the suggestion of stomach crunches with his feet pushed under the heels of the hotel bed on which Xiao Eun slept, snoring with surprising amplitude give to someone of her petite frame and minuscule size. Even with her hair cast into unreal oceanic curls above her ears, and given to her preference for shoulder padded clothes and high heels no subtler than four inches tall, she still at most times resembled an adolescent pivoting on two very unstable blocks of wood. That the pair conversed in English had been a direct result of their shared lack of any real and decent Chinese proficiency, and his complete and utter lack of Korean all barring a few cutesy-style phrases that Xiao Eun had taught him. Her life, she often felt, had been a series of well-coordinated blows to negate any possible choices that she might have to possibly consider independently. This then had left her so near bereft of the faculties or blunt mental carpentry required to carve out her own particular niece, left with the empty hungry-ish feeling that a swelling of designer and imported branded goods were only so fruitfully willing to satisfy, her dissatisfaction paralysed by yet another small item of disproportionate value. She was not, to be clear, materialistically shallow, and was fully aware of how her status in terms of personal shopping presented her in the eyes of others. She registered their displeasure, their judgement and their envy. Yet she had simply been groomed by all of the relevant authoritative figures in her life to be just who she was and so, in a pragmatic and perfectly understandable albeit tragically functionalistic approach, saw no available trapdoor through which she might be able to disappear into, and so settled into the tragic role that she seemed set out and destined to play. Her filial role, carefully outlined by her father, a man made six inches shorter than his tailor wanted him to be, was to be to study in Beijing at the foreign language university and from there receive a juxtaposing education in both Mandarin Putonghua and idiomatic business English with all the colloquial trimmings, so as to operate as his very own personal multi0national liaison for his semi-legal garment business, the whole triangle of buying the raw fabric in Hangzhou China in the south via Shanghai ports and then shipped to Korea for design and construction, the over to the US for the hard-line retail storefront. And so, being the essential pragmatist that she had been conditionally raised to be, Xiao Eun had quickly and without much considerable effort, hitched up in the biblical sense with the first Caucasian non-Slavic looking twenty something that she saw in the class with the incentive to speak out (even though unbeknownst to Eun, whose English was minimal enough not to register at that point that Bill had in fact been requesting online access to the materials rather than answering any sort of question) and so had found all of the following assignments easily passable with ease, given in the early days with Bill’s overwhelming and often obsessive desire to both please her and also to free up more of her own personal time.

Finishing his squats with audible strain and the premature suggestions of glistening sweat gathering on his forehead in places where for most men of his age there would be ample follicle coverage, yet for William there was little more than the rapidly retreating tundra of an early widows peak, a coiffure worthy of a man twice his age, he turned his palms to the hotel room’s questionably absorbent carpet, and began his routine of slowly thrusting push ups, an excretion that always seemed to apply greater pressure upon the blades of his back than any other impotence given over to his biceps and the whole desirable male body arm area. The given excuse for the rented hotel room, and the excursion from the capital of China via newly-constructed and precariously lilting bullet train (first class) where on board Bill had allowed his diet to be dissuaded by the various large carrier bags stuffed to the brim, bags that were loaded down with powdered rice cakes, to sugar crusted breads and individuals wrapped bite-sized cubes of shredded beef parts, all of which smelt infuriatingly better than it could ever be described on the page, had led the poor boy to the cloying excuse of practicing his Chinese, to shrink away from the sleeping Eun, to the train’s dinning/bar carriage to attempt to buy some of their pre-packaged on-route vitals only to have the attendant eventually pity him and explain their selection in an English of greater quality than Bill’s Chinese would ever reach. He settled in the end for a family sized pack of Lonely Deity Potato Diskettes, the vacuum sealed pack both simultaneously causing him to feel disappear at his desire to shamelessly consume the whole pack while animal like, standing with eyes jutting from side to side, alone in the section between the carriageways, and confusion of the branded name of the salt fish flavoured snack treats, the cover all along had been construed that previous week towards the end of Thursday’s Mandarin class, where Bill had tentatively knocked on the Dean of the Chinese studies building and entering offered the suggestion that for his end of year cultural studies and linguistics double major assignment, he might be able to travel off campus for a few days, as he wished to visit and then subsequently write about a Chinese native singer, local to the East-Central region of Henan, who apparently had developed a less than orthodox approach to performing Tang Dynasty Operatic ballads. When questioned just how exactly such subject matter might fall under the purview of a thesis statement that had to be at least within the academic ballpark of contemporary Chinese linguistics, Bill had almost artfully fumbled his way around an explanation that circumvented concepts such as the developing application of emotive L1 phonetics, specific to the homogenous modernization (and still, paradoxically attaining authentic cultural lineage) of a relevant classical form. He had even found more than a few (uncalled for) excuses to insert the names of various mainland circulated periodicals, where he dangled the faculty carrot of possible publication, should his paper ever be deemed suitable, safe in the knowledge that the Dean had no great knowledge, nor the inclination to actually do what would be a fairly speedy online fact check as to which of the aforementioned journals actually existed. Bill was also fairly confident, that should this excursion be permitted, it would allow him a few days with Eun away from prying colligate eyes. The trip of course would be entirely funded by Bill he assured the Dean, paid for by the more than lonesome hours spent by his computer, providing online tutoring services (internet classes be a goldmine for sure) and the various illegal writing of other non-native English speakers assigned papers.

A few Ctrip booked tickets later found the pair (that is Bill and Eun, not the previously discussed Dean, paragraphs spatially shifting us here) snuggly up against one another and happily napping on the bullet train, tucked into a seat figuratively modelled on those fashionably egg-ish shaped domed seats circa late 60’s, with Xiao Eun’s cheek irritated by the uneven rising of Bill’s asthmatic lungs through his chest, as the two trundled towards Kaifeng, in the country’s grimiest corner of the East-Central region of Henan. They had boarded the bullet train from the Beijing South station, climbing past Chinese businessmen hurriedly chocking down one last cigarette before the arduous journey. They departed the high-speed rail at Zhengzhou station, and then took a ramshackle old-soviet era style commuter for the final haul to KF. Once out of ZZ, the cluster of high-rise apartments soon began to fall away, leaving nothing but muddy, battle-scarred fields, the perfect prefabricated scenery for a filmic Somme, were it not for the occasional road-side vendor who stood lamp posted in the highway’s hard shoulder that ran underneath the train’s route, vendors whose soot covered push carts advertised ‘delicate infant strawberries’ and ‘luxurious milk’, all embellished with the same baptism of dust that covered everything up until the horizon.

The Tang Dynasty grandeur of KF was itself a thing of beauty, for although the city albeit currently had come to resemble that of any other vast North/Central East Chinese city in this, the new industrial density of the urbanized middle kingdom, the original gates to the city were themselves impressive, as passing underneath their vaulted arches, stood watching over you giant stone elephants with bronze capped tusks that reflected the shimmering sparks from the headlights of vehicles. At this precise point, Bill found himself silently hopeful that they would indeed be able to locate and come to find Kong Meilei, the singer whom he had read about while trawling through obscure expat China blogs, looking for something suitable and safely hidden enough to plagiarise for a previous paper that both Xiao Eun had left him too little time to authentically write himself and that he had no real desire to exert the energy to do so either. Upon finding Kong, he had decided to circumstantially deciding to give a proverbial about the assignment might dutifully provide him with an ample excuse to sweep Xiao Eun away from the girl’s dormitory for a night or two and that perhaps, nestled intimately in some secret and undisclosed hotel bedroom, some of that early-on, now non-existent intimacy might be rekindled between the them.

The KF Athena hotel had outside as its flagpole, an imitation Grecian statue of the nomenclatural goodness, her eyes watching over the freezing guards stoically located by the lobby’s entrance, which comprised of a small entrance desk and a lotus pool that contained no lotuses and no pool. The statue’s evening copper paint had peeled off from her crown, leaving a peppering of smudgy brown stars across her temple and brow. Once checked in, the young couple found their room situated adjacent to a vast in house KTV, a karaoke venue that dominated the fourth and fifth floors, and one that kept a veritable torrent of questionable looking ‘hostesses’ and baijiu bruised business parties, all dressed in drunk and shimmering attire hovering around in occasionally attempting to open with the odd drunken fumble, Bill and Eun’s very securely locked door. Xiao Eun undressed and climbed into the shower, which promised via placard naturally heated water from an underground spring beneath the building. Once the shower had warmed up, a generously sulphuric smell clouded the room, reaching Bill who lay eagled on the bed, searching the TV’s channels for something he could mute and still understand, and so finally settling for ESPN, turned down the sound and watched with no little disinterest. When Xiao Eun emerged from the sour egg scented sauna of the bathroom, she asked Bill to apply moisturising cream to her legs, which he did so as dutifully as possible.

Is that better?

Yes.

Are you warm?

Yes, enough.

Do you want to watch TV?

Maybe just my phone?

Ok.

The pair sat silhouetted against the headboard, their outlines shadowed by the radiating light from the muted widescreen before them. When Xiao Eun fell asleep, Bill rolled her over onto her side and slid the cover across her, then turned and tried to feign rest himself. Back in Edmonton, he had found solitude in the nightly chorus of his parent’s home all too suburban street’s Amur maples, who’s ripple and whisper with even the laziest suggestion of a breeze. When the house had been fully equipped with an industrial installation of air-condition systems, one of the fixtures had been bracketed to the exterior wall directly underneath to Bill’s previously open bedroom window and so soon the prepubescent Bill had found the sound of the tree’s to be obscured, drowned out by the steady and reluctant hum of the nocturnally functioning machines. In this way at least, the Athena KF reminded him of his parental home, even if it was this period of air-con instillation that was to be the tail end of the overly rosy nostalgic period from whereon things would rapidly decline into an psychologically violent emotionally passive aggressive time that he’d more readily choose, mostly, to forget.

a wall of dust obscured mirrored panelling, across which was a fifteen-foot neon carp whose tail slipped eastward with a metronomic four-second shift of cobalt blue and orange

Too early in the a.m., after what might be best called the suggestion of a further dozen or so squats from off of the dubiously stained, carpeted floor of the KF Athena, Bill woke Xiao Eun and by his second attempt was successful enough that the pair showered, standing in their gender assigned and immediately disposable hotel provided rubber sandals, his a Levis blue and hers a generous pink. Slightly ahead of the local time, the Beijing politburo having enforced a national adherence to BJ standard time, leaving various region’s sleepy eyes and straggling to catch up, meant that breakfast was little more than a few tea boiled eggs and dough sticks dipped in soy milk for Bill, while Xiao Eun chose instead to stand out in the cold morning air and shiver and smoke. The taxi came to collect them as arranged and through the prison barred grid that separated the driver from his passengers Bill handed him the address and did his best in grammatically broken Chinese to explain where it was that they wanted to go. At his 6:20 in the a.m. the only people on the street were the small clusters of migrant workers dressed in the construction standard of dusty combats, with palamino hardhats dangling handcuffed to their belts. The crews stood in muted clusters, eating Jianbien pancakes with the steam forming beards around their chins. Bill watched as they were gathered up and rounded into Mianbao passenger vans, scooting them off into the potholed streets as the dawn light switched off the last few remaining streetlights. Xiao Eun slept against William’s shoulder, as he held onto and gripped with his other free hand the taxi’s door handle, as the wheels fell into another open space on the road.

Their vehicle departed the city via the same stone elephants that had guarded the bridge the previous night, then it turned from off the carriageway onto a small, single lane road. Xiao Eun turned herself further against Bill’s chest as the driver rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, the peppered smoke seeping back past through the car’s gated partition. They together took smaller after smaller roads until they reached a small village town, nothing more than landing strip of open storefronts, each one no bigger than a caravan. There was a fruit market and a densely packed convenience store with walls made up inside by rows of chilli-ed tofu strips and airtight packs of shelled peanuts. On the street outside there was a barber cutting men’s hair, the follicles listing to the ground, their slick black timber besmirched by the roan sand of the unpaved road. The starchy, fat tinted scent of beef and noodle broth floated down the strip from a small and grimly lit restaurant. The driver lifted himself from his vehicle and pointed down to the building’s white tilled interior and then told them he wouldn’t wait longer than one hour. He took payment for sticking around and then wandered off towards the noodle restaurant, while Xiao Eun cleaned away the sleep from her eyes and Bill walked over to the convenience store to find a woman asleep face down on the glass cigarette counter. He bought two bottles of water, then shared a cigarette with Xiao Eun, as the two begun to walk, following the map on her phone.

The front of the building was a wall of dust obscured mirrored panelling, across which was a fifteen-foot neon carp whose tail slipped eastward with a metronomic four-second shift of cobalt blue and orange. Inside, the first floor seemed to be deserted. A single desk kiosk had been set up by the entrance and across its dusty table top curtain were strewn a littered fan of assorted pamphlets advertising regulative herbal pills to better improve ones bronchial functioning. Xiao Eun strode across the hallway to underneath the faux-candelabra by the base of a staircase where she paused and then listened. Calling Bill over, the pair stood silently, and from the floors above them came the reverberations of what sounded, they both assumed, to be music of the old and traditional Chinese form, from a period that neither recognised, though Bill did internally confirm that it was being played on a (possibly quite beaten up and dilapidated) Casio keyboard. They walked upstairs and found the second floor to be a restaurant, its walls patterned with similar twisting fish, while at the end of the room through the empty tables that had been left used, stacked with plates and bowls and flecks of hardened rice, there stood a stage large enough for only a single person, and that by this stage there sat the keyboard player, his stool barely tall enough to allow him to reach the keys. Around the stage sat a handful of middle-aged men, all dressed in clothes of generic darkness. From their brown cotton jackets poked the distinctive red packets of cigarettes from which they smoked continuously from, lighting one from the butt end of the other, the plumes of smoke forming an arch around the stage, framing the slightly plump adolescent boy, who sat on the platform’s isolated chair in the centre of the space.

By the audience’s feet rested open glass jars of unfurling tea, the hot water to which was replenished by a small, gravity-sound waitress, who shuffled behind them with a steel kettle in her hand, and it was as she made another round that William and Xiao Eun advanced to the back of the crowd. One of the men turned to scan the new arrivals with an atonal, expressionless gaze, then called the name of the keyboard player, who put down his cigarette and then walked slowly over. He asked William if they wanted to listen, then when Bill said that they did, he lifted a large punch key calculator and showed them then number 300 hundred. Bill paid him and the keyboard player beckoned over for two chairs to be added to the semi-circle.

Returning to his instrument, the player took his place on the low standing stool and begun to play an electronically discordant intro to what neither Bill nor Xiao Eun would recognise as the Ballard of Laoning River. Had Bill known the song, he might then have been able to read later on his phone, how the narrator in the tale began by informing his audience how he had had the bittersweet fortune to have met his soul mate, and how throughout their childhood, the pair would leave their village’s guard to share stolen words with one another underneath the Cypress tress by the river’s deltoid side, leaving notes of adolescent writing, stored secretly underneath small temples made of stones by the roots. By the second verse, the narrator’s tone changed, as he exposits that he came to know how is lover was soon to be married to a more suitable candidate, her parents having accepted a suitor. At first, the young man throws himself into all-consuming, internally apocalyptic fits of despair and impetuous thoughts of suicide. He sees the gushing river before him and considers tumbling in, his boots dragging him under, a quick drowning, his lungs chocked by the furious current, the torrent silently accepting him. But eventually, after the water has aged the skin on his feet by forty years, he turns away and comes to embrace his newfound isolation that now must forever on penetrate each thought and every word. And so in building a wall of silence around him, he set to gathering wheat in the fields alongside his father.

It was there that the narrator lowered and tampered his voice with greater pauses and halting impediments than before, for as he explained, when the boy returned to the fields, the river began to slink back away from the sluice ways and cannels dug by the villagers, the soil in the fields quickly drying, becoming arid and chocked with sandy dust. One of the villagers who was summoned by the village to investigate the river’s sudden departure, came across the township of small mountains built from smoothed pebbles by the bank’s Cyprus grove and so carried it back to the boy, whom alongside his father sat at the table in their home, surrounded by and picking through the slender stems of greenish wheat, unnourished and ill-grown. The boy explained the note, but assured the village amateur detective that there was nothing he could do, that he had promised himself never to feel anything again, so as to allow the girl to live without the burden of his sorrow surrounding her dreams at night. Yet despite his ardent protesting, the villager insisted that there was indeed a special bond between the boy and girl, that wove its way between them via the turnings of the river, and while the pair might never be able to live together, he might still be able to stop the crops from failing, and the ensuing famine that may could follow. So the boy went out, walking alone to the dry and empty riverbank, whereon he sat underneath the Cyprus trees and waited. But he could not reopen that which he had so forcibly shut and so eventually as night begun to fall around him, he returned home, the river still as barren as before.

The following morning he was ruddily awoken by the arms of his father, that dragged him down to the riverbank, where other villagers stood around, their basins in their hands, as the water followed as full and virulent as before, the waves tearing at the edges, the sound of its momentum as fresh dew against the sky. The amateur detective was amidst the exposition of the previous day’s events, currently at the point of telling the teeming crowd of how the boy had returned and thus seemingly had saved them. Many thanked him profoundly, for the fortitude that he had shown, and so patting him on the back, returned to try and rekindle life back into their fields. The boy bowed and gave small, apologetic smiles, and then returned himself, though slightly separate from the rest of the now singing throng. And here, the song slowed down further still, now each note almost ceasing as the song held itself together with the faintest twine. The singer’s voice became fragile, struggling to breach the air. When the song’s coda finally began, the narrator, near exhausted, told of how of course, the boy, unable to tell a soul, had felt nothing at all. He had returned and sat by the cypress against the bank of the lifeless riverbed and had not mustered a single thought, had felt not a word. He had returned to the village in darkness, just as blank and hollowed as before, yet now whenever a fellow villager was to pass by and greet him, or when he came to sit down alongside his family to a meal of Baozi ground freshly from the wheat of their fields, he was reminded not of the girl, and not of the absence from his world, but his newfound absence from the world, and deep inside, from himself.

The song’s composition began to find its way to a close, as the keyboard player’s last cartoonishly synthetic note came to an end, the young singer on stage began to slowly utter a sound as plaintive and elastic as time might be conceived. And as he sung, his eyes closed with life flickering behind the lids, as his hands reached out, like an architect of sound, each finger diagraming auditory fixtures that formed structures invisible and fleeting.

As the young boy sung, the men of the audience held themselves as closely still as their breathing would allow. They smoked no more cigarettes; their gazes seemed to follow the boy’s composing. As the singer came to the second verse, he opened his eyes and his expression grew macabre and haunted. His distraught sight darted perpendicularly across the room as his voice continued singing in its fragile falsetto pitch. He seemed to experience terror, bereft at the turn of every line, the lasting lingering halt of every note, as if unwilling to let it fall out into the ether, his hands now leaning, clawing forward as if trying to pull every note, the resonance of the song back into the silence that he now left within him. As his singing increased in its intensity, the men in the audience all leaned forward, in inches away from falling, as dull gathered guttural moans began to breathlessly depart from their gaping jaws, the ambience of regret filling the restaurant’s halls. As he realised this, Bill turned towards Xiao Eun, who he found equally transfixed and mesmerised, held now in a semi-levitating state, balancing from off her chair, her hands white-knuckled as they held murderously onto the bending plastic of its base. Bill watched as Xiao Eun peered forward, as along with the other men, tears began to pool within the eclipses of her eyes, and so reaching over to comfort her, he found her body to be deathly cold, the hairs on her arm blistered with windswept waves of evaporating static.

The song moved on towards its climax, as the young protagonist began his departure away from the crowd of jubilant villagers, as then the singer’s face froze as if locked into a paralytic grip. His hands hovered almost motionlessly in the air, like a puppet stung out upon a hook, his eyes widening beyond all conceivable proportion, as voiceless breath extinguished itself from the depths of his lungs. As finally he found the final notes to the end of the song, each note seemed to shiver, like the scales of small silver fish caught by the moonlight, only to slip back into the darkness and be disappear in all but an instant.

And with that, the song was over. The men returned to their smoking, and letting out an exhausted and bemoaned sigh, Xiao Eun joined them in lighting up her own, and began wiping clear her eyes. The boy singer remained on his stage, his eyes once again closed and his body visibly shaken. William stood and asked if they could speak to him. What followed was an explanation that Bill and Eun would piece together from what they believed the pianist told them. He would later come to understand while writing his essay, alone with the cold light of his laptop, that even all of what he taken from him was probably falsely heard, or untrue, or lost in someplace between the telling. The boy was, Bill had heard, of ten years old at the time of the accident. That he had been resting on his mother’s lap when the bus had been struck sideways by a truck containing indeterminate refuge. That the peopled vehicle had been totalled, with sixteen dead pretty much instantaneously, or within minutes, struggling for breath once dragged on their backs to the side of the road, away from the burning vehicle. Those that had survived, who came away with a litany of various physical and psychological afflictions, many never fully to recover to regain the person that they had once identified as before, had struggled to a nearby town not awaiting the slow arrival of the ambulance services, the cost of which most of them could not afford. The boy’s mother, it had seemed, had passed away at some undisclosed point along this journey, the boy having been forced to leave her body in the road for others to attempt to move. And yet so while he had survived, he appeared to be left with some more than a little serious, major duty damage to the cerebral zone that had all but cut the cord on his communicative building blocks re his short-term memory. That is to say, that the boy all but stopped constructing new naive experiences and so sank into the endless, unaware state of existence, wherein he met every new experience for the first time, emotionally naked and unprepared again and again, for the rest of his foreseeable life.

While initially considered a complicated burden by his newly adoptive uncle, the grey bristled man came to repeatedly find his new charge in strange and unexplained surges of chronically heightened anxiety that almost always blossomed into full fledged fits of terror, locked as the boy was in the death gripped jags of hysteria. Though once coming back to what was arguably himself, the boy was unable to explain himself, as to why he was to be found so frequently and unexplainably catatonic with sorrow. Yet as these jags continued, the observant uncle began to notice a certain alignment between the boy’s inhuman wailing and the playing of certain songs on the old man’s palm-sized portable radio that he ubiquitously left playing. Making a note for every song that sparked reaction, he quickly had composed a comprehensive list of fairly antiquated pieces that all smacked of a certain nostalgic mistiness. He was, after scouring that his mother had sung to both his very own self and indeed his younger sister, and so given all of that filial affection and the like, wasn’t too pushed to realise that she had most likely imprinted the same onto her own personal nursing infant son.

In answer to William’s lasting question, as to why these songs seemed still to so take over the boy, and as to how and why the ethereally intoxicating aura that seemed as to have seeped out over all of the audience (except Bill himself) transporting them to a shared and wholly distant space to exist in, if only momentary, there alongside the boy and his overflow of spontaneous emotion, from whence the boy had developed his own linguistic wherewithal to formulate his confusion and compassion into song, the very best and only answer that the keyboard player could postulate, was that these songs had been so far ingrained, carrying with them a whole lot of emotional weight, and so while they remained lodged within a damaged and yet accessible region of his mind (here Bill inserted cerebral cortex) and so while he was able to recall and sing them, he did so without any memory of the song, hearing them for the very first time, as the words departed from his lips, the notes brought on as if from some unstoppable gust of orally fused psychological resource. Each time that the boy would sing, the pure, unadulterated hurt, that loss and shock both captured within the lyrics of the song, in their cadence, litotes and tone, and of his own personal witness to horror came upon with all the sledgehammer sincerity and unguarded attack that shattered him upon emotional impact. And it was this, that came to affect, first the uncle and then the keyboard player had noted, those that sat near with him during these moments, when lost and away within himself.

How does it feel? Bill had asked the pianist, hoping that he might in turn ask the boy, but whom instead had answered.

Translucent.

Outside the taxi driver was already waiting with the seats pushed back to recline, with his de-shoed feet up on the dashboard, his head back and asleep. Once more in the KF Athena, Xiao Eun privately washed small items of clothing in the bathroom sink with the door almost closed, while Bill lay prone on the bed with the television playing ESPN with the sound turned all the way down to mute, the colour from the screen kaleidoscopically flickering about the room. He must have fallen asleep, for when he awoke to the sound of Xiao Eun re-entering the room, the sharp click of the keyboard jarringly removing him from sleep, there lay outside the shy glow of streetlights through the mist, as a low, dark haze begun to cloud over the city.

Are you hungry?

Yes.

What do you want?

Meat. Something good.

Ok. Something good.

Stray

I try not thinking all the time

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Kris Knight https://www.pinterest.com/pin/326229566738620973/

On Eric’s fingers he smelled chalk. There was a blue, yellowish smear that circumvented his palm. It began at his littlest finger and reached all the way across to the base of his thumb. Eric stared upwards and created a small bullet pointed index of everything that felt immediately relevant. Calk can be used to preserve silver when kept in close proximity. Calxophobia is widely accepted to be the definition for one afraid of blackboard worthy calcium carbonate, though the colour Eric noted was not specified. Could one only be afraid of white chalk? That alongside hydrated silica, oxides of aluminium, phosphated variants of the same abrasive substance can be found in most domestically purchasable store bought brands of toothpaste. And then so while thinking of this, rubbing his fingers together and sensing the compacted mesh of powdery and soapish oil, Eric found that he had thoughts of Dettol brand disinfectant and of sea salt, and for these he did not know why.

I can find these things, and connect them to where I am, here in this place. But I’m still unsure, of what this is I mean, is what I’m trying to say

Eric had been waiting on the corner for what seemed almost like fourteen minutes when Pieter arrived and the two of them walked up the Hutong alley in one of Beijing’s older, still intact districts towards the first bar that they had proposed to drink in. Eric had wanted to go there because it was small and comfortable with stools located directly at the bar where they could sit and not have to face many other people, and that he knew the bartender and knew that they would be generally left alone and so he felt at ease and somewhat safer there within that space to relax, enough at least to be generally able to actually, honestly converse with another person and a friend, and not end up ten minutes or so later feeling regretful and anxious about what he had previously said, or should have said, fretting over the inconsequential opinions that he might have been perceived to have offered, or perhaps only inferred. Pieter had been fine with the choice as well, because it was relatively close to his home and he didn’t have to walk too far.

It would be good to drink something with a lot of fruit in it, Eric said as the two pulled up their stools to the synthetically constructed faux bamboo enveloped bar. There is a shark hanging from the ceiling, an inflatable shark, Pieter said. It has a name, Eric added, but I forget it sometimes, like now.

They ordered drinks that arrived in primary coloured plastic skulls. Both of the drinks had small, mountainous islands of foam floating on top, and both of them came with a lot of fruit, as Eric had requested. Thanking the bartender Eric also asked, is this Exotica? Should that be what’s playing? Is that what this is. I’m looking at my phone and I can read Arthur Lyman, Cugart, Enoch Light, Les Baxter. I understand that Martian Denny is a name. I can find these things, and connect them to where I am, here in this place. But I’m still unsure, of what this music is I mean, is what I’m trying to say, and I don’t understand how what I can here aligns itself with what I’m hearing. I’m unsure, I guess, is what I mean.

Pieter sipped his drink, then directly changed the subject. Recently, he said, I have begun to feel an obligation to have children. My wife, I am to believe, feels this too. Though I don’t know which came first, her attachment to this feeling of obligation, or mine. And I’m not sure either, whether the inclination came first, or her believing that there should be an inclination. It can seem sometimes like we’re being led by our aspirational expectations of what we should be this time in our shared, collected lives, be anxious about. I don’t think Judy will ever want children, Eric bridged. Can I tell you something? He asked. I feel that I can tell you this, and that I want to tell you and feel that I can, because you know me and because of this you realise that we’re here and you have like, a pretty developed and unspoken awareness of the whole sub-contextual emotional landscape here and such, so like that is to say you have scope, is kind of what I mean. So, a few days ago, Judy and I were walking back from her office. It was dark, but wasn’t late, in that it didn’t feel late, but maybe it was. And then so, yeah I guess just I watched her like from out of nowhere, or nowhere previously warned or stated anyhow, just watched her like run down this stray cat and kind of… stamp, on its tail. Like she really came down hard on it too. It was definitely a stray, a stray cat. There are lots of them in the neighbourhood and people just sort of feed them but they’re like totally strays. But she…she lured it in. Can I say lured? Yeah. She lured it in with these little noises and then just stamped on it. I saw her do it, and then carry on like nothing had happened. For real, I watched her do it.

I’m invested in this, Pieter said, but I’m also struggling to recognise what it is that I’m drinking here. And I’m finding myself unable to be listening to you, while not sure what it is that I’m drinking. I can’t honestly say that I feel as if I’m really present. Well, Eric asked him in a neutral tone, what does it taste like? I can’t distinguish that much, Pieter replied. I can taste pineapple and lime juice and maybe guava, but not much else, maybe orange. But there has to be more to it right? You’d think so, one of them said, wouldn’t you? Then the other added. But maybe, I don’t know.

As they drank another foam-covered nondescript and yet accurately tropical fruit flavoured drink, groups came in and went out behind them, eventually leaving only another pair sat at the circular table behind them. A large American girl adored in a sequined, denim jacket was arguing with a small, Middle Eastern looking man. But you can’t say that word; she had less than a minute before. It doesn’t matter all right, it doesn’t matter because if the original meaning is like, lost, them why refer back to it. Words are all about that: context and shit. But I refuse to have it taken from me. It feels as if it’s being stolen. Would you have been offended if he had said something else? No? So why’d he use it then? Can I ask you, do you need this fight this just because of some underlying sense of principle, or do you like, just need to be right? I don’t need to be right and I really don’t think it’s an irrelevant point because it’s so not. I just don’t think its ok for you to get so upset about it when I’m ok with it. He said Aryan. Aryan. She repeated the word at least three times that Pieter and Eric counted. Why’d he have to do that? Why not pick any – other – word? It’s not wrong. No, it’s not, but then why not Iranian, why not Persian, why not anything else? I think it was the answer to a crossword puzzle. Then why have that conversation in public? Why do that? I just think that it was uncalled for. I just don’t like that he used it.
Excuse me, Pieter said, half turning to the conversationally arguing couple. Not to say that maybe he’s not an asshole, I don’t know. But he’s also kind of maybe not wrong, depending on the context. But, so it might just be misappropriation, he might not have meant it, meant it that way. Anyway, sorry to butt in, just thought I’d say. Both the man and the girl stared at Pieter, who turned back to the bar and decided that he wanted to pay for his and Eric’s drinks as they then walked what Eric counted as fifteen smallish steps, not strides, into their second bar of the evening.

On the wall there were shields, medieval placards painted with what Eric assumed were family crests. He began to open the browser on his phone to look up what animals represented what, but then got distracted by the swords. There were swords too, mounted on the walls. Walking underneath the tables was a Doberman dressed in armour. He looks like an armadillo, or a beetle or something, Eric said. Does he like wearing it? Pieter asked the bartender. Wouldn’t you? He replied. Yeah, I would wear that, Pieter said. Eric turned with his phone still in his hand. I wouldn’t know from what period any of these originated. I know that they’re all from different places, in time like, but I don’t know how to Identify.

You feel it’s an obligation? Eric asked once the two had found a table. Maybe that’s the wrong word, Pieter continued, but I just worry that she perceived that there is this order to how things are supposed to continue, and if we don’t then what are we doing? Did she use the word stagnating? Eric asked. No. God no. I think that’s a horrible word. Did you discuss it afterwards? The cat? Stamping on it like that? I tried to, but she just said that it was a stray and that it was dirty and unsafe and so she was trying to like, scare it away. But she stamped on it? Yeah, and she lured it in first too. That’s fucked up. Does it worry you? We don’t have a cat, but yeah, it does worry me. It does. But you said that you wanted children? I do. And I want us to have a family; I feel that it would be good for us; I just don’t like that to think of it as an obligation. Have you tried to? Of course man, I try not thinking all the time.

he noticed a fleshly looking oval lying in what appeared to be a gel like substance or oil or some other form of viscous and reflective liquid.

Neither Pieter nor Eric really wanted to stay at the second bar long enough to get drunk. Eric had already wanted to leave for some time prior to suggesting it, having early classes in the morning, and feeling already light headed, less than slightly depleted, and worried that the power bar on his phone was declining. Pieter had been fine with the decision, choosing instead to drink at home, where it was cheaper and where their wouldn’t be an armoured Doberman attempting to generously clean the elbow to his left arm. The pair had said goodnight and separated. Eric would continue on to cross the city via the subway, while Pieter along the walk back to his Hutong home through the alleyway would be met once again by the large denim dressed American girl, who had seemingly been waiting for him to reappear. She would attack him, hitting him around the back of the head with what felt like a piece of brick, but was more likely her purse. Though the purse could have had a piece of brick inside of it, Pieter would later tell Eric, that wasn’t entirely impossible. He would then fall to the floor only to be straddled by her, as her denim jacket discarded plastic sequins that dropped onto his face, circumventing his nose and falling into his mouth. As she strangled him with both of her wide hands around his neck, she would repeat the words fascist, you fucking fascist into his ear. What would strike Pieter, though not at that precise moment, was that the he had been able to feel the immense heat of the woman’s breath in his ear, and how unrealistically intimate that seemed to have made the whole encounter. Only later in the hospital, would he get distracted by thinking about this and loose track of his then present conversation, when half listening to a doughy police officer who was at that moment would be questioning him in bored and inexhaustibly monotone English whether he was going to charge the woman for his medical bills. He would finish his evening with nothing more than two half-inch bruises around his Adam’s apple and a torn jacket pocket, where the woman had first grabbed him. He would however, later resolve to never include himself in other people’s conversations.

At the precise moment that Pieter was thirty seconds away from being assaulted by a semi-unknown assailant in a darkened Hutong alleyway, Eric was about to step onto the stairwell for the fifth line of the subway, when he noticed a fleshly looking oval lying in what appeared to be a gel like substance or oil or some other form of viscous and reflective liquid. Eric then tapped the lump with his shoe and leaning in closer discovered that the liquid was blood, and that the carrier bag sized island was a foetal, hunched up cat. Circling the subway entrance, Eric found that there was no one there around him, and so after pacing for a few elongated minutes, he took off his jacket and picked up the cat. He was at first surprised as to how soft and limp it seemed to be, and how the animal’s immediate heat reached him, penetrating the thin polyester of his jacket.

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Kris Knight https://www.pinterest.com/pin/326229566738620973/

Eric began down the stairwell carrying the cat, then he turned and retreated back out of the subway remembering the guards, and so spilling more than a little of the animal’s blood on his shirt and trousers, he put the jacket back on and the creature against his chest. The bulge of the cat weighed on his chest as he steadied himself down the stairs once again, this time with one arm on the railing and the other pressed against the back of the animal. Through his jacket, small teardrops of blood began to blossom, and had the subway guard been awake to notice, he would have seen a large shotgun blast shadow of blood across Eric’s genitals and inner thigh, where he had held the wounded feline, squeezed there above the ground, while trying to put his jacket back on. But they were sleeping and Eric managed to squeeze through the security barrier, with the animal making only two slight groans as he held it uncomfortably close, its breath strong and heavy, and reminiscent Eric thought, of tinned mushroom soup.

It was only once he was on the subway, did Eric consider that he had no actual idea as to where it was that he was taking the animal, nor what he could do to save it. The subway carriage was deserted except for one middle-aged man who was dressed in the uniform of a migrant construction worker. There would not be any available veterinary services open, not that he knew where to find one anyway. He had somewhere in the recesses of thought, he assumed been on route to carrying it home, that he was taking it to his apartment, but he too soon quickly realised the futility of this idea near almost instantly. On his hands the cat’s blood had coagulated, leaving a thick, crimson crust that held slightly like semi-settled glue. When he had been thirteen years old, he and two invited friends named Sam and Sarah had raided his parent’s liquor cabinet, and in an attempt not to take too much from any one bottle, had mixed small thimble shots of nearly everything on the shelf together into tall milkshake glasses. Drinking their concoctions and then heading into the local miniature forest, owned by a nearby Scout troupe, all three of them had quickly felt unevenly beyond drunk, and not particularly great, it had only been Sarah who had vomited. She threw up by a small and unmaintained pond, where it had disturbed its crest of algae and left raw particles floating on the surface. It had been a disturbingly violent pink, not dissimilar to fruit foam Eric would later think, due to the large amounts of Campari that the trio had added to more than half of the drinks. And so afraid that she was dying, the third member of the group, Sam, had decided to go home leaving Eric and Sarah alone. Barely able to walk, Eric had managed to carry Sarah back to his the home, where his parents were still absent for the following forty minutes, and had rolled her underneath his bed, where she spoke to him with the extended pauses of the alcoholically blindsided. From the arguable clarity of his adult reflection, Eric had never been sure what he had intended to achieve by trying to hide her there. He still remained uncertain as to how long he could have conceivably gotten away with it before he was caught. The answer had been exactly one hour and ten minutes, which was the time that it took for Sarah’s parents to arrive and demanded to know if his very own adult guardians tolerated such early afternoon drinking amongst the barely teenage. It hindsight, it had not been one of his proudest moments, nor would it be by the end of his adolescence, one of the worst. Perhaps it had been the ill-conceived first offer of oral sex performed by Sarah onto Eric that had led him to such a selfish and infantile course of action. Either way, as he recalled this, while cradling the dying cat in his arms on the Beijing subway at the exact moment that Pieter was hearing the

words fascist, fascist you fascist for the sixteenth time, he realised that the under the bed option was not one that was any longer available to him in his present situation, and so continued to think about what to do as he watched the destination indicator’s light blink tirelessly away before him.

Eric woke up five stops after his own had passed. The migrant worker was gone and the carriage was empty, except for Eric and his blood soaked jacket, which lay on the seat beside him. The cat’s blood had soaked through the jacket and had left patchy smears across the seat’s well-worn pleather. The cat was neither on any of the carriage’s seats nor had it fallen on the floor. Eric picked up the jacket and searched underneath the plastic seat mountings, then scrambled to his knees attempting to locate the macabre breadcrumb trail of the animal’s blood. In the next subway station, he looked for a guard booth, or a station agent who might be able to give him access to the train’s security cameras. He had decided that he would tell them in his broken Chinese that he had lost his backpack. He considered as to whether to say bag or schoolbag, as to whether which one would make him seem more sympathetic, more socially-conscious and in need of understanding at this hour, but then noticed the bloodstains across his crouch. However in the following station there were no guards, nor apparent booth for them, and so Eric crossed the subway undercarriage to the adjacent line, and backtracked five stops, scanning the empty platforms of every passing station along the way through the train carriage’s windows.

While walking up the six flights of stairs to their shared apartment, Eric listened to the series of audio messages left on his phone by Pieter, the final one asking if he would be able to collaborate his story in the near future. Eric agreed and decided that he would turn his phone off, only then remembering that for some reason that he didn’t understand the alarm would only work when the phone was switched on, and so he turned it back on feeling slightly defeated. Inside Judy was positioned at a right angle in bed, with her Ipad resting against her knees, its cover folded to form a small pyramid that kept it vertically aligned. She paused and identified the large claret stains circling her boyfriend’s penis. Pieter got beaten up, Eric said, and she nodded and went back to the show that she was streaming, which was all about watching a petite Japanese woman consume an inordinate amount of instant noodles in one sitting. Eric placed the stained clothes to soak in a pink plastic basin, then climbed into bed and exhaled for longer than he thought possible. When the video finished Judy asked him if he wanted to watch another with her. Eric nodded, and as the Japanese model, now dressed in only a black sports bra and grey sweatpants began to unwrap twenty four soy-flavoured boiled eggs into a Muji brand Tupperware container, he pressed his head against Judy’s shoulder, and considered how much space there was directly under their bed as the smell of blood meshed with the sent of chalk dust that circumvented his left hand.

Like Swimming

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Robert Kepaik http://www.flickr.com/photos/novalis_on_a_motorbike/

Harmony is an early riser. He wakes most mornings to watch the dawn. He treads carefully down the narrow staircase to the kitchen, all of the walls in their house seem tightly closed, even the ceilings seem unnaturally low. He will sit by the kitchen table and drink three cups of coffee without any milk or sugar before his wife will join him, sleepy eyed and bumping into the corners of doors. He is not sure if he enjoys the dawn, he’s unable to see it as something serene or beautiful without thinking about the rest of the day that it brings with it. He does however knowingly enjoy the pre-dawn dark. Here he feels a great sense of timelessness. Today’s dark will be the same as yesterdays and tomorrow and will be perfectly captured and still and truly all his own. Once in the kitchen he tries to move as silently as possible, allowing the sifting, granulated coffee to spill out like sand into the base of the mug and pouring boiling water, annoyed by the hiss of the kettle, he’s patient so as not to disturb the quiet stillness all around him.

The kitchen table is littered with scattered piles of homework, pages ripped out of notebooks, mapped with little twirls and flourishes of red ink, dotted with small scrawled notes all finishing in question marks or exclamations. It’s beautiful, his wife’s handwriting, he thinks to himself. Alice Hayden teaches history and so forces all of her students to produce lengthy essays packed with significant dates, names of cultural verisimilitude and importance. She requires concrete explanations, timelines, cause and effect. The clear logical presentation of it all immensely pleases her. Dates, locations, battlefield and explorations, rebellion and revolt all draw through her a sense of a palpable and sincerely real past, far more consistent than any sense of the conceivable now. She finds hours pleasantly lost in researching and collecting up vast arrays of accompanying aids of tapestries, portraits and etchings to give her class greater resonance. She has decorated their home with hundreds of small, poorly printed out scraps of paper, of archaic book covers, penciled sketches and faded maps, all of which she sticks to the wall with plastic tape, only to have them all peel off and fall to the floor once the windows are opened and the wind works its way through the landing’s narrow hall.

Their house is small and used to be cluttered. Harmony is tall enough to have to crane his neck sideways when taking the steps and has to duck under the lintel of the kitchen’s doorframe. All of the room’s thickly carpeted floors, until last week were covered with threateningly sharp and plastic minefields all composed from children’s toys, the kind for boys, figures built for guns and mechanical monsters with ferocious and extendable appendages. But this morning, Harmony can pass through the living room, now a cleared and vacant space, without monitoring his footsteps, and for the first time in the week he notices that he walks without automatically looking down all the same, at the now empty the spaces between his naked toes.

He would watch the hazy coronas of light expand and distil from around the floodlights above though slowly fading sight, blurred as the plastic before his eyes softened into a myopic swell of distant and uncertain radiance.

The mature Harmony is strong; his legs feel constantly tensed and flexing to the touch. His chest protrudes out and over shadows what little of a flat stomach there is. As a child, a boy with ill-suited blond hair, he had made the conscientious decision to become physically developed, given his mother’s questionable choice of naming him Harmony in a town composed of Karl and Matt and Dave. While he had been unsuccessful at lifting weights, the more he heaved them up and down the less his biceps, triceps and chest seemed to want to budge, he found that in one activity he excelled. He was a swimmer, a natural. He seemed able to move beyond his classmates while exerting only a fraction of the effort that went into their frantically chopping storms of motion. The embarrassingly repeated description by all who saw him submerged was “effortless”. When he swam, he felt as if he would never need to come up for air. Time, slowed down, underneath. His hands and feet would enter and depart the waves without having seemed to break the surface. His heart never raced, and still he glided to first place in every competition. Of the pool, he loved every element. He would follow the line of black tile as it extended ever forwards into the chlorine blue darkness ahead. He loved to watch the small bubbles of exhaled air pass by his eyes like perfect glassy spheres, as the dull pressure of water filling his ears dulled every sound around him. He would watch the hazy coronas of light expand and distil from around the floodlights above though slowly fading sight, blurred as the plastic before his eyes softened into a myopic swell of distant and uncertain radiance.

He was fourteen when he decided not to come back up to the surface, to stay there underneath and in it all, perfectly womblike and protected. It took over two minutes for the clambering hands of the parents watching the meet from the front row to reach down and find him, and grabbing roughly around his limp arms and shoulders, pull him out from the water. He had known, even at the exact moment that his body had gone perfectly still, as he opened his mouth to allow as much water as there was space within him to fill, that he had not wanted to die. He simply wanted to remain underneath. And as He lay by the side of the pool, the water being pumped from his lungs by fists upon his chest, he felt the skin-like layer of water slide away from his drying body, and he knew that he would always now feel nakedly alone and unprotected. Harmony watched as the morning’s light began to interrupt the blackened sky, and after finishing his third cup of coffee and poured his wife her first, and began to set out the son’s breakfast cereal, toast and translucent apple juice, none of which he would touch.

Though he taught the swim team at the same school as his wife developed student’s understanding of how individuals could shape and determine the fates of whole nations, so they would as routine, leave in the same shared car every morning, he seemed to need this period of silence at the start of the day to compose himself, whereas she could be up and roused and ready, albeit clumsily, to go within the short space of thirty minutes. As she sipped her coffee of a thinish cloudy white, the brown liquid drowned by floods of milk, she stroked her husband’s hair as the two of them watch their son sit sternly in his seat, his hands pressed tightly beneath him, eyes fixed intently on the mesmerizing boxes of cereal that, although his stomach barked at him with a growing ferocity, he had refused himself to eat.

The son was, he had decided, going to be depressed, clinically, and had read online that depressed people very often do not eat. So although his body pleaded with him to reach out and fill the neonish plastic bowl with its faded childish decals of five years past in front of him with dazzling balls of puffed and sugary wheat, he sat motionlessly still and stared intensely ahead. He would, in the coming weeks, find another suggestion posted online on a medical self-help forum, that another true sign of chronic omni-polar depression could be excessive over eating. So that, one early morning his father would silently descend the stairs, in anticipation of his pre-dawn darkness ritual, to find the kitchen decimated, all cupboards emptied and scattered mountains of severed packs of single serving current cakes, crumbled loaves of bread torn apart, shredded by starving hands, and jars of peanut butter and chocolate spread scraped clean, and would hold his sickly and heavily breathing son tightly in his arms, as the boy’s heaving chest pressed his pajama’s sugary stains against his father’s bathrobe, as the open cupboards cast newly forming shadows onto the two figures, squatting on the littered floor, the sound of his weakly weeping son penetrating the room’s otherwise unbroken stillness.

He had tried curling up in a fetal ball upon the couch and listening to his father’s blues records, playing endlessly over and over the songs of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt, but they had done little to solidify the intense and all consuming nothingness that the boy assumed to be the feeling of absolute and certain depression. He tried sitting in a darkened room, all of the curtains pressed tightly into the corners of the windowsill to block out any subtle intrusions of natural light, and then had listened to the plaintive cries of Native American chants. He worked his way through the local library’s collection of Argentinean Fados, Tibetan homesick refrains and depleted any depth of sadness he could extort from Górecki’s sorrowful recollections of great and formidable tragedy. But none of them had worked. They all made the boy feel, well, nothing. But it was not, the boy assumed, not the nothing of a hopeless depth, a nothingness that would signal that he was authentically, sincerely, legitimately depressed. He had tried frosting up the classroom window at school during their lunchtime break and with a moistened finger, stenciled out the word “suicide” onto the glass. However all this achieved was for a passing teacher to comment that he had misspelled the word “suiside” and to wipe the window clean.

I don’t care if it’s positive cognitive or interpersonal, but I want to see someone regularly in a small safe place with warm colors and welcoming furniture.

The parents had first been made aware of the son’s attempts, when they overheard a conversation snaking its way through the parental hub of the school gates, of how young Antony had to take anti-depressants, and at such an age! After they had reassuringly corrected the parents that it really wasn’t true they had, as openly and gently as was possible, brought up the issue with their son, as he sat at the table in front of them with a dinner of pork chops, mashed potato with string and greenish beans, all of which he had refused, quite politely, to touch and he had produced shyly from his pocket a handful of multi-vitamins, that he had been quietly popping all through the week, hoping that soon one of his classmates would notice and he could momentarily pretend that he didn’t want to explain, then only to painfully confess his sliding mental constitution.

Alice now cleared the last of her papers, filing those that she needed to that day into a tanned leather satchel. She dressed upstairs as her husband sat silently by the kitchen table, his hand outstretched across the varnished wooden surface, so that should his son wish to take his hand from out from under his legs, he could hold his father’s hand within his own. When Alice retuned, her hair now professionally tied back, and dressed in a ochre jacket looking both academically intense and yet somehow ever still approachable, she turned towards her husband with a nod that indicated that it was soon time that they should depart, and that he should now carry their motionless son upstairs to dress, having previously found that if they did not do this, they would find him still sat limp and monk-like on the floor in his pajamas an hour later, seeming to not have moved at all. And as his father rose, Antony lifted up his eyes to meet his parents and he spoke.

“Please. Just tell me I’m depressed, medically certified and wholly recognizably depressed. Tell me where on the CDI I rate. Give me Kovacs’ full diagnosis. Feed me Beta-blockers; give me increased doses of SSRIs. I want fluozetine, sertraline, paroxetine and Lexapro along my windowsill at night. I want you to tell me that I’m seriously, ill and that nothing I can do will ever change it. I’ll take the medication, I promise. I’ll do everything that my physiatrist says, but I want to have one. I don’t care if it’s positive cognitive or interpersonal, but I want to see someone regularly in a small safe place with warm colors and welcoming furniture. Please tell me that I’m not just really, really sad. Joey Thornton suffers seizers, Peter Cramer is colorblind, and a girl whose name I don’t know has spina bifida and has already told the school that she’s bipolar. Please, let me have this, before anyone else gets it. I want to have something special. I just want to know that feeling this way matters, that it means something beyond myself.”

The room was no longer still or timeless as it had been before the dawn had illuminated the kitchen’s stack of uneaten cereal, its sink of overflowing dishes and its floor free from discarded and abandoned children’s toys. It was now full to overflowing, caught in the path of a great and predicted tidal wave which had finally reached its peak, as two persons watched another with an almost intense desperation, as a third body began to weep, pouring themselves as if into a surrounding sea of unbroken water, the crest of which began to slowly climb the walls, reaching far above the submerging sounds below.

Vincent Furnier

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And the problem is not being sure as where is best to start. Before at least, I have always liked, or at the very least been almost comfortable with things running in something close to a natural order. As they transcribed, occurred, were placed before us as it were. To scramble it awkwardly just for the sake of doing so has always seemed pretentious, clawing and knowing, and not a little mawkish for my taste. And yet so then why do I feel such trepidation here, now in the telling of it. It’s not that complicated really. It doesn’t have to be. So we can at least begin by saying that the breadth of Charlie and Richard’s engagement, the sole culmination of their knowing one another in any real and tangible sense, would last exactly four times and four times only and then that would be it. That would be the end of what they were to share. They would never meet again, nor feel any of the sorts of inclinations that have one sitting up at night, composing lengthy and unreadable emails at two in the a.m. or running various online searches engines to the bone to see what the other person was filling their hours with, where it was that they were existing, how out there in the world otherwise unoccupied by yourself it was that they were living, contained in their own and private lives.

The cap to their engagements was one not out of a prescribed choice or any real conceived avoidance; at least I don’t think so anyway, from why both have told me, discussing one another at separate places in their own various expository revelations. Their time together was simply up, had run its emotional course. And so if not too trite and obvious an approach, it seems only pertinent to begin with their first encounter, which if you’ll allow me to side-track myself for a beat here, took place in a house that may or may not have been abandoned.

That the family had moved out was true. That they had left two sets of identical keys with their neighbours and never come back. The house was small, but fairly clean, its window frames perhaps not painted, yet had not splintered either. It contained all of the necessary parts that a school assignment pictured house might well contain, in that it had symmetrical windows and a door, all topped off with a gently pointed, slanting roof. It contained all of these things, but little more. Within the immediate weeks that followed, different groups of socio-culturally-similar kids came over and occupied all of its rooms, used it to party in, stay over and crash. They slept in its beds and emptied the rest of the furniture out onto the backyard’s pawed over soil where it became rain damaged and gradually developed its own constellations of rich, teal green mould. The house soon began to look dishevelled and tired, now resembling the kind of school-assigned picture that leads an emotionally nurturing, if not a bit too fragile in their own personal self, teaching assistant to call the young artist’s home, just to check in and to talk.

Charlie’s mother had been given one of the spares to the front door, a rust coated pin tumbler of a key, whose spiral link was personalised with a small red plastic lion suspended in a dome of translucent gel. Within in a week the key had become obsolete, a purposeless thing, for the lock was broken from off the door and the hallway left open to the elements and anyone who wanted a place to sleep in or just to hang. That she made a comfortable profit from selling small cling film wrapped blocks of gummy hash to the steady incoming stream of teenagers made her less inclined to interfere. The smell of these small brown stock-cube sized bricks patterned the house’s now mostly empty rooms, while the charge on the electricity card was rapidly run down, while the more entrepreneurial visitors began to remove anything valuable still left in the walls.

It was with one of these roaming parties, late on a Saturday afternoon in early June, that Richard came out to the house, amid the stoned complaints of his friends for having been dragged so far out from the city. Having had to leave their centre, taking a bus and then not too short a hike into the suburbs, they had been lured so far away from their usual spot by the promise of a place to stay where they could smoke and drink and generally be left alone. But I’d like to pause here and, I don’t think that he would mind me telling you this, but so then at this time Richard was not the most extroverted even within his small, contained party of friends. It would not be untrue to say that adolescence had not been kind to him. That it had decorated his face more than most, proscribing him with a seriously heavy dose of clinically threatening, social awkwardness. That he was a little too heavy set, more fat than round around the waist, had also left him with the profound desire to remain comfortably in the vague middle distance when out on the weekends with the others, in someplace partially out of focus and that not that much in the central spotlight in any presentable way. That the cream he used to use to try and hide his scars gave his completion an unhealthy, Edwardian milky pallor that would reflect light not dissimilar to rough stage makeup when seen too close. Even then, as his acne continued to pulsate underneath, the blood pumping underneath his skin in its rhythmical, two-step beats, would remind him of its being there with an uncontrollable itching that would only be soothed and leave him alone when he had washed off the sweat-rich paste and was of course by then far from the company of others, free once again to feel less concerned with how he might be seen.

But Richard did still manage to be sociable, likeable to most, if perhaps at times conversationally a little numb, but as loyal a listener as to the point of giving way even to overt sincerity. He had a tendency to drink too much and too quickly and was often the first of his friends to fall asleep, yet being for the better part good natured they usually left him alone. He seemed less concerned as the others did, with alcohol as a social lubricant, as a way to continue and to control a good time. Instead he appeared to approach it more as a means to an end, and that end was usually sleep, or certainly being somehow away, separated from some part of himself that seemed to hold him back whenever anybody else was in the room.

So they had arrived at the house, bought two bricks of hash from next door and settled themselves in a room where there was still the wooden frame of a single bed. They had begun to crumble the hash into a joint when Jonny introduced them to his sister Charlie and her friends, who came in and joined them. Jonny had been a member of the group for the only the past few days, but was already becoming well liked, if watched with a little caution. He had taken the end of a ball-peen hammer to a wall of plasterboard in another of the rooms for no other reason than seeming to want to get everyone to laugh. And that his mood could shift with any given and often sudden change of the tide, going at once from gigglish laughter, to looking uncomfortable and pained, kept some of the crew on edge. But tonight he was sociable, and since he had good taste in music they had followed him out to Rodeal Drive where he had told them that there would be a house and a place to buy hash from at a family discount.

as the stories usually depicted him in situations of increasing intimacy, and what had begun as comic monologues, began to feel awkwardly tragic, as seeing himself gradually through the eyes of others, in a version of himself that he had steadily began secretly to wish he might leave behind

Charlie was her brother’s height, with a rounded face similar to his. And yet while both of them had grown out their hair, long enough that it traversed beyond their shoulders, hers was kept cleaner and less knotted than her counterpart, whose tended to tangle up in fraught and clustered waves around his neck. Charlie and her friends joined the group and together they all shared the joint as the electricity meter finally ran out and someone from one of the downstairs rooms was sent to fetch candles. Richard sat with Brian and the two of them told the story again of how they had been at this one particular party when the fixtures bolted to the celling had come loose and how high on hot chocolate laced with mushrooms, Brian had later claimed to have seen the devil and managed to fall into the inner pocket of his coat. The pair as usual exaggerated the story just enough to make it entertaining, yet all the while able to keep it just about believable. At parties they did this regularly, telling stories usually as a means to sit in on others who had weed when they themselves had none. It was a practice that only some years later, Richard would come to learn how Brian had gradually been saddened by their retelling, as the stories usually depicted him in situations of increasing intimacy, and what had begun as comic monologues, began to feel implicitly tragic, as seeing himself gradually through the eyes of others, in a version of himself that he had steadily began secretly to wish he might leave behind.

As the conversation ebbed and groups moved into their own and more private circles, Richard sucked up the courage to talk to Charlie, to ask her about music, what she liked, whom she listened to, to ask her something fairly neutral and bland. He found himself agreeing with all of her choices, even when he did in fact not, and like most of the conversations Richard entered into, he stayed for the better part quietly listening, preferring instead to ask a few questions and then sit back. They talked about Alice Cooper, how she listened to him partially because her Dad had introduced him to her and how then so there was this resonance of something special, of a deeper more meaningful connection there. She expressed that yes sure this was a little corny, to be finding sentimentality in songs so loaded with 80’s innuendo, but that she really did like the hair metal sunset strip era all the same. That yes Jonny’s Roman nose could be argued to resemble Alice’s. Then as Richard began to roll another joint as Charlie excused herself to go and talk with her friends.

On the following weekend, when Richard returned to the house, a stranger would enter through the kitchen’s back door and build a fire on the linoleum floor that would melt the surface and leave the whole house in the smouldering gasp of molten plastic. Around midnight that Saturday evening, Jonny, Brian and Richard would all share a mattress in one of the other upstairs rooms, and after professing his newly found friendship for the pair Jonny, just as stoned as the others, would cry quietly when he believed them both to be asleep. That final night spent in the house would come to an end when the police were called over due to a fight between a couple that resulted in a few loudly broken windows, then Richard and Brian would try to depart as inconspicuously as possible, after having rescued their two grams of cheap, laxative heavy speed from under the bathroom sink. But all of this was yet to happen, and for the rest of the following hour after his conversation with Charlie, he just meandered from group to group, trying to summon the courage to talk to her.

I can tell you now that he did finally compose himself enough with the courage post-mustered that he found himself asking her if she wanted to share a joint with him alone. When she agreed the pair walked to the bathroom and locked the door, where they smoked and said very little to one another. When he finally asked if she liked him, asking more in that immediate way when at that age is the only possible way to do it, more of a question based on impulse, on a cavalry charge of blindsided hormonal feelings than any real knowledge of the girl that he was sitting next to on the edge of the bath, of who she was and what she herself might be feeling or experiencing, but still adolescently sincere in feeling it intensely all the same. She smiled with half of her lip and took his hand in his. She told him that she liked him, but was not in any sort of place ready to be with someone, but that he was sweet for asking so nicely. They finished their joint and returned to the rest of the party, where Richard drank too much and soon passed out asleep, while Brian talked with Jonny about what they planned to do after the following New Year.

And so then in keeping with the chronological telling of things, the second time they came to meet, was on a late morning in mid-September two years on, when Richard had just quit his first real job and was enrolling back to education, having to move boxes of semi-finished books and well-worn clothes into Brian’s first story floor bedsit, no longer able to afford the rent for a place of his own. The two of them climbed off the bus and navigated the road leading them into a village that seemed only slightly familiar. When Brian asked, Richard confirmed that they had indeed been out here once or twice before, but that this was not the place, no not the place at all. It happened elsewhere, Richard said, I don’t think that we had ever been there with him. They found the veteran’s memorial statue for the village where they had been told to meet and waited for the others to arrive, smoking cigarettes as they did so, Richard attempting to tighten the dangling cuffs of an obviously ill-fitting, newly bought suit.

Once the others had assembled, they made their way to the church, where they stood outside, allowing the family first inside. They took seats near the back and listened to the eulogies given first by the vicar and then by members of Jonny’s family. There wasn’t a photo up by the podium, but on the back of the photocopied prayer sheets was a grain-diminished picture of what looked to be John in a school uniform. They played a few songs on the Church’s stereo system, songs that Jonny had never told them that he particularly liked, and then it came time for the precession to make its way up the hill and enter the cemetery. The weather that day was cool, not quite damp but dew-clotted, and the ground underneath the procession of formal dress shoes gently gave way, as each mourner made sure not to lose their footing when walking up the grass incline.

By the gravesite there were wreathes and a few postcards. Both Richard and Brian left folded small notes neither read out aloud nor allowed anyone to read. The vicar spoke for a while, then Charlie stepped up and was the first to say goodbye. Before she could, her body collapsed beneath her and she had to be held up and supported by two cousins. And she cried. She would have clawed at the ground if they had let her. The family moved her away as others came past and poured handfuls of earth onto the casket, and then it was done. The precession made its way back down the hillside and towards a local restaurant, where inside they sat down and forgot for a while how to speak to one another.

When the food arrived, people picked at cold sandwiches, ordered drinks from the bar, and smoked cigarettes while standing outside nearby the entrance. Brian talked to Jonny’s cousin, about how nobody ever knows what to say at funerals, so they always just seem to discuss the food. Richard walked across the room to find the table where Charlie was sitting, still supported by her mother and bought her a drink of vodka and coke and the two sat near one another, mostly silent and mostly alone. By the stalls to the restrooms, they hugged and shared a cigarette. Then Charlie left with the rest of the family, separating from the straggling remainders of the group, while Brian and Richard bought a pint of whisky for the bus ride home, and then walked back through the puddled streets, the rain having fallen during the long afternoon spent in the restaurant, with the clouds still somehow managing to maintain. I talked to Charlie, Brian said. They’re planning a reunion, next year. That is, to meet every year I think. We should go. It’s important, I don’t know. But we should be there. Richard nodded and replied. We should.

The job involved the renovation of commercial properties left to decay. The charity would buy up the venues and then bring in a handful of volunteers and some minimum wagers who would then gut, clean and refurbish the halls, bar rooms and hotel suites, turning them into hairdressers, nail salons and art galleries. For Richard, this meant first the removal of all objects left behind; in taverns it would be glassware, stools and circular tables, in hotels books and inventory cabinets. Following this came his most disliked activity; the ripping up of old carpet, wherein the dust would ignite in plumes about the room, and if not 100% diligent in the wearing a mask at all times, he would swallow up lungful’s of corroded carpet matter and his heart would race and he would vomit. Even if carefully masked, the smell of the soiled carpets would stick to him for days. Always while in the initial stages of any site, Richard would wear industrial gloves to search in wardrobes and storage lockers, removing neatly hidden boxes of syringes and cooking kits. By the third stage the walls would be sanded down and repainted, and the occupants of the newly constructed second-hand bookstore were omitted the knowledge of the spewed cold-turkey human excrement that Richard had hose blasted from off the walls. At the weekends, he met Brian and they would go to the regular bars. They drank and moved across tables, occasionally ending up on one another’s sofas sleeping loudly underneath cotton blankets with legs upturned over armrests.

They talked of ambitions failed, or of those that were never undertaken. They discussed their hopes for the future, all of which I feel would be too imitate and personal to every mention here, and I’d rather do them the curtsey of leaving those conversations private, allowing them to have that, even if failing in my task here to you.

So then, the third time came as he was sitting outside by the smoking section door, resting on the steel staircase, breathing momentarily from the generic
heavy metal sounds that reverberated from inside, and she came and sat by his side, pinching his arm. You look different, she said and he smiled. They sat and brought out new drinks. And when the rain came in they moved indoors and stood against a wall, the conversation thinning against the music. She was, even still, a head and a half beneath him, seeming not to have grown much in the intermittent years. And while the two of them had both filled out with the weight that comes with years of growing older, she had held out against it better, letting it cushion her thighs, her chest less visibly swollen and protruding like that of Richards, whose gut even when layered up underneath a t-shirt, hoodie and jacket still lurched forward, embarrassing him every time he moved in public spaces.

They met the following week in a different bar and talked mostly of similar things. That spoke on inconsequential things in a conversation that both of them had looked forward to for most of the week. As they imbibed, they began to discuss the years in which they had not seen each other. They talked of ambitions failed, or of those that were never undertaken. They discussed their hopes for the future, all of which I feel would be too imitate and personal to every mention here, and I’d rather do them the curtsey of leaving those conversations private, allowing them to have that, even if failing in my task here to you. I hope you understand, and if so do, forgive me. The third week they met, after drinks once again they climbed into a taxi together and went back to Richards, a bedsit located in a neighbourhood lived in mostly by students, the era dominated by Victorian townhouses cut up into small, one-person rooms, each with a bed and a sink and sometimes a mirror. Here they poured drinks that they drank from rinsed porcelain mugs, till eventually they fell asleep on the bed fully clothed. In the morning it was she that awoke first, but as to who it was who kissed the other I am unable to say. That they did so tentatively and with not too little trepidation, and that when undressing in front of each other both of them felt more than physically naked and for brief fleeting seconds in the moments that followed ashamed, I am able to state, for again both have been candid and so it seems the feelings were mutual if still ever so slightly protective. They made love twice on that Sunday, with the hours of morning undisclosed behind curtains. It was around eleven in the late morning, when she reached over for her cigarettes and began to roll them both a joint from a small brick of stale and overly crumbling hash. Your mother still sells that? He asked her. Sometimes, not so much, have you seen Brian? He’s selling industrial scaffolding. Says his boss is a crook. That doesn’t suit him, she said, handing him the joint. You never came to the anniversaries. I saw him there, but never you. It didn’t feel right. I’m sorry. You’re allowed feel confused, she said. So do I.

They lay in bed together, their breathing almost aligned. When the afternoon came, she got dressed and he followed. Her shirt was stained from the night before, so he gave her a plain white t-shirt to wear. She placed it ill fittingly over her head, as her elbows disappearing almost up its sleeves. I haven’t had this in a long time, she said, this was nice. It was, he added. I think so too.

And then so it leaves me only the fourth time that Charlie and Richard met left to discuss, but in that there is little to say. I’m not even sure that I wish I could offer you anything more, in the way of a coda, a closing line, a reprieve from where it is that you are, or why you’re reading this. Why you’ve stuck it out this far. What I have is what they have both told me, nothing less and of course, with no fiction added and therefore, nothing more. The pair came across one another in passing on the street, in the middle of a day the date of which neither could remember. Richard’s eyes he believed were faced downwards, focused on rolling a cigarette, and when he looked up he saw Charlie, her arm interlocked with another of their mutual friends. He felt no animosity, no envy, no upset. And nor did she, from what she told me, she just saw him as he saw her, and so they hugged and paused for a moment to give one another. I think I have your watch, he expressed after asking how she had been. Your t-shirts ready for whenever you want to drop by. We’ll all be meeting up; this year once again, will you make it? I’ll try. It was good, seeing you I mean. It reminded me of something that I’d thought it’d lost; I had wanted to tell you that. And with that the pair had separated, each smiled and waved and walked on apart down the street. And though I’d like to manufacture something more here, as way of a tighter ending, a more fitting end stop line, what more really is there that I could say. This is all that each one of them ever told me, and both preferred to finish at this line. And so with that, I’ll honour them, and ask for no more of your time.