Early stop, says the concrete underpass.
Killers killed by restless hounds,
holy reunion on gray walls,
a cabal of faceless faces,
dead end men and roulette knives.
Early stop, says the concrete underpass.
This is magic realism in a Honda civic and the driver’s eyes are segmented like an insect’s. He quotes pop literature, perceives new colours, chain smokes cigarillos. He cruises rising crenellations of concrete hell, puffs grape smoke through the holes in his cheeks. We forget the goons in the back, ageless deadbeats who pass the test with designer clothes. They’re passing joints, they’re smoking hash, they’re packing the bong, they’re silent like a nuclear bomb. We navigate the voids of unseen avenues, we scoff at the abject and we ponder substance dualism. Someone says Daddy choked me with a skip rope when I was a kid and that’s why I’m lonely, that’s why I’m angry, that’s why I smoke, but nobody hears him. The station changes on its own accord, jumping from static to static, spectres of glitch pop and audio snow. We throw sizzling butts at a sick-faced vampire thumbing for a ride, we shower him in sparks, we laugh, we smoke avarice, we burn endless fuel. We’ve got five years left and ain’t it a shame, five years left and the gauge keeps dipping from “F” to “E.”
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.
Dash blinks at the dawn light, scratching white flakes from an itch in his flesh. He crouches on the porch like a patient hydra, finishing the sun-warmed dregs of his Budweiser. Quiet insurrection is his way of life—bombs posing as car parts, guns without serial numbers, smiles that kill. His rust-savaged truck sputters noxious fumes across the driveway. He finishes his beer. / This is your last chance. Do you understand that.—How many fuckin times ya gotta tell me.—I assure you this is the last time you will be told.—Just let me do the fuckin thing, alright. I can handle it, fa krissake.—I sincerely hope you can. This is not something to be taking lightly.—Are we done yet. You’re givin me a whopper of a fuckin migraine here.—Yes, we are all finished for now. You can call me when you have done as you were told. If you do not meet all the criteria of our agreement, do not bother calling me.—We’ve been through all this shit already. How many fu—The conversation is finished. You have seventy-two hours. / Dash drives 30km/h over the speed limit. His gaze spends as much time on the rearview as it does on the road. Four cigarette butts smolder in the cup holder, filling the truck with nicotine fog. He is aware of the Sedan that has been tailing him for thirty minutes and he is aware that he cannot shake it off. He signals. Turns onto the shoulder of the road. He opens the glove compartment, grabs his gun. Tucks it into the back of his waistband and conceals it under his shirt. He opens the door and walks out. A lithe man is leaning on the Sedan, wiping crumbs from the sleeve of his tailored suit jacket. They exchange looks. Static in a moment of assessment. Momentarily neutralized. The Suit speaks: You know who I am, don’t you.—Are you fuckin with me or what. How could I not know.—Well, what do you have to say for yourself.—What can I say. You guys have given me no fuckin room to breathe. I was havin a panic attack when I walked into this fuckin thing.—That’s not my concern.—What is your fuckin concern.—Doing as I’m told to do.—What a fuckin coincidence, mister. That’s my concern too. Looks like we got more in common than we mighta thought.—I’m going to kill you, Dash. Suit reaches into his jacket but Dash has already drawn and levelled his .38. He fires. A hole erupts in the center of Suit’s white shirt, spewing blood and tattered fabric. Dash speaks: That’s why you don’t fuck around with me. Suit spills beside his car, gripping the door handle. Slipping away, clinging to the nearest material artifice. Dash turns to his truck. A firearm crack rents the air. Dash’s spine screams in tongues. Rigid with paralysis, he falls face-forward. Squirms and bleeds on the ground. Sputters gravel. Suit speaks: Nobody gets out of these things.—What a stupid fuckin business.—We’re the ones who chose it.
“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.
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.”
Now’s the chance to get em back. Almost ten goddamned years workin for these sonofabitches and I’ve got nothin to show for it. It’s a puppet show, ya know what I mean? They point their fat fingers and I walk the walk. I march these dismal goddamned streets. The doors I gotta knock on, I’m tellin ya—these aren’t the places where dreams were missed. These are the places where dreams are ignored. These are the places where soggy old bitches and bastards dig up every bitter feeling they’ve had since birth then throw em at the salesmen in crazy screaming fits. They croak about havin some decency and givin them their peace and quiet. They send the salesmen out to the goddamned sidewalk, throwin rainbows of cusswords in for good measure. They’re real civilized people, see? They’re the ones payin the taxes. They’re the ones pavin the roads. The roads. Well, the roads are like conveyor belts for Jehovah’s witnesses with cheap jewelry and kitchen knives. We’ve lost our status. We’re the low men. That’s right, we’re the low men, and I’m bringin us back to the surface. These places. This job. These cheap, lousy, good-for-nothing … Well, they leave me no choice. They leave me here, now, in the office with $45,000 of administrative dough wedged into my bag. Sweatin like a sonofabitch. Reconsiderin, but knowin I’m gonna follow through because this is my chance. This is an opportunity for all of em. For all the low men. Tonight, the plot is set into motion.
/ here’s the obligatory traffic scene, when a man voices existential dread while stomping a cigarette into asphalt—you’ve seen him before: war veteran eyes, well-fitted jacket, good intentions tainted by bad experience / Green Light—she’s somewhere in the left lane, keeping speed with all the people he’s never met—offering herself in exchange for a ticket to a bigger city—a ticket to philosophy and herbal tea and respectably obscure paperbacks—a ticket to the liberation of a stranger’s cock in gray light, squirming across rental property carpet with her thoughts fixed firmly on a god she’s only just met now after spending her whole life waiting, calling his name with the repetition of a recurring dream that you’ve finally learned to control / Yellow Light—he wants nothing more than to be a man among men, transcribing his woe over shots of whatever’s cheapest today—he wants nothing more than a decent poem and the company of someone who’s willing to listen—instead, he’s out here playing a brando-mitchum hybrid with a blood-wrinkled notebook tucked under his arm and the last cigarette butt smoldering beside his foot / Red Light—obligatory revelation arrives in the form of a mid-nineties corolla—the force is greater than the culmination of every thought he’s had since he met her—she’s Somewhere Else now, freeing herself through the words of a writer you’ve probably never heard of, losing touch with names and all the hollow nothing they represent /