Fifteen Stories / 13 December 1998
[I gave myself 24 hours to write 20 stories. I came up with 15.]
1. Watch the Idiot Running
Sure, at first it seemed like a full-blown miracle when vodka started raining from the heavens, and sure, we bottled enough of it to last a lifetime, filling jelly jars and Tupperware containers and vases, but soon enough everyone’s eyes were burning and the stench was making us all dizzy and we began praying for something else instead.
2. The Squeaky Wheel
“When are you going to chop down that tree, is what I’d like to know,” Bella said.
Bella’s husband had been enjoying a relaxing afternoon on the porch, drinking this drink that he’d personally invented called the Squeaky Wheel, the ingredients of which, truth be known, changed from day to day, depending on what was in the house. But always grenadine, always grenadine.
“That tree,” Bella’s husband said, gesturing, “is a part of this town’s heritage.”
“That tree is going to bust through our bedroom window, give it another month.” Bella backed away from the porch to glance upward at the tree that was, indeed, making its convoluted way through the rain gutter and back down toward the window.
“It seems like you don’t care about this town’s heritage or about getting more oxygen in our bedroom.”
“Last I checked, that window could be opened manually,” Bella said, arms akimbo. “I don’t think oxygen is a problem.”
“Also, you’re forgetting about the foundational support that the tree is providing. I cut down that tree, our house will fall forward and then our window will be broken anyway. Do you want God or Gravity to break that window?”
Bella’s husband was always bringing up God versus Gravity, wherein Gravity, being the force that pulls you closer to Hell, was filled with insidious intent.
“Our house stood just fine without that tree for thirty-odd years,” Bella informed him.
“You stood just fine for sixty-odd years,” Bella’s husband replied. “But now you’ve got that cane.”
“It’s a dark day when you rely on my bad leg to get you out of doing some work.”
“Desperate times, Bella. And let’s not forget the town’s heritage.”
Dalia put in another tape for Emily to listen to. “OK, check this one out,” she said. “I think you might be into this.”
Emily was reading a medical journal entitled SWOLLEN. Her eyes were scanning the words but her mind was filled with a specific sensory memory: teeth on lobe.
“This is from my minimalist period,” Dalia said as she waited for the cassette to queue up. “I was experimenting with tones, you know. How to get across a really specific mood with just a few basic elements.”
Emily has this uncanny ability to accurately visualize things that she could never see, not without an endoscopic camera with a flexible neck. In her mind’s eye was Doyle’s teeth on her earlobe and she could clearly see the lobe turning deathly white, her blood being scattered to parts north.
A steady, quiet pulsing emerged from Dalia’s speakers. It got louder and more high-pitched.
“You know when you’re at Safeway and the clerk slides your food item over the laser scanner and there’s that beeping noise?” Emily asked.
“Yeah,” Dalia said.
“That’s what this sounds like.”
“Yeah, cool. Yeah. Except it’s like a robot doing the scanning, right?”
“Uh-huh,” Emily said, and the nerves in her neck throbbed and danced.
4. Propylene Glycol
This little girl came strutting down the street like she owned the place and sat down next to me. I gave her one of those tight-lipped smiles.
“You waiting for your mom to pick you up?” she asked me.
“No, no,” I said. “I’m just killing time.”
“I’m waiting for my mom to pick me up.”
She sat there for a moment, bobbing her head and singing: “La lalaa lalala la.” Then: “Do you know why people turn blue when they run out of air?”
“I have an educated guess,” I said.
“You mean like a guesstimate?” she asked.
“Yeah. You know how your veins look blue? See, there? But when you cut yourself, red blood comes out?”
“Well, I seem to remember from science class that it’s oxygen that makes blood red. So if you don’t have any oxygen, then your blood turns blue and then, so, you look blue.”
“You are kidding.”
“I’m not sure if that’s true but I think it has some basis in fact.”
The girl turned this over in her mind. “So if you were locked in a room with no oxygen and you cut yourself … blue blood would come out?”
“Sure. Why not. You know, I know someone who’s trying to dye her skin blue.”
“She doesn’t have a job.”
“Wow,” the little girl said. “I can’t wait to not have a job.”
I checked my watch. “Yeah, I highly recommend it.”
5. This Is How Mother Lost His Legs
The patch of ice, there at the corner of Patai and Henderson, was what did it, and that patch of ice totally had no place being where it was. The temperature was well above freezing all day, in fact it was relatively warmish, so the only sensible conclusion was that the patch was not made out of water but some obscure liquid that was far more prone to solidifying and creating a slick, low-friction surface.
So the car, which was a huge Cadillac, skid on this patch of frozen whatever, and spun around and around before crashing right into the front window of the Jew and Gentile Deli. Luckily it was a slow time of day for the deli and there wasn’t the usual crowd of people there lined up by the front door. But still, Mother was there, manning the counter, slicing up tomorrow’s meats, and he never did anything to hurt anyone, you know, except in the war. And here comes this spinning Cadillac, like a giant silver helicopter rotor, chewing up the window and the door and the take-a-number machine and the wicker chairs and the jars of pickles and the hanging cheeses and even the framed photographs of Mother back in his prime, when he was a boxer and dating a young starlet named Rita Moreno.
You gotta hand it to Mother, though, he sat there and sang arias the whole time he was pinned against the back wall, waiting for the paramedics to blowtorch their way through the mess. The Caddy had, for all intents and purposes, bisected him, but did it in such a merciful fashion that he didn’t feel a thing after the initial blow. He was just numb, though woozy, and the singing kept him conscious and kept the medics going in the right direction. They could never quite pinpoint the location of the driver.
6. A Little Before Getting Back in the Car
I came out of the movie theater after seeing the awful movie and the sky was white and progress was frozen in midair. I sat on the edge of the fountain there in front of the theater, the water bubbling like an idiot. In my breath vapor was a cheetah and Abraham Lincoln and Saturn. My sinuses recoiled in pleasant horror. There was something that is typically missing in California: atmosphere. I breathed it in and hoped to keep a little in my lungs for later since I knew it was fleeting.
7. Vomit Story No. 1
Golio’s dream-date was a girl who could vomit up something useful or appealing to the senses. He was really confounded by the concept of human waste products and spent an unseemly amount of time cursing what he called “the maker.”
“But, Golio,” his sister would go. “That’s the whole point of waste products. They’re unnecessary to us, so we void them from our bodies, expel them and hope they go as far away as possible.”
“But wouldn’t life be a lot more tidy if these so-called waste products could, in turn, be used for something?” Golio would inevitably counter-argue. “I understand that they can’t be re-fed into our systems, but what if we created a nice hair conditioner or an adhesive product of some sort?”
Then Golio’s sister would hit him with: “There’s always fertilizer, Golio. There’s always fertilizer.” She tended to resort to the artificial PLATITUDE-NAME-REPEAT PLATITUDE construction when attempting to wrap things up.
So Golio went out on any number of blind dates, plying the poor girls with excessive amounts of alcohol, looking for that one who would soak the cement of the alleyway with nail polish remover or petroleum jelly or acrylic paint.
8. Vomit Story No. 2
“You remember that Family Ties where Tom Hanks is an alcoholic and drinks like vanilla and maraschino cherry juice and all?”
“Well my aunt has all that beat.”
“Lay it down, clown.”
“She’s really the smartest alcoholic I know.”
“That’s a tall statement, from what I know of your family and acquaintances.”
“OK, so we’re on the same page.”
“I implore you to continue.”
“Well, get this, she chugs down entire bottles of Scope.”
“Yeah. I remember she used to do shots out of the lid during holiday parties but soon enough she graduated to doubles on the rocks.”
“That would look so cool, you know, all bright green and all. Like Midori.”
“It was pretty swanky. But the best part is, she would get sick, of course, and go puke, but her puke was all minty fresh. She smelled better coming out of the bathroom than she did going in.”
“Man, that’s a great idea.”
“It was quite the fringe benefit.”
9. Notes from Algebra
You speak scornfully of your teachers. You’ve assigned each of them a derogatory nickname based on a particular physical defect or perhaps a cruel variation upon their last name. You meet their glances with a furrowed brow, indicating the solemn concentration it is taking to blast away at their minds with psionic force. Masonite crumbles, windows shatter, cardboard posters indicating correct cursive burst into flames. You are a dark god, motionless. You are icy to the touch. You speak a different language from everybody else. You are constantly amazed at what causes the others to burst into laughter.
10. Strong, Black, and Aromatic
Uncle Paul was always making up funny epitaphs for his gravestone, like, “Emergency! Please call police” and “Oh, I thought the green cup had the poison in it.” And then came the day when he was struck down by a heart attack and buried under the rather tepid “He liked his living like he liked his coffee: Strong, black, and aromatic.”
About six months after his death, Uncle Paul crawled out of his grave and started terrorizing Aunt Millie, complaining that she didn’t use any of his many funny epitaph suggestions. After several weeks of this, Millie was forced to admit that she’d saved a few bucks by picking a tombstone that already had a generic epitaph engraved upon it and spent the extra money on a new brassiere. Uncle Paul couldn’t believe that shit and slunk back to the boneyard, pissed.
11. An Education of Weight and Authority
I got this new job working as a security guard. It’s pretty sweet. For a while there I was starting to wonder if I was in trouble because everything I know about the world I learned from television and movies, but it seems like all the constructs of visual fiction keep turning out to be true (or maybe it’s that the world adapts itself to conform to the constructs of visual fiction, like how the mafia started basing itself on the Godfather movies and not vice versa), and the life of a security guard is no different. You wear a uniform and get a gun (not all security guards get guns, but when you’re guarding a safe with something valuable in it, like I am, you need a concrete way to deter potential thieves) and spend most of your time watching late-night programs on a small, portable, black-and-white TV, or doing crossword puzzles. Oh, and you get one of those huge flashlights and every once in a while you go tiptoeing through dark corridors, flashing the flashlight all around, saying things like “Is anybody there?” or, less frequently, “Who’s there?” It’s really scary!
Meg and Jister and Dagny were lounging around at the library. Meg had actual work to do, an essay about flight patterns, but the others were just along for the ride, sitting in their strict wooden seats at extreme angles. Sometimes the sound of a harshly closed book would echo through the high-ceilinged atrium, and there were constant clicks of keyboards coming from the Reference room.
“Where’s the dictionary?” Meg asked, marking a spot in her book with an index finger and scrounging around through the stacks of papers.
“You know what fills me with absolute lust?” Dagny asked.
“What’s that?” Jister wanted to know.
“It’s when you ask me to look up a word for you.”
Meg was having no luck finding the dictionary. “Dag, prepare to get superhorny because I don’t understand a single goddamn word in this book.”
Dagny shook her head. “It doesn’t work with you, Meg. I don’t think.”
“Why does it work with me?” Jister asked.
“Because you look so weak and helpless and confused whenever you ask me,” Dagny explained. “I know that if you’re asking me to do it for you, then you must really be baffled. You need a thorough explanation of the word. Context, roots, the whole works. You need someone to hold your hand.”
Jister wasn’t particularly pleased by this. “So you get off on me being stupid.”
“I guess I just like you being dependent on me. Needy men drive me insane.”
“Seriously, where is that thing?” Meg asked.
Dagny lifted the Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, an enormous red tome, from her lap and placed it gently on the table. “Ask me,” she said to Meg.
Meg examined her book for a moment. “Um. How about … can … can you check ‘silviculture’?”
Dagny cracked open the dictionary and began to slowly flip through the pages. She stopped on 1328 and let her fingers slide along the words. Then she flattened her hand and ran her palm across the paper, then let her middle finger slip inside the crevasse of the book’s spine. She abruptly slammed the dictionary shut.
“I need to go,” she said, heaving the book into her arms and scuttling into the darkness.
13. The Unauthorized Biography of Anthea Isadora
Anthea kicked. She was silent, toothless. She gripped fingers tightly. She hit her head. She babbled. She knocked things over. She recited numbers. She balanced. She ran upstairs. She shrieked. She tied and buttoned. She painted. She raised her hand. She whispered. She memorized. She blushed. She tickled. She waited. She let out a long, shuddery sigh. She wrote her name on a piece of paper. She analyzed, then diagnosed. She nodded. She held her hands behind her back. She skinned her knee. She plucked strings. She burned, toiled. She slept with her head under a pillow. She quietly replaced the phone into the receiver, late at night. She examined her own reflection. She positioned herself. She accelerated. She arched her back. She recoiled. She hid behind her bangs. She highlighted. She gestured easily, lightly. She put on a good show. She watched people who weren’t talking, to see their reactions. She made sure they were both there at the same time. She checked off items on a list. She cried on cue. She cried in the shower. She stopped writing letters. She rode the bus. She stopped every hour to look out the window. She filled out forms and signed her name on a piece of paper. She dug through her purse, looking for gum. She disappeared.
14. The Truth
It was that one time when you helped me burn down my father’s place for the insurance money. I was blinded with gasoline and your hair was making sweaty curlicues around your forehead and there was an inclusive heat and we were stinking and shuddering and every kiss tasted like poison and you kicked the spare change box in the front seat and sent coins everywhere and there was Spanish on the radio and the emergency brake digging into my hip and a thick, prescient fog. You can keep playing around if you like, you can keep pretending mute sailors are what you need, but you and I both know that all we should be doing is getting back to that fog and that sweat and that poison.
[a donut shop, mid-afternoon]
M: Donuts are good.
F: And good for you.
M: It’s weird, because usually food that tastes so yummy is really bad for you.
F: Well, who are we to question such anomalies of nature.
M: That’s why I love you, F. You know exactly when to stop worrying and when to start enjoying.
F: Love, huh.
M: Love, like, platonic love. Like a powerful respect.
F: Powerful respect may be even worse.
M: Yeah, well, cancel that part about powerful respect. It was off the top of my head.
F: Are you like turning into a little stalker?
M: [looks around as if F is talking to someone else, then points at himself] Wha? Me?
F: That’s the last thing I need.
M: Let me ask you one last stalkerish thing and then we can get on with our lives.
M: Do you think you’re going to get married?
F: [lets out a long breath] I guess so. I mean, that’s been the plan.
M: Like a general plan from when you were little, or a current plan with existing parties?
F: I don’t know. A general plan. Like, “Someday I’ll get married and have kids.”
M: Did you sit around and plan out your whole wedding when you were little? That doesn’t quite seem to fit my perception of you.
F: I think … I think, over the years, I’ve collected little items or concepts that I want to include, but I never really mapped out the whole thing.
M: So like what concepts?
F: It would definitely have to be something that lasts a whole weekend, and people wouldn’t be able to escape. It wouldn’t be like people could just drop in and then sneak on out. There would also be a lot of contests and games.
M: Like Bingo?
F: Yes, exactly. Games of chance. I’d probably spend most of the planning on picking the right music. I think it’d be neat if the music was played by those animatronic animals, like at Chuck E. Cheese.
M: Like the Hall of Presidents?
F: Yeah. But you could stick whatever tape you wanted in them and they’d play it.
M: That sounds a little creepy. I think my wedding would have an arbitrarily chosen theme, and that theme would be everywhere. On napkins and tablecloths and cummerbunds and invitations and all.
F: Like … what? Like pink plaid?
M: Pink plaid and, plus, say, a stegosaurus. Like there’d be an official logo or brand for the wedding. It’d be like a booth at a convention center.
F: That sounds pretty good.
M: I think the best part about a wedding would be hiding away now and then with your new spouse. You’d stow away in a closet for a few minutes and listen to all the racket outside.
F: “Stairway to Heaven” booming.
M: Right. And you’d just sit there and hide out. Take a little breather and be alone together for a minute.
F: Maybe the whole wedding could be just that.
F: What are you doing this weekend?
M: Oh, nothing. Nothing.