There is a man I know who was born in a hospital but will probably die in a casino under a fluorescent ceiling lit up to look like the open. He will die thinking that the next hand will be the one-that the next slot pull will be the jackpot-that after so long he will have enough to money to finally go to the moon.
But this is not how the story starts.
No, the stories don’t start in outer space- most of them start like this:
It started with treasure hunting in the city without a map.
He was told there was nothing to find, but he knew there was- he knew there were quiet moments in the subway station in between people leaving and arriving when he could feel the city take a breath underneath his feet.
And then there was water. For a place where nothing grew but concrete jungles and egos, there was rain-so much rain and hail and snow that it convinced him this city was Atlantis and that every year God tried to bring it back to its home on the bottom of the sea.
And so, the boy grew- and before he became the man who sat lonely at casino bars- he learned to take his first gamble when he saw this one girl – this girl he knew wasn’t from the same place he was – when he saw her sitting still reading in a city where people moved too fast to breathe or grow or realize everyday was a drowning, when he saw her smiling eyes,
When she told him she thought the city looked the best in the rain, he realized why the ocean always came back to the shore.
When he held her hands, he realized that every pair of hands had a purpose and if his was to hold on, then hers was to be the map to finally lead him back home.
He stopped looking for Atlantis. Instead, he’d sit with her and they would take a city of gray shadows and turn it into a sea of swimming lights.
She was a space in deep ocean and he was learning how to use his lungs for the first time.
But, before he could learn how to breathe, she evaporated.
His hands made for holding weren’t made to hold on to running water and so she left him like the moon bleeding out of his veins and so the city spun and spun and spun back onto the black and white of the roulette board.
Now when I ask him why he traded city lights for cigarette lights, he tells me that here, he would never have to lose anything. Not when he had the chance to live it all again with another hand of cards or another spin-and I didn’t know how to reply.
Maybe that kind of thing doesn’t warrant a reply.
Maybe all of us need the courage to look up at the night sky again without thinking about that one person who taught us outer space was a 20 minute drive straight up into the atmosphere before leaving for some comet without us.
Maybe none of us have never properly held on to someone before, or touched them and realized that we’re all full of broken windowpanes.
Maybe when we held them, we were holding onto our fears instead, or a new car, or a night sky, or a nightmare we don’t want to end.
Maybe we need to start reaching for real people from now on, so we all stop looking like liars and more like the people we all see in the mirrors sometimes.
There is a man I know that tells me that the city breathing under his feet sounds a lot like falling in love. I still don’t know if he looks in mirrors anymore.
A Couple Weeks Before Winter Solstice
I took in a sunset—familiar but fresh and different for some reason or maybe no reason at all. The honey-sherbet glow pierced the cold in its usual dominance, that God-smeared brilliance connecting the heavens to all these billboards and taxis and pedestrians below; and under this brilliance I was divided, split in half like the amber-lit rays traversing through the thin, opaque veil between light and dark; and for me, the relationship between fear and love, or a point where half of me wants to be extraordinary and the other half just wants to be content, where the boy in me and the father in me somehow meet, linked now by a setting sun that doesn’t obey years or clocks or daylight savings time like we do down here, all of us spectators under the great glowing blanket, some of us watching cartoons before bed, some filming their daughter’s first ballet recital from the back of the auditorium, and some finally realizing they can never do anything to earn a sunset like this, to deserve this daily miracle at twilight, but accept it anyway.
The universe is trying to tell me something, she thought, when she finished her shower gel and shampoo on the same night. The bottles sighed pomegranate and mint when her fingers embraced them, but they oozed no fluids—they were dry. Empty.
Both of them.
This is rarer than cosmic alignment, she thought.
It’s like— like emptying a jar of peanut butter on the same sandwich as a jar of jam.
And three days later, it happened.
She did not have time to wash the jars before work, so she left them to soak in the sink.
She did, however, have time to make coffee and discover that—of course—the lone coffee filter remaining in the carton would contain the last of her coffee ground.
No doubt about it, the universe was definitely trying to tell her something.
And I will die alone.
When predicting a series of coin flips, one typically would not predict more than five heads in a row. The coincidence would be too absurd.
But when a coin is actually flipped and yields ten consecutive heads, people flip.
Statistically speaking, any permutation of such binaries would have the same probability. Heads-tails-heads-heads-tails is just as likely as heads-heads-heads-heads-heads.
That was what she told herself.
Assuming a fair coin, at least.
Coincidences aren’t supposed to mean anything.
The next morning, two doors down.
He held his milk carton vertically over the bowl, and shook it slightly, examining the white beads as they fell. The cereal crumbs that had been at the bottom of the bag now floated at the top of the bowl, trembling as the milk drops struck the surface.
Finishing these on the same day—what could this possibly mean?
A cover of “Blue Velvet,” originally performed by Tony Bennett.
The ex says the children have forgotten my name. The news came in a letter inked on
parchment grainy and calloused. A small child would have trouble folding the paper in half. Mary Lu’s prose reads like the Ten Commandments, coarse and heartless. There’s no bargain or compromise, only steel-toed demands.
It seems as though the children have already forgotten your name. Pity. Enclosed in the envelope is a check for $400. Step off that junk bucket and buzz on over to your local bank to cash the check.
P.S. The money I most graciously send is not to be spent on hookers, or for that matter indulging in the dive bars.
I read the letter on the upper deck of my houseboat where I am trying to enjoy one of the last days of summer. Contrary to Mary Lu’s notion, my current dwelling is far from a “junk bucket.” She’s 35 feet of corrugated white tin with red aluminum trim along the windows. There’s a TV in the living room, working appliances in the kitchen, and a black fiberglass tub in the bathroom big enough for two. I moor her some five miles up Cocktail Creek near a snapper hole the fishermen say yields more success than a Benjamin in a whorehouse. I’m the farthest houseboat out here in the South Carolina marsh wasteland where even the loudest 4th of July firecracker is stifled by the distance.
It’s quiet, serene, and beautiful out here in the tidal estuaries. It’s the exact type of life Mary Lu would love. She doesn’t know it, but the houseboat is named after her.
I can’t help but question the declaration that the children have forgotten my name. It wouldn’t be unusual for six-year-old twins to not be familiar with their father’s former title, though surely they do know of the term “daddy.” I haven’t seen the kids since they were infants, when only their mother could tell them apart. Their brown hair was matted to the side, and their little cheeks dimpled when they giggled in their baby riots. Mary Lu won’t send me a picture, but I imagine my daughter, Julia, looks just like her mother, with long red hair, pale skin, and a mouth full of gleaming white teeth. I would hope Drew didn’t inherit my weak jaw line and big nose, but even if he did, I’m confident he’s still a handsome boy.
I sip my beer and re-read Mary Lu’s letter over a few times. The beer is dark and hoppy with a bubbly layer of foam concealing the liquid underneath. Cold beer is my anti-depressant, but it can’t silence the line running through my head the children have already forgotten your name. I take another sip of beer and a frothy foam ball falls from my bottom lip onto Mary Lu’s $400 dollar check, smearing her ridged signature. It’s been $400 every month now for the past five years. After Mary Lu’s private investor discovered my whereabouts, she started sending me checks out of pity. I live on a houseboat by choice. It’s a pity Mary Lu can’t comprehend the quality of life Mother Nature offers to marsh residents like myself. She thinks the average day for me involves waking up with a bed full of hookers, snorting a line, then watering my throat with cheap bourbon. I will admit my sheets have welcomed the occasional sold-out soul, and my nose has sniffed more precarious things than the autumn air, though to think I would expose these sins to my beloved children is ignorant of Mary Lu.
I place the letter down on a white plastic table beside my lawn chair. An overflowing ashtray seems like a good choice for a paperweight, though I quickly regret so when teaspoon of ash flutters away and sticks to the wet spot on the $400 check. I walk to the railing where my nautical telescope rests upon a tripod with one lame leg. From this high angle I can see where the creek ends and splits off into a number of little estuaries, each bustling with small sea life sheltering themselves from the predators of the open ocean. There is a tiny island, one of the last things I can see through the telescope before the marsh disappears over the horizon, a barren desert of reed grass seemingly going on forever. The island is uninhabited except for one lonely oak tree. Its branches are leafless and stripped of life and its trunk is cracked and swelled after years of humidity and merciless winds. At high tide I could make the trip in my johnboat. If Mary Lu would let me see the twins for just one day, that’s where I’d take them. Lay a picnic, climb the tree with a beer in my hand, and as we watched the sunset, I would try to answer the questions they’ll be asking Mary Lu of their father in the years to come. And whatever their mother might say, they’ll remember the beauty from that part of the world, and the man who brought them there.
I’m awakened early the next morning by the violent swishing of my waterbed. Living on a boat, I had thought a waterbed would create a smooth and euphoric sleeping experience. Instead, even the smallest wake from an early morning fishermen makes the bed slosh like the North Atlantic. I keep my eyes shut while I search for the drawstring to the venetian blinds above my bed. I find the strings and pull with a hand numbed and deprived of blood after eleven hours pressed under my stomach. The room has not been cleaned in months, and it’s not hard to tell by a cloud of illuminated dust circulating the room.
I sit up and cough a milky green wad into a glass of Pepsi beside my bed. Allergies have been a problem of mine since childhood. There is no scientific evidence to back it up, but prune juice and plain oatmeal in the morning seems to work as a fine remedy. Beside the glass of Pepsi is a bent cigarette, oddly resembling a wacky inflatable man bowed over by a stiff wind. The strike-anywhere matches from my bedside drawer work well as toothpicks, so I pry a fleshy piece of last night’s fish dinner from the crack between my back molars. I drop the slimy fish piece into the glass of Pepsi, then strike the match against the beige wood paneled wall. The smoke from the cigarette stirs with the mucus in my lungs, sending me into a respiratory fit. I shotgun black mucus from the back of my throat into the Pepsi glass. If I weren’t so damn addicted to these things, I’d be having my prune juice and oatmeal by now.
The black wads of tobacco spit look like a chain of rock islands in the Pepsi. The green spitball floats in the middle like a stubborn oasis in a world otherwise conquered by something malignant and visceral. I stick the cigarette bud in the wad of green spit, and it sticks up like a lighthouse giving direction in this sea of repulsive bodily excrement. Near the green island of spit is the fish I pried from my teeth— a breaching whale, fighting for air or else be conquered by the infection.
Mary Lu was trying to buy shrimp the day I met her. At the time, I was working on a shrimp boat as a deckhand. That day our trawler pulled in a contentious bycatch of two loggerheads, a school of reds, and a sick Bluefin caught swimming too close to shore. The loggerheads and the red fish died in the pull, but the bilious Bluefin twitched a tail so we threw him back over. The shrimp catch was ample, and we celebrated with the low calorie light beer our porky captain had on board. I was on the bow drawing up the outriggers when I saw Mary Lu on the dock, impatiently tapping one foot, hands planted on her hips like a football coach unsatisfied with the play formation. She wore black scrubs underneath a white lab coat, and a hospital nametag pinned to a 45-degree angle on her left breast. Keeping her toes warm were two distressed brown socks, which would have fallen to her lower ankle had the ridge of her white rubber clogs not supported them. Her hair was in a tightly knit braid draped over the left shoulder of her white lab coat, and her skin was as pale as dry wall with three or four freckles spotted along her neck.
“Had me waiting damn near dark,” she said as the boat pulled up to the dock. “Fresh critters are all gone back at the shop. So freezer burnt, the whiskers snapped off like twigs on a dead log. Tidy on up now, and give me a bag of fresh ones.”
We didn’t quite know what to make of this nurse barking orders at us. Captain was never easily intimidated, though shyer than hell when it came to women. A man self- conscious of his shinny baldhead and calves the size of Ionic columns. He looked at Mary Lu wide-eyed while trying to remove a moldering stogy lodged in the gap between his two front teeth.
“Shrimp docks ain’t no place for a pretty nurse like yourself,” Captain said, climbing down onto the dock. “New shrimp will be on market ice within the hour. See you then, ma’am.”
“Ain’t no nurse, skipper. There’s a Doctor insignia striped right across my tag here. Doctor Mary Lu Wagner. Neurology.”
This gal was spitting some type of business we shrimpers weren’t accustomed to hearing from our women. Normally the docks were closed to the public, but somehow she found a way through the gates. That night, Mary Lu was hosting a house party for the younger residential doctors and needed fresh shrimp for a shrimp cocktail. I followed her with a two-pound box of shrimp back to her white El Camino. I don’t know what came over me as I followed her back to the car. My eyes traced over her legs, striding in long measured steps. I’d never been around a woman like her in my whole lifetime.
“Mary Lu, I—“
“Mary Louise. We’re not in the boondocks, honey.”
“Yes, um, well…I was wondering if you’d be so kind to accompany me for a steak
dinner?” I asked, putting the icebox of shrimp into her trunk.
She looked me up and down like a rancher inspecting cattle. I bargained there weren’t
many men who would want to date a woman as dominate as Mary Lu, and I could tell the request came as a shock.
“Well, as my mother used to say, you ask me for something incredible, I’ll show you a hard working man.”
“I really find you beautiful,” I blurted out.
I’d never told a woman she was beautiful in my whole life, and I meant it. In all the years I’ve known Mary Lu, I never saw her smile so much as I did in that moment. We were smitten.
“Steak’s a no go. Been afraid of Mad Cow since I was a little girl, but raw fish will suffice. Sushi downtown. Friday night. My treat.”
She wrote her number on the back of a Kellogg’s Cereal coupon and drove off. I took off my apron smeared with fish guts and engine grease, and watched her white El Camino speed through a red light.
“What a woman,” I said aloud.
I’m in my johnboat pulling up to the docks at Black’s Fish Marina. Big Girp is standing on the dock waving me in with a flailing gas pump. Some gas drops in the nozzle flicker onto a passing woman’s white sundress. She flinches but keeps walking because Girp looks like the kind of guy you don’t confront with your own personal problems.
“Been spitting fumes for the past ten minutes, Del,” Girp says to me as I dock my skiff near a platter of seagull shit. “Not gonna crawl up your ass about it, I just gotta take a dump, and this pumping ain’t supposed to be my job.”
“Kids have forgotten my name, Girp,” I say as he waddles away, pulling a wad of boxers from his ass crack with the dirty nails of his thumb and index finger.
Girp is a barrel chested man with three sets of love handles and a prominent double chin. A stroke in his 30’s cut off the nurturance supply to his legs, so below the torso are two very pale chicken sticks. The legs still work, though the left foot starts to drag a bit at the end of the day.
“The Fuck?” Girp asks, turning around. “Your formal title or the word daddy?” “Still trying to figure that out.”
“Fuck ex wives, man. Every last one of em.”
Grip walks away leaving me standing next to the woman he soiled with gasoline. She is pretty, with a face and smile perfect for one of those denture commercials marketed toward younger toothless folk.
“Ethanol Free. Try not to spray any gas on my family while you’re at it,” the woman says to me as she climbs back into her boat.
Her two children are whaling each other with algae tainted buoys while her husband stands on the bow smearing SPF 55 into the black hairs on his neck. The husband is much older than his wife, with sparse grey hairs doing a poor job of covering his bald spot. He’s badly sunburnt, with dome-shaped blisters spotted along his torso like he’s a smallpox victim on spring break in Cabo. Their boat is a 25-foot StarCraft with an inboard engine and Soggy Dollar written on the back in pompous red lettered font. I use the universal gas key to open the hatch and smell the fumes as they release from their confined chamber. Ethanol Free gas is more expensive, so Girp makes us use regular gas and charge the ethanol prices. It’s a scam but nets a nice profit for being generally innocuous. Some gas leaks into the water as I start to pump. The glossy petroleum stays atop the saltwater, refusing to blend in a dull display of chemistry.
The boys fight their way across the boat and bump into my gas handle with their buoys. They are wearing orange lifejackets with a strap buckled through the legs of their matching blue bathing suits. The little one is a grunt and fights like hell, but the older brother’s size makes him a dominant presence in the buoy boxing-ring. With the riveted side of the buoy, he compresses the younger brother’s head into the grey-carpeted floor. The young one shrieks for his mother, as his plump little cheek is ground into the coarse fibers of the sun-bleached carpet. The plea falls on deaf ears, for the mother is preoccupied with lathering thick globs of yellow sunscreen onto her husband’s blistered lower back. After the encounter with Girp, I’m sure the mother would not be keen on a gas attendant speaking to her children. Though the little one is in pain, I ignore his gaze when he looks to me for relief from his brother’s mayhem. He’d call out my name if he knew it.
I dated Mary Lu for two years before the twins were born. They came as a surprise, but Mary Lu insisted on continuing through the pregnancy. We decided to live with each other, so I moved into Mary Lu’s apartment. It was a high rise with a concrete finish and black iron hand rails. Every window had a view of the hospital across the street, a tall structure with glass windows and three large air conditioners on the roof that steamed in the winter like locomotives. Stark white medical trucks unloaded supplies each night on the loading docks, and harsh yellow streetlights and hospital fluorescents gave a musty radiance. The light pollution veiled the night stars and kept the apartment lit even with every light turned off. When the blinds were open in their room, the twins would appear sickly in their crib, the yellow glow reflecting off their pale skin.
I stayed at home and took care of the kids while Mary Lu worked night shifts. In the mornings we would take the twins on a walk through the hospital’s rehab nature trail which coiled through a patch of birch and maple trees on the east side of the property. It was designed as a therapeutic sanctuary for recovering drug addicts, but I’d only ever seen one person walking the trail. He was an emaciated meth head trying to carve his name in some birch bark with a butter knife. When he threatened my family with his dull utensil, I damn near beat the light out of him. Mary Lu treated him for head trauma later that afternoon.
After living in the apartment for one year, I was bored as a caged Alpaca. I’d been a shrimper for 15 years before I met Mary Lu. I missed the salt air and the afternoon humidity. I longed for the foggy mornings when we would sit on the bow and toss spoiled fish to the hungry pelicans. One morning during our nature walk I asked Mary Lu if I could sail again.
“Mary Lu, I—
“Mary Lousie, darling.”
“Honey, what would ya think if daddy pulled shrimp again?”
She closed her eyes and let out a long labored breath as though sinking into some form
of eastern meditation.
“Delbert, you are not a deckhand anymore. You’re a father. These twins need their
daddy a lot more than the bourgeois need their shrimp cocktails,” she said pushing the stroller down the gravel trail. The twins giggled and Mary Lu wooed them with her maternal idiom. She was a terrific mother.
I had stopped heavy drinking for five years. Three beers each night was a satisfactory number that fulfilled my desire for a nightly buzz. Mary Lu kept a bottle of brandy on top of the fridge. One night it looked enticing in the glow of the hospital lights— greens
and yellows piercing through the clear glass and swimming in the caramel coloring of the cognac. It sparkled like a candied apple glistening under an array of lights at the county fair.
Night shifts for Mary Lu ended at 6am, too little time to sober up from a handle of hard liquor. The infant hollers from the twins weren’t enough to wake me. Only the rib- shot from Mary Lu’s high heel put me on my feet.
For the next hour I tried reconciling with Mary Lu as she cried and tossed my belongings out the door. She was stubborn as they come when it came to other people’s mistakes. After an hour of her yelling, I gave up and went to the nursery to hold my children. They stopped crying in my arms, and I felt the warmth of their little bodies on my chest. I would have stayed with them all day had Mary Lu not threatened to call the police.
Captain had hired a deckhand in my absence, and the other shrimp boats weren’t hiring. I thought a houseboat was the next best thing. Ten thousand in the bank bought me my current residence. I’ve been there ever since.
I fill the last boat of the day with diesel gasoline. It is an orange pontoon captained by an old salt with sun-damaged skin and a long distressed beard smelling of spoiled oysters. As I hang up the gas pump, Girp calls me from the end of the dock.
“Delbert!” With his left foot dragging, Girp waddles over like a convicted penguin towing a ball and chain. “Shit, you had me thinking on the commode this morning.”
“Oh did I?” I say, repulsed by the image.
“Listen, I know I’ve asked you before, but maybe just this one time you join me and the boys for a round down at Scooter’s. It’s rodeo night and the mechanical bull is up and working again. We’ll work extra hard to hook you up with a rack, and I’m not talking ribs…if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know, Girp. I’m pretty whipped after work, but I’ll keep by the phone if I change my mind.”
Girp lights a cigarette and swats at a seagull perched on a nearby dock pile. “You know, Del, maybe she’s waiting for you.”
As Girp walks away, his left foot drags and scratches against the splintered dock, but this penguin of a man is years from being bothered by the inconvenience.
After work I’m back in my bed trying to catch a nap. I’ve decided to skip out on Girp and his escapade to the bars. I turn over in bed and notice the glass of three-day-old Pepsi. Inside the cigarette still stands upright, and the globs of black tobacco remain intact along the perimeter. There isn’t much use for a glass of old Pepsi and excrement in this world, but perhaps the ocean will be more accepting. I get out of bed and walk the glass of Pepsi through the kitchen outside to the side rail of the houseboat. The marsh grass is swallowing the sun as it dips below the horizon, a great ball of fire hiding in the bush like an African predator. I dip the glass of Pepsi in the water and the little globs of spit wash away with the flowing tide. Still, the cigarette stands upright in the green wad in an amusing display of resilience.
I look out over the marsh but can’t make out the island with the lonely oak tree among the landscape. Perhaps I’ll take a trip out there tomorrow. I could even take a camera and snap a picture of myself for my children. On the photo I could write my name and a little note: Julia and Drew. I miss you. Love your daddy, Delbert. I can’t guarantee that Mary Lu will show them the picture, but she will have to respect my effort.
I squint and run my gaze over the marsh, but the island hides in its camouflage. Tomorrow I’ll make a trip out there. I’ll take my boat and ride past the estuaries where the small petrified fish hide from bigger predators, past the grating fishermen and their hundred dollar snapper hole, and just before the creek spits out into the ocean, there it will be, an island with one lonely oak tree stripped of its leaves, dead and splintered.
A Battle to Paradise
I watched the stars skid and flicker headlights at the sun
Before the moon drove across the atmosphere and covered it with a black sheet.
The light blue sky became dark bruised by the moon’s hammer that
pounded out the pale pigments.
The blankets drowned me and I melted like wax into the depths of the layers
that protected me from the hissing snakes that grew from the metal box.
Still hiding, I stare up at the face of a man squinting back at me
with a lit cigarette forced between his lips.
He spit smoke into my face;
it gripped my lungs with clenched fists
And twisted them
And turned them and rung the life out of me.
I watched my breath tie up its shoelaces and
Skip away with a cackle that stabbed my ears and blackened my mind and pinned me down
through a lack of struggle.
A white fog leaked from between my lips and blindfolded my eyes with a tight knot.
we walked up to the door
the yellow door
we walked up to it
and I held her hand so tight
I held her hand
as we walked up to
the front steps
the bricks leading to
the front door
that was yellow
to meet my grandparents
my father’s father
who had a yellow door
who had not met
my mother’s mother
who didn’t have bricks
but had a nice breeze
in the summer afternoons
on the porch
which was made of wood
but we were standing
on bricks when
I was going to introduce
my mother’s mother
to my father’s father
there was a nice breeze
and I was so excited
because the yellow door
was only two steps away
from me and I
was holding my mother’s
mother’s hand so tight
and our family tree had grown so old
the branches seemed they
would snap and we would use
to build a door
and paint it yellow like the leaves
the leaves that were yellow that day
and most days
and all days
but from the bottom
in the shade
they looked green
and I wanted to swing from
so they clung to the tree
held on for me
and grew bark over
and the branches facing north
had not met those
so I plucked the leaves
like the door
and knock knocked
upon the hollow wood
and the north facing branches
saw the ones who faced south
and the words spilled
from my tongue
“these are my leaves from the north!”
and there was no breeze
but the rattling of
termites in the branches
and so I placed the leaves
from the north
on the branches
that faced south
and a breeze did come
and carried them north
which puzzled me because
that was where they came from
and I thought they would
see the sunlight of the south
and linger a bit
but they went back
to the north
where they came from
and I was left hanging
onto the crisp branches
bathed in the southern sun
and I hopped down and stood
on the bricks
by the yellow door
my grandparent’s yellow door
which belonged to my father’s father
which was where I learned
not to play on trees
with no roots.
The Happy IV
The sun’s tangible heat targeted my leather Nike’s, which were covered in a splotchy coat of dense mud, but I suppose that was the least of my problems.
My swagger is slightly more uneven than usual this morning, as the ever-so lovely 7:00 AM Sunday walk-of-shame starts to become a habit.
It’s funny, people ask, “where did it all go wrong?”. Damned if I’m supposed to know. I guess after picking my sloppy self up time after time, I’ve just become so desensitized to the point where I accept it as part of my nature. My mind traces back to a time when I did have my shit together, but it just seems so distant and alien, that it seems like it was always supposed to be this way. Sort of like it fits somewhere in the age old routine of waking up every morning, stepping outside, greeted by the small-town stench of cow manure, and seeing the same people every single day.
My stomach most definitely did not approve of my choices last night, and I’m sure my 60-year old self will be more than discontent when he finds out about his liver damage. I try to ignore the nausea stirring about as I try to dismiss the kiss of misery pervading my mind. The morning light scorches my eyes, but I keep walking without batting an eye. I have no one to blame but myself for getting here.
I check my phone again. I read the messages and can’t even remember having the thought of messaging her, let alone reply to her, but the evidence is as concrete as my mother’s clinical depression, and the decisions are as bleak as the vomit stirring in Michael’s toilet. Ha, he’ll be in for a surprise this morning.
The evidence is there. I know. I did her wrong. I thought it would be easier to get her to leave me like this, but I guess I was completely wrong.
My mind etches back to visions of when we first dated, the wide grin smothered beneath mom’s dark lipstick when I brought her home for the first time. Her bald eyes looked at me as if I had just won the lottery. I miss that version of mom.
I fucked up. I really did fuck up. But I did so in the best, most unapologetic way.
It’s stupid how people expected us to be together forever. I always wondered which friends would stick with me and which friends would stick with her after our break up. It’s kind of like a divorce situation, I guess. If my intuition is right, like it usually is, I suppose I’m going to be shut into the dark. My friends do deserve to know the truth, though. Luka is going to be pissed. My right hand man, the guy who I had a friend crush on before I even started hanging out with people for fun.
Last time I heard Luka’s voice was early last month. My chapped lips press against each other as I recall him asking me about my downward-spiraling relationship. My refusal to answer his questions beyond a passive aggressive sentence or two was as heavy as a brick, the same kind we used to build our friendship. It’s crazy to think we used to talk for hours.
I look at my phone again and to find I have three missed calls from Luka. Great, he probably knows Luka was probably up last night, with a rolling-ball pen and paper, working up a lecture for me. My heart gashes as I wonder what I’ll tell him. Maybe I’ll just avoid talking to him for another week or so. To be brutally honest, I don’t see the point in being around him anymore. What good is he doing for me if my only function in his life is to remind him that it could be worse? I don’t need someone like that in my life.
My mind boggles as I try to work my mind around how we even became friends in the first place. Everyone loves Luka, and when I say everyone I mean every single person on the face of the earth always has something great to say about him, and they should. I mean he has a steady job, he’s studying at the school of his dreams, he always has a bright, shining smile plastered across his scruffy face. When we talk over the phone, I can just tell how difficult it is for him not to retreat the conversation back to him, and I suppose he does that out of courtesy. The reality is that those thoughts say more about him than they do about me. It’s not my fault I’m living an honest lifestyle at my own pace.
Still, the guy gave me the shoes I’m wearing. I guess I shouldn’t complain.
Hell, at the root of it all, he could be the reason I even got here in the first place. His overly consistent optimism got me to even show up at that damned audition. And lo-behold, I dance for you-know-who and get a deal to go on her world tour. It was funny; he would message me on Facebook over the phone and tell me that he was going to be in the front row, watching me take on the stage besides one of the biggest stars. What’s even funnier is that he started bragging about me to other people, like I was his little success story. It’s funny how things change after a sudden drop.
I walk by a small, pale yellow house with a lavender patch across the lawn. The tranquil scent reaches my nostrils, and images of Jane come into my mind. Her warm grimace during one of our spontaneous 3 AM dates. A chill runs down my spine. She deserves better than me, and I mean that with utter sincerity.
I don’t even know where I would be without Luka. Probably dead? Nah, not dead but I’d probably be happy and unaware or ambiguous about my miserable life and never have the nerve to break out of it. It probably wouldn’t be half as entertaining as this shit show.
I walk up to the big, beautiful pale lawn. I make my way up to the wooden porch, when my heart nearly pops out of my chest at the sight of Jane as she sat on the rocking chair, in tears. I don’t remember what I told her last night, but it must’ve been pretty terrible for her to be here. I should have recognized her try-hard hipster outfits from a mile away.
She stands up and I’m not sure whether it’s the gloss in her eyes or the alcohol in my system that deepens their usually green hue into a deep emerald. When she’s sad it’s darker, harder to tell. When she’s mad, it’s they become brighter. It’s probably all in my head. Yeah, probably. I’m just a crazy dude.
I don’t know what to tell her, but I spew the best of what I could come up with.
“What are you doing here?”
She sets her annoying, shaken gaze onto me, and bats her eyes right before bringing her rough hands up to her eyes. For God’s sake, was that Bath and Body Works gift card not enough of a hint to you?
“Jude, there’s something you have to know,” her usual gentle tone was lost beneath rigid, croaky patches. I shake my head instinctively. I refuse to hear anything she’s going to say because I know it’ll be defaming… And true.
“I don’t care. I really don’t want to hear it.”
That was it. Bam.
“What? You don’t get it. You really –”
“I don’t care, Jane.”
“Jude how could –”
“I don’t care. I fucking don’t.”
Jane froze and shook her head, batting her eyes again. I struggle to maintain my unreasonable, heated composure.
Don’t cry at me. Don’t even look at me like that.
Jane caught her uneven breath before speaking.
“For God sake, would it kill you to listen to someone else for just one second? I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you haven’t been the same. It’s been six months already. I’ve tried to stick it through, give you another chance, but I give up. I know shit happens, it’s life. But you can’t just go out and kill yourself every night without expecting to hurt me.”
“Are you done now?”
Jane walked down the porch steps.
“Yes. This time I mean it. Oh,” she said as she stopped and glanced at my feet, “nice shoes.”
“I never want to see your face again.” I don’t mean it, but it’s just one of those things inside me, an instinct that gets me to act this way. Like one of those weird thoughts you have, you know? Like when you’re talking to someone and you suddenly wonder what would happen if you just kiss them. It’s exactly like that.
I step inside my house before Jane leaves my lawn. The living room is flooded with that cucumber air freshener my mom always gets. I head straight to the stairs, when I catch mom sitting on the couch with her palms in her hands.
My heart is in knots as I pace towards her.
She looks up at me, reaches her tender hands out to mine, and gently pulls me down to sit beside her.
“Luka is dead.”
The happiness sets in my veins and flows throughout my body, cooing each one of my fingertips. I chuckle as my insides are overrun by a shower of golden bliss. Its presence is the strongest it has been tonight, and I have had to step into the bathroom more than a couple of times to check up on my happiness and reapply. I know the drill: the music blares throughout the nightclub, I zone out and take some time to put the happy IV back into my vein, but now I couldn’t be any more joyful. The euphoria reaches up to my dimples and tugs them upward. Nothing has fallen out of place yet.
One look at my reflection in my iPhone screen as Beyoncé plays though the speakers, and I remember why I came into this lovely, one-of-a-kind bathroom stall in the first place. This really is a wonderful bathroom stall, I bet this is what Beyoncé herself pisses in.
I run my fingers through my hair and adjust it until I’m undoubtedly content. I really should have just done it in a mirror. Everyone here seems too full of love to judge me. God, how much of my life have I spent fixing my hair? The sweat drenching my hair prevents it from sticking up the way I would like it to. It falls straight across my forehead, making me look like some kind of idiot. Life is too wonderful for me to spend another minute worried about my stupid attractive hair.
My hair is okay, but now it’s my body that doesn’t seem entirely satisfied. Something within my heart calls out to my body, encouraging me to pursue some other kind of fixation. Dope? No, that can’t be it. Radiance floods my insides, encouraging me to reach something greater than myself. I know it’s real, how could someone not know what I’m talking about? Whatever it is, I’m sure I won’t find it inside some high-end stripper’s bathroom.
The violet lights in the bathroom rush to my eyes as I step out of the stall. I walk over to the sink and can’t help but notice every other guy in here. It’s like the violet hues know just which features to hit, to accentuate their beauty. That guy pissing at the urinal? Anyone would kill for his cheekbones. The security guard watching me as I run my hands underneath the water? His nose is like a god’s. The guy who just stepped in here? His hair glides stiffly in the air, like a pair of Hollywood tits. I should be pissed because I probably don’t look as good as them, but life is good to me. I wonder what feature the purple brings out of me. My lips? My jaw?
I glance in the mirror. I can only be as vain as I allow myself to be. If that calls for me to splurge my hair beneath a thick coat of gel, or find the happy IV, then it’s okay because it makes me feel better than anything else can, and it gets me back on track to visions of him. I haven’t had visions of him in a long time, and it’s like that’s where I have always wanted to be, that’s where I deserve to be.
That’s where I was headed.
I love the way I see him in my mind. I love the way he hides in the most bizarre parts of my mind. I love it enough to become him, and I don’t care what I have to go through to find him, because I know I was once destined to be him. He is me. I am him.
I step out and see one girl from Richie’s dance studio. I think her name is Jazmin? She’s staring at me. Oh my God, she knows. I chuckle. Why should I worry? I bet Jazmin is probably lit out of her mind.
I make my way past clusters of sweaty, lively bodies and find Lisa at the bar. She’s on her third drink. I sit by her, and nod at the hefty bartender. He brings the big, blue bottle out. My stomach hurtles, assuring I’m going to regret this either tonight or tomorrow morning, but right now I’m laughing at the thought of it all, because everything is perfect. I know when I reach the last drop of that bottle, the world will only get better than it is now.
It’s funny how the same liquid filling my cup has allowed many of my demons, monsters and fears to boil through the surface throughout the last year. I’ve connected with so many before but I don’t know if I’ve seen every last one of them, and I guess that should scare me. It doesn’t. My flesh absorbs an angelic presence, and soon I laugh at the mere idea that I’ve ever been submissive to the darkest, most sinister portraits of my mind.
My mother thinks I’m a wreck. The difference between us, though, is that my sinister portraits are submissive to me in this very moment, and I absolutely refuse to be plunged into the soil by anything other than myself.
I glance at Lisa as she smiles and brings her phone up to take a selfie with me in the background. She’s a pal. She jumps out of her seat, pulls me out of mine, and before I know it, we’re dancing. I bring the dainty cup rim to my warm lips as my eyes catch the go-go dancers across the room. Their stiffness makes me chuckle. I haven’t tried to dance since I was dropped, but even I know I can do a better pelvis roll than them.
Lisa talks, but it sounds like a series of silly jumbles.
Every time I drink with Lisa, it’s like I can rip my brain out of my scull, with the roots hanging out and everything, and I can show her all of the nasty parts I’m made from, the ones that have dented my heart, and she won’t judge me for it. She’s the pal.
The indestructible bond between us that exists in this very moment is tighter than any other one I have ever felt. Her eyes hit mine, and my heart forgets everything it once knew of malice. It’s not just with her, but I sense goodness from everybody in this room right now, from the chipper bartender to the avid crowd dancing to this Gaga song (the one with R. Kelly, I can’t remember the name). My sober self wouldn’t be able to listen to it without submerging in self-humiliation. Never before has every detail, every atom that composes this melodic symphony of my existence been so good to me. I love this song, I love this place, the people here are all wonderful, and their energy rushes to me like a magnet, and it’s impossible to break from it.
Write what you want
Say what you want about me
If you’re wondering
Know that I’m not sorry
This is happiness. My happiness, which makes my phenomenal mother weep herself to sleep every night. But she just doesn’t get it. How could so much of one good thing be bad for me? I take every opportunity to drown myself in happiness, I just wish it didn’t hurt anyone…. Luka included.
I’m not going to end up like Luka.
I need to protect this precious feeling…. No, I have been protecting it. I need to find a way to secure this assurance of preciousness without resorting to anything outlandish. I would be insane to just let this go.
For a split second, I am challenged trying to imagine what I would leave this behind for. I shake my head as half of myself refuses to cooperate. It wouldn’t make sense for me to abandon this.
I retract to the wretched memories of that day, and it all becomes clear once again. The shrill shake in Jane’s voice, my mother’s face, flushed in a red misery.
She hasn’t been the same ever since.
My heart thuds against my chest as my throat is plundered by the weight of cinderblocks. I need to escape whatever this is. I bite my lip as my conscious clings against my ribcage, begging to escape my body.
I take several deep breaths. I need to stick this through. I should be okay.
This love will not be the end of me… It possibly can’t. The ride I’m on is too beautiful to abandon, no matter how hard I might have to.
I might have a problem.
By Paige Bonomi
I felt the darkness cast away the light upon my face,
The ocean crashed upon the shore, my hope beneath the waves.
My heart was dark, or so they said,
Black just like the sky,
For the moon had risen, my mind awakened,
The sun already died.
I reminisce on memories and choke on what is there,
I search for resolution, but my musing remains bare.
Ice did not consume my shadow as it stalked me in the past,
But the mirror reveals frigid eyes in the reflection looking back.
This blood is cold, that fills my veins,
I worry that I’ll freeze.
‘Cause now emotions blind my sight,
And hinder clarity.
If language is an object, then where have I put my words?
My tongue is caught within my throat; I scream but I’m not heard.
Time is left to fill the voids, but I’m stuck with empty gaps
Because every step forth I take, it’s two that I relapse.
Walking through a time of shade,
Not darkness, nor is light.
With a breaking stride, I carry through,
My left and then my right.
Fear is close, and harm is near,
But who’s my greatest foe?
I’m locked within the bars of what’s preventing me to grow.
Not black, nor is white. Not night, nor is day,
Entangled in the dwelling of the case of this dismay.
Caught longing for divorce between yesterday and today,
Unable to reach tomorrow while I’m trapped within the gray.
The Coffin Maker of Bluff City
It’s called Bluff City, but name alone doesn’t make it one. I’m not sure if there’s an official minimum population required to be a real city, but I am sure that if there is we don’t meet it. Not even close. Even when they have the big races down in Bristol and we get the poorer fans flocking in to stay the weekend, there are never more than 5,000 people around at a time. But that’s not to say Bluff City’s some podunk, middleofnowhere town. We’ve got some attractions of our own: great views of the Smoky Mountains, access to the Holston River, and—of course—that fake dinosaur park Mr. Pullen built up, which folks crossing I40 stop by every now and again. So there’s points of pride for my hometown, but none quite so powerful as what we’ve got in my old neighbor’s shop off Main. That neighbor’s parents named him Thaddeus Jameson when he was born at the turn of the century, but by the timethis story picks up, those parents were long gone, and everyone in town just called him Thad. And Thad owned the coffin shop.
Have you ever set foot in a coffin shop? I wouldn’t hold it against you if you hadn’t. They’re mighty creepy places. But anyways, let me set up the picture of what it was like for you, back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. First off, Thad’s shop didn’t have a name, just a sign that said HANDMADE COFFINS in the window of the first floor of his house. And it was his house, too. He lived in it and everything, which meant the shop wasn’t on Main with most of the rest, but off on a side street which you really had to be looking for to find. Once you did find it, you’d open the front door—or, actually, both front doors, since he had a screen door and a regular one—and walk on in. It wouldn’t be locked. First thing you’d notice would be the smell. You know the smell of wood? I’m talking about dusty, freshcut wood. The kind of wood smell that really gets up into your nose, so you’ve got to sneeze once or twice when you first meet it. That’s what it smelled like in there. And it was always so dim that when you first walked in it’d just be you and the smell until your eyes adjusted and you could see the displays. Right, I almost forgot about those. All around the shop front were coffins. Tiny little coffins nailed up on the wall as sorts of models, and a couple photographs of the specialty ones Thad had made for animals from the Knoxville Zoo. Then there would be one or two display coffins against one of the walls, and maybe another couple real ones behind a counter, waiting to be picked up. On that desk there was a bell, which you’d have to ring it to let Thad know you were there. Or at least that was the idea. Normally he wouldn’t hear it, and you’d have to pull him from the workshop out back.
So that’s how Thad’s shop was back in the day. He got steady business, on account of a good reputation and not having much in the way of competition. Sometimes even Virginians or Carolinians would shoot the Cumberland Gap to visit. That’s all just to say that he was wellknown all around the tristate area. So, when the big old elephant at the zoo in Knoxville came down with some sort of elephant sickness and seemed ready to pass on, it was no surprise that they called up Thad to make the coffin.
Like I said, he’d already done a spot of work for them before. The zoo liked to have real elaborate burials for the more popular exhibits, like they were people. But an elephant’s a whole mess of a lot bigger than a panda or a monkey. And I suppose it’s a lot bigger of a deal, too—Not something you could cram into a pinewood box and be done with. It needed something special, and Thad just wasn’t equipped to handle that task with his normal materials. Lucky for him elephants take a long time dying, so Thad had time to call in a specialty order to a lumber distributor out West. He was really excited about this order, too, let me tell you—would hardly shut up about it. He talked that wood up so much over the time it took to ship out that you would have thought it to be torn from Noah’s Ark itself.
That’s the thing about Thad: he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. People liked him good enough, but he was never exactly personable. He never took a wife, rarely had visitors, almost never went in to town at Bristol… Just mainly kept to himself. If you were to have met him without knowing who he was, you’d likely be more than a smidgen put off by this loner coffinmaker with a body as thin as a skeleton and no sense for acting socially. But it takes all kinds, as they say.
Well, anyways, back to the wood. One Monday it arrived in a big delivery truck that didn’t have a thing else inside of it but these massive cuts of wood. I mean, really, huge. And in all sorts of different dimensions, wrapped up in paper so you couldn’t see what it even looked like, or understand what had Thad so worked up over it. There was certainly something aweinspiring about the pure size of the shipment, though. I’ll hand that to Thad. Elephants are massive creatures, but you don’t quite realize how much so till you see the amount of lumber it takes to hold a dead one. Thad got it all off the truck, unwrapped, and put under a tarp by his workshop. Then he started calling on townsfolk to stop by and see it.
You know how there’s things which are just versions of things? Like a Big Mac is just a version of a burger, or the Braves are just a version of a baseball team. And you also know how some things are so perfect that they’re not just a version of a thing, but that thing itself? Like how Ted Williams wasn’t just a version of a batter, he’s thebatter. Quintessential, you could say. Well, this wood was like that, but for wood. It was orange and red and brown and tan, all swimming together in these cascades of color that looked like the layers of waves trickling over pebbles on the bank of a river. Just beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. But when you saw it in person, what really struck you was what Thad could do with it, once your jaw undropped.
“You want to know what makes this wood special?” he would say.
“Sure,” whomever he was showing the wood to would say.
“This wood’s got music in it. It makes sounds. You don’t even have to whittle it into a flute or a proper sound block to do it.”
Then Thad would reach out and grab a smallish block of the stuff. He held it between the fingernails on his first finger and thumb, then flicked it. And I’ll be damned if that chunk of wood didn’t sing out for a good second or two, like it was a deep, heavy, muted bell. Then he held it out to you and let you try the same as him. You could feel the note vibrating your fingers when it rang.
“You know what this wood’s called?”
“This is cocobolo. It’s great wood.”
“Cocobolo…” Everyone always tried out the word in their mouths. It just sound like good wood, doesn’t it?
“Really great wood. This is what I’d want my own coffin to be made from.” “Mmhmm.”
“That’s one lucky elephant.”
Thad looked on that cocobolo like it was his own child. He loved it. I mean really, loved it. You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice, which is why it was shame he’d have to put it towards an elephant coffin. Not too much of one, though. After all, he did love himself some woodworking. In fact, one could say he was lucky just to get to work on that wood at all, since the zoo, knowing it was a bigger task than he was used to, covered all his extra material costs on top of paying labor.
So the next day Thad woke up early, all excited to work on the cocobolo. He was buzzing like a cockroach in a cereal bowl. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the zoo called him up and said to hold off for a bit. The vets had been making progress on the elephant, and a coffin might not be necessary after all. He waited around another week, that wood calling out to him to him the whole time, before the zoo called again and told him to call of the project. Their elephant had made a full recovery. It was a miracle.
So you remember how Thad said that cocobolo was the wood he wanted his own coffin to be made from? Then I’m sure you could guess what he set to work doing with it the instant he heard back about the elephant. You have to wonder what it is about a man that makes him want to build his own coffin. Some people in town thought it was on account of his being depressive. Others speculated it was to use up the wood before the elephant fell sick again. Still others believed him to just really enjoy making coffins, and so selfishly wanting to put his best work towards his own benefit. Whatever the reason, he poured his soul into that wood and the coffin what came out of it. He must have spent two weeks holed up in that houseshop of his, drawing up plans. Cocobolo is a real oily wood, see. Normal wood glue doesn’t work for it. Fixing planks and sides together is a real challenge, and you need particular joints to make the whole thing stay together. While he was drawing up the plans for these, he didn’t take customers or visitors. Hardly even went to the market for food, either. Then, once he’d finished, he got to the real work. It ended up taking him three months, since he had to split time between his personal project and his paid work. But still, not a day went by you couldn’t see him out in his workshop, making those plans of his a reality.
It was ‘38 when he finished his coffin, though maybe that’s the wrong word. A box like that might be worthy of being called a casket. I’m not sure of the difference. This creation of his—whether it was a coffin or casket—was nearly flawless. It was a box of death, sure, but the way Thad could bring out the liveliness of all the knots and colors in that wood brought it almost to life. It was thick and sturdy and perfectly symmetrical. A coffin like that could make a man want to die. But Thad wasn’t ready to die. He was only 38 by then, remember. That’s not young, but it’s not old either. So, he had to put the casket and the wood into storage and get on living.
Good thing he finished when he did, too, on account of he sure was needed soon after. He was able to avoid selective service, but many young men in the tristate area weren’t so lucky. He was mighty busy for quite some time. So much so that by the time the Knoxville elephant did die, Thad was too caught up with other work to work for the zoo. They just had to put that elephant naked in the ground like any other animal. Things didn’t really return to normal until ‘46, and by then Thad was a different man.
For one thing he swore off making human caskets. I’m not sure how many hundreds or thousands he had to build over the war. The total’s got to be more than enough for one man’s life, though. He did build a bit of wealth out of the whole deal, but that’s not consolation for all the untimely death he had to face. Just a few days after VJ Day, a sweet young couple that had moved out to Hendersonville from Bluff City came by Thad’s shop. The poor woman’s mother had died, and they hoped the local coffin maker could make her something nice to go to rest in.
Thad threw them right out. No ceremony to it or anything, as if they ought to know better than to ask for a coffin in a coffin shop. A couple of weeks after that incident a sign went up in between HANDMADE and COFFINS that said ANIMAL, and from then on Bluff City was home to the only animal coffin shop you’ve ever heard of.
For another thing, Thad became inactive. Lazy, almost, but with some sort of contemplation to it which made it not quite laziness. There’s not much demand for pet coffins. Sometimes Thad could go weeks without working. Most of that new free time he spent locked up in his home, reading or listening to the radio. People would also sometimes see him down at the ice cream parlor, or the 19 Diner. He interacted with folks even less than he had before, though, when he did get out.
Well, by and by Thad plumped up. Middle age and that sort of lazy lifestyle will do that to a man. And people thought it was good for him, seeing as how before he was always so painfully skinny. Maybe it was good, for his body’s health I mean, but it soon put a burden on his mind that far outweighed any sort of bodily benefit. People say that when your body’s changing you’re the first to notice, then family, then friends, then acquaintances, but that’s only so for change you’re working towards. When your body’s changed by accident, you never seem to notice till it’s already happened. Well, whenever Thad recognized he’d put weight on, he saw it for the problem it was. See, he had built a skinnyman’s coffin for himself. At his size he wouldn’t fit into the casket which had been waiting on his death in storage throughout the war and the years that followed. Were he to pass on, there’d be no choice but to place him in an inferior resting place.
So Thad did what he had to do. He pulled his coffin out from where he had left it to gather dust, along with the cocobolo that had been left over from the original project. Then he went to work on it, adjusting this or that joint, adding a panel or two, reworking the headboard, and so on and so forth till he had himself a coffin fit for resting in. He must have spent a good two months fixing it up. Not like he had been spending his time before neither, all lackadaisical and whatnot. He worked like a bloodhound works during hunting season, hardly ever taking a day off. All that practice during the war paid off too, let me tell you. That finished coffin was a master’s work. He got all those waves and curves in the cocobolo to fit in perfect harmony with the hard, boxxy coffin angles in a way which doesn’t fully make sense but looks nothing short of beautiful.
Maybe it was once again having a good last resting place to look forward to that did it. Or it could also have just been one of those random changes that takes ahold of a person during their life, but once he finished the coffin again, it was like Thad had been born anew. He actually brought folks over to show him the beauty he had made. The Thad from right after the war wouldn’t have done that, no way. But this new Thad really opened up. You’d see him talking to folks at the diner, meeting people in the park, inviting neighbors over, going to the high school’s homecoming game… A model resident, he was.
But again, he just couldn’t die. He wasn’t in great health when the second try at his coffin was finished. Like I said, he was big. But he started enjoying his life again, and you can’t just up and die when that happens. So the new coffin went into storage where its old self had been, along with what was left of the cocobolo, and Thad went on living. It was getting on towards the sixties, then, and the area around Bluff City was starting to be built up. He was getting more customers by the year. People were getting richer, after all, and more willing to put money into a pet’s resting. He even got more work with the Knoxville Zoo, though none of the animals were so lucky as that old elephant. He truly did enjoy his work, especially then. Those must have been the best times of his life.
Problems have a way of popping up even in the best of times, though—sometimes just because times are good. And that sure was the case in ‘65, when Thad hit retiring age and realized his body had changed along after his soul. Years of good work and community involvement had cut all the postwar weight off of him, and left him back with the stickthin body he had been born into. And I’m sure you can guess what that meant: His coffin wasn’t any good any more. It needed a trimming to fit his body.
Well, he got to it, sure enough. Within a few weeks he had it back to how it was before, but still more ornate and beautiful. And he was happy with it, but not so much as he was the last time. Believe it or not, making a coffin smaller still uses up a whole lot of wood, and he was running out of that precious cocobolo. It’s damned impressive he kept it so well for so long. Must have put a good effort to keeping the supply dry and bugfree. Anyways, he wasn’t quite satisfied with what he ended up with, and from there on out the coffin never went back into storage. It stayed in the workshop, and when he didn’t have any customers or other projects, he’d work on it. Never any big changes. His body was done with those. But little ones, like a different moulding on the headboard, or a wider base.
Thad worked away a decade like that, and with every change he became less and less satisfied with what he was getting closer and closer to finally being able to use. It was kind of unfair, in a way. We in town feared he would die in the middle of one of his reworks, and not be able to go to rest in a coffin he was happy with. Luckily, it didn’t come to that.
One day in ‘76, he decided to redo the handles. He got some fancy brass ones at the hardwood store, and was ready to get to work on the replacement panels they’d be drilled into. Planned it all out and everything. But when he went to get the cocobolo, why, wouldn’t you know it? He’d run out. Just run entirely out of that wood which was so dear to him. And that was a real torture, cause that was his life’s work, and now it wasn’t going to be finished. I suppose he could have ordered more, but it wouldn’t have been the same for him. That original supply had kept up with him through nearly forty years by then. Introducing a fresh new cut would ruin the coffin even more.
People felt for him in town. Everybody, once the news reached them. You can only imagine how awful it must have been. Remember, he didn’t have a wife or kids, or really much in the way of family at all. That coffin was as much of a soul mate as he had, if that’s possible. People full on expected him to die of a broken heart. Some of the less tender townspeople joked about how the pallbearers wouldn’t be able to carry him to his grave, seeing as how the casket had no handles anymore. But all that speculating and unsolicited empathy was wrong. He wasn’t heartbroken. He didn’t cry or mope around. He didn’t off himself. He wasn’t even sad. He was fed up.
He had been gifted this perfect wood as if by divine intervention, what with the elephant’s miraculous recovery and all. But the devil must have fiddled with the details of his blessing, because it ended up part curse. Here was this man with all the means and materials he needed for a perfect resting place, but a body that was never quite ready for it. There can’t be a greater frustration than that. So what did he do? What could he do? He had done everything he could with the coffin, so the way he saw it he only had one option left. He had to remove the need for it. He decided he would not die. Not then, and not ever. He decided that the prize of death was not worth the worry and the stress and the pain which preparing for it had caused him.
And then he didn’t die. He has never really come close, to be honest. Nobody’s quite sure how, but he’s gotten out of the death contract which comes with life for the rest of us. And please understand that I mean this straight. It’s not that he lives on in our hearts or his legend lives on in Bluff City or some other truck like that. I mean it. He is immortal. Through and through, Thaddeus Jameson is an immortal man. He still lives in Bluff City, in fact. You can visit him if you’d like, at the pet coffin shop. Remember that it’s not on Main with the rest of the stores, but if you ask around you’ll find it. And when you do you’ll meet the only immortal man in the world, and get to see the finest, most worthless coffin there is.
It’s fine that we’re standing this close
Because the space between our minds is infinite
Don’t worry – to you I’m an animal
You can play the hunter
Or maybe you’re just an animal yourself
In any case
To you I’m an illusion
And you will only ever meet the person you wish I were
Because you’ll never visualize me at a family dinner
In your mind, I will never cry during West Side Story
I won’t love Charles Bukowski and jazz singers
No no – it’s alright
Because you don’t exist to me either
You didn’t collect baseball cards as a kid
And your grandmother didn’t hem your dress pants
And the smell of a campfire doesn’t remind you of summers
Looking at the stars with your little brother and dreaming
of your bright, bright future
So it’s fine
Maybe if we both existed
The person you might’ve been
And the person I might’ve been
Could’ve been friends
But I guess not
Susan Lin is an undergraduate at the University of Southern California majoring in Gender Studies. Some of her interests include gender and sexuality theories, ceramics, film, banana peppers, identity politics, and strangeness in literature. She likes to write sentences because there is nothing else quite like it. Poetry was once seen as a form of music and she wishes it was still popularly considered so.
Xaq Rush is a graduating senior who’s constantly trying to remember how damn cool it is that he’s been painted into this masterpiece of life. In gratitude for being included in this beauty, he just wants to add a bit more color to it all. And writing is favorite way of doing so.
Anita Chen is a junior Narrative Studies major hoping to publish a TCK memoir. As one of the directors at Kazan Taiko & an intern at Kaya Press, she is often spotted sporting a fuzzy black cap and sipping a cup of coffee.
Paige Bonomi is a junior English Creative Writing major at USC. She is a Student Athlete on the Women’s Lacrosse team from Long Island, New York.
Cameron Plunkett is a junior majoring in Economics and English. He recently lost several years of life expectancy by watching the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Conner Dodenhoff is a junior Narrative Studies major from Charleston, South Carolina. His grandpa claims that they’re descendants of the Cherokee Indians, which explains why he was born with an extraordinarily ability to wield and throw a tomahawk.
Olivia Morreale is a freshman English major from Washington, D.C. She loves jazz music and her favorite poem is “Yesterdays” by W.S. Merwin.
More author bios to come!