Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Landlady's Son

I rented out a room in the last house at the end of the street.  A tired older woman with deep lines on her face lived there with her only son, a chubby little boy who was about six years old.  His brown hair was always slick and smoothed to the side as though his mother was constantly combing it.  He would often stare up at me as I climbed the creaky stairs to my room.  Whenever I was late with the rent, whenever I had rowdy friends over making too much noise, whenever I came stumbling in at two in the morning and woke this woman up, she would take her anger out on her son.  She would hit him and beat him for anything that I did.
Once, she burst in on a poker game that I was having with my friends and found us all puffing away on cigars, which she had strictly forbidden.  She marched the boy into the room in front us and made him hold out his right hand.  She made us watch as she took his fingers and broke them one by one.  We could see the boy trembling as she started with the thumb.  There was a loud snap and he cried out in pain and fidgeted all about, but he didn't even try to run off.  She held him firmly by the wrist and moved on to the index finger.  She took each finger systematically in turn.  The boy's lip quivered as she took his pinky and scowled at us.  We sat there still.  Even the cigar smoke didn't seem to stir.

It went on like this for weeks.  She hurt the boy in nearly every possible way.  Finally, I came down the stairs one day and she brought him in from the dining room in a wheelchair.  She had crippled him for life for the things that I'd done.  The boy sat crumpled and broken in the chair.  I looked up at the mother through my tears.  "How can you do this?  He never did anything.  I did all of it.  Why does he have to pay for it?"  Her face went red.  She didn't say a word.  She just slapped the boy as hard as she could across his cheek.  His head rolled from the blow but he didn't even seem to hardly feel it.  He slumped in the chair and stared off blankly at the wall.

I knew then that I had to leave.  I went to my room and got my things.  I made up the bed and put everything just as it was when I had moved in.  I straightened the table and chairs and fastened the window latch.  I wanted to leave this woman no cause to complain.  I took a long deep breath of fresh air on the walk out front.  The woman had wheeled the boy to the front window and I could see him there, watching the rain drip from the tree in the yard, watching me as I went.        

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Routes to Work

I was working a new job, and on my coffee break I got to talking to this woman I worked with about different routes we took to get to the office in the morning.  I made a hissing face when she mentioned the way that she went, because I knew that it involved driving down a very steep incline along a narrow set of metal pipes and there was a sharp turn at an elbow pipe junction just at the bottom of this incline.  I told her about the way I took, which was a little less tricky, although you had to go all the way around a complete vertical loop and you could fall at the top if you didn't have enough momentum.

As we were having this conversation, I was picturing all these different ways and routes in my head.  I could see it clearly, but then in my mind's eye I pulled back from the scene and I could see that it was all just a lonely little playground with scattered patches of thawed snow among the wet leaves.  The pipes and rusted bars that made up our routes were part of the swing set and the merry-go-round and the rest of the playground equipment.  The cars that we had driven to work were just diecast toys in the hands of little kids in woolen winter hats, their noses running as they made revving noises with their lips and pushed the cars along.

Friday, September 25, 2015


I was walking along a mountain path in some mythical realm.  I came to a place where the path turned just at the edge of a high rocky point that looked out over an expansive view of faintly whispered mountains far in the distance illuminated by those few shafts of eastern light that managed to penetrate the smoky atmosphere.  Just past the edge, I could see the sheer drop into a fathomless, terrifying pit below.  The tip of my shoe knocked a pebble loose and I watched it tumble away, bouncing here and there against the faces of the rock in its descent, and even when it was gone from sight, I could hear the reverberations of it echoing throughout the entire valley.

As I took the turn in the path and continued on my way, I came across a squat little creature, shaped like a red mushroom with big blinking eyes.  It stood a few inches tall and was about twice as wide.  The thing moved by making short little hops in front of me.  It seemed to be entreating me with those big eyes, perhaps begging me for food or a novelty of some sort, but I had nothing in my empty pockets to give it.  I tried to step around it, but it just hopped back in front of me.  Finally, I tried to sweep it away with the side of my shoe.

That was a mistake.  The whole countenance and demeanor of the thing changed immediately.  Its body turned a charcoal grey, its eyes narrowed in anger, and sharp fangs spread from the corners of its mouth.  It began aggressively nipping at my ankles.  I backed away, while jabbing at it with my foot, but the thing kept at me.  Then it dawned on me that I was inside of a game zone and that there was a specific set of moves or rules by which I had to defeat this enemy.  I pleaded with the turbulent sky above for guidance, but no one answered.   The mushroom creature just kept nipping its fangs at me, and driving me back, and before I'd even realized what had happened, the loose ground at the edge gave way and I grasped in vain for a hold in the rock as I fell into the pit below.

Luckily, the game immediately dispatched a full military unit to rescue me.  Several troops repelled down the side of the mountain with ropes.  Generals and commanders rode up to the edge in jeeps and coordinated the teams with radios from the mountain top above.  But none of them could match the speed of my free falling descent.  I could see them up there, and I reached out my hands, but I just fell further and further away from them.  But then a helicopter came along, and it dove straight down and flew past me to get up underneath me.  The pilot turned the helicopter on its side so that they could catch me as I fell into the open door.  I fell into the arms of two soldiers.  They wrapped me in a brown blanket and sat me on a bench in the back of the helicopter as the pilot righted the craft and began to fly back up to the top of the mountain.

But just then, something smashed hard through the windshield of the helicopter.  We began to spin out of control.  The pilots lay slumped over, unconscious.  The two soldiers in the back with me tried to scramble up front to get to the controls before we crashed.  They had forgotten about me for the moment, and when they weren't looking, I opened another door which had somehow appeared in the wall next to me.  This was a simple wooden door, and it had a screen door beyond it, and I stepped out through this back door into the backyard of my childhood home.

It was a starry Friday night.  I was a kid again, and I could see my mother in the light of the kitchen window, washing dishes.  I snuck across the yard to go visit the girl next door.  We were friends.  She was waiting for me and she had this board game already set up on the table for us to play.  The board consisted of a comb of hexagons laid out in a grid against a background of stars, and the game pieces were little spaceships on pedestals.  We took turns rolling the red and white die to see who would go first.

Friday, September 18, 2015

It Never Snows

I went down in early December to visit my family in Arizona.  I accompanied them to a midnight pageant at their church.  I basked in the glow of the Nativity, sat in the warm dark enveloped by voices raised in song, endured the firm handshakes in the lobby from men in gray suits.  When it was all over, we stepped out into the winter night and found that it was snowing outside.  The snow drifted heavy through the brown lights of the street lamps and it was already thick across the desert floor and on the arms of a nearby cactus and across the clay roof of the old Spanish church.  Everyone grinned as the snow flakes sparkled in their eyelashes, and they reached out their cupped palms to gather the flakes as they fell right into their hands.

My cousin asked me to drive his car, since he had no experience driving in the snow.  We all piled in and I cranked up the heat and the defroster as the wipers brushed aside the snow that had gathered on the windshield.  As the car warmed up, we sat listening to the radio and the news reporter said that it was snowing all over the state, far out into the desert, far out into the dark beyond the lights.  They were calling for several inches of accumulation.  By morning they were going to have to bring in plows from up north.  They'd never seen anything like it.

I slowly made my way through the empty streets, the colored lights and huddled figures blurred and indistinguishable beyond the swirling shrouds of white.  There was a party going when we got back to the house, the cars all parked this way and that in the driveway and out along the curb.  There were shadows of people at the windows, marveling at the falling snow.  Inside they greeted me warmly with pats on the back, and my aunt was telling everybody how I'd driven them all home.  I got to talking to one of my uncles and he took me to a room in the back where he kept tapes of every phone call he'd ever made.  He played some of the more amusing ones.  I just laughed along.  Everything was alright.  It was a snowy night, and we were all here together.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Execution Day

My friend and I were living in a ranch house out in the country.  We were roommates.  Everything was going along great until he came home one night with an old girlfriend of mine.  I was sitting in my recliner watching TV, and I heard voices in the kitchen and someone clanging around in the refrigerator, and then they came cutting through the living room right in front of me.  They both had bottles of beer, and my friend casually tipped his bottle towards me as a greeting before he led my old girlfriend by the hand down the hall to his bedroom.  I just sat there gaping.  This went on for a few weeks until one night, just as they passed in front of the TV, I finally said, "You know what?  I've had it with this.  Why don't you just go ahead and kill me?"

Rather than recognize this as the bitter cry of exasperation that it was, my friend took this as a magnanimous gesture on my part to remove myself from the situation.  He'd always been a little dense that way.  He told me what a relief it was and how awkward it had been to keep bringing my old girlfriend through the room while I was sitting there like that.  My eyes went wide and I tilted my head.  So we decided on a day, a week or so from then.  We would head out south first thing in the morning to some secluded area deeper out in the country, some open field out in the middle of no where, the black birds taking flight from the bare branches all around, and I would kneel down on the faded grass and he would fulfill my request.

I stayed up all night the night before.  A few of our other friends dropped by, but I really had nothing to say to any of them.  I was too preoccupied with my impending appointment.  I stared out the window while they sat around and flicked the ash from their cigarettes and talked and joked with each other.  The smoke was thick in the air as the hours dragged on.  I was still there at the window at daybreak, watching the first hint of light on the edge of the sky.  It was quiet now.  These other friends had gone home, and it was just me and my thoughts.  It wondered how it would be when I was gone and this all went on without me.

My friend came out from his bedroom.  He took his time over his breakfast and his coffee.  I'd almost thought he'd forgotten until I heard the rattle of his dishes and silverware in the sink and he turned to me, still working on his last bite of food, and asked, "You ready?"  I swallowed hard and nodded.  We went out to the driveway and he popped the trunk of my car and he loaded it with a couple of muddy shovels and an old brown shotgun.  I took a deep breath of the morning air and had a good last look around.  There was fog hanging low over the road, curling around the wooden posts of the fence that ran along the roadside.

But as I backed out of the driveway, I swung the car north instead of south, and headed up towards town.  There was no way I was going to go through with this.  The pale numbness of resignation passed and I felt suddenly engaged, hunched over the steering wheel, gripping it in my hands, alive again. I decided I'd be safer if we went to a more populated area.  My friend began to figure out that we'd gone the wrong way.  As we rolled up the residential streets with their closely packed houses and cleanly clipped yards, his head darted all around.  Before the objections could leave his mouth, I told him that I needed to stop by my mother's house to pick something up.

I pulled up at the house, and he followed me inside.  We went in through the back way, out behind the garage.  I undid the latch on the gate to the backyard and let him in ahead of me.  We came in through the utility room, and just as we were passing by the hot water heater, I noticed a pair of handcuffs sitting on a nearby shelf.  I acted fast, grabbing the handcuffs and clipping one end to one of the brown water pipes and the other end to my friend's wrist.

He looked back at me confused as he tried to jerk his hand free.  I told him, "Did you really think I was going to drive out somewhere and let you kill me?  You stupid sick son of a bitch.  Haven't you ever heard of a saying?"  He just struggled and stared at me and said nothing.  I wasn't sure what to do with him.  I left him there and headed out through the kitchen to the front room.  My mother was coming down the stairs, just about to leave for work.  She was just about to ask me what I was doing there when a violent metallic rattle rang out from the back of the house.  She looked past me, perplexed.  I just shrugged.            

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Looking in the Window

It was early morning, very dim and grey.  There was this condo that my wife and I were interested in, and I rode over on my bicycle to have a look at it.  The place was situated on nicely landscaped grounds with ponds and neatly manicured hedges, the buildings were painted in earth tones, and there was a quiet relaxed atmosphere, softened by the misty air and the glow of the carriage lamps that lined the walkways.  I had been back several times over the past few weeks to crouch down and look into the windows at the empty rooms of the available unit, imaging our furniture arranged on the beige carpeted floors and deciding whether I really wanted to buy the place.

But when I rode up the lane that led to the unit and dismounted from my bike, I noticed that there was a light on in one of the windows of the recessed living room.  I could hear the muffled thumping of music, indicating that someone had set up a stereo inside, and I noticed that the garage door wasn't quite closed all the way and I could see the silver bumper of a car parked within.  The empty condo was suddenly occupied, and I felt very self-conscious and paranoid about being there and wanting to look into the windows.  I got back on my bike and tried to ride away as casually as possible.

Already I could hear voices behind me, even before I got to the end of the lane and rounded the corner.  They had seen me standing outside the condo, staring at the light in the window.  They were coming after me.  I ditched the bike on the grass and I hid in a narrow space between the walls of two of the buildings.  But it didn't matter.  They walked right up to where I was hiding.  There was a blonde woman with her blonde daughter.  They told me that they'd come home and found blood everywhere, sprayed on the floors and the walls of their condo, and then they'd seen me lurking around outside.  They wanted to know what I knew about the blood on the walls.

I explained to them that I had only come to look into the windows because I was under the impression that the place was for sale and sitting empty, and my wife and I were thinking of buying it.  I told them that I had a long established habit of returning again and again to look at something that I was thinking of buying.  It was just part of my buying process.  I assured them that I hadn't been inside, and I had only looked in at the windows, and I knew absolutely nothing about any blood.  The place had been immaculate the last time I'd seen it.  I promised them that I would do anything I could to help them figure out what had happened.  The mother and daughter nodded to one another and seemed satisfied with this, but as soon as the words had left my mouth, I wondered what I was getting myself involved in.            

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Chess Problem

I was eating my lunch in a crowded cafeteria.  The diners sat elbow to elbow on long benches at polished metal tables arranged in rows.  This kid next to me had a bunch of large wooden chess pieces on the table in front of him, laid out in the configuration of a chess problem which he appeared to be intensely contemplating.  I leaned over to study the problem for myself when I noticed something curious.  "There's no board!", I observed.  The kid just nodded, still concentrating on the problem.  I was impressed.  Not only could he analyze all the complex movements and interactions of all the different pieces; he could do it all while visualizing where the pieces belonged on the board entirely in his head.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Overnight Shift

It was in the middle of the night and I was left alone in this brightly lit corner bedroom that had hardwood floors and yellow walls, badly painted with flecks of yellow paint spattered along the baseboards.  One of the plastic injection mold machines from the factory I used to work at was installed in the room with me, taking up most of its space and continually, constantly pumping out those blue jar lids we used to make.  There was nothing else in the room except for a red striped lumpy mattress flopped down on the floor and a rickety table beside it with an ashtray on it and a couple of paperback books propping up one of its uneven legs.  

I was supposed to keep an eye on the machine and sort through the parts as they came down the conveyor, but I just wanted to lie on the bed and read the books and explore all the bundles of clothes and discarded junk and old mementos that were stuffed into the dark recesses of the bedroom's closet.  But the machine kept seizing up and the parts kept sticking in the mold and I'd miss it because I was busy fooling with something else.  Then the foreman would burst through the bedroom door, grumbling and banging on the machine with a wrench until he got it running again.  I'd have to sit down at the conveyor and make like I was working and stutter out some excuse as to why I didn't catch the machine when it seized up. He'd just shake his head and go away and the whole farce would repeat itself over and over until this eternal shift was done.