Home Again, Home Again, Lickety-Split!

Soon the sun started to dip beneath the trees, and the tales began to sputter out, drawing to a close. Susie yawned, and Peter looked at his watch.
“Oh my Sue! We had better get going if we hope to have any hope of getting home before supper!”

To which Susie replied, “But, Peter, it’s such a frightfully long way home, and such an oorfelly-awferly queer country to be lost in, and I don’t see how we can possibly make it back before nightfall! And, oh,” she added, shivering, “It is frightfully dark and fearsome in the woods–and not to mention cold!”

Suddenly, one of the squat, ugly sons cried out, “Ma! Dees folks, dey, dey need to leave, Ma! Ma! You know howsabout they can get home in time for supper? Right Ma?”

And the huge old woman came out of the kitchen, where, presumably, she had been baking. It must have been sweltering hot in there, too, because she was sweating quite badly; little beads like glistening dew drop pearls were rolling down her fat chins and dampening her blouse.

She said, “Well, mayhap I do and mayhap I don’t. But, say: ain’t you boys forgetting something?” she asked, a little hint of smug exasperation creeping into her voice.

The little toad-like men scratched their oily, slicked-over heads, and looked at eachother with puzzled consternation. Then one of them snapped his fingers, pointed to the ceiling with a most comic look on his face, and exclaimed, “I got it! I got it! It’s ‘Will O’ Wispoween’!”

His other brothers erupted in a general murmur of approval, slapping the “smart one” (which they seemed to instantly have christened him) on the back, before Peter piped up with, “Will O’ Wispoween? Why, what is that? I’ve never even heard of that before!”

And one of the sons croaked in his little bullfroggy voice: “Why, it’s a special day, is what it is!”

And another said, “It’s a day of days! A day when snuggs and guggs–”
“And duggs!” added one.

“And luggs that eat buggs!” croaked in a third.

“Roam about, roam about, roam about roam! They roam about, roam about, far from their home!”

And the little men began to walk around eachother like vengeful little ghouls, their arms raised, moaning and groaning as if they were the lost souls of the VERY BAD PLACE.

“Peter,” said Sue, rolling her eyes, “I’m not sure I’m getting any of this!” She suddenly felt, he could tell, very tired and cross and exasperated. Soon she would stamp her foot and demand, “I just want to go home!” She might even cry.

As if realizing what the two were thinking, the old woman (still sweating pretty heavily) wiped her hands on her apron, and, bending close to Sue and Peter, said, “It’s the day of days, alright, and most likely the reason you two managed to find your lonesome way here at all. It’s a day when the invisible gate between two worlds is left open, swinging wide like a rose garden fence in a summer storm. And the Will O’ Wisp comes out to play, he does. And those that seek passage from this world, to the next, are eager to pass on through!”

Peter and Sue looked at each other in fear and puzzlement, before Peter said, “Missus, do…do you think the Will O’ Wisp could help us get home? We’re awfully tired and, well, walking back from here seems as if it is just too arfully-oorferlly far for one night!”

And the old woman smiled a strange little smile, and, turning to her weird brood of sons, said, “Boys! Take these young pups down to the Great T-Bone, and see if you can’t find a way to see them home, safe and sound!”

And the ugly little men began to hustle and bustle and fustle, for they had been given a task to perform, and were not sure they were up to it. After a few minutes of pointless bustling and occasional bumping into each other, they lined up single-file and, marching out the door, the first one in line pointed his finger in front of him and ribbited “Please follow us!” Which, since they had little choice, Peter and Susie did.

***
They hastily thanked and said goodbye to the old woman, who, on the whole, seemed neither glad nor sad to see them off, and then followed the single-file, snakelike line out the door and through the yard.

They tromped through trees and up rolling hills and down tiny, craggy dips. The single file line of little men was curiously quiet as they went. Finally, they seemed to come to the edge of a small lake. Peter could see a weird shape casting a long shadow against the setting sun.

“Hey Sue, look!” he said, pointing at the thing. It really looked a little like a giant cross with the arms raised upward. When they approached closer, Peter could see, to his utter atonishment, that it seemed ot be a giant bone, stuck into the earth.

Peter asked the last little man in line about it. The man, who, like his brothers, was breaking formation now that they had arrived, said, “Oh, that’s the Great Wishbone. It’s been stuck here for–” And then he scratched his head and, turning to his brother, said, “Say Gog, how long has the Great T-Bone been here, anyhow?”

Gog considered, before qanswering, “As long as a buck’s hind leg.”

Which, on the whole, made absolutely no sense, but to which his brother Mog observed, “Well, my that is a long time!”

One of the little men came up to them, and, thrusting his hands in his pockets nervously, said, “It was here in the Long Ago Days, long ago. They say two giants were fighting over a piece of meat when one of them decided to cram the whole thing into his mouth. And then the other giant, who had a hold of the other end of the meat, did the same! And they each started chomping and swallowing that meat, which was the biggest piece of meat in the whole world at the time, now or forever, and then they got down to a single wishbone, and they each tried to swallow the other’s end. And darned if it didn’t KILL both of them! Well, scavengers came and dragged away the carcasses of the two giants…but, still,w as left this great bloody bone! So someone got the bright idea to turn it into a sort of giant slingshot. Now,” and the little man pointred out across the lake at some strange, twinkling orbs that seemed to be shining in the sky distantly, “out there is the gateway between our world, and your world. A sort of thin place, see? A place where many slip in, and few slip out. But, now, miss, if you’ll just stand up on our shoulders–”

And the little men made a sort of pyramid, with the sturdiest of them huffing and puffing below while their brothers crawled atop their backs.

“You can walk up this pyramid of our bodies,” said one below, who seemed to really be straining under all the weight.

Sue looked at Peter, and Peter looked at Sue. Both of them had their mouths hanging open in wonderment.

“You mean you want to launch us out of a giant slingshot, out across the water, into the mouth of some…some, whatchamacalit? Some sort of portal or gateway between worlds? A, a ‘thin space’?”

The little men, even the huffers and puffers, all nodded in agreement, and murmured that, indeed, that was the only way to see them both home.

“There really is no other alternative, miss,” said one of the little men, who was sweating profusely under the weight of his brothers. “But, you’ll have to be quick about it, as we can’t hold this position much longer, I fear.

“Peter,” began Sue.

“Sue,” began Peter.

Then: “I guess we don’t have any other choice but to trust them. I guess.

Anyway, I guess I’ll go first!” Sue began to climb over the pile of little men.

Peter called up to her as she climbed, “Okay Sue, best of luck to you. Be careful! See you over on the other side!”

Sue waved back. She stepped carefullty from the pyramid of little man bodies into the crook of the giant wishbone. She leaned back into the huge leather strap, which was fastened by two lengths of rubber to each side of the bone.

“Hold on tight, my dear!” cried one of the little men, as the others got behind to form yet another human pyramid. Several of their brothers ascended, and, grabbing the leather strap by the back, began to pull Sue backward as their brothers beneath them began to groan and moan, changing positions painfully so the pullers could pull the thing back further; hopefully, to launch Sue like a good-sized rock out across the river.

“Alright, hold tight! Here we go, Miss!”

And with that, they let the stretchy, rubbery stuff stretch to enormous stretchiness, until Sue was leaning, far, fa back, ready to be launched–

“Into space! They’re trying to launch me into orbit!” she excalimed.

But, indeed they were not. One of the little men cried out, “Now! On my signal, at the count of three. One…two…three!”

And with a trmeendouc springing sound, and a shout of excitement from Sue, Sue was launched into the air in a tremendous arc.

sailed through the sky, over the lake, to the glimmer in the distance. Soon, she was quite out of sight.

“Sue!” cried Peter, worrying that he might never see his beloved sister again. But, then he realized it was his turn to sit in the sling, and so, as the little men arranged themselves again into a pyramid of bodies, Peter began to climb up them, not liking the way they moaned and puffed and groaned beneath his feet.
***
Sue sailed through the air, watching in wonder below as vast fields of wheat and grain looked like squares of multi-colored mush, all divied up neatly, she supposed by God.

“Hey Sue! Is that you over there? Here I am!”

Sue heard Peter’s voice crying over the rushing wind. She called back, “Why, don’t be such a silly goosey! Of course it is me! Who else would you meet flying over the earth after having been launched in a giant slingshot at precisely,” and she looked at her watch, “–precisely seven thirty o’clock?”
And Peter called back, “Well, I suppose you do have a point about that. Oh, Sue! Isn’t it just so marvellously strange! Why, I feel as if I’m swimming in jelly!”

And, as if to demonstrate, Peter flapped and flopped his arms and legs until he had swam up right beside Sue.

“Frightfully good little fellows those dwarfs, or whatever they were. Why, they all lined up to wave me goodbye when I launched!”

Sue looked a little irritated at hearing that, and siad, “Hm. Well, they must be those most frightfully bad chauvanists, as they didn’t wave me bye-bye at all!”

Peter started to say, “Ah, don’t take it so hard, Sue!” but then thought better of it. Instead, he looked down at the earth far below, and said,”My everything is so frightfully far below us. And, well it is all farm fields and the like; but, up here, it looks like a hospital tray of different colors of mash and mush–porridge, pudding…all done up in different-sized squares.” Peter puffed out his bottom lip in wonderment, in a manner that Sue found particularly undignified.

Sue answered, “Yes, well, it is rather dull, though, simply flying through the air all day and all night, hoping against hope that we will ever see home again. Say, Peter, do you want to tell a few more stories, maybe, just to pass the time?”

Peter puffed out his bottom lip even further, sighed, and said, “I suppose I could think of a one or two, if you could as well. Might give us something to do as we are waiting to see if we shall ever make it back down to the ground alive and in one piece!

And with that, Peter began to to tell a tale he had squirrled away like a rather succulent chestnut.

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The Road Hog (2014?)

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(One from a few years ago.)

The surrounding countryside was scrubby arroyo. The highway cut through it, rendering it vast and empty and dead on one side, sparsely populated by a low skyline of dusty, lonely, intermitten buildings on the other. He found “Skyline Hotel” quite easily. The setting sun was burning up the landscape in a dry was of brilliant orange and pink and bold black shadow-fire.

He got out of the convertible. It wasn’t his. The owner was leaking what was left of her brains out of a hole in her skull, stuffed into a drainage culvert a hundred miles away. For right now, all was well.

He went inside, not liking the faux Western decor, but immensely satisfied with the faded black and whit portraits of dead gunslingers hanging, some of them crookedly, from the wall. Between those pictures was standard thrift-store fair such as clowns, ships, etc.

A fat man with curly red hair and a moustache sat behind a counter in the lobby, which smelled of mildew and unwashed laundry and bad food and stale smoke and something even more unpleasant he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The little man had a black-and-white old-fashioned tube television set in front of him, an item that looked, for all the world, more like a prop than anything. It was apparently playing old porno flicks, to judge by the sound.

“Excuse…excuse me?” he said, approaching the seated figure. Suddenly, a small jolt of recognition tickled his spine. Goose walked over his grave.

“Damn,” he said to himself, “this guy’s dead!”

He thought perhaps the man had had a heart attack while sitting there. perhaps overstimulated by his porn films. If so, he had died with a curious, wide-eyed expression on his face, a sort of Howdy Doodey grin frozen in time across his fat kisser. He put out a gloved hand, experimentally, to feel the figure.

A voice said, “Oh, he’s mine. I was just testing my replacement.”

A little man with a bald head (“A little crawfish of a man,” he would laugh to himself later) walked thoughtfully up to the counter, eyed him warily, and then went behind.

He grabbed his “replacement” by the neck, at which point the air began to hiss out of him

“Just a dummy…dummy.”

he made no reply.

He waited, said, “I need a room for the night. Maybe a couple nights.”

The little man looked down at his feet, but his lower lip (his face was splotchy, as if he had a perpetual case of bad nerves) quivered a little as he said, in an off-hand way, “Oh sure. That’ll be two hundred bucks.”

He goggled.

“Two hundred bucks? For a night in this dump?”

The little man looked as if he didn’t exactly know how to reply, but said anyway, “That comes with the entertainment. Take it or leave it.”

The little man shrugged his shoulders in boredom. The Road Hog took out a battered brown wallet, forked out a couple of bills, laid them on the counter.

“Where do I sign?”

A huge plastic ledger was picked up from beneath the counter.

He carefully scrawled in a fake name. If the little dope wanted some ID, he’d just leave.

“Okay. You need a wake-up call? Room service?”

The little man laughed bitterly.

“How about fuckin’ filet mignon?”

“How about a snifter of brandy and some caviar? Maybe we’ll just forget it, huh?”

The Road Hog exited stage left. Outside, burning on the hot tarmac, his car sent off waves of heat exhaust. He went around, opened the door enough to pop the trunk, and went aound to get his luggage. In a faded, tan overnight bag, he had a human head wrapped in plastic.

He went back inside, put on his best “don’t fuck with me if you want to keep your spleen” face, and looked over at the clerk or whatever. The little man said, “Here’s your room key. Two-oh-one. I’ll buzz you on in.”

He certainly did. With the sort of loud electronic buzzer that is more commonly used in fun house attractions. The Road Hog wasn’t sure, for a second, if he was in a hotel or at a rodeo, getting ready to ride a bucking bronc.

He took the door handle, walked down to the elevator, saw the “Out of oardur” sign, neatly and legibly scrawled across a cardboard boxtop affixed to the door, and then realized he would have ot take the steps.

The sound of drip-drip-dripping seemed to permeate the hollow, echoing stillness of the place. The walls were yellow, peeling, with a few scrawls of absent-minded graffiti here and there.

He made it, not even out of breath, to the second floor. It looked typical and rundown and dull as paste. It looked like roaches went there to die.

The room was sparsely furnished. The smell of the hallway (which had approximated insect spray, cigarette smoke, must and boiled cabbage) was less strong here. There was more a stagnant water smell of old pipes…the building, he realized, could probably get up and crawl away by itself.

“This bed,” he said, talking to himself, “I don’t really want to use this bed.”

He pulled the covers off. He took out some plastic garbage bags he had stuffed in his valise, spread those across the surface of the bed. Then he picked up the remote.

It was an old-fashioned tube TV mounted on the wall. All the channels were fuzzy, except for the one showing porn; probably showing it 24/7. It looked like some loop he had once paid twenty-five cents to see in some grimy little bookstore in Des Plains.

There was a brief commotion out in the hall. He went to the door, unlocked it, careful to keep the chain fastened. Outside, he could see a few guys milling, drunkenly, around a battered hotel room door. One of them seemed, unfortunately, faintly familiar. Shit. The last thing he needed was to be recognized, placed here.

One of them said, “We’re going out for more beer. Be right back. Anyone need smokes?”

Poetry.

Young guys. Party time. Bill and Ted. Excellent.

He shut the door again with a mui of disgust on his lips. On the television screen, a porn star calling herself “Aunt Peg” was being jack hammered at both ends. He would have turned it off, but it was all he had for company right at the moment.

He sat down on the bed, his throat so dry it seemed to be crawiing. He had given up the smoking habit years ago, but right now he wished for all the world for a butt. Something to take the edge off.

The walls felt as if they were crawling with bugs. In the light fixtures, the curling, browning little bodies fried in the sickly yellow glare of the exposed bulbs.

“They commit unintentional suicide. They can’t help it.

They’re attracted to the light, drawn to it magnetically. But then, they can’t get out of the light fixtures. Can’t climb out, even though, oddly enough, they can fly…I can’t see any logic in it. So they die, slowly, we must assume, agonizingly, transfixed next to the source of their great fascination. Dying next to the bright white flame of their light bulb god.”

He didn’t know who he was addressing, and wasn’t sure why he was speaking at all. His voice fell flat, echoless against the bare walls. Those walls looked like they might be a cheesecloth of roaches, infested down to the very rocky, fibrous surface.

He heard the buzzer downstairs.

He waited.

In a few moments, she would be at the door. The whole thing choreographed down to the grim specifics. He knew. He always knew.

A few seconds later there was a knock at the door.

He opened it, keeping the chain securely fastened. A slightly puffy, bruised face peeped in at the crack. It was a woman’s face.

Mascara smeared around the eyes. Face too pale; lips thin and colorless.

“Hey.”

She paused with pregnant . As if that had been a question, almost.

“Hey,” he returned. He wasn’t altogether sure of how to respond.

He undid the chain. She sauntered in. He saw she was wearing a cheap denim miniskirt, a pair of plastic slippers, and a bad strapless top. Yellow.

Her arms were covered in bruises and bad tattoos. She wore no hose; her legs were pale, skinny, the skin was splotchy. She kept scratching absentmindedly at bug bites.

“Yeah, so anyway, I’m Sabrina. You look like you’re new around here. I mean, I haven’t seen you before or anything. Lot of people just passing through I guess. Not so many now, though, since they changed the highway. So yeah…”

She trailed off, sat down in one of the cheap plastic chairs lining the wall.

“Hey, mind if I smoke? I know it bothers some people. Some guys really hate it, I mean, They hate of a girl smokes, smells like smoke. One guy I was with wouldn’t kiss me. said it was just like kissing an ashtray. He still elt me blow him, though.”

She finished this last with a great guffaw, as if it had been the height of hilarity. He sat down on the edge of the bed, eyed her warily.
“No,” he said, as if she had actually been asking his permission. “Go ahead and smoke if you like. It won’t change anything.”

Her eyes narrowed. She began to roll a skinny joint with shaking, dirty fingers. Her fingernails were corroded with pink polish and grime.

“Um yeah, okay. I don’t guess that it will. Anyway, I usually charge a hundred bucks for a hand job. One-fifty for a bj, and another hundred gets you the works. So–”

She toked in, held her breath for what seemed an interminable moment, and then tried to pass the reefer to him. He held up his hand, palm upward, as if to say, “no thanks,” and then smiled. A smile that was perhaps too wolfish, too predatory to make her feel comfortable.

After a moment she asked, “What’s a matter? Don’t you like to talk? Awful quiet.”

She tried to sound disarming, but he could hear the hint of suspicious unease creep into her voice. Her eyes darted to the door, and he thought, She’s judging how long it would take for her to bound over to it, undo the chain, and get out of here.

“No,” he said slowly. “I don’t guess I’m much of a talker.

People should work on being good listeners, don’t you think? It’s much more to their advantage.”

She said,

“Hey, if you want me to come back some other time, I, like, totally understand.”

He knew she was suddenly eager to be out the door, whether or not she made any money or not. He sighed, got up from the bed, went over to the window, pulled back the sash, Outside, the sun was a thin sliver of fiery peach behind a cresting hill. Miles beyond, the lights of the city gave mute testimony to the presence of a civilization they seemed perched just on the edge of. In between, concrete overpasses, railroad trestles, vacant industrial parks (opened like the cancerous maws of toothsome old crones), and miles and miles of dusty scrub alienated this desolate way station of hell from the rest of the world. Here, time froze like the semen in a dead man’s balls.

“Have you ever though about time?” he finally said, turning toward her. He interrupted himself, saying, “I’m talking now. You should be happy that I am.”

Silence.

“Anyway, I’m sure you’re not going to believe what I have to say. In fact, I’m not sure, given your obviously limited capabilities, that you could even understand it. But, you see, we’ve been through this before–”

Silence. Then–

“Yeah, well, okay man. I don’t really have time for this. I mean, I’m going to go ahead and go, okay? Maybe–”

“No, really, just hear me out. No, sit down. I won’t take very much of your…valuable time. I promise. Anyway–”

She seemed curious enough to listen to him. Or, maybe she just thought that this was his come-on. Either way, she remained in her chair.

“You see, everything moves…in circles. Like in cycles. DO you follow me? You do follow me, don’t you?”

He said this last with a thin veneer of hostility. His voice had an icy, cool edge to it he knew could slip out, like a whirling blade, and slice their good feelings as easily as slicing a jugular. She fidgeted in the cheap plastic chair, leaning forward, obviously needing a fix. Her eyes were wide, puffy; bloodshot. Mascara was caked in ugly circles around her swollen lids.

“Yeah, you’ve been bruised. You’ve been battered. Desiccated and dissected again and again. Tell me: who hurt you? Who was it?”

He leaned in close, the smell of her breath making a noxious counterpoint to his rapidly rising interest.

Why do you keep hurting me? he thought she whispered.

But, with tears streaming down her face from formerly dry eyes, he realized, suddenly, that she said nothing.

It was in a bright blue hotel, a wide, spacious place the likes of which had never been built before. A flight of short stairs lead up from a lobby that was cool and carpeted and, also, surprisingly, even shockingly blue.

Blue, blue–blue everywhere. The stumbled their way inside from the street, drunk and with another couple. Up the stairs then, through the glass doors, and into the darkness beyond. The Sanctum Sanctorum.

Up the stairs again (couldn’t they have taken the elevator? But, alas, that would have been too easy.) to the darkness of the upper floor. The four of them stumbled down the hall, into the spacious suite, into the darkness.

Then, stripping off eachothers’ close. Flesh against flesh, tongues entering mouths, fingers groping and plying and pressing.

The young couple fell to the floor laughing, the woman baring her naked breast, the flap of her blouse pulled open and the buttons popped. The man she was with gyrated on top of her, trying to get his pants off, too drunk to do much of anything but stumble across the floor on his hands and knees.

But the moaning and the movement in the shadow old him that the man had found his mark. He could hear the chippy moaning and gasping.

He turned to his own date. The Starlet. The Ingenue.

“You ought ta be in pictures!” he sang softly, sweetly, mockingly.

The dame had fiery red hair. Or maybe it was just some trick of deceptive lighting (how? It was as dark as the tomb in here.) He put out his quivering fingertips, stretching toward her as she reclined her back against a fusillade of pillows. She still had her hat and boa wrapped around her.

“Did…did you ever…did you ever?” he couldn’t get the words out.

She looked at him quizzically. Suddenly, the young couple grinding away on the floor disappeared entirely, and the spotlight seemed to be on the two of them.

“Did I ever what?” she trailed off suspiciously.

He paused, laughed suddenly, said “Did you ever…fuck Clark Gable?” He couldn’t stop laughing, snickering. But she had the queerest, most serious expression come across her.

“Gable? No. ‘Fraid not. Next question.”

She dragged reflectively on her cigarette, held it away from her face at an angle, turned upward. The air in the room suddenly felt twenty degrees cooler than it had previously. All external sound sources seemed to fade being in this damnable hotel to him felt like being digested, slowly, in the belly of the beast.

Cut off from the rest of reality, they were. The world outside ceased to be. Her face was suddenly a cool, placid surface, a sort of living painted surface or waxen effigy. It seemed timeless. No wonder audiences ate up her image up there on the screen. You couldn’t stop looking at those cool, grey eyes, those high, heavy cheekbones, flaming red hair pulled into quizzical and stylish buns. Skin was milk-white porcelain, but she exuded anything but weakness.

She opened her red, red lips (they almost shined black), said, “Why do you keep hurting me?”

He retracted, physically; he felt himself pull away, losing his sensual idolatry, retreat into a cool, husky little ball. He wasn’t certain about the question, but it had the pregnant weight of prophecy connected to it. He started to blubber a lame response, felt his voice catch in his throat.

It was when he came back later he was told he had been banned from the hotel. A little woman in what looked to be a red marching band outfit but was probably some uniform for bellhops told him that his starlet had expressly forbidden anyone without proper identification (whatever that might be) from entering beyond the glass doors, into the cool, otherworldly darkness…

“She’s rented the whole hotel for the next few weeks. She can decide who comes and goes,” yadda yadda yadda.

He considered for a moment how he might slip in anyway, but then thought better of it. House detectives and hotel psychics and snoops and hidden microphones all meant he would, most likely, get caught. And a place like this would certainly press charges.

The little woman in the bellhop uniform or whatever it was shifted from one foot to another. She looked tired, and her nose fidgeted.

“Oh, by the way Mister, she DID give us something to give to you, though. A package. You see how she is? She gave our manager here a whole mess of beautiful flowers for his birthday…”

He was so fascinated by the birthday bouquet, but he said, “I’ll jut take the package and go.”

She looked as if his rudeness irritated her marginally, but reached back behind the counter (curiously, several women with hot plates seemed to be preparing room service with wads of money bulging in one fist, and spatulas in the other), and produced a cardboard box.

He placed it under one arm, went out the sliding glass doors into the busy street.

Later, in the dark of his dingy room, with stink beetles dying slow, brilliant deaths trapped int the light fixtures, he opened the small cardboard box with trembling fingers.

He thrust a hand inside. It was filled with a large passel of photographs. Shocking stuff.

Crime scene. And pornography of an indescribable filth. There were other photos, stuff made on the spot, obviously: women in lingerie, garters, bound and gagged with nylon stockings, posing lasciviously with legs spread, tied down to iron bedsteads; posed with animals, blank stares and bored, hollow cheeks and bad teeth and puffy, swollen eyes.

And then there were the dead women, posed in faux erotic semblance; arms and legs amputated, entrails wrapped around icy ankles and flesh frozen in time.

Severed heads on bedspreads…

His fingers trembled as he dragged shakily on a cigarette. That phrase came back to him again–

Why do you keep hurting me?

And, on each of these photographed faces, these erotic atrocities, he could see the image of his ingenue, his starlet, reflected, like the shattered fragments of a mirrored reflection. And he wondered about time, and the cycle of things.
***

He brought the heavy suitcase out to the boot of car, wheeling it on a little board mounted on roller skates. The desk clerk barely acknowledged his going, seemingly catatonic with his fuzzy, filthy head resting on his skinny, nicotine-stained fingers. he wondered if the man were dead, asleep, or if it were another of the mysterious inflatable dummies the prankster had foisted on him last night.

Outside on the walk, he stopped at a newspaper dispenser and reached inside. He didn’t bother to pay; the door was broken.

He leafed through, reading by the dim orange glow of the crime lights. He finally found an article, buried back a few pages, about the infamous interstate killer the FBI were actively searching for, the fabled murderer the press had dubbed the “Road Hog.” He smiled. That was him.

He was happy that they were taking notice of his handiwork.

But it made things that much more dangerous for him. Obviously, he couldn’t continue like this forever. But there was no turning back, turning away from what he was.

“Big deal,” he said, mimicking the words of one man. “Death always came with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”

He pulled the little rope, wheeled the heavy luggage out to the trunk of his car. The asphalt seemed hot enough to cook eggs on, he fancied he could see thermal exhaust coming from it. A few dire insects pestered him, but they were easily dispatched with a slap. The air was so close you could barely breathe.

He hefted the thing into the trunk. He was lost, momentarily, in a fantasy of what he had heard happened in such hotels as these.

A young couple checks in. Maybe they’ve just had their honeymoon. Who knows? They begin to make love, thinking they are luxuriating in the lap of it. Their sex is really hot stuff, all over the heart-shaped waterbed, sweaty sodden sheets thrust to the floor.

Moaning, groaning, screaming and crying imprecations to God–that kind of shit.

So they go away and forget about it for a few years. And then, maybe ten years goes by, and the man says “Honey, let’s relive all those old memories of our honeymoon night. Remember that old hotel we stayed at? Heart-shaped waterbed and making love all night?”

And she says “Oh, yes! That’ll be just the sort of thing to put the spark back into our flagging romance.” Okay, so maybe she didn’t put it quite like that. Whatever.

So they find that place again, and they go in. And they realize that the place has really gone downhill since last they were there–which was probably ten years.

So they go into their room,and the husband says, “Man, this place looks like it’s turned into a real fleapit since we were here last. Sorry, honey.”

And the wifey forgives him of course, as he didn’t know. And she is unpacking her curling iron or whatever, and he lays back on the bed, and says, “Hey, they have a TV. I bet we can find some dirty movies!” And he flips on the TV, with a glass of wine in his hand.

A few minutes later he drops the wine.

“Oh, me Tarzan, you Jane–aaahhaaa, aaa!”

Oh my god, he thinks, that couple on the screen, in the porno movie–that’s us on our honeymoon night!

And so they both cringe in horror, realizing they’ve been secretly films. He reminds himself that eyes are everywhere, all the time. The walls see, even if they do not speak.

Why? Why do you keep hurting me?

Had he? Did time circle back in on itself, like a great loop or wheel, instead of a flat, angular plane? “Maybe time is a goddamn Moebius strip,” he laughed bitterly. He could see her face still, clueless and terrified, I-can-do-anything-you-want-me-to face. She could be whatever he needed, her and her pockmarked, ugly little visage.

Would he stuff her body under the bed. In the box springs? There was a legend about that, too.

No. He went back inside. The eyes had walls. The walls had eyes. He went back through the automatic door, the high, torturous rude electric buzz announcing his presence to no one, to the darkness. To the flies dying in the light fixtures, to the tics and nits dying on the mildewed sheets.

“Hey, hey bro!”

A darkened voice at the end of the hall. As if in a dream, or maybe a Fellini picture, a stumbling, skinny dweeb looked over at him from the shadow by a half-open doorway. He was talking to a smaller man, holding a beer. There was faint talking from inside. Radio music.

“Hey, hey bro! Damn, imagine seeing you here! Long time no see!”

Whoever this was, Hog needed to lose him. Quick. He wanted to be out of there and down the highway. But, like a bad dream, someone from the past steps in, unexpectedly, haunting you like a walk-in in a bad foreign art film.

“Wow man,” the skinny, taller man sidled up to him in the gloom, said, “it must be like, damn. Twenty years? since high school? When we use to run around together.”

The Hog didn’t know how to respond. He stalled, said nothing, looked blankly at this guy. He knew full well, suddenly, which it was. A high school drinking buddy, a guy he use to bird dog chicks with. He had dumped such garbage long ago, had purified himself. Now, it had returned to haunt him. It and the bad odor.

“Yeah, well, I’m not really. I mean, I don’t have time right now.”

His buddy held out one skinny, twitching hand. In it was a ten dollar bill, a shot glass of what was probably hundred proof alcohol, and each finger was crowned with nails that were skinny, black with dirt.

His friend looked at him blankly. His eyes watered a little. He looked as if he were in there with his boyfriend getting high. Getting stoned. Getting wasted.

The skull beneath the skin twitched It sensed rejection, the face scruntching up until pain could be read on the outlines of the head. The sudden flash of hatred, brought about no doubt by a sense of rejection could be read in every line.

There was a long pause, but like an unstable recording device, the voice jumped forward. Warbled, said–

“Oh, hey buddy, I completely understand. Sure. Right. We’ll have to get together sometime, relive old memories.

“Sure, we’ll do that Bob. Er, I mean George.”

“Jeff, old buddy. Just plain old Jeff.”

It was a terrible name, he thought. Like Todd, or Scott. It denoted a frat guy who might wander around the dorm in his boxers, with a stogie, flunking college English, fantasizing about porn
models, and planning his future as an accountant

But not THIS Jeff, of the dirty fingers and shot glass. He had lost himself in the fabled “Roman Wilderness of Pain” that Jim Morrison had sang about. He had been steam shoveled under his own sense of defeat, his passion for being purposeless. He was a victim of himself.

“See ya,” he said, the smile stretching across Hog’s plastic, too-perfect face as he hefted the heavy luggage out in both hands.

Thorough the plexiglass door, he buzzed to get out. Out into the sleeping hallway, where time was an illusion, hiding like the arched back of a cat in the dark.

On the television an inscrutable dialog proceeding thusly:

“So we go downstairs, to the crook of the stairs.”

“The crook? You mean the first floor landing?”

“Right, right. Some sort of landing where there is a window. And she’s sitting there in a Victorian dress, drinking an iced tea, or whatever. And the guy turns to me, say, ‘We haven’t figured out yet if she’s alive or a ghost. Nobody speaks to her; she’s always there, it seems.”

“Great. I’m betting she’s a former tenant, committed suicide by eating a combination of cough syrup and ant paste. Just like Florence Lawrence.”

“Florence Lawrence? Isn’t she like a cook on TV?”

“No. First movie star. Died in 1938. Today she’d be 129. Say, you want o know how stupid I am? I forgot to water my pussy.”

“Sounds like a personal problem.”

“No, ignoramus, my cat. I didn’t leave any water out for my cat. I come home, she’s on the point of literal death. From hunger, also.”

On and on it went. What was that sitcom? At the desk, the real clerk was sitting, with his deflated alter-ego in his lap, nodding off over a crusty back issue of Hustler. He went outside, carrying his luggage in front of him, not knowing if he was leaving little droplets of red in his wake.

Outside, heat lightning flashed over the hardscrabble earth, the dusty desert landscape disappearing into darkness beyond, with naught but pinpoints of city lights and man-made fires in the distance. In the distance, and up ahead by the never ending march of the boots of TIME, was an ugly strip of bleak fast-food chains, down-at-the-heels strip malls, movie theaters, gas stations, little mini-marts staffed by Pakis named Abdullah. Was this hell? He often wondered.

He opened the trunk, placed the leather carrying case inside, slammed shut the creaking boot. The asphalt was dark and hot, bugs buzzing past his ears. They would die by the thousands in the sleek electric polish of his headlights.

Hot, it was stifling hot. He fancied he could see thermals projecting p like the hideous, shapeless forms of forgotten phantasms–despite the fact that it was still too dark.

The moon overhead, watching him. The newspaper he had nicked on the way out had had a story.

Hog Strikes Again. Nationwide Manhunt. No Suspects. No Discernible Pattern. POLICE FRUSTRATED AND BAFFLED.

He liked that last bit. A foldout in the newspaper (What? Was this their equivalent of a Hustler gate fold?) showed a petty blonde victim. Her face was ice cream cold on the newsprint, her hair fanning out about her in a moment frozen in time, some happy instance that would be imprinted on the memory of whomever she had been with–but not her. Or, maybe?

Did he believe in ghosts?

Why do you keep hurting me?

He slid behind the wheel. Ahead, darkness and the road invited the hog to move onward. To the next great adventure.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot see the falconer…

What was that?

What rough beast is this? Its hour come ’round at last.

Slouches.

“Toward Bethlehem?”

Well, he was headed somewhere. But not there.

The Road Hog

(One from a few years ago.)

img001

The surrounding countryside was scrubby arroyo. The highway cut through it, rendering it vast and empty and dead on one side, sparsely populated by a low skyline of dusty, lonely, intermitten buildings on the other. He found “Skyline Hotel” quite easily. The setting sun was burning up the landscape in a dry was of brilliant orange and pink and bold black shadow-fire.

He got out of the convertible. It wasn’t his. The owner was leaking what was left of her brains out of a hole in her skull, stuffed into a drainage culvert a hundred miles away. For right now, all was well.

He went inside, not liking the faux Western decor, but immensely satisfied with the faded black and whit portraits of dead gunslingers hanging, some of them crookedly, from the wall. Between those pictures was standard thrift-store fair such as clowns, ships, etc.

A fat man with curly red hair and a moustache sat behind a counter in the lobby, which smelled of mildew and unwashed laundry and bad food and stale smoke and something even more unpleasant he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The little man had a black-and-white old-fashioned tube television set in front of him, an item that looked, for all the world, more like a prop than anything. It was apparently playing old porno flicks, to judge by the sound.

“Excuse…excuse me?” he said, approaching the seated figure. Suddenly, a small jolt of recognition tickled his spine. Goose walked over his grave.

“Damn,” he said to himself, “this guy’s dead!”

He thought perhaps the man had had a heart attack while sitting there. perhaps overstimulated by his porn films. If so, he had died with a curious, wide-eyed expression on his face, a sort of Howdy Doodey grin frozen in time across his fat kisser. He put out a gloved hand, experimentally, to feel the figure.

A voice said, “Oh, he’s mine. I was just testing my replacement.”

A little man with a bald head (“A little crawfish of a man,” he would laugh to himself later) walked thoughtfully up to the counter, eyed him warily, and then went behind.

He grabbed his “replacement” by the neck, at which point the air began to hiss out of him

“Just a dummy…dummy.”

he made no reply.

He waited, said, “I need a room for the night. Maybe a couple nights.”

The little man looked down at his feet, but his lower lip (his face was splotchy, as if he had a perpetual case of bad nerves) quivered a little as he said, in an off-hand way, “Oh sure. That’ll be two hundred bucks.”

He goggled.

“Two hundred bucks? For a night in this dump?”

The little man looked as if he didn’t exactly know how to reply, but said anyway, “That comes with the entertainment. Take it or leave it.”

The little man shrugged his shoulders in boredom. The Road Hog took out a battered brown wallet, forked out a couple of bills, laid them on the counter.

“Where do I sign?”

A huge plastic ledger was picked up from beneath the counter.

He carefully scrawled in a fake name. If the little dope wanted some ID, he’d just leave.

“Okay. You need a wake-up call? Room service?”

The little man laughed bitterly.

“How about fuckin’ filet mignon?”

“How about a snifter of brandy and some caviar? Maybe we’ll just forget it, huh?”

The Road Hog exited stage left. Outside, burning on the hot tarmac, his car sent off waves of heat exhaust. He went around, opened the door enough to pop the trunk, and went aound to get his luggage. In a faded, tan overnight bag, he had a human head wrapped in plastic.

He went back inside, put on his best “don’t fuck with me if you want to keep your spleen” face, and looked over at the clerk or whatever. The little man said, “Here’s your room key. Two-oh-one. I’ll buzz you on in.”

He certainly did. With the sort of loud electronic buzzer that is more commonly used in fun house attractions. The Road Hog wasn’t sure, for a second, if he was in a hotel or at a rodeo, getting ready to ride a bucking bronc.

He took the door handle, walked down to the elevator, saw the “Out of oardur” sign, neatly and legibly scrawled across a cardboard boxtop affixed to the door, and then realized he would have ot take the steps.

The sound of drip-drip-dripping seemed to permeate the hollow, echoing stillness of the place. The walls were yellow, peeling, with a few scrawls of absent-minded graffiti here and there.

He made it, not even out of breath, to the second floor. It looked typical and rundown and dull as paste. It looked like roaches went there to die.

The room was sparsely furnished. The smell of the hallway (which had approximated insect spray, cigarette smoke, must and boiled cabbage) was less strong here. There was more a stagnant water smell of old pipes…the building, he realized, could probably get up and crawl away by itself.

“This bed,” he said, talking to himself, “I don’t really want to use this bed.”

He pulled the covers off. He took out some plastic garbage bags he had stuffed in his valise, spread those across the surface of the bed. Then he picked up the remote.

It was an old-fashioned tube TV mounted on the wall. All the channels were fuzzy, except for the one showing porn; probably showing it 24/7. It looked like some loop he had once paid twenty-five cents to see in some grimy little bookstore in Des Plains.

There was a brief commotion out in the hall. He went to the door, unlocked it, careful to keep the chain fastened. Outside, he could see a few guys milling, drunkenly, around a battered hotel room door. One of them seemed, unfortunately, faintly familiar. Shit. The last thing he needed was to be recognized, placed here.

One of them said, “We’re going out for more beer. Be right back. Anyone need smokes?”

Poetry.

Young guys. Party time. Bill and Ted. Excellent.

He shut the door again with a mui of disgust on his lips. On the television screen, a porn star calling herself “Aunt Peg” was being jack hammered at both ends. He would have turned it off, but it was all he had for company right at the moment.

He sat down on the bed, his throat so dry it seemed to be crawiing. He had given up the smoking habit years ago, but right now he wished for all the world for a butt. Something to take the edge off.

The walls felt as if they were crawling with bugs. In the light fixtures, the curling, browning little bodies fried in the sickly yellow glare of the exposed bulbs.

“They commit unintentional suicide. They can’t help it.

They’re attracted to the light, drawn to it magnetically. But then, they can’t get out of the light fixtures. Can’t climb out, even though, oddly enough, they can fly…I can’t see any logic in it. So they die, slowly, we must assume, agonizingly, transfixed next to the source of their great fascination. Dying next to the bright white flame of their light bulb god.”

He didn’t know who he was addressing, and wasn’t sure why he was speaking at all. His voice fell flat, echoless against the bare walls. Those walls looked like they might be a cheesecloth of roaches, infested down to the very rocky, fibrous surface.

He heard the buzzer downstairs.

He waited.

In a few moments, she would be at the door. The whole thing choreographed down to the grim specifics. He knew. He always knew.

A few seconds later there was a knock at the door.

He opened it, keeping the chain securely fastened. A slightly puffy, bruised face peeped in at the crack. It was a woman’s face.

Mascara smeared around the eyes. Face too pale; lips thin and colorless.

“Hey.”

She paused with pregnant . As if that had been a question, almost.

“Hey,” he returned. He wasn’t altogether sure of how to respond.

He undid the chain. She sauntered in. He saw she was wearing a cheap denim miniskirt, a pair of plastic slippers, and a bad strapless top. Yellow.

Her arms were covered in bruises and bad tattoos. She wore no hose; her legs were pale, skinny, the skin was splotchy. She kept scratching absentmindedly at bug bites.

“Yeah, so anyway, I’m Sabrina. You look like you’re new around here. I mean, I haven’t seen you before or anything. Lot of people just passing through I guess. Not so many now, though, since they changed the highway. So yeah…”

She trailed off, sat down in one of the cheap plastic chairs lining the wall.

“Hey, mind if I smoke? I know it bothers some people. Some guys really hate it, I mean, They hate of a girl smokes, smells like smoke. One guy I was with wouldn’t kiss me. said it was just like kissing an ashtray. He still elt me blow him, though.”

She finished this last with a great guffaw, as if it had been the height of hilarity. He sat down on the edge of the bed, eyed her warily.
“No,” he said, as if she had actually been asking his permission. “Go ahead and smoke if you like. It won’t change anything.”

Her eyes narrowed. She began to roll a skinny joint with shaking, dirty fingers. Her fingernails were corroded with pink polish and grime.

“Um yeah, okay. I don’t guess that it will. Anyway, I usually charge a hundred bucks for a hand job. One-fifty for a bj, and another hundred gets you the works. So–”

She toked in, held her breath for what seemed an interminable moment, and then tried to pass the reefer to him. He held up his hand, palm upward, as if to say, “no thanks,” and then smiled. A smile that was perhaps too wolfish, too predatory to make her feel comfortable.

After a moment she asked, “What’s a matter? Don’t you like to talk? Awful quiet.”

She tried to sound disarming, but he could hear the hint of suspicious unease creep into her voice. Her eyes darted to the door, and he thought, She’s judging how long it would take for her to bound over to it, undo the chain, and get out of here.

“No,” he said slowly. “I don’t guess I’m much of a talker.

People should work on being good listeners, don’t you think? It’s much more to their advantage.”

She said,

“Hey, if you want me to come back some other time, I, like, totally understand.”

He knew she was suddenly eager to be out the door, whether or not she made any money or not. He sighed, got up from the bed, went over to the window, pulled back the sash, Outside, the sun was a thin sliver of fiery peach behind a cresting hill. Miles beyond, the lights of the city gave mute testimony to the presence of a civilization they seemed perched just on the edge of. In between, concrete overpasses, railroad trestles, vacant industrial parks (opened like the cancerous maws of toothsome old crones), and miles and miles of dusty scrub alienated this desolate way station of hell from the rest of the world. Here, time froze like the semen in a dead man’s balls.

“Have you ever though about time?” he finally said, turning toward her. He interrupted himself, saying, “I’m talking now. You should be happy that I am.”

Silence.

“Anyway, I’m sure you’re not going to believe what I have to say. In fact, I’m not sure, given your obviously limited capabilities, that you could even understand it. But, you see, we’ve been through this before–”

Silence. Then–

“Yeah, well, okay man. I don’t really have time for this. I mean, I’m going to go ahead and go, okay? Maybe–”

“No, really, just hear me out. No, sit down. I won’t take very much of your…valuable time. I promise. Anyway–”

She seemed curious enough to listen to him. Or, maybe she just thought that this was his come-on. Either way, she remained in her chair.

“You see, everything moves…in circles. Like in cycles. DO you follow me? You do follow me, don’t you?”

He said this last with a thin veneer of hostility. His voice had an icy, cool edge to it he knew could slip out, like a whirling blade, and slice their good feelings as easily as slicing a jugular. She fidgeted in the cheap plastic chair, leaning forward, obviously needing a fix. Her eyes were wide, puffy; bloodshot. Mascara was caked in ugly circles around her swollen lids.

“Yeah, you’ve been bruised. You’ve been battered. Desiccated and dissected again and again. Tell me: who hurt you? Who was it?”

He leaned in close, the smell of her breath making a noxious counterpoint to his rapidly rising interest.

Why do you keep hurting me? he thought she whispered.

But, with tears streaming down her face from formerly dry eyes, he realized, suddenly, that she said nothing.

It was in a bright blue hotel, a wide, spacious place the likes of which had never been built before. A flight of short stairs lead up from a lobby that was cool and carpeted and, also, surprisingly, even shockingly blue.

Blue, blue–blue everywhere. The stumbled their way inside from the street, drunk and with another couple. Up the stairs then, through the glass doors, and into the darkness beyond. The Sanctum Sanctorum.

Up the stairs again (couldn’t they have taken the elevator? But, alas, that would have been too easy.) to the darkness of the upper floor. The four of them stumbled down the hall, into the spacious suite, into the darkness.

Then, stripping off eachothers’ close. Flesh against flesh, tongues entering mouths, fingers groping and plying and pressing.

The young couple fell to the floor laughing, the woman baring her naked breast, the flap of her blouse pulled open and the buttons popped. The man she was with gyrated on top of her, trying to get his pants off, too drunk to do much of anything but stumble across the floor on his hands and knees.

But the moaning and the movement in the shadow old him that the man had found his mark. He could hear the chippy moaning and gasping.

He turned to his own date. The Starlet. The Ingenue.

“You ought ta be in pictures!” he sang softly, sweetly, mockingly.

The dame had fiery red hair. Or maybe it was just some trick of deceptive lighting (how? It was as dark as the tomb in here.) He put out his quivering fingertips, stretching toward her as she reclined her back against a fusillade of pillows. She still had her hat and boa wrapped around her.

“Did…did you ever…did you ever?” he couldn’t get the words out.

She looked at him quizzically. Suddenly, the young couple grinding away on the floor disappeared entirely, and the spotlight seemed to be on the two of them.

“Did I ever what?” she trailed off suspiciously.

He paused, laughed suddenly, said “Did you ever…fuck Clark Gable?” He couldn’t stop laughing, snickering. But she had the queerest, most serious expression come across her.

“Gable? No. ‘Fraid not. Next question.”

She dragged reflectively on her cigarette, held it away from her face at an angle, turned upward. The air in the room suddenly felt twenty degrees cooler than it had previously. All external sound sources seemed to fade being in this damnable hotel to him felt like being digested, slowly, in the belly of the beast.

Cut off from the rest of reality, they were. The world outside ceased to be. Her face was suddenly a cool, placid surface, a sort of living painted surface or waxen effigy. It seemed timeless. No wonder audiences ate up her image up there on the screen. You couldn’t stop looking at those cool, grey eyes, those high, heavy cheekbones, flaming red hair pulled into quizzical and stylish buns. Skin was milk-white porcelain, but she exuded anything but weakness.

She opened her red, red lips (they almost shined black), said, “Why do you keep hurting me?”

He retracted, physically; he felt himself pull away, losing his sensual idolatry, retreat into a cool, husky little ball. He wasn’t certain about the question, but it had the pregnant weight of prophecy connected to it. He started to blubber a lame response, felt his voice catch in his throat.

It was when he came back later he was told he had been banned from the hotel. A little woman in what looked to be a red marching band outfit but was probably some uniform for bellhops told him that his starlet had expressly forbidden anyone without proper identification (whatever that might be) from entering beyond the glass doors, into the cool, otherworldly darkness…

“She’s rented the whole hotel for the next few weeks. She can decide who comes and goes,” yadda yadda yadda.

He considered for a moment how he might slip in anyway, but then thought better of it. House detectives and hotel psychics and snoops and hidden microphones all meant he would, most likely, get caught. And a place like this would certainly press charges.

The little woman in the bellhop uniform or whatever it was shifted from one foot to another. She looked tired, and her nose fidgeted.

“Oh, by the way Mister, she DID give us something to give to you, though. A package. You see how she is? She gave our manager here a whole mess of beautiful flowers for his birthday…”

He was so fascinated by the birthday bouquet, but he said, “I’ll jut take the package and go.”

She looked as if his rudeness irritated her marginally, but reached back behind the counter (curiously, several women with hot plates seemed to be preparing room service with wads of money bulging in one fist, and spatulas in the other), and produced a cardboard box.

He placed it under one arm, went out the sliding glass doors into the busy street.

Later, in the dark of his dingy room, with stink beetles dying slow, brilliant deaths trapped int the light fixtures, he opened the small cardboard box with trembling fingers.

He thrust a hand inside. It was filled with a large passel of photographs. Shocking stuff.

Crime scene. And pornography of an indescribable filth. There were other photos, stuff made on the spot, obviously: women in lingerie, garters, bound and gagged with nylon stockings, posing lasciviously with legs spread, tied down to iron bedsteads; posed with animals, blank stares and bored, hollow cheeks and bad teeth and puffy, swollen eyes.

And then there were the dead women, posed in faux erotic semblance; arms and legs amputated, entrails wrapped around icy ankles and flesh frozen in time.

Severed heads on bedspreads…

His fingers trembled as he dragged shakily on a cigarette. That phrase came back to him again–

Why do you keep hurting me?

And, on each of these photographed faces, these erotic atrocities, he could see the image of his ingenue, his starlet, reflected, like the shattered fragments of a mirrored reflection. And he wondered about time, and the cycle of things.
***

He brought the heavy suitcase out to the boot of car, wheeling it on a little board mounted on roller skates. The desk clerk barely acknowledged his going, seemingly catatonic with his fuzzy, filthy head resting on his skinny, nicotine-stained fingers. he wondered if the man were dead, asleep, or if it were another of the mysterious inflatable dummies the prankster had foisted on him last night.

Outside on the walk, he stopped at a newspaper dispenser and reached inside. He didn’t bother to pay; the door was broken.

He leafed through, reading by the dim orange glow of the crime lights. He finally found an article, buried back a few pages, about the infamous interstate killer the FBI were actively searching for, the fabled murderer the press had dubbed the “Road Hog.” He smiled. That was him.

He was happy that they were taking notice of his handiwork.

But it made things that much more dangerous for him. Obviously, he couldn’t continue like this forever. But there was no turning back, turning away from what he was.

“Big deal,” he said, mimicking the words of one man. “Death always came with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”

He pulled the little rope, wheeled the heavy luggage out to the trunk of his car. The asphalt seemed hot enough to cook eggs on, he fancied he could see thermal exhaust coming from it. A few dire insects pestered him, but they were easily dispatched with a slap. The air was so close you could barely breathe.

He hefted the thing into the trunk. He was lost, momentarily, in a fantasy of what he had heard happened in such hotels as these.

A young couple checks in. Maybe they’ve just had their honeymoon. Who knows? They begin to make love, thinking they are luxuriating in the lap of it. Their sex is really hot stuff, all over the heart-shaped waterbed, sweaty sodden sheets thrust to the floor.

Moaning, groaning, screaming and crying imprecations to God–that kind of shit.

So they go away and forget about it for a few years. And then, maybe ten years goes by, and the man says “Honey, let’s relive all those old memories of our honeymoon night. Remember that old hotel we stayed at? Heart-shaped waterbed and making love all night?”

And she says “Oh, yes! That’ll be just the sort of thing to put the spark back into our flagging romance.” Okay, so maybe she didn’t put it quite like that. Whatever.

So they find that place again, and they go in. And they realize that the place has really gone downhill since last they were there–which was probably ten years.

So they go into their room,and the husband says, “Man, this place looks like it’s turned into a real fleapit since we were here last. Sorry, honey.”

And the wifey forgives him of course, as he didn’t know. And she is unpacking her curling iron or whatever, and he lays back on the bed, and says, “Hey, they have a TV. I bet we can find some dirty movies!” And he flips on the TV, with a glass of wine in his hand.

A few minutes later he drops the wine.

“Oh, me Tarzan, you Jane–aaahhaaa, aaa!”

Oh my god, he thinks, that couple on the screen, in the porno movie–that’s us on our honeymoon night!

And so they both cringe in horror, realizing they’ve been secretly films. He reminds himself that eyes are everywhere, all the time. The walls see, even if they do not speak.

Why? Why do you keep hurting me?

Had he? Did time circle back in on itself, like a great loop or wheel, instead of a flat, angular plane? “Maybe time is a goddamn Moebius strip,” he laughed bitterly. He could see her face still, clueless and terrified, I-can-do-anything-you-want-me-to face. She could be whatever he needed, her and her pockmarked, ugly little visage.

Would he stuff her body under the bed. In the box springs? There was a legend about that, too.

No. He went back inside. The eyes had walls. The walls had eyes. He went back through the automatic door, the high, torturous rude electric buzz announcing his presence to no one, to the darkness. To the flies dying in the light fixtures, to the tics and nits dying on the mildewed sheets.

“Hey, hey bro!”

A darkened voice at the end of the hall. As if in a dream, or maybe a Fellini picture, a stumbling, skinny dweeb looked over at him from the shadow by a half-open doorway. He was talking to a smaller man, holding a beer. There was faint talking from inside. Radio music.

“Hey, hey bro! Damn, imagine seeing you here! Long time no see!”

Whoever this was, Hog needed to lose him. Quick. He wanted to be out of there and down the highway. But, like a bad dream, someone from the past steps in, unexpectedly, haunting you like a walk-in in a bad foreign art film.

“Wow man,” the skinny, taller man sidled up to him in the gloom, said, “it must be like, damn. Twenty years? since high school? When we use to run around together.”

The Hog didn’t know how to respond. He stalled, said nothing, looked blankly at this guy. He knew full well, suddenly, which it was. A high school drinking buddy, a guy he use to bird dog chicks with. He had dumped such garbage long ago, had purified himself. Now, it had returned to haunt him. It and the bad odor.

“Yeah, well, I’m not really. I mean, I don’t have time right now.”

His buddy held out one skinny, twitching hand. In it was a ten dollar bill, a shot glass of what was probably hundred proof alcohol, and each finger was crowned with nails that were skinny, black with dirt.

His friend looked at him blankly. His eyes watered a little. He looked as if he were in there with his boyfriend getting high. Getting stoned. Getting wasted.

The skull beneath the skin twitched It sensed rejection, the face scruntching up until pain could be read on the outlines of the head. The sudden flash of hatred, brought about no doubt by a sense of rejection could be read in every line.

There was a long pause, but like an unstable recording device, the voice jumped forward. Warbled, said–

“Oh, hey buddy, I completely understand. Sure. Right. We’ll have to get together sometime, relive old memories.

“Sure, we’ll do that Bob. Er, I mean George.”

“Jeff, old buddy. Just plain old Jeff.”

It was a terrible name, he thought. Like Todd, or Scott. It denoted a frat guy who might wander around the dorm in his boxers, with a stogie, flunking college English, fantasizing about porn
models, and planning his future as an accountant

But not THIS Jeff, of the dirty fingers and shot glass. He had lost himself in the fabled “Roman Wilderness of Pain” that Jim Morrison had sang about. He had been steam shoveled under his own sense of defeat, his passion for being purposeless. He was a victim of himself.

“See ya,” he said, the smile stretching across Hog’s plastic, too-perfect face as he hefted the heavy luggage out in both hands.

Thorough the plexiglass door, he buzzed to get out. Out into the sleeping hallway, where time was an illusion, hiding like the arched back of a cat in the dark.

On the television an inscrutable dialog proceeding thusly:

“So we go downstairs, to the crook of the stairs.”

“The crook? You mean the first floor landing?”

“Right, right. Some sort of landing where there is a window. And she’s sitting there in a Victorian dress, drinking an iced tea, or whatever. And the guy turns to me, say, ‘We haven’t figured out yet if she’s alive or a ghost. Nobody speaks to her; she’s always there, it seems.”

“Great. I’m betting she’s a former tenant, committed suicide by eating a combination of cough syrup and ant paste. Just like Florence Lawrence.”

“Florence Lawrence? Isn’t she like a cook on TV?”

“No. First movie star. Died in 1938. Today she’d be 129. Say, you want o know how stupid I am? I forgot to water my pussy.”

“Sounds like a personal problem.”

“No, ignoramus, my cat. I didn’t leave any water out for my cat. I come home, she’s on the point of literal death. From hunger, also.”

On and on it went. What was that sitcom? At the desk, the real clerk was sitting, with his deflated alter-ego in his lap, nodding off over a crusty back issue of Hustler. He went outside, carrying his luggage in front of him, not knowing if he was leaving little droplets of red in his wake.

Outside, heat lightning flashed over the hardscrabble earth, the dusty desert landscape disappearing into darkness beyond, with naught but pinpoints of city lights and man-made fires in the distance. In the distance, and up ahead by the never ending march of the boots of TIME, was an ugly strip of bleak fast-food chains, down-at-the-heels strip malls, movie theaters, gas stations, little mini-marts staffed by Pakis named Abdullah. Was this hell? He often wondered.

He opened the trunk, placed the leather carrying case inside, slammed shut the creaking boot. The asphalt was dark and hot, bugs buzzing past his ears. They would die by the thousands in the sleek electric polish of his headlights.

Hot, it was stifling hot. He fancied he could see thermals projecting p like the hideous, shapeless forms of forgotten phantasms–despite the fact that it was still too dark.

The moon overhead, watching him. The newspaper he had nicked on the way out had had a story.

Hog Strikes Again. Nationwide Manhunt. No Suspects. No Discernible Pattern. POLICE FRUSTRATED AND BAFFLED.

He liked that last bit. A foldout in the newspaper (What? Was this their equivalent of a Hustler gate fold?) showed a petty blonde victim. Her face was ice cream cold on the newsprint, her hair fanning out about her in a moment frozen in time, some happy instance that would be imprinted on the memory of whomever she had been with–but not her. Or, maybe?

Did he believe in ghosts?

Why do you keep hurting me?

He slid behind the wheel. Ahead, darkness and the road invited the hog to move onward. To the next great adventure.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot see the falconer…

What was that?

What rough beast is this? Its hour come ’round at last.

Slouches.

“Toward Bethlehem?”

Well, he was headed somewhere. But not there.

Verbal Flatulence; Or, What You’ve Told Me Really, Really Stinks! (A Puerile Piece.)

The Space Beetle had sent one of his hired goons:

“It’s a new weapon,” he waxed mysteriously. “Developed by our researchers on Triton. Scrambles the molecular field holding together the human sphincter. Discombobulation of the oral and anal cavities. Breath replaced with divine flatulent wind. Reeking odor of falsities and perfidious nonsense, made manifest in a turgid, thick, burbling rotten egg stench.”

We can set the stage–a medium-sized auditorium; hustle bustle of milling throngs. people holding signs and placards. “Tatty, short-haired women, and long-haired men.,” to quote someone who was quoted in Russell Miller’s book on L. Ron Hubbard. The lights ared immed, the music swells; an underwhelming onrush of applause.

S/he took the podium. An immense yawn was covered, like the arched back of a serpentine sin, cowering below the surface of a sewer stream, by the clip-clap of assorted hands. A few rumble-bumbles of roiling stomach competed with the announcer’s announcement that Madame Secretary was taking the stage. Willowy Le Pugh, the future President of the United Islamo-Soviet States of Americo. Or, presumably the future president.

S/he, began, opening salmon colored lips, pale, iridescent gums shining in the click-clack-clackety-click of whirring old-fashioned flashbulb cameras what constitute an anachronism already.

(The Space Beetle, we might remind our comic book readers, is a super-secret master villain of cosmic and intergalactic proportions, hiding behind an ever-shifting succession of aliases and disguises, forms both extraordinary and mundane. You might encounter him as a waiter, a busboy, a dry cleaner on Mars, scrubbing furiously at custard stains on the collar of an overpriced satin jacket; alternately, he could be the state executioner on a backwaters moon circling a forgotten world in the lower crotch of the Crab Nebula. His ministrations and scoundrelisms are matters of legendry; his name and even the mere mention of it have been known to freeze the human colon. C’est la vie!)

“Friends, neighbors, comrades, brothers of unity, workers of the world united! Hands and handmaidens of the One True Prophet! I come to deliver you from the fetters and bonds of your great and magnificent oppression! Behold, I stand at the door and knock!”

A swell of applause erupted throughout the audience, and not a few murmurs and shouts of “Power to THE PEOPLE!” and “Right on, Sistah!” and “Everyone is my gender-neutral brother!,” etc. etc. etc.

The Agent crawled through the seats, holding his piece in his hands. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand…he counted to himself. The particular item in his possession was thick, long, cylindrical; it shined with heavy metal profundity. He checked the dials and diodes.

Professor Croyd, a beetling browed man with strange stertorous breathing and crossed eyes, had instructed him as to the use of this particular hand cannon; he had snuck it into the concert hall disguised as on over-sized iron dildo, a coy statuette presented to the visiting dignitary by the Junior Anti-fascist Sex League, on the anniversary of their great victory desegregating Eurasian-only golf courses.

He dialed. He waited. He adjusted. He sighted. He smiled. He aimed. This was a moment that would go down in the historical records, right next to the first man who saw an orgasm in t he flashbulb of Uranus.

“My Godless opponent, that leering, gesticulating Minister of Snark, would have you believe the pernicious LIES proffered about me by the malicious hacks of the dirty, dirty subversive press, those Joo bankers and power-broker pawnshawp dealers who trade in lies, innuendo, half-truths, gossip, legend, myth, fantasy and sweet Nectar of Ambrosia, for all I know. Well, I’ll have you know, that these people have thrust in their sickle, and what they sow, THEY SHALL SURELY REAP!”

More applause. A few guffaws. A stifled laugh, and not a few bawling moans of worshipful adulation. General murmur of good tidings. But then, something strange happened–
Someone thought she must have belched. No belch ever let forth that sort of effluvial, reek though; a general murmur of nauseous disgust began to filter up from the throngs at the foot of the stage. Vile retching volcanod forth, as little by little, people fighting to hold their gorges lost it in a multicultural rainbow shower of vomit streams that soaked the backs of folks in the front row, ruined the theater seats, made the floor and isles into a sopping, miasmic stew of swirling, biologically hazardous stinkery.

It was her vocal farting, the rearrangement of her mouth and anus, so that flatulence issued forth with every proclamation and lie, while exclamations of piety, shock and outrage squeezed themselves out from between the pendulous cheeks of her pale, porcine derriere. The spell had worked, the molecular biology realigned; the prank a thing of resounding success. Mission accomplished.

Willowy Le Pugh suddenly threw her notes into the air. She farted, “Oh, oh my, why it’s just like a scene from a Stephen King thriller! Really, everyone, I’m sure we can get this cleaned up and resume the festivities in no time! Everyone, everyone–back to your seats!”

But everyone was not listening, and, in a panicked huff, she turned like a top, apologies still blurping and blarting out from between her ass cheeks, and retreated into the shadows backstage.

The Agent, covered in puke, but, nonetheless, dry for the invisible skinsuit he was wearing, like a veritable shield, all over his sweating, satisfied form, signaled the Madrigal to turn on the teleporto beam and GET HIM THE HELL OUT OF THERE.

Two gentleman, one a withered man with a great, broad flank of a noise, and the cool, pitiless gaze of some deep-sea creature cast, by the caprices of Poseidon, upon the rocky surface of the damned earth, turned to his neighbor, and said with cold, metallic inflection:

“I ever tell you about the asshole that taught his man to talk?”

Flicker the Kitchens

The stone hand reaches like some thrusting crab-like appendage of a subterranean god (a god NO ONE has seen or heard from since the world was young), up onto the hot tarmac as we pull into the parking space. I think, bemusedly, that, if it could move, the arcane thing might very well flip us the bird.

What does this rocky totem signify, I ask.

“It’s alive. Look, all rock is alive, I tell her.”

All rock has a living mind, conducts energy and power. Like crystal radio sets, shooting signals to and fro in the firmament.

A passel of small, dark children are struggling to install a light from the fingertips of one of the so-perfect hand statues.

“What, did that one have some sort of sign on it?” she asks, as if trying to intone sarcastically. Then, she pipes up, with weird, sybilline inscrutability, mirroring the diction and pacing of a murmuring medium, “Flicker the Kitchens…”

The kitchens?

The kittens?

I make no reply.

The Bird Who Stole Happiness

Once, long ago, a little girl was saying her prayers one night when she heard a curious sound outside of her window. Going to the window and throwing open the sash, she was astounded to see a sad, lonely whippoorwill sitting on a tree branch, crying out in low, mournful tones the saddest song she had ever heard.

The little girl, suddenly not feeling quite as cheery as she had when she had come upstairs to bed, asked the bird, “Mr. Whippoorwill, why are you so sad?”

And, to her surprise, the bird suddenly poked its beak in her direction and exclaimed through muffled tears, “Oh, it is the same as it has always been! I am a whipporwill, you see, and so must sing a low, mournful, weeping tune! I was born to sing this sad song, and never know happiness, and flit and fly about under the moon, alone!”

And with that, the whippoorwill let out such a torrent of weeping and wailing that the little girl soon found she was crying too. Just then, an idea popped into her head.

“Oh, Mr. Whipporwill, since you are so sad, and have never known happiness, I tell you what I will do. I will give you all of my happiness to take with you! Oh yes, I’ll wrap it up in a little silk rag, tied with a bow, and you can carry it with you in your beak. Build it into your nest, and, someday, when you are done with it, and wish to return to being what you were before, you can come flying back, and return it to me! Does that make you happy to think of, Mr. Bird?”

And the sad bird answered, “Oh, delightful! I shall be so glad to have your happiness with me wherever I go, hither and yon! And, I promise you, I shall take good care of it until I return!”

And so, wiping her eyes, the little girl (who, of all the little girls int he world, was always quite cheery and pleasant, even when she dropped her ice cream ont he ground), went to her dresser, and took out a silk hanky and a piece of blue ribbon. Then, screwing her eyes shut, she managed to take all the happiness swirling around inside her head, and wad it up in the little square of silk, tieing it securely with the length of blue ribbon before racing back to the window and offering her present to the bird.

“Here you go, Mr. Whippoorwill! Please, take good care of it, and be careful not to lose it! I don’t know what I should do if I lost my happiness forever!”

And with that, the bird bowed, thanking her for her graciousness and generosity, and, with the little silk bundle hanging from his beak, flew off, into the night. The little girl strained ot see him go, but eventually lost sight of him as he was framed against the bright, fat moon.

In a few moments, as the girl crept back to bed, she began to notice a change steal over her. She felt heavier, slower; more glum. More tired. And everything seemed to take on the same shade of dismal, dingy grey.

“Oh!” she said to herself, “I do so hope the whippoorwill returns with my happiness soon! I suppose in the state I am in, even a rainbow would look dull, and dirty, and grey!”

And she then burst into tears, burying her face in the pillows and crying herself to sleep.

It was not a day or two later that her mother began to become very concerned for her little girl. She did not brighten when she ate her desert, nor even when presented with an angelfood cake (which was her favorite). Nor did playtime seem to amuse her; nor did new toys; sunshine; bright days; fluffy white clouds; or her pet kitten.

She no longer skipped rope, or drew hopscotch, or dilly-dallied amongst the dandelions, instead preferring to sit in her room in a gloopy, gloomy mess, weeping silently while staring at the four walls and complaining that the light of the sun, or even a lamp, hurt her eyes!

Her father, taking her to the carnival, found that this did not cheer her, either. Her mother, planning a special party for her with little friends from the neighborhood, found that her daughter sat in the center of the big table, amongst a little legion of happy, shouting, laughing, jostling little girlfriends and boyfriends, and wept silent tears.

Furthermore, the mother noticed the little girl continually staring out the window, as if expecting someone or something to come flying up to the great tree outside.

Finally, after weeks of her daughter’s solitary mourning, the exasperated mother put her fists on her hips and said, “Oh daughter of mine, whatsoever troublest thou? For, have we not done everything in our power to make thee merry and glad? And yet, thou weepest when thou shouldst laugh, and frown when thou shouldst, by rights, smile and be of good cheer! What, on Earth, couldst thou possibly be tormented by, that thou shouldst carry on in suchlike manner?”

And, at hearing this, the little girl burst into tears again, saying, “Oh, Mother! It is dreadful, but, one night, I heard the Whippoorwill outside of my window, singing his mournful tune. And, feeling sorry for him, I wrapped all of my happiness into a silk kerchief, and, tying it with a bow, gave it to him, allowing him use of it until he returns. And so, I have no happiness left, and all my pleasant feelings have vanished. Now, it seems as if the cursed bird shall never return, and thus never again shall I laugh, or smile, or feel merriment and joy!”

And she began to boo hoo very loudly. Her mother, horrified at what she heard, put her hands to her head in panic, and exclaimed, “Foolish child, what hast thou done! Thou hast given away all they smiles and gladness in the world to a conniving old bird, who has surely made haste with it to some far-off land, wherein he may enjoy the fruits of thy happiness, while you are drowing in tears!”

And, not knowing what else to do, the mother went straightaway to the conjure woman, an old crone who lived in the woods and had a bad, sinister reputation.

The ugly old crone croaked, “There is only one thing to do: Thou must bake thee a pie, in the center of which wilt thou bake four and twenty blackbirds…and a single snake. And then thou must set the pie upon the ledge below thy window, and wait! Soon, the whippoorwill will come, and the thing will right itself.”

And so the mother made the pie crust, carefully rolling the dough, and filling the center with four and twenty blackbirds. Then, she went out into the yard, and pulled from the weeds choking the edge of the garden a single snake. Into the pie went THAT as well. Then, she set it to bake.

After it was done, she set the thing on the window seal and sat down with her gloomy daughter to wait.

The smell of the pie was quite strong, and, in time, they heard the whippoorwill come flying up, resting on the old branch of the old tree. Curiously, he was still singing the same gloomy tune, although he had stolen all of the little girl’s happiness.

The whippoorwill pecked and poked his beak into the pie, smelling the delicious smell of cooked blackbird. As soon as he got his beak in the crust, however, the snake reared up, bared its fangs, siezed upon the luckless whippoorwill, and swallowed him up!

The little girl’s mother then sprang up from her chair and, like a bolt of lightning, had the snake collared with one huge hand, squeezing it’s long skinny body so that it could not bite her.

She then began to pound the head of the snake against the floor, until its blood and brains oozed out from between her fingers. And, also, quite a lot of blackbirds.

The little girl rooted around in the blood and carcasses on the floor. Finally, her little hand fell upon what she was looking for: it was the little bundle of silk with all her happiness tied up, with the same blue ribbon, inside.

She quickly snapped the ribbon, releasing her happiness so that, forever after, she wore a smile on her face, and had a spring in her step, even when she was at last old and grey.

And the moral of this story is: Look before you leap. Or, before giving everything to a stranger, make sure you have considered your own needs first. Or, make sure your charity and pity for others will not hurt you, in the end.

Or, never put much trust in a flighty character. It’s for the birds.

Pig Knuckles (Unfinished)

He holds the gun on me, his dirty little pig knuckles swallowing the handle, his fingers curling around, and I see that each nail is chipped, painted black, or maybe scarlet.

“Shoot me!” I implore. I stick my chest out as if I’m daring him to scuffle out in the schoolyard. He mumbles something. Not a man of many words. Behind him, a tree has grown up, thrust up like a rude finger through the gaping hole in the floor.

He’s placed an old-fashioned TV monitor on the trunk. Somehow got it up there, high up. On the screen, the only image is that ever-present floating eye, a motif that seems to be worked into every nook and cranny I lay eyes on, although not always in an obvious way at first.

“So shoot. C’mon, if that’s what you’re gonna do, DO IT.”

A knock at the door interrupts. Earlier, I had opened it up to a young girl that was, apparently, out and about house greeting for the new neighbors–

“Man you got stuck way out here. All the houses over here are a hundred years old!”

“Sure.” (How was I supposed to answer her?)

She is a tall, skinny brunette, maybe twenty years old. She is bubbly, a little too friendly, a little too eager.

“Man, not even a walk out here. Just that big court out there.”

She motions to the yard, which is tall and overgrown and deep green, and no doubt rutted by deadly holes, patrolled by seething, lazy ring-tailed iguanas.

“Sure. But I don’t mind. It’s quiet.”

“Yeah. Good to know, If you have neighbors that are annoying, it really gets to be hell, let me tell you.”

“Yeah. I have a particular tastes in music, too. I can’t just tolerate anything.”

Leave. Leave. I want her to leave.

While we are standing there talking, a young black kid comes up on the porch. He acknowledges us with a shake of the head, and it is then, for the first time, he notices the electronic device, like a heavy metal shoe-box attached to the side of the house.

“I just come to read the meter,” he states flatly. He supposes there is a digital readout on the face of the thing.

“Dollar ninety-nine a minute,” I say. “Better than phone sex.”

The kid looks at me, uncomprehending. The girl puts her knuckles on her hips, stands Superman-style, says, “After all, it’s your fantasy. Your dream, right?”

“Fulfilling the needs of the hungry Id,” I say, suddenly more talkative, but still wanting her to leave.

“An amusement park ride not dissimilar from the ride in China where the participants lie in a little box while colored lights and hot air blasts simultaneously, for them at least; supposedly, what it is like to be cremated. People will go to all sorts of lengths to experience something they could never experience, in a million years. At least, not while alive.”

“–While alive on this earth,” she agrees. “But something they can crawl back out of if they don’t like it. Something simulated. Something unreal. Life as entertainment.”

The girl looks wistfully off into the distance, as if waxing philosophic has taxed her, caused her an un- for-seen filip of embarrassment that has convinced her, finally, that she must be pushing on.

“Yeah, well, okay. I might stop back by later, but don’t count on it. I have to run. Nice to meet you, by the by.”

She gave a sort of little wave, left me standing there, feeling perplexed. We had never even exchanged names.

I close the door slowly, soundly. Pig Knuckles comes out of the shadows, still holding the gun on me.

“A person, could create an environment,” he say, “people it with representations of the sorts of things that turn him on, get him going. Get him awake and interested. Fire off those synapses. Like–”

And he pulls out a pair of undergarments.

“Do you see this? I bet you like the smell, right? I bet you fantasize the skinny young thing whose body once filled out this particular piece of wardrobe. But she’s not here. Not anymore. Did she stain the crotch of this particular pair of panties? What about her smell? Her DNA? Does visualizing a thing, with enough sensory aids to fool the conscious reasoning, make it a reality? If something is real for YOU, isn’t it real in fact? Since perception is finally all we have?” (Unfinished, 2014)