A death cry, quieter than creation. A sooty and larynx-scarring sound. Like bad dinner conversation, like an unchecked motor, like wilting revelation. Hell yeah, that’s the sound, N.L. says—or Mark thinks he says—but he can’t be sure because smoke entombs the phrase. And that’s when the story won’t come. When all he wants is the recovery buzz. When the prose is like gum and he’s sick from too much and he’s dragging hope on an afterthought. When his fingers are glued to graphs of the self, rife with homage to the Book of Leviticus. When the cars are wraiths and his eyes have gone milky and the Muse cackles secrets in a closed repair shop. When office windows peer from an unnamed surface, when the Leviathan shows a face of steel. When he opens his mouth in a silent caw and stares dead-eyed into elsewhere while vapour clogs the scene. When he says the word remorse, when he loves books but hates their authors, when he laments the shoal of his latest daydream. When he’s fighting just to get it down, foggy and warm in a room that smells like affliction.
Clouds filter light on the face;
the boys are in need of a fix.
Retribution, they say.
Grace, they say as
hot puffs waft through the rain.
Fingers curl red and slender
like cooked earthworms.
A proclamation cuts smoke
like meat sliced after prayer:
It’s never the last time.
McCauley’s mentors are dying while he’s stuck out here scanning the dirt for footprints and strands of fabric. The text dies with the writer—he toys with the notion as he approaches the Shaman. The Shaman who thwarted standard introduction. Who was born neither as a physical nor spiritual being. Who disobeyed omniscient stage directions so he could speak with the trees and live forever. McCauley watches him whirling and dancing into a tangible form—flesh and cloth and animal furs. The Shaman mutters before a fire of alternating hues, shaking a small pouch filled with bird bones and magic / You’ve been waiting for me—We’re all waiting—You’re a real cryptic bastard, aren’t you. Where were you during the Deluge. Where were you when the ship went down. Where were you when the babies were stolen from their cradles. Where were you during the sacrifice. Where were you when they killed them all. Answer me—We’ll always be waiting / The Shaman shakes grayish powder from his palm. Crimson sparks spray from the fire. The smoke is wet and black. McCauley draws a hunting knife / What if I were to kill you right now. What if I were to take your life from you. Nobody would hear you scream—I cannot resurrect the writers—Real cryptic bastard. I have half a mind to run you through—So do it. Only you can atone / McCauley stabs the Shaman mid-sentence. His blood is even redder than the sand. It courses into the fire. Howling mouths emerge through the blaze / I don’t believe in spirits. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in you. You’re nothing to me / McCauley speaks the words but forgets the source. He casts his eyes upward and implores a nonexistent mediator to interject / I’ll die of thirst out here /
Dregs of incense slither through 60 watts of light.
She passes the roach so he can scorch his diaphragm.
Quasi-fictional flashbacks take arachnid forms,
confessions swimming in smoke …
Let’s fuck in the park she says.
It’s too cold he says.
Sacramental figures adorn the wall,
wraiths in waning white hue …
It’s time to change the light bulb but she likes being frightened.
Paradise lost in chronic self-glory,
threads of smoke that drift above the sin.
Intercourse deflates his pupils.
I’m sorry God he thinks as she extends the lighter.
Here come on try it—it makes you feel alive she says.
All he wants is to write the novel
but only poems will come.
“They sacrificed to demons … to deities they had never known …” –Deuteronomy 32:17
Ray glides like a wraith. Silent. Unchallenged. Gun arm navigating through the crowds.
The bodies split for him, forming a strobe lit tunnel. They reassemble as he passes, hot organisms unbalanced by treble. Wet, vapid, contorting. Gyrating in the dark. Seductive. Vaginal.
“Where the fuck is he?” Ray asks. A question for deities, muted by bacchanalian mayhem. Lurid benediction.
The disc jockey sermonizes infidelity, headphones coiling his neck.Tongues moisten the blackness. MDMA fills the room like vapour.
Ray makes his way to the back door. Kicks it open and steps into the night, Colt first. Trained ears prick to catch the sound of cheap leather clopping asphalt.
Ray focuses on the Target. Sprints down the sidewalk, quickly gaining speed. Car speakers demonstrate the Doppler effect. Women exclaim from moving vehicles, imploring him like Argonautican sirens.
He ignores the sounds. The insanity. The chaos. His gun is ready. He is closing in. Catching up with the Target. This fucking deadbeat will need a headstone tomorrow.
His prey is taking form. The variables are falling into place. The outcome is clear.
Ray pursues the Target through traffic, his hands bumping headlights. Car horns assault his senses. An unwelcome choir.
He corners his game at last.
The familiar invocation: No. Please. Don’t. Stop. Listen. Etc, etc.
Ray lowers his Colt and prepares to fire, but the ritual changes direction. Fate has other plans.
The pleas stop. The Target is smiling. The body is bent, hissing and snarling. The face is darkening, features reassembling in shadow.
“What the fuck?” Ray says.
The Target rises to fix red eyes on him. Lips recede into a horrible smile, sharp teeth glinting dully.
All training is forgotten. Ray panics. Fires all his ammo. Head shots, chest shots, abdominal shots. The Target absorbs the bullets, still smiling.
Ray struggles to speak. To protest. To remove himself from the nightmare. No words will come. He stares in terrified awe, the gun slipping from his limp fingers.
The Target approaches. Ray closes his eyes. He braces himself and submits. The Target descends on him, all fangs and malice. Blood courses from Ray’s body and rains on cement. He is dead in seconds.
This ceremony is timeless, more ancient than the city itself. More ancient than every building. More ancient than every body inside those buildings. More ancient than the beliefs and morals that feign vitality inside every one of those bodies, guiding non-events in isolation.
under the dome.”
He coughs a digital halo,
surveys the assembly of
uniforms pawning corn syrup.
“Like a fucking snowglobe.”
This is infinite—
an effort to pierce the dome,
eradicate the barrier,
cancel the void.
this is what I’m saying.”
He swerves in time,
concrete blurring the past.
“Write a number repeatedly,
from the moment you’re born
‘til the moment you die.”
Eyes burst crimson,
words stick to his mouth like cotton.
“Just keep adding
and adding and adding
until you’re fucking dead.”
He flicks the turn signal,
lowers the music,
dominates the night’s vibrations.
“You can try to be the one,
but a computer will just
calculate the total.”
He takes another hit
as towers mimic deities,
probing at the sky.
you pry a strip of wood from the coffin:
this is where it happened.
N.L. wheezes, folds like a yoga instructor:
can we stop now?
you think you see a man in there,
a shadowy impression.
you squint, muffling white sunbeams:
you can stop any time you want.
He’s as good a conversationalist as any. He’s oblivious to mercy and in no mood to talk. Well-dressed. Wearing a fedora and pulling it off. A Bogart kind of guy. Eyes forward, reading bottle labels or remembering heartbreak. He orders two shots and a beer.
“Put it on my tab,” you say.
“I’m not going home with you tonight, friend,” he says.
“Too bad. I could use some love.”
“You could use a shower.”
You laugh, finish your drink and extend your hand. He doesn’t shake it.
“Why do I get a free round while that poor bastard spends his daughter’s college funds on swampwater?” you ask, nodding toward a guy sitting a few stools over.
The guy is sweating discounted whiskey. Stubble beaded with liquor. Lazy violence peering from a fat face.
“You got a fuckin prollem?” fatass calls over.
“Oh, you heard me?” the stranger says.
“Yeah, n I axed if you got a fuckin prollem!”
“Only ninety-nine of them.”
Fatass wobbles to his feet. The bartender wipes a glass and watches with passive interest.
“You wanna take this outside, mister?”
The stranger continues staring ahead, reading symbols in space. Downs his first shot. Hisses quietly. “Don’t go home all bruised up again. Your wife might work up the guts to divorce your flabby ass. Here,” he pulls out a 20, waves it at fatass. “Take this. Get out of my sight, you sack of shit.”
Fatass wrenches his features into a wet pink ball of fury. “No one talks to me like that.”
“Yes they do. Everyone talks to you like that. That’s why you’re here alone, drinking whatever they wipe off the bar. Now go buy some toothpaste and a new shirt. A 20 should meet your standards.”
Fatass sways, damp and defeated, for an endless minute. Finally, he takes the money and nods hard. He waddles out the door. The stranger takes his other shot and drinks half his beer. For a moment you wish you’d taken your conversation elsewhere.
Then you reconsider. You imprint bravery on this stranger’s face. He tells it like it is. A real James Cagney. Classic Hollywood. The kind of man they don’t make anymore.
“That guy’s tail is so far between his legs, it’s tickling his stomach,” you say with a laugh.
“With that much stomach hanging down, the tail wouldn’t have to go up very far.”
You laugh again. “So do I get to know your name now?”
“No, you do not get to know my name. If you buy me another shot, you get to know my secret.”
“Heavy shit, brother. You ever read The Catcher in the Rye?”
“Suck my dick, friend.”
You both chuckle, a social performance.
“Get him another shot of that,” you tell the bartender.
The shot comes. He slugs it back.
“Okay, you got the shot. Now I get the secret.”
“I think they call that a compromise. I’m not very good with those.”
“It’s called a deal. Any man who’s not good with those isn’t worth shit to me.”
His gaze peels from space and drifts to you. There’s danger in those eyes. “Here’s my secret: after you’ve been down there—down there, I mean, where all of them come from—you are free to do anything.”
“The demons, that’s who. I’m not talking Scripture here. I’m talking about the whiskey in that shitbag’s guts. I’m talking about your need for conversation. I’m talking about the rotten, diseased whore that some corporate lawyer is fucking somewhere in this city right now. I’m talking about the thing that kills us. Once you come to want something enough, it comes so you need it. And once you need something enough, well shit… Once that happens, you might as well say sayonara to everything else. And I mean everything else.”
“You’re talking about addiction.”
“It’s more than that. Monomania. Demons. The Captain Ahab condition.”
“Obsession. The danger of dreams. I’m not just saying I’ve looked death in the face. I’m saying I’ve ripped the curtain away and I can laugh at the screaming girl in the shower. Because I’ve done it. It’s not just that I’ve pressed a hot fire poker into a man’s arm until he screamed. It’s the fact that I didn’t pull it away. No matter how much he screamed and begged and pissed himself, I kept that thing scorching until it touched his bones. Until it burned his insides.”
“What do you do?”
“I talk with the demons. I learn their names.”
The dreamcatcher jolts and bobs with the force of speed bumps, catching moonlight in brief flickers. Joe sees you staring at it. He snorts a half-laugh.
“That there’s a real-life Ojibwe—handmade by a shaman,” he says.
You watch the merge line rush and vanish like a flow of ghosts in asphalt.
“That one existed before all this cult’ral propr’ation bullshit, ya know? That there’s legit.”
You search for words. Spirits swipe the underbelly of the truck. The Doors play on the radio. Lyrics you know. Lyrics that have always left you cold.
Words come to you eventually: “does it keep the nightmares away?”
Joe laughs harshly. “The nightmares! Hell, the nightmares were real before I got this thing. Now they’re just nightmares, ya know?”
You remember Joe’s stories. Apparitions. Aliens. Dark mythology as an insolent force. “Real? I thought that was just the writing,” you say.
Joe doesn’t laugh this time. His face hardens. “It’s all the writin. There’s nothin else.”
Jim Morrison screaming. Headlights casting judgment on the dead.
“Tell me about a nightmare that’s true,” you say.
Joe asks if you really want to hear this shit. Yes, you say, you really want to hear this shit.
Joe pushes an Export A into the cigarette lighter receptacle. He sucks white smoke. The tip lights the blackness with a bead of orange. “One time I’m drivin. I see this broad on the side of the road, ya know, with her thumb stickin up. But it wasn’t her thumb I was lookin at, ya know what I’m sayin? She was firin on every cylinder, this broad. I dunno how she could even see over those titsa hers.” He cackles silver puffs. “This was a high-class whore. She wanted a ride and she wanted to pay for it. Only she wasn’t no millionaire, ya get me?”
You look at him. Smoke jets from his nostrils and clouds his rocky jaw.
“She was a prostitute?” you ask.
You’re surprised he doesn’t laugh. He nods again. “Yeah. A real-life prost’tute. So shortly after she gets in, my jeans are bunched roun my ankles, ya know? My feet are wedged together and I’m strugglin to keep control of the gas n brakes. And this broad has no brakes, ya know? So she’s got her face all over my cock, ya know. Not jus suckin the thing, but teachin it new languages, ya get me? I can say without a shreda doubt, this was the finest blowjob any man has ever had in any parta the world at any time. Ever. It gets so my eyes are tilted up, jus watchin this dreamcatcher. Jus like you were watchin it. Swingin. Kinda dancin. But then, I feel this thump, ya know? Huge thump. I stop the truck and kinda jerk up in my seat. My cock pokes er in the eyeball and she starts slappin me but I’m too scared ta notice. I jump outta the truck. I run back to the spot where the thump happened. What do ya think I see?”
You speculate. You imagine squirming demon fetuses and spectral forms. “I don’t know,” you say.
“I see me. That’s what I see. Pulv’rized in the road, sectioned up like parts in a butcher shop. It was me, ya get it? Not someone who looked like me. It was me, smashed in the road. So much blood, wet n black in the nighttime. The hooker’s runnin up behind me, screamin at me that I coulda killed her and what kind of a sonofabitch could do that to a dame while she’s suckin im off. Then she walks off and I just stare, ya know. I don’t know how long I looked at myself, dead there in the road.”
His story ends with abrupt silence. He tosses the half-smoked Export from the window in a mild flurry of sparks.
“But… you’re still here,” you say. “Still here behind the wheel. Still driving.”
“That’s right. I’m still drivin. And that dreamcatcher isn’t goin anywhere.”