Cuba Day 4: The Mall (Plaza America)

Cuba 2-33 There comes a time when every man and his daughter must go to the mall. After a second round of Spanish coffee, Cass and I decided that time had come, so we hopped into a cab…an old Pontiac, pristine inside and out and driven by a crazy guy who sang to music blaring from the dashboard speakers about some guy who was more in love with his car than with his wife and he sang “loco” repeatedly as he turned back and forth between Cass and I as though he were bringing us to some great understanding of how a man can love his car more than his wife but he would still have to be kind of loco to do that. This is the driver…giving me the thumbs up while he sang “Loco! Loco! Loco!” Driver I couldn’t help but wonder if he were the man in the song. Was this man more in love with his car, beautiful as it was, than with his wife? Was he loco? How did his wife feel about this? Was she jealous? Would she go for Sunday rides with her husband in this car that had displaced her as the number one love in his life? Did she want to kill her husband’s car? Humiliate it in public by flattening all four tires? Take a key to the immaculately maintained body? Was our driver sane enough to be driving us to the mall?

This is Cass in the back seat wondering if it would be safer to jump out the window than stay in the cab: 2 Fortunately, it was a short drive to Plaza America, the mall. 3 What I love third most about this mall is that it’s not like every mall in Canada spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific in Canada with the same chain stores carrying the same stuff from sea to shining sea.

“Hey, Joe, look at the amazing shirt I bought at the mall in Toronto.”

“Biff, you have impeccable taste in shirts…it’s the same shirt I bought at the West Edmonton Mall.”

“Fuck you, Joe.” 4 Plaza America is the great Veradero father/daughter escape from sameness.

“Hey, Joe…look at the shirt I bought at Plaza America in Veradero.”

“Fuck you, Biff.”

This mall has everything and then some…like a courtyard with open sky and a porta-bar where you can buy Cristal beers in cans or bottles and chill out under an umbrella while a makeshift troupe of musicians plays not-so-bad salsa. And everywhere…palm trees and lizards. 5 One bold lizard jumped onto our table and said, “Hey Gringo…take my picture for a peso?” So I gave the scaly little guy a peso and took his picture and he went to the bar and bought a Cristal. He brought is beer to our table and regaled us with stories of what it’s like to be a lizard living in a mall. Can’t say I remember any of those stories but this lizard knew his mall…and loved his beer. So, we sat with the lizard for a while before venturing off into the mall, going directly to a bar we’d visited the year before. We acquired a couple of cans of Cristal and chilled on the patio with this view: 6 Actually, I meant this view…. 7 A couple birds that we called Cuban sparrows because they looked like sparrows landed on the patio wall and said they would pose for a peso so I gave them each a peso and took their picture. 8 They, of course, used the money to buy a couple of Cristals and sat together at the far end of the patio drinking their beers and enjoying the view. Cuba 2-13 After a while, we decided it was time to venture back into the mall and maybe even do some shopping. First stop was the cigar store where some guy from France was making the lone clerk open boxes of cigars so that he could sniff them and feel them up. This guy was crazier than the driver. What he was doing to those cigars was unnatural. I wondered if he loved cigars more than his wife. Maybe he married to a cigar. I wondered if his cigar wife was at home, suspicious about where he was, what he might be doing to strange cigars. A line of increasingly impatient shoppers stood behind with weirdo from France, watching the weirdness and wanting to cut his hands off and cauterize his nose. We’d already seen, in Havana, how violent cigar lovers can suddenly turn.

We left before the riot started. We headed back to the courtyard…where something strange was happening. I saw a bronze statue of a woman hanging on to a piece of wood wrapped in philodendron leaves, the rest of her body floating in the air. Across from her was a bronze statue of a man holding a metal ring with a bronze woman floating in it. The statues were so lifelike you would almost expect them to wink at you. I focused on the woman floating in front of me and, just as I was about to release the shutter, the bronze statue winked at me. I lowered the camera and stared at the statue. It winked again. She was real. So were the man and the woman in the ring. Cuba 2-21 Cuba 2-24 This was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. Every few minutes, the statues would move very slightly, just enough to make passers-by stop in their tracks and say things like “ooo” and “ahhh.” Some fainted from shock. Others ran screaming from the courtyard. Some just stood, transfixed, wondering what was keeping the floating human statues from plunging into courtyard tiles.

After taking 50,000 pictures and leaving behind some pesos, Cass and I headed upstairs for her annual shot with Che… Cuba 2-29 …plus the wall pose… Cuba 2-30 …and back to the patio for some more Cristal. I don’t recall actually shopping for anything.

And now for some totally gratuitous mall pictures. Cuba 2-35 Cuba 2-19 9 Cuba 2-17 Cuba 1-26 Cuba 1-177

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Cuba Day 3: Killer Peacocks and Dentally Dangerous Melba Toast

(NOTE: This posting is peppered with gratuitous images of Havana folk who may or may not have anything to do with the writing. Probably not. Oh, and the chronology of events may have been altered by run punch. And Spanish coffee. And Cristal beer.)

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It was the day after Easter Monday and the 24 hour bar was still open. My daughter and I were in Veradero and getting ready for a tour into Havana, and the only way to get ready for anything in Veradero is to head directly to the 24 hour bar and acquire two steaming glasses of Spanish coffee (a magical mixture of rum, liqueurs and freshly ground coffee). We were still a little shaky after being attacked by rum punch crazy towel and blanket swans wearing my daughter’s hats, but we had our Spanish coffees in hand and we were ready for anything.

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We were at the pickup point on time but the bus, as usual, was running on Cuban time, which is a tangible entity measured at the personal level by every citizen of Cuba. Cass and I have a lot of respect for Cuban time…it gives you plenty of space to finish your Spanish coffee. We like to think of it as a mental health thing.

This was going to be our second trip to Havana and we were looking forward to shopping at this giant indoor Craft and Souvenir Market and then to Hemingway’s La Bodeguita del Medio bar to get shit-faced before the ride back to the hotel. We were also looking forward to the halfway stop along the highway where they sell the best pina coladas in the world…everything cut, juiced and chopped fresh before your eyes and served in the pineapple used to make the drink.

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Things, unfortunately, were not going to go exactly as planned.

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We got our world’s best pina coladas on the way but, when the bus arrived in Havana, it took a wrong turn into a museum where we were herded into a courtyard surrounded by galleries and history and not a single bar in sight. No Spanish coffee. No rum punch. Wtf.

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I don’t even remember the name of the place. It was that historical.

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What I do remember, though, was the peacock from hell. Some sick-minded asshole set a giant peacock loose in the courtyard. People were oooing and aahing and pointing and taking pictures. Gathering around the damn thing. Too close. Way too close. The thing suddenly shot its head out and closed its mammoth beak around the head of a little girl in a red sundress, pulled her off her feet and started tearing her to shreds and eating her. The parents, thinking this was just some old Cuban tradition, took pictures for the folks back home. “Yes, our lovely Julie was a big hit with this old Cuban tradition. The crowd loved her. We’re so proud of her. Oh, and by the way, that red jacket of Julie’s that Amy always loved. Well, it’s Amy’s now.” Everybody was taking pictures and saying shit like, “That peacock certainly does love that little girl.”

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Fucking tourists.

Damn bird ate two more children, burped and went to sleep. People took pictures of it sleeping.

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Then the tour got all messed up. First, we went to the Hemingway bar before the market…and they gave us just fifteen minutes go guzzle beer. I slapped a bunch of rejection slips that I hadn’t wrapped in fish and sent back to the editors onto the counter and was just about to challenge anyone in the house to show a bigger pile when this large old guy with a full beard slammed an even bigger pile down on the bar and started raving about this story he was writing about a guy who catches a giant fish that’s bigger than the boat he’s in and refuses to give it up even though keeping it is probably going to get his ass killed. I told him, “Good luck with that one, old man…but it’s never gonna fly.”

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We managed to guzzle three beers before the Change of Attraction Horns went off across the city, signalling the start of a new adventure and we were praying that it wouldn’t be another damn museum. But it sort of was…it as an outdoor courtyard area surrounded by historical buildings that looked like they would never survive another winter. I mean, some of them were worn down more than the steps inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I almost got lost in those canyons many years ago, and I think that’s why they don’t let people into the Tower anymore. Too many people were falling into the steps and never seen again. But some of these buildings reminded me of the worn down wall art you see in pictures of really really ancient civilizations, so ancient that their wall art looks like stone with bird scratchings. That worn down.

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Then I was attacked by the same cigar lady who tried to hit me up for ten pesos last year when I gave her only five. “Biff,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you. Right here. All this time. Do you have my other five pesos?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a big wad of Canadian Tire money (I always carry Canadian Tire money in my pocket, along with a roll of duck tape and a can of WD 40) and pushed it into her outstretched hands. She looked at the bills and smiled and said, “Gracias, Biff, you sexy bald guy.” And sauntered off into the historical courtyard distance.

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Next stop was this off-the-beaten-track dining room that was a fav place for American movie stars, gangsters and politicians way back when the Havana cars were new and had the original engines in them, back before the embargo that gutted half the buildings in Havana. But this place was still around and still serving freshly made pina coladas and that was just fine with me and Cass. Even the food was good, not that I can remember what it was, but I do remember the melba toast. It looked so good in the basket, and I was the last one to reach for a piece and when I did, I bit in hungrily and knocked a tooth out of my head. Right in the front, course, so pardon me if I don’t smile as I write this. Wouldn’t want anyone to fall into that gap while they’re reading and never be seen again.

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WARNING: When in Cuba, don’t eat the melba toast. And stay away from peacocks.

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A few more pina coladas later, we were on the bus again and off to Morro Castle where they sell cigars and have lots of cold Cristal beer. The castle is massive and was built in the 1500’s to keep pirates and the English (who were at war with Spain) out of Havana. We’d been here the year before and tried to buy some cigars in the cigar shop but gave up under the pressure of a mob of crazy tourists shoving money at the too few clerks, yelling, “I want these cigars! I want these cigars! Here’s my money! I want these cigars!” Stick a fine cigar under a Canadian’s nose and see where the Mr/Ms. Nice Canadian goes. This year, we avoided the cigar shop and found out later that the crowd broke out into a big ol’ NHL fist fight. A fist fight.

Over cigars.

Wtf.

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The entrance to the interior of the castle was blocked by a woman demanding pesos and another, elderly, woman asking to trade a Looney for a peso. I said no to both. Cass and I had our destination of choice chosen…the bar. The cold Cristal beer. A chance to sit in the Veradero heat and just relax while the Cigar War waged on in the battle field across from the bar. After a few quickly guzzled beers, I felt a strange stirring in my bowels and left my camera with Cass while I went off in search of the potty.

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Unfortunately, the potty was inconveniently located beyond the woman asking for pesos and the elderly woman wanting to trade Looneys for pesos. Convenient for them. I asked the woman asking for pesos if I could visit the potty to make a deposit. She looked at my strangely and then pointed at the elderly woman. Being wise in the ways of elderly women with Looneys for pesos, I gave her a peso and declined the Looney. This brought smiles all around and a third, portly, woman gestured for me to enter the interior of the castle.

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We walked out into a courtyard and into a street that wound through walls of rock with doors and windows and people sitting in the doorways and leaning out the windows. It looked like they lived here. I wondered…cigar makers? Canon operators waiting for the English and the pirates to attack? Holy Guardians of the Toilets? Anything was possible as the portly woman led me down another street as the folks in the doors and windows kept close watch over me. The street widened and it seemed hard to believe that we were actually inside a building, but it was a gargantuan building constructed of solid rock and so convincingly immune to the English and the pirates.

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However, I was beginning to lose my bearings as we turned down another street and I started wondering how many tourists had ventured down these streets with the portly woman, never to emerge from the bowels of the castle. I wondered if some of the people watching me were former tourists who’d journeyed so long and so far into the castle that they’d forgotten who they were and just lived out their lives in dazed non-remembrance of their previous lives as they stared out the windows and doors or Morro Castle. God, I thought, I hope Cass doesn’t drink my beer.

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Just as I was about to give up all hope of ever seeing my daughter, my camera and my beer again, the portly woman stopped by a door, unlocked it with a large silver key, opened it and gestured for me to enter. This was it, I thought, this is how they do it. You walk through the door and they slam it behind you. Years later, you’re staring out a window, watching the victim after victim being led into Morro Castle oblivion. But nature was churning inside me and about to take things into her own hands so I walked in. And I sure as hell didn’t expect to see what I saw.

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It was one of the most modern potty set-ups I’d seen in ages, like the 21st Century time travelling to the 16th Century. And, of course, the inevitable table with discreetly folded portions of toilet paper for the bargain price of just one peso. At that moment, a hundred pesos would have been a bargain. I bought two portions and headed into the immaculate stalls.

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On the way out, the portly woman smiled at me and nodded approval. Guess I did a good job. She accompanied me out and locked the door behind her. I just wondered off quickly, hoping that I didn’t make any wrong turns along those castle streets and end up wandering around for life.

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Back at the bar, my beer was still sitting on the table. Cass smiled and nodded approval. Damn…word gets around.

(BTW, our tour guide was almost eaten alive by a baby under the evil influence of the peacock.)

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Cuba Day 2: Don’t Look On Top of the Bed

Somehow my daughter, Cass, and I survived the second day in Veradero. I’m not sure how. We should have perished in a flood of rum, beer and Spanish coffee…not to mention that I was suffering from a bad case of flu. Fucking flu. Got it a week before leaving for Cuba, but I wasn’t going to let it get me down. Sun and rum. Doesn’t do a thing to clear the flu but it sure as hell does a lot to bury the symptoms so deep that you know it’s somebody else doing all the coughing and you might even advise them to spend a little time in the sack instead of spreading that shit all over the Veradero landscape. I call it alternative treatment of the fucking flu.

Or something like that.

But we survived the second day and woke up Easter Monday to Enya playing softly but loudly over the pool area. I turned over in my bed and heard a sloshing sound. I turned some more and heard more sloshing. More turns, more sloshing. I called out to Cass in the next bed, “Cass! Wake up! Tell me…am I sloshing? “

She said, “Uhhhhh.”

“Are you awake? I think I have a problem.”

“Uhhhhh.”

“Hey…shithead…am I sloshing?”

“Yeeeaaaahhhhhh.”

So I was sloshing. But could I be sure of that? I’m not sure how much I trusted where the second opinion was coming from. I didn’t think it came from a place of informed wakefulness. So I sat up. It was like sitting Rum Sloshing Blues.

Only one way to cure the Rum Sloshing Blues…fall back into the bed and go back to sleep. Which I did.

We missed breakfast. Again. But the 24 hour bar was still open (in fact, it seemed to always be open), so we started the day right: Spanish coffee. We walked around for a while talking about this and that, mostly that…and came across the pool bar where we acquired that most precious of pool food…the toasted ham and cheese sandwich…also the perfect companion to Spanish coffee.

After staring around at life in paradise, we decided it was time to head to the mall to get stuff we had on a mental list somewhere in one of our heads. We knew this would become clear to us once we arrived at the Plaza del America. We went back to the room to change into our mall clothing.

We had no idea what horrors were awaiting us in that room.

***

The maids in Veradero have this custom when they make your bed and do something creative with the towels. We’d experienced this last year and it was kind of cool.

But this year was different.

The first thing we saw was a mesmerizing blue towel that began to spin as soon as we looked at it. This was new to us. It wasn’t in any of the guide books that we hadn’t read and it was nowhere in any of the histories of Cuba that the tour guides from last year had described to us in intimate detail. This was new and probably not really a good thing.

1

The towel spun faster and faster as Cass and I stood before it, shoulders bent forward, arms dangling in front of us. I kept thinking, What happened to our rum punches? Did we bring the rum punches with us? Did we leave our rum punches by the pool? I could sure do with a rum punch right now.

The towel lifted off the bed and flew out the balcony door in a flurry of blue terry cloth, crashed into a cluster of coconuts and bounced into the sky through an umbrella of palm leaves. Yeah, a rum punch would have been nice around this time, but Cass and I were still bent over in the hall (and I’m sure she was wondering where her rum punch was as well) when things started to get even weirder.

The beds were alive with all manner of towel and blanket swans. And they were talking.

Talking!

“Hey, gringos, where’s our rum punch?” said two swan blankets simultaneously as they pressed their heads together into a heart shape.

3

“Si, hueleos, we want rum punch,” said two more swans, these ones towels, making the same heart shape, but there was anything but heart in their malevolent tone.

4

Well…let me tell you…when you’re faced with talking swan towels and blankets wanting rum punch, all you can think of is…where did those damn rum punches go?

“Dad?” said Cass.

“Yeah, Sweetie?” I said.

“Where did those damn rum punches go?”

“I think we drank them, Sweetie.”

“Dad…is our bedding really talking to us?”

“Yeah, Sweetie…it is. In fact…”

“Rum punch, gringos, rum punch,” yelled a swan blanket wearing one of my daughter’s hats , as it jumped up and down on the bed.

5

“Rum punch! Rum punch!” yelled another swan blanket, wearing one of daughter’s other hats. And it started jumping up and down on the bed.

6

One of them jumped right off the bed and into my face. “Rum punch, guacho. Rum punch,” it hollered.

7

Suddenly we were surrounded by towels and blankets screaming for rum punch. They were everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, bouncing on the floor and the beds, flapping crazily round our heads…

“Run punch!”

Bed-4

“Rum punch!”

Bed-5

“Rum punch!”

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We couldn’t take it anymore. We ran right through them and out the balcony door, sliding it shut with a loud slam as a mess of blankets and towels and hats piled into the door.

“Maybe we should just sit here and wait a while,” I said.

Cass nodded agreement and we sat, staring out at the palms and blue sky, with the sound of blanket and towel art beating madly against the balcony door. We looked at each other for a moment, smiled, and dozed off.

We woke up a while later. It was sunny, warm and…well…tropical. I looked at the table about the same time Cass did…and wonder of wonders…there were our rum punches in large wooden mugs. We looked at each other with mutual realization…we’d both fallen asleep and had the same nightmre.

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“Ha ha ha!” we said.

Just a crazy little dream. We were OK and we had our rum punches.

“I need to go to the washroom,” I said.

“Ha ha,” said Cass. “Don’t get et by talking towels on your way to the washroom, Dad.”

I stood up and turned towards the balcony door. Pushed up against the door was a pile of blankets and towels and hats.

Cuba 2015 – First Day

 

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(NOTE: None of the pictures shown here have anything to do with the first day other than they flowed out of the first day. ALSO NOTE: I went to Cuba in the throes of a serious bout with the flu and used vast quantities of rum for purely medicinal and spiritual purposes.)

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It’s downright disgusting how fast a week goes by. Especially when you’re having fun. Especially when you have just that one week with your daughter who you haven’t seen in three months and won’t see for another six months. Especially when there’s still snow on the ground where you live and, even though it’s going away, it’s still April and there shouldn’t be anything on the ground but grass and flowers. Especially when that one week is in Veradero, Cuba where the streets are dry and summery, where flowers burst out from the greenery everywhere, where the rum flows with pineapple and coconut milk through every minute of the day.

Well…maybe not every minute. We also made time for the rum punch, the Spanish coffee, the Cristal beer, the shooters and, yeah, the occasional shot of water…you know, to stay healthy.

However, pulling out of the driveway today wasn’t a crazy act of cheating death. The snow banks were melted enough that I didn’t have to pull halfway into the middle of the street to see if anything was coming. I honestly don’t know how I made it through this winter alive. I don’t know how anyone in this city or anywhere in the Atlantic provinces made it through this winter alive.

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But hey, fuck winter. Let’s talk about Cuba. I was there for a week with my daughter, Cassie Mae. She arrived a few hours before me and, by the time I stepped into the hotel, she was already a heroine for saving a drunken woman’s life. Apparently, she had to carry the woman out of harm’s way and let the woman have her sandals. But this is a long story best told by Cass whenever she gets her blog up.

The rest of the evening was rum punch and partytime. Neither of which I can recall, as much as I try. Which I take to be proof that it’s possible to drown memory with rum and wouldn’t it be cool if you could target certain memories and rum them out of your head? I’d definitely rum out the memory of the fried pig’s brains and onions that an old friend in the Albanian navy who jumped ship in Halifax tricked me into eating by telling me that it was considered a great delicacy the homeland he deserted when he jumped ship.

You have no idea how gross the feeling of pig’s brains and onions is as it slides around your teeth and tongue looking for taste buds to poison for the rest of your life.

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Back to Cuba: we slept in the next day, Easter Sunday. Till noon. Missed breakfast. But we checked the schedule for the rest of the day: Go to bar. Acquire two Spanish coffees. Go to pool. Drink Spanish coffees. Swim. Drink Spanish coffees. Lay in sun. Drink Spanish…oops…no more Spanish coffees. Go quickly to bar. Acquire two rum punches. Return to pool. Drink rum punches. Lay in sun. Swim. Drink rum punches. Lay in sun. Drink…oops. Back to bar. Acquire two toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. And two rum punches. Eat. Drink. Retrieve towels from pool. Go to beach…after acquiring two more rum punches. Acquire beach thingys for sitting and laying on. Drink rum punches. Swim in gorgeous green water. Return to thingys. Drink rum punches laced with sand. Lay in sun. Drink rum punches laced with more sand. Swim in gorgeous green water. Return to thingys. Drink…oops…plastic glasses filled with sand. Time to leave beach. First, though, fend off portly woman in bright flowered dress who wants to braid my hair. For five pesos. Leave quickly for bar. Go to dining hall saturated with enough rum to try a few new things with unfamiliar textures and markings that will never be seen on the store shelves of Freddie Beach. Allow happy Cuban man to fill two glasses of red wine and leave bottle on table. Apparently this makes the food taste familiar. Finish eating. Take bottle of wine and two glasses to the steps leading down to the pool. Smoke cigarettes while contemplating next move.

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Which turned out to be showers back at the room, change of clothing, a walk along the beach to feed the sand fleas with blood from our legs (after acquiring more rum punches) and back to the bar for more rum punches and socializing in a major flood of rum and beer and crazy drunk people.

Cuba.

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And we had six more days to go.

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These Eyes

Eyes

(Note: This one was published in the Stranglet Literary Journal . Why? Oh..right..the eyes..thanks Amber.)

I’ve given myself a week to live. I think that’s a reasonable timeframe. One week.

It’s going to be tough. I just received another call. From her. Like nothing’s happened. Like everything’s normal. It shook me the first time she called. It shook me a few minutes ago. Tomorrow at 7:29 PM, it’ll shake me again.

She talks about ordinary things: “Did you find that clicking sound in your car?”

I try to keep my answers short. I get a feeling that she only has so long. About ten minutes, including the silences, those wordless seconds when we’re likely more connected than when we’re talking, when all we can do is feel each other’s presence. “Do you still think about me?”

   …

   “Yeah. I do.”

   …

   “Did you get the new air conditioner installed?”

Deliberately drawing out the silences, savoring the closeness that comes from knowing the other is waiting, as though we become real knowing someone is waiting for us.

I’d like to say I waited my whole life for her, but I didn’t. She was sprung on me out of the blue, something I would never have seen coming because I really didn’t need―or want―it at the time. But suddenly she was there and going back to the way things used to be was…well, I’ve given myself a week.

I was on my way to the Cedar Tree Café for a hazelnut coffee, something I’d been thinking about all morning, mentally savoring the sweet nut taste and the hot cream-thick liquid. My agent had just called with great news; my latest book had just been picked up by a publisher of photography books with some of the biggest names in the field on their list. Mine was a book with a hundred and twenty images of shopping carts that had been abandoned around the city, pictures of shopping carts left on curbs, stashed under verandas or pushed over the banks of ravines. I had a picture of a cart that someone had lugged up to the top of a billboard advertising the city transport system.

It was a three-year project with thousands of images pared down to the essential. I used the carts as a metaphor for the sense of abandonment that runs through industrial/digital society, but I won’t get into that now. Maybe later.

It was a big step forward. I was excited. I was on top of the world. I was in a hurry. I didn’t see her as I rounded the corner. She was right in front of me, standing there with a vacant look in her eyes, something I noticed at just about the same time I walked into her hard enough to knock her off her feet, hard enough so that her ass hit the ground about the same time her head hit the door―the metal rim of the door. I should have turned around and headed back to the studio right then.

But I didn’t.

I was stunned motionless. She lay on the sidewalk, slumped against the door, her plaid skirt pushed up revealing slim legs with black leggings. There was a couple on the other side of the door looking through the glass at her. They couldn’t open the door with her lying against it and I could see the struggle in their eyes: wait until she’s not against the door before opening it, or risk hurting her more by opening the door so they could ask, “Are you hurt?”

And, yeah, I just stood there like a frozen turkey until she lifted her hand up to me. It took a few seconds to sink in: she wants me to help her get up. Her eyes were a deep brown that created an earthy aura around her eye lids. She didn’t seem angry or hurt, not even flustered. She seemed amused, calm. I thrust my hand out clumsily, missing her hand by a good few inches. She grabbed my wrist and pulled herself up, almost pulling me down in the process. Not that she was heavy, it just took me by surprise. I was suddenly face-to-face with her. She was beautiful, with brassy brunette bangs bouncing off her shoulders and cutting sharply across her forehead. She reminded me of pictures I’d seen of hippy women during the 60s: no lipstick or makeup or other fakery―just natural beauty. A black turtleneck suggested college girl from some other period. I didn’t see a purse. She was smiling.

The couple at the door were outside now. The woman asked, “Are you alright?” She ignored the question, still smiling, looking straight up into my eyes. I think I was blushing as I stammered out a barely coherent apology, gesturing with my hands, lusting for a hazelnut coffee, in a hurry, rounding the corner…but, oh my god, she was beautiful.

“You’re Steven Glen, aren’t you?”

She knew my name.

This wasn’t as much a surprise as it might seem. My work had been exhibited around town for several years and I’d been interviewed by newspapers, television and regional magazines. I wasn’t a celebrity, but I wasn’t invisible.

I nodded yes.

“I saw your exhibit at Ingrid Mueller’s Art + Concepts two months ago.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re very talented.”

I nodded yes.

“You don’t talk much do you?”

I nodded…”I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you until…”

“It’s OK. I’m all right. Back of my head’s a bit sore, is all.” She rubbed her backside. “Sore butt too.”

My god, she was beautiful. I was feeling a bit woozy from just looking at her. “I was in a hurry, not thinking. Just got some good news.”

Her smile widened. “And your good news was?” She seemed cheery and relaxed, but for some reason, I couldn’t shake that image of her eyes just before I knocked her down, the vacancy. There was something almost chilling about it.

But she was so beautiful.

I bought her a coffee―hazelnut, of course. She loved it. I told her about the book, how it as a big step for me. In fact, that’s all we talked about: me―my books, the shopping carts, my exhibitions, my artistic vision. Whenever I asked her about her own life, she turned the talk back to me, and I let her. Ego: that slippery plain of victories leading to ultimate defeat. I should have pressed her but I was on a ME high with a beautiful woman, and less than two hours later we were at my place, in bed, naked.

Yeah, that fast. I should have known something was out of whack. But I was on top of the world. I was invincible. Nothing could bring me down.

Her name was Heather. Heather Smith. Although I’m still not sure if that was her real last name. I’m not even sure if that was her real first name.

While we were drinking the coffee, I asked her, “How would you sum up your life?”

She said, “I’m the seed pod that fell into the river and was carried out to the ocean. How about you?”

And, of course, I blabbed on about myself, never bothering to ask what she meant by the seed pod, and that was the closest she ever came to saying anything really personal about herself other than to talk about her current mood, how things went at work, where she’d like to dine out.

Her moods were always the same: tranquil in a disquieted way, as though something was rumbling under the surface. She was a graphic artist for a company that produced educational software. My sum total knowledge of her work: the graphics have to be meaningful. But I did know if the day went well, fast, slow, or challenging. In the time that we were together, we never dined at the same place twice and in all that time she never failed to take my breath away.

She moved in the day after we met. The last thing in the world I wanted was a roommate; I didn’t even want a relationship, didn’t want the complications. I was so close to having everything I’d always wanted. I needed to focus on the book, on the exhibition for the book launch. Plus, there was the commercial photography―the weddings and portraits―to pay the bills. My life was too busy for a relationship. I thought about this while I was waiting for her to show up with her things and I made up my mind that I was going to tell her that we should wait a bit. This was too sudden. It wasn’t like me. I’m sorry but…

I answered a quiet knock on the door. She stood in the hall wearing blue jeans and a dark gray sweater, a suitcase in each hand. She took my breath away.

“Just two suitcases?” I said.

“I like to keep things simple.”

I kissed her and she walked through the door into the rest of my life.

Two suitcases.

 ***

Living with a woman was something new in my life. I’d had women stay the weekend but this was different. It was an adventure. Physically, she didn’t put much of a dent in my apartment. We shared my dresser, and the closet was less stark. Cosmetics, brushes and hair products appeared in the washroom along with a cherry red bathrobe and matching towel. We moved the couch to the middle of the room, closer to the TV, which I started watching more in the evenings. Things materialized in the refrigerator: yogurt, tofu, plastic containers of bean sprouts. All-in-all though, she made as much an imprint as a hotel guest.

But she brought a certain color and texture to life in the apartment, as though I’d turned the settings of my life to black and white and she re-set them to color.

My apartment was no longer just a place to eat, sleep, shower and catch the news; it was a place to live and create memories with color and texture. I looked forward to going home and finding her waiting for me. Seeing her on the couch or strolling out of the kitchenette or just hearing her calling out from the washroom: “Be out in a minute.” I never tired of her beauty. In fact, I never really got used to it―like it was something I could never define or understand. Like her.

Just like her.

 ***

 We ate together, usually in the dining area, with music in the background and candles in the foreground. Sometimes we ate in the living room and watched TV. Conversation was sporadic. We didn’t talk much and when we did it wasn’t for long. I talked about my book, my exhibitions, plans for my next photo project, problems with my commercial work. She talked about things in the news or asked questions about my work, my artistic vision, my hopes and fears.

Weekends we got out of the apartment, starting with the Farmers’ Market early Saturday morning. She loved the Market: the stalls with fresh produce, the crafts (which she adored but never bought, not even letting me buy them for her), the exotic foods (her favorite was mild chicken samosas), the buskers juggling bowling pins or staging puppet shows. She never once became impatient because a line was stalled by people stopping to talk or someone just stopping to take in the movement and noise. She blended well into crowds.

After the market we took to the sidewalks for some window shopping or drove into the country where I’d take pictures of barns and ponds as backdrops to her beauty. Sometimes we’d go to a mall where she’d admire everything and buy nothing. She loved the shopping experience but wasn’t into accumulating things, except for the odd piece of clothing.

No matter what we did, though, her conversation focused on what was happening around us: “Oh look! A puppet show!” “Can you get the water lilies in just behind me? What kind of lens do you need for that?” “How do you think I’d look in that red dress?” She lived in the immediate.

We didn’t go to church on Sundays. Sunday was our stay-at-home-in-bed-and-make-love-all-day-long day. Conversation was mostly me telling her over and over how beautiful she was, how perfect she was, how much I needed her.

 ***

 After a couple of months, I stopped doing portraits. I needed time to work on proofs for the book and re-write captions and the artist statement―a sprawling twenty-page monument to ambiguity, which I eventually pared down to a few pages. I needed time to start my next project: abandoned toys. These were pictures of toys, like play kitchens, play houses and pedal cars left on curbs for trash day, or left at the back door of the Salvation Army store. I had a rough concept about what I was doing, something along the lines of shedding the tools of our youth, learning to let go as part of the growth process. Something like that. I was having a hard time focusing and I can’t say that it was her fault. It was my fault. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, day and night, even when I was with her. Yeah, even when I was with her. I think most people think about other things when they’re with the ones they love because they’re right there with you, where you just feel them and think about other things.

In my case though, she’d be right there, lying beside me or sitting across the table from me, and I’d be wondering about her, wondering about her day, wondering about her past, about who she was and what she was doing when she wasn’t with me.

Wondering about why she was with me.

 ***

 “So what meaningful graphics did you do today?”

“Mostly boring ones.”

“Boring? How so?”

“Just boring. Visual representations of boring material.”

“What kind of material?”

“Really boring material.”

“You’re not going to tell me anything about your job, are you?”

“Did you find out about that clicking noise in your car?”

 ***

 We’d been together almost six months when I first noticed it. By that time I’d cut my commercial work down to almost nothing, taking occasional jobs to pay rent on the apartment and studio. She took care of all the other expenses, and the publishers had given me a generous advance―something unheard of for a still not-so-well-known photographer.

I spent my days roaming the city looking for cast-away toys―snooping around alleys, frequenting dumpsters, scouring the early morning streets on trash pick-up days. I’d finished the work on the shopping cart book. My next exhibition was a few months away, in conjunction with the book release.

I was at the studio, going through pictures I’d taken of her over the weekend. On Sunday we’d gone to the college campus, to the geology building, where they’d painted the walls in one of the stairwell alcoves with a lifelike forest motif. The alcove stretched up three stories with towering rainforest trees. The predominant color was deep green. She was wearing blue jeans and a loose red blouse, the first time I’d seen her wearing a bright color other than her bathrobe. It was raining lightly that day and she had a red umbrella. There was a long bench built into the wall at the base of the forest mural. She lay down on the bench with the umbrella open beside her. The contrast of colors was breathtaking. I took almost a hundred pictures.

I’d just deleted the ones that were definitely a no go, leaving me with ten images to process. In three of them, taken in succession, she was looking straight into the lens, smiling seductively. The bright irises spread a light brownish tint over her eyelids and the hollows of her eyes. Even looking at pictures of her caught my breath. I zoomed in on her eyes. The screen turned monochrome brown. My chest began to tighten with excitement as I leaned forward to let myself be lost in those eyes. And that’s when I saw it.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, only that it triggered a cold flash across my back and froze me like in those moments when you wake up feeling threatened by something you can’t define but and you know that if you move, it’ll pounce. It was the vacancy I’d seen in her eyes the first time we met, but it was more―like a pit descending into bottomless nothing, a complete absence of…I didn’t know what. I jerked back, fearing I’d be sucked into something from which I’d never return.

I sat at my desk, sweating, cold, shaken, fingers trembling. My thoughts tripped over explanations that might make sense of what I’d seen.

After a few moments I calmed enough to lean forward into her eyes and confirm what I’d just seen but it was gone, if it had ever been there. It could have been stress, change of lifestyle, anything.

I spent the next couple of hours working on the remaining pictures. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. In each of the pictures she was beautiful and her eyes took my breath away without swallowing me whole.

I didn’t mention any of this to her.

***

“As a photographer, there’s something I find really odd about you.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t have any pictures.”

“Pictures?”

“Yeah, pictures…family, travel, childhood, school. How come you have no pictures?”

“Well, hun, as a photographer, you weren’t around then to take them.”

 ***

 I started losing it. Whatever I’d seen in her eyes wouldn’t let go. I went through hundreds of pictures, burrowing into her eyes as she sat on the edge of the fountain by City Hall, zooming into her eyes as she smiled under a black moustache at the dollar store, digging deep into her eyes as she waved to me high in the air from a swing at the playground across the street― searching her eyes in picture after picture.

But it was gone. I tried to chalk it off to imagination. Stress. A disagreeable lunch. I tried to doubt what I’d seen, distrust my eyes, but that look in her eyes when we met hovered over me. I remembered the chill I’d felt.

 ***

 I started an obsessive campaign of picture-taking, catching her while she ate, watched TV, slept, showered, dressed and undressed.

“Steven?”

“Yes?”

“I’m undressing.”

“I know. And I’m taking pictures.”

“Steven?”

“Yes?”

“Why are you taking pictures of my eyes while I’m undressing?”

 ***

 I put over a thousand images through every Photoshop routine I could think of, including a barrage of special effects like fish eye, sepia, duo tone, HDR, everything I could think of. I varied the resolutions, hues, temperatures, white balances, color saturations, brightness, sharpness, densities.

Did I mention I was obsessed?

 ***

 I decided it was time to talk to her about it. We were eating authentic Mexican food in an authentic Mexican restaurant with authentic Mariachi music in the background.

“I know I’ve been acting weird lately.” I was on my fourth Corona

“Oh, you noticed?” Sometimes she could be a bit of a shithead.

“Yes, I did.”

“Steven.” She leaned forward, looking me straight in the eyes. “There’s something wrong.”

“Yes?”

She reached over the table and took both my hands. “When you’re not taking pictures of my eyes, or working on my eyes on your computer…”

“Yes?”

“You stare.”

“I stare?”

“Into my eyes, constantly. Like you’re looking for something.”

“You have beautiful eyes. I…”

“Steven. This is a nice restaurant. Don’t make me pour a bottle of beer over your head.” She squeezed my hands tightly as she talked. “I want it to stop…the whole eye thing. It stops.”

I nodded yes.

“Give me your word.”

“I promise. I’ll stop. No more eye fixation.”

 ***

For a while, I managed to reign in the eye fetish and pay more attention to her as in: “Nice to see a man who appreciates his woman undressing for the camera.” I immersed myself in my abandoned toy project and scoured the streets looking for toys left on the curbs for trash day or tossed beside dumpsters. Gray drizzly days were my favorite, with the rain adding a bit of the old sparkle to the colors of the toys, now contrasted so vividly with their drab surroundings and suggesting the magic they once cast on the children who owned them.

I was picking up more commercial work. My book release was a month away, and I was almost ready for the exhibition and launch.

She seemed to be more excited about the exhibit than me, talking about it incessantly, asking me if I was excited, telling me how beautiful the prints were. Her favorite was of a cart sitting in snow up to its lower tray. Behind it, a field stretched into a narrow line of trees. Behind that, a black storm-filled sky stretched across the horizon moving with a precision edge into a sunny cloudless sky. The play of light between the storm and the clear sky was surreal and foreboding. The cart was about thirty feet into the snow and, strangely, there were no footsteps leading out to it, as though it had just appeared there.

Things were looking good.

For the time being.

 ***

 “I know hardly anything about you.”

“What’s my favorite pizza?”

“Sausage.”

“What’s my favorite color?”

“Brown. Chocolate brown.”

“What’s my favorite food?”

“When you want a break from health food…steak, medium rare, baked potato with sour cream, and broccoli with cheese sauce.”

“What’s my favorite song?”

“But, what’s this…?”

“Indulge me. What’s my favorite song?”

“These Eyes.”

“Most men wouldn’t be able to answer those questions.”

“So?”

“So, you know me better than most men know their women.”

 ***

 There’re two schools of thought about balance. One claims that the purpose of our lives is to attain a state in which everything is completely in balance and then keep things that way until we die. This is a kind of spiritual approach. The other claims that it’s just fine to work towards a state of balance, but then we need to find ways to throw everything into chaos again so that we can start over trying to achieve balance. This would be an evolutionary approach with the rationale being: if things are always in balance, nothing happens—nothing goes forward, nothing goes backward. We have stasis. No progress. No evolution.

I guess I’m one of those people who need to evolve.

Things were too good between us. It was driving me nuts. Who was I to have this perfect relationship with this breathtakingly beautiful woman who never complained, who wanted the same things I wanted, who treated me like everything I did and thought was essential, who never told me how to live my life and who arrived on my doorstep devoid of historical baggage?

These were the kinds of crazy thoughts I was beginning to have. On the one hand, I was afraid to push things; on the other, I couldn’t resist the urge to push.

I started investigating. Google, LinkedIn, MySpace (after all, she was a graphic artist), Facebook, Twitter, online directories and dozens of other cyber ways to stalk a person were all dead ends. I couldn’t find a single pixel of her on the Internet.

Of course, it didn’t take long before she noticed that I was acting crazy again.

***

 “My brother and I used to love toasted peanut butter sandwiches dipped in tea with lots of milk and sugar for breakfast.”

“Peanut butter is good for growing bodies.”

“Mom used to pack salmon sandwiches for lunch. Every day. And a banana. And Kool-Aid.”

“The salmon would explain why you have such a strong heart.”

“What was your favorite breakfast when you were a kid? Let me guess…bran flakes.”

“Why would you say bran flakes?”

“Um…I don’t know. Just a wild guess.”

“Did you get around to taking the car in about that clicking noise?”

 ***

 “You look tense tonight, Steven.”

“Got something on my mind.”

“Sounds serious.”

“It is.”

“How serious?”

“Really serious.”

“You just put half an inch of salt on your baked potato.”

“I like salt.”

“With a bit of potato on the side?”

“Who are you?”

“Who do you think I am?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is this why you were taking all the pictures, tracking me all over the internet?”

“Tracking you? What…”

“Browsers have this thing called histories. You were searching for information on me day after day. You even searched for things like demonic eyes. I’m guessing in relation to me.”

“You knew all this? Why didn’t you say anything?|

“I was hoping you would either find whatever it was you were looking for, or come to your senses.”

“I need to know about your past.”

“You need to get over this obsession.”

“But why can’t you just tell me…”

“OK. I was raised on a farm. I came to the city. I met you. Happy?”

“Is that true?”

“No.”

“Then…?”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes. Of course I…”

“Then just love me.”

  ***

 But I couldn’t just love her. I pushed it like picking a scab trying to heal over a major artery.

We were home, drinking wine, watching a Seinfeld re-run, eating homemade guacamole. I felt like I was sitting beside myself, watching myself reach for the remote and turning the TV off, watching as I turned to her.

“Tell me about your past.”

“You don’t want to know about it.”

“I have to know about it.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Where did you come from?”

“I told you…a farm.”

“You told me that wasn’t true.”

“Maybe I lied about it not being true.”

“What was it I saw in your eyes?”

“Probably your imagination.”

“What are you hiding from me?”

“Nothing that should mean anything to you—to keeping us together.”

“But I have to know.”

“Maybe I don’t want to know.”

“But you do know.”

“I just want things to stay the way they are.”

“Things will stay the way they are, but I’ll know. I have to know what you know.”

“What I know—and all I have to know—is that I love you and I want things to stay as they are.” She stood up and walked slowly to the window. She stared towards the park but her eyes seemed focused on something far away, lifetimes away. It was a sad stare that flushed me with guilt. I should have backed off then. I should have put my love before my curiosity and gone to her and held her and told her everything would be all right. Just like in the movies. But I didn’t. She stood by the window for a few minutes before turning to me. Tears glistened on her cheeks. “The truth is, Steven, I don’t know. I remember my job and the people I work with, but that’s all. I went home after I met you and packed some things. As soon as I arrived at your door, I forgot where I’d come from. At work, I sort of floated through each day listening to people talking about things I should have known about but didn’t. I played along with them. It happens less often now. But, Steven, I can’t even remember the things they used to talk about. All I remember is you. And what we have. And I don’t want to lose it.”

“But you have to remember.”

 ***

 Finally, she remembered.

I came home late one night. She was sitting on the couch. I said something about being sorry for missing supper but she ignored me. The hair running over her shoulders was like a chocolate waterfall. Even the back of her head thrilled me. I walked quickly to the kitchen to see what I’d missed eating by candlelight.

There was nothing. Not even the smell of cooking. Evening sun cast a surreal aura over the kitchen. There was a note on the breakfast table. I picked it up and read.

Steven dearest,

I remembered. Thanks, Steven. We should have left it alone like I wanted. Just left it alone.

As for what it is: no, you don’t get to know that. At least not yet. I’ll be in touch. Oh, and sorry for the blood stains on your couch.

Love always,

Heather

The calls started a week later.

 ***

 When I think of it now, I got home at around close to eight that night. The blood on the couch was still slightly warm. Maybe it was 7:29 when she pushed the butcher knife into her stomach, maybe that exact moment when her soul fled her body. Maybe that’s why she calls every night at that time. I’ll ask her about that next week. It’s the kind of thing I should ask face-to-face.

One week.

I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to talk myself out of this. Though I can’t see that happening, and it’s going to be tough waiting through those seven days. But like I said, I have a solid objective within a reasonable time frame. She’s waiting for me. She knows.

And I need to know.

Smoke Break

Smoke-2

A kettle boiling water into dry hell―Kyle’s first thought as he stepped out of the air conditioned building. Pools of heat wavered visibly on the rooftops of mini vans and cars parked in the asphalt lot as Kyle cussed himself for wearing a suit and tie. But the radio had said rain today, just like it had yesterday, when the temperature had soared to an energy-sucking ninety-five. He loosened his tie and undid the top two buttons of his shirt. He took a package of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, opened it and thumbed out a cigarette, thinking that maybe after this pack he’d try quitting again. Yeah, quit the damned things for good and stay inside all day in the office rooms filled with computers and cool air. Pocketing the pack with one hand, he reached into his pants pocket with the other and took out his lighter. Sweat popped out of his underarms as he fired his cigarette and put the lighter back in his pocket. God, it was only mid morning. What would it be like in the afternoon? He took a deep drag, his first cigarette of the day, and felt his head spin into a nicotine high.

He blew out a long stream of bluish smoke that traveled straight ahead, dissolving into the air without even a slight movement upward. No wind to cool down the scorching heat. Sweat dribbled from the pores in his forehead. He wiped it away with the palm of his hand and then dried his palm on the inside of his jacket. He took another long haul on the cigarette, wondering why the hell they couldn’t put aside just one small air conditioned room for smokers, a room with vents to pump the circuit-destroying smoke outside into this godawful hot day.

Beside him stood a three foot high air conditioning box churning out a strained humming sound, the diamond mesh grill on top ripped open by a snow plow during the winter. Kyle looked at the splayed metal and thought that maybe the heat wasn’t so bad after all, not after the skin-numbing temperatures of a winter that had seemed to freeze and storm forever. The problem with weather, either too cold or too hot, but at least you didn’t have to shovel driveways in the heat.

As he lifted the cigarette to his lips, he noticed movement inside the darkness of the air conditioning unit. He blinked. Probably just heat waves under the torn metal. But it moved again, and not like any heat wave. Must be the nicotine high, playing tricks on his eyes. He stared at the hole in the unit. The metal was ripped right down the six foot length of the gray metal box with a round gouge in the middle where diamond-shaped mesh curled up and away from the hole like grisly lips. Another movement, something long and dark, it looked like. Something solid.

Kyle wiped sweat from his forehead again, wiped his palm inside his jacket again, stepped closer to the, felt air even hotter than outside blast into his face. Just as he was about to step back, he saw it again. Something long and dark, black, shiny black. He blinked his eyes again, wiped sweat from his brows, and stepped away from the unit. Yeah, just the nicotine high, and the heat, the godawful heat, and him wearing a suit, his shirt soaked under his arms and across his back.

He looked at his black Honda, parked thirty feet away, heat waves dancing on the hood where the protective coating peeled and flaked in white streaks. From parking under a pine tree, the autobody guy had told him. Have to strip it down to the undercoat and repaint. Too late to fix the protective coating. Bloody pine trees. Cost a fortune to have it painted.

And then he heard a faint thump in the direction of the air conditioning unit. He looked, saw nothing. Must be the motor stressing out on the heat. Or maybe it was his head stressing. And then another movement, something definitely long, slender, black, moving from one side of the gouge to the other. Something loose in there? Blowing around in the exhaust? But the movement seemed too slow, too deliberate. What the hell was it?

He took another drag on his cigarette, exhaled the smoke before inhaling it fully, walked right up to the unit and looked into the hole.

There it was.

A twig? Too small. A branch? No. A thick, black spine, leading to what looked like a joint, and then tapering to another joint, and tapering into a smaller spine. No, not a branch, not wood, but something definitely familiar. Where had he seen that shape before?

He bent forward cautiously. The long black spine moved slowly back and forth. Gotta be something caught in there, moving with the exhaust. And then another one appeared from the left side of the hole, exactly like the first, long and shiny black, three spines tapering down through two joints. And they both stretched straight forward and stopped, forming two parallel spines about six inches apart, each at least three feet long.

Where the hell had he seen those before? Still bent forward, peering into the torn grill, He stepped back. Something too deliberate in the movement of those things, something too familiar that wasn’t invoking any pleasant memories, something sinister in the way they just lay there side by side, so intent on remaining still.

And then he heard it.

Not from outside, but inside, inside his head, like something effervescent bubbling into his awareness, the bubbles bursting into words strung together with no tone, no pitch, no base or treble. Just the meaning of the words.

“What are you?”

Kyle jumped back, almost losing his balance, the cigarette dropping through his fingers, burning them as it passed through.

“Shit!”

Regaining his balance, he looked around, eyes popped wildly, shaking his hand as though he could shake the burning away. No one was there. Just hundreds of empty cars boiling under the blistering sun, and beyond the parking lot, the city fuming in a smoggy haze. Gotta be the heat, the nicotine high. Sweat stung his eyes. He wiped them with both hands, felt the pinching hurt in his fingers begin to loosen into a throb, then waved his hand in a futile attempt to cool the burning fingers. He looked back at the hole in the grill.

The spines were gone.

Too creepy. Too much heat. He stepped quickly to the door, opened it and walked into the cool of the building.

***

You could almost bounce off the wall of heat and sear your brows in the process. It took Kyle’s breath away. The metal door thumped closed behind him as he reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarette pack. His mind bristled with flashing screens from hours of research on the Internet, the muscles in his right palm throbbing from using the mouse. Have to fill out a requisition for one of those ergonomic models. His burned fingers had stopped throbbing. Lighting his cigarette, he glanced briefly at the air conditioning unit, still humming its strained monotonous tune.

Christ!

Two long black spines stretched out in the hole. Damn, what are those things? Time to get to the bottom of this. Ignoring the alarms firing in his head and stomach, he marched directly to the unit, bent forward and gazed at the spines laying motionless, side by side on top of the fan box. He dropped his cigarette onto the butt-cluttered cement, crushed it with his heel and moved his hand slowly toward them.

Just as his hand reached the opening in the grill, the spines moved. And something in the grillwork right under his head moved. What the hell was that? His hand froze. His body froze. He watched as a dark mass of material roiled under the rusted mesh, moving with slow, fluid motion. The spines curled under at their joints and disappeared, the dark mass gliding forward to replace them. Kyle’s eyes widened, their lids the only part of his body that wasn’t paralyzed solid. The mass in the unit was round and translucent black with a coat of short shimmering hair. It must have been as big as a medium-size dog, or more like a large beach balloon, but bloated in the center and tapering to a point at one end. It turned smoothly around and the end facing Kyle lifted.

First, he saw a flat, crusty section attached to the bloated black beach ball. Sprouting out from the bottom of this, he saw eight of the long spines. The crusted shell rose to reveal four liquid black eyes forming a square under a shell-like brow. Beside the square of eyes, two more larger sapphire blue eyes bulged menacingly. Below the eyes, two hairy black appendages like swollen, droopy lips sucked in and out. Each appendage had two reddish black fangs that curved inward, almost touching each other as the appendages sucked slowly in and out.

Goddam, a spider.

Kyle broke through the spell and jumped backwards. He heard the flat dead-like words bubbling in his mind again.

“What are you?”

Everything in Kyle’s body was moving now, especially his sweat glands, his shirt and pants starting to drench. His heart thumped hard enough to make his head spin. And the words intruded into his mind again, floating somewhere between conscious and unconscious, sanity and insanity.

“What are you?”

And that’s when Kyle realized that the words came from the spider.

The realization came in layers: a spider, a giant spider, a giant spider somehow throwing words into his brain, a giant spider asking him what he was. Mustering his senses like melting tar in the sweltering heat, Kyle broke through the barrier of impossibility and whispered: “What?”

“No need to talk out loud. Just think it.”

Whispering again: “What?”

“Just direct your meaning to me. Just think your words.”

Kyle thought: “How ..”

“That’s it. Just like that.”

“But …”

“Yes?”

Kyle stared into the eyes, four black and two blue, all six of them vibrating with inner life, seeming to float around in their hairy sockets, surrounded by the monstrous body with the black fangs moving slowly in and out like breathing.

“What the hell are you?”

“I think I asked you that first, only somewhat more politely.”

What kind of craziness? The thing was talking to him. He was talking back to it. The damn thing had to be real, but the damn thing couldn’t be real. He reached for this cigarettes, the outside of the pack was moist with sweat. He opened the pack and fumbled out a cigarette, hands shaking. Returning the pack to his shirt pocket, he groped in his pants for this lighter. Craziness! Maybe some kind of Internet surfing-induced hypnosis? Too many screens flashing by on his monitor, like the dividing line on a dark night, inducing highway hypnosis? He lit his cigarette with difficulty, lip muscles shaking as much as his hands. Sweat stung his eyes. He wiped it away with the lighter hand, left his wet hand on his cheek still holding the lighter, took a long drag on his cigarette, his eyes transfixed by the six eyes moving around but knowing they were focused on him, and he heard more words.

“No, Kyle, you’re not crazy.”

Kyle’s jaw dropped. “You know my name.”

“It’s in your mind. But what are you?”

“No way, you first.”

The spider’s head lifted up slightly, the eyes now all definitely focused directly on Kyle. “I’m me.”

Kyle pondered this a moment, still shaking from head to toes. “Fine. That’s what I am too … me.”

“But, what are you when you say me?”

Some of Kyle’s shaking began to loosen up in the rhetoric. This is not the way a spider talks. Not to mention that spiders don’t talk. And spiders don’t get this big. But there it was, a big spider, a giant black spider in the air conditioning unit. And it talked. “OK, I’ll bite. I’m a person, a human being.”

“What’s a human?”

“Oh no, you next, what the hell are you?”

“No, Kyle. Let’s focus on one thing at a time, take this step by step.”

Some kind of goddam analytic psychologist spider? What the hell was going on here? “Look, I don’t even know if you exist! Why should I answer questions from something that might just be a figment of my stressed-out mind?”

“How do you know that you exist?”

Kyle thought a moment. He knew the answer to that one, knew it from first year Philosophy. He took another puff on his cigarette. It came to him: “I think; therefore, I am.”

“Well, Kyle, I think too. Therefore, I am. And you’ve been reading my thoughts. Therefore, you know that I think; therefore, you know that I am. What’s a human?”

Kyle blew out cigarette smoke in a rush, the long blue stream racing through the windless air right into the face of the spider. The spider recoiled.

“Hey, watch that stuff! It burns my eyes!”

Kyle’s eyebrows lifted. The shaking in his body stopped abruptly, the spider not so menacing now in its vulnerability to the smoke. “Sorry.”

The spider shifted back into a relaxed crouch on top of the fan box, its movements smoothly fluid and silent, almost graceful. “Apology accepted. So what is a human?”

He thought. Images came to mind, images of people working, playing, doing a million different things, but how to describe human? Surely the spider could see that he was a smooth-skinned biped with hair on his head. Start with apes? Describe evolution? Opposable thumbs? The ability to think abstract thoughts? He took another drag on his cigarette and blew it out, this time away from the spider. He replied: “Look, I’m going to have to think about this. It’s kind of a complex thing. And I have to get back to work. Can we talk about this tomorrow morning?”

“You’ll come back?”

“Yes, I’ll come back. I come out here every day, twice, for a smoke break.”

“You’ll tell me what human is?”

“I’ll tell you what human is.”

“Will you bring others?”

Kyle thought about this. Tell Ernie and Jim when he got back upstairs? No. What if he was just imagining this? They’d think he was nuts, and maybe he was. Best to keep this to himself, for the time being. “No, I’ll come alone.”

“Good. I don’t like crowds.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m not sure. I just know it.”

Kyle dropped his cigarette and crushed it out. “Tomorrow, then.”

“And you’ll tell me what human is. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

More like six of them. Gotta be going crazy. Find out tomorrow, if it’s still there. Kyle opened the door and walked into the building as the spider glided back into the darkness of the air conditioning unit.

***

Almost like God had waved a wand over the sky and the earth, the weather had changed overnight, cooling down under a slate gray cloud cover. A soothing breeze brushed against Kyle’s face as he stepped out of the building, cigarette and lighter in hand. He ignored the breeze, the sky, the parked cars, and looked straight at the air conditioning unit. And there it was, crouched as yesterday on top of the fan box. So it hadn’t just been the heat, or Internet hypnosis. And any further doubt was shattered when the deadpan words invaded his mind.

“Good morning, Kyle.”

It was still unnerving. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

“As well as can be in here. Not much space to stretch out.”

“Ever think of moving to the suburbs?” Kyle lit his cigarette.

“What is suburbs?”

“Oh, just a place with more room, bigger air conditioners.” Putting his lighter back in his pocket, he stepped closer to the unit. “Just joking. Didn’t sleep much last night. Thought maybe I was going crazy or something.”

“I suppose I would have that effect. I don’t socialize much.”

What the hell was this thing saying? How would it even know to say these things? Kyle scratched his head, stared into the lidless, unblinking array of eyes. “You seem to have a good vocabulary for a spider.”

“Is that what I am? A spider?”

Kyle thought a moment. “I’m not sure. It’s what you look like. But different, bigger.”

“Then, that’s what I am. A spider. Have you had enough time to prepare your explanation of humans?”

Kyle sighed deeply. Between bouts of wondering about his sanity, he’d thought about being human, what it meant. He had his answer ready. “Yeah, I think I can describe humans.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Yeah, sure, where?”

“Just a manner of speaking. Please, tell me about humans.”

Pausing his thoughts for a moment, Kyle took another long drag and blew the smoke out, away from the spider. Today the smoke arced upwards in the light breeze, disintegrating quickly into the surrounding air. “OK. But, keep in mind, I’m not the world’s biggest expert on this kind of thing. Took some philosophy in college, read a few books, but mostly, this is just from living my life as a human.”

“Knowledge by experience is good.”

Kyle thought about this a moment. Where does it come up with these remarks? Got a library in that damned air conditioning unit? TV? “We weren’t always the way we are.”

“Nothing is.”

“Look, can we do away with the running commentary? This is hard enough as it is.”

“Sorry, Kyle. Please continue.”

The spider’s mass moved backwards gently, as though relaxing, the eyes still seeming to move, but not move, the black fangs breathing in and out from their hairy appendages.

“We started off as fish, turned into apes, evolved from apes into humans. It took millions of years but, during that time, our brains evolved into something that set us off from all other animals on earth, and maybe all life forms in the universe. We developed the ability to think, to solve problems, to think in the abstract.” Damn, none of this was coming out right. Why hadn’t he written it down the night before? It all seemed so apparent then. “What I mean is, we have the ability to change the world around us so that we enhance our ability to survive.” Kyle paused again, puffed on his cigarette.

“That’s it?”

“Well, that’s enough, isn’t it?”

“I can do all that. With the exception of fish and apes, I must be human.”

“But you can’t change the world around you.”

The spider waved one of its long, spindly legs over the inside of the unit. “Made some changes in here.”

“Oh yeah, like what?”

“Would you like to stick your head in and take a look around?”

Kyle shuddered. Duck his head into the unit right under those two chomping fangs? Not likely. “Think I’ll pass on that.”

“You’re still nervous. Is that a human trait? To be nervous?”

“Only when we feel threatened, or when we’re in a situation where everything is uncertain, or improbable. Like when we’re talking to giant spiders that can’t possibly exist, and we think maybe we’ve gone over the deep end.”

“Would you like to touch me? Maybe that will convince you that I’m real.”

Kyle’s stomach tightened at the suggestion. “Thanks, but …”

“Right. Nervous.”

“No offense meant.”

“None taken. But is that really all there is to being human? It took you the whole night to come up with that?”

Kyle puffed on his cigarette, getting smoke in his eyes. He rubbed them with his free hand. “Well, no, it’s a lot more than that. I told you I wasn’t an expert on this. I’ll have to give it some more thought. I have to get back to work. Meet you here this afternoon?”

“You’ll come back?”

“Of course I will. Didn’t we already go over this yesterday?”

“That’s right. I hope I didn’t sound insecure. You’ll come alone?”

“Covered that ground too.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

Kyle flicked his cigarette onto the pavement. In the distance beyond the parking lot, the tall buildings of the city appeared as gray as the sky, floating in their sea of exhaust and smoke. “Catch ya later.”

“Catch you later, Kyle.”

He opened the door and walked into the building. The spider remained on the fan box.

***

Mid afternoon, and the clouds were beginning to open up with a miserly sliver of blue sky here, a sprinkle of sun beams there. So what happened to the rain the radio promised? Kyle walked to the air conditioning unit. No giant spider. Nothing in there. He bent forward. “Hello, Mr. Spider!”

“Hello, Kyle.” The words rippling across his cerebral landscape like tiny bubbles bursting with meaning before taking any particular form.

Kyle watched as two long, black legs speared over the fan box and shifted to the left, the unimaginable black beach ball sliding in from the right. The spider perched on the box and lifted its head, all this in one elegant, fluid motion. The eyes focused on Kyle, but moving still, taking in the back of the building and the area around Kyle. The fangs moving in and out, in and out, slowly, like labored breathing.

“Before we get into this human thing… ” Kyle put a cigarette in this mouth, lit it. “…I have a question for you.”

The spider crouched motionless, only the fangs and their appendages moving, slowly, in and out. “The floor is all yours, Kyle.”

Where the hell did it learn that? “I’ve been wondering about this all morning.”

“Applying abstract thought?”

“Hey! The commentary …”

“Sorry. Please, continue.”

Another puff on his cigarette. Gotta give these damned things up. Maybe not a good time now, though. “Where do you come from?”

Silence. The fangs moving in and out. The legs spread out over the sides of the fan box, motionless. The lustrous, black body, motionless.

“Hello.”

“Yes, Kyle.”

“Oh, OK, just wondering if you heard the question. Where do you come from?”

“Here.”

He puffed again on his cigarette, eyes squinting with puzzlement. “Here?”

“Where I am.”

Kyle thought about this a moment, shrugged. “Oh yeah, well, that makes sense. Been anywhere else?”

“No, just here.”

“I see what you mean about your social life.”

“I get by. But enough talk about me. Let’s talk about this human thing.”

Suddenly, the spider’s eyes seemed to go wild, gyrating in their sockets, the appendages froze. In one quick movement, the spider was gone. Hearing something behind him, Kyle turned in time to see a red Dodge Caravan pulling out of a parking spot about fifty feet away from him. The driver, a man with short dark hair and a black suit, eyed Kyle as the mini van pulled out slowly and then drove to the far exit. All I need now. People watching me talking to an air conditioning unit. When Kyle looked back at the unit, the spider was there.

“A little on the shy side?”

“I enjoy my privacy.”

“Then, why are you talking to me?”

“Why not?”

Kyle expelled a long, forceful sigh. “Have you ever heard about semantics?”

“No. Are they a human thing?”

“Yesterday morning, I would have said yes. You seem to be an exception, though.”

“Thank you, Kyle. I’ve never been called exceptional before.”

“Have you been called anything before?”

“Not that I can think of. But again, enough chatter about me. What about this human thing?”

Kyle flicked an ash off his cigarette, took another puff. Blew the smoke out. “OK then, back to the human thing. I suppose the best way to put it is … we’re the caretakers of everything around us.”

“You clean things up?”

“No. Well, yes. In a manner of speaking. We have the ability to look around us and see the way things are. Then, we apply abstract thought and see the way things could be. Then, we apply creativity to abstract thought and this gives us a vision of how to turn the way things are into the way they could be.”

The four black eyes in the center, though motionless, seemed almost to be spinning with movement deep inside.

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why change things from what they are to what they could be?”

“Well, to make them better.”

“I see. Could you give me an example?”

Kyle thought about this a moment, snapped his fingers. The spider jerked back. Kyle jerked back, regained his composure quickly. “Let me guess. Sensitive to sound?”

“Right on the money.”

“Sorry about that. Something we humans do sometimes when we get an idea.”

The spider moved forward slightly, relaxing back onto the fan box. “Apology accepted. What was your idea?”

“Rivers.”

“Rivers?”

“A body of water that flows through the land. If I want to drive my car from one side of the river to the other, my car will sink and I’ll drown. That’s the way things are.”

“I see. Not a happy prospect. But why do you want to get to the other side?”

“That’s not important. Maybe just for the sheer hell of it. Maybe I left something there and I want to get it back.”

“So you’ve been there before?”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Well, you must have crossed the river without drowning. Why not do the same again?”

Kyle threw his arms up. The spider backed up again. “I haven’t been across the river!”

“Then how did …”

“It’s not important!” He tossed his cigarette down, and in the same movement, brought his hand up to his shirt pocket, took out another cigarette and lit it. The spider moved forward and relaxed. Kyle blew out a stream of smoke. “Let’s say I’m just curious about what’s on the other side of the river.”

“I can live with that.”

He glared at the spider. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Now, I want to change the way things are. So I apply some abstract thought and realize that I could drive across the river … if I had a way to do that.”

“How would you do that?”

“That’s what I’m coming to.” Another puff on the cigarette. “That’s the first step in being human. I accept that there is a way to cross the river. We’ve just gone from the way things are to the way things could be. And now we add a little creativity to the situation.”

The spider’s legs moved. Kyle asked: “What?”

“Oh, nothing. Just getting ready for the revelation.”

Smart ass spider. What the hell, talking to a giant spider. Well, this argument has the logic, even if the situation doesn’t have any. “The creativity is what allows me to put two and two together.”

“You use it to add?”

“In a way, yes. I use it to add up the things around me. For instance, I see trees. It occurs to me that, if I cut the trees down, and attach enough of them together, I can build a road out of wood that will span the river, what we call a bridge. Then, I can drive across the bridge without losing my car and without drowning.”

Again the spider’s eyes seemed to roll about without moving, the in and out movement of the fangs quickening slightly. “Amazing.”

Kyle’s eyebrows lifted as he puffed again on his cigarette, looked almost mockingly at the spider. “The human mind is amazing. Probably the most amazing and complex thing in the whole universe. It makes us special, gives us the ability to be the caretakers of everything around us.”

“The trees might not agree with that.”

“The trees?”

“Wouldn’t they die when you cut them down to make your bridge?”

“Of course they would. But they’re only trees!”

“But they’re alive.”

“But they don’t think.”

“I see; therefore, they don’t exist. Pretty shaky bridge.”

“No, they do exist, but they don’t think.”

“But you said…”    “I know what I said, but that doesn’t apply to trees, or rocks, or anything that can’t think enough to ask if it can think.”

Silence.

Kyle lifted the cigarette to his lips, puffed slowly.

“Well, I’m glad I can think.”

“What?”

“It would appear to make me safe from the caretaker’s creativity.”

“I have to get back to work.”

***

A light breeze cooled the morning air under a blue sky studded with random puffs of cloud. Kyle watched the spider mount its perch on top of the fan box, repulsed by the horror of a creature so deadly grown so large, but mesmerized by the fluid beauty of its movement, fascinated by the anomaly it posed in everything he knew for certain.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

And the words came like hooded specters drifting through his mind. “Cool during the night, but nice now.”

An image of the spider shivering in the night-cooled metal of the unit dropped into Kyle’s mind and he almost felt sorry for it. He took the cigarettes from his jacket pocket, stared into the translucent eyes, his focus moving from one to the other, wondering how he looked through them. “I worked out a plan.”

“Plans are good. They give direction, establish order in chaos.”

“Exactly. Now, to continue…” Kyle lit his cigarette, took a deep drag, blew the smoke out slowly. “…I think the best way to handle this is to just let you ask questions and I’ll answer.” A horn honked loudly from the street beyond the parking lot. Kyle noticed that it didn’t seem to have an effect on the spider. “Horns don’t bother you?”

“I get used to them, and the sirens. You humans live in a busy world.”

“Not much going on in your air conditioning unit, I guess.”

“Just the usual things.”

Kyle decided to let that one go, took another drag on his cigarette, stared into the eyes smoldering with spider consciousness. “So, any questions?”

“Just one. How does it feel to be human?”

Damn, where was that covered in first year Philosophy? Psych 101 maybe? Kyle thought, dragged fitfully on his cigarette. He caught his fingers in mid snap, just as the answer came to him. “It’s kind of like a feeling of being in control, of nothing being impossible.”

“That must be a powerful feeling. Can you explain it?” The spider shifted its weight slightly to the left. Must get uncomfortable supporting all that weight on those spindly legs.

“Let me think now.”

“Take your time, Kyle.”

He rolled his eyes.

“Sorry.”

“OK, here’s the way it works. As humans, we can control the world around us. Remember the bridge across the river?    “How could I forget? A beautiful example.”

Kyle wondered. Smart ass, or sincere? He shrugged it off. “Well, that bridge would have actually been constructed out of metal.”

“Good news for the trees.”

“I’m sure they’re all breathing a sigh of relief. But it would have been constructed by people we call engineers, using something we call engineering. Engineering applies things like technology and science to control the world around us, to build things, to change the world into something that makes it better and safer for humans to live in.”

“Just humans?”

Well, no, for all living things.”

“Except the ones that don’t think.”

“I’m not going to get into that.” Kyle puffed on his cigarette. Damned spider with a one track mind.

“I’m sorry, Kyle. Sometimes I become fixated on details and miss the larger picture.”

God, where does it get these things? Graduated from Arachnid U? “Fine. Let’s look at the larger picture, then. But first, any questions…that don’t have anything to do with trees?”

The spider crouched forward, eyes seeming to blaze with movement under their surface sheen. “Just a small clarification.”

“Shoot.”

“Engineering is what makes it possible for humans to control the world?”    “Engineering is one of the things. Like I said, it uses science and technology. These are really the things that make it possible for us to control the world.”

“How?”

Kyle sighed loudly. “I was getting to that. It works like this…science allows us to understand how the world works. Technology allows us to take what we learn from science and make the world do what we want it to do.”

“Could … “

A raised finger to shush the spider. “For example, science shows us how atoms work, and technology allows us to use the way atoms work so that we can build power stations to keep us warm in the winter and bombs to protect us from our enemies.”

“You protect yourselves with atoms?”

“No, we protect ourselves with the things that atoms do.”

“And what do atoms do?”

“They make large fires that destroy cities and make them uninhabitable for years.”

“And this is how you use atoms to keep yourselves warm in the winter?”

“In a way, but on a smaller scale. That’s where control comes in. We control the fire so that it heats buildings without burning them.”

“And using them as bombs means not controlling them?”

“No, it means controlling them so that they’re out of control somewhere else, away from us, in our enemies’ cities.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to just eat your enemies?”

“That’s what a spider would do. Spiders don’t have science and technology.”

“But spiders would be able to live in their enemies’ cities after eating their enemies.”

Frustrated, Kyle looked at his watch. “Gotta get back to work. Let’s try this again this afternoon.”

“You seem to be angry.”

“Not angry, just a little…I don’t know what. But, this discussion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere constructive. Let’s just try again later.”

“You’ll come back?”    Kyle frowned.

“You’re right, Kyle, we’ve covered that ground. You’ll come alone?”

Kyle cocked his head to one side, remained silent.

“Right, alone. I’ll see you this afternoon. Have a good morning, Kyle.”

Walking away from the spider, Kyle felt his mind stewing in frustration and possibly a hint of anger. Getting flustered and boggled by a spider? Maybe start smoking at the front of the building? No, can’t do that. Not now.

***

The day was still breezy, the sky spotted with puffs of cloud as Kyle stepped out of the building. In the distance, high rises sparkled above the haze of smog. Kyle took a few steps toward the air conditioning unit, saw the black mass of the spider hunched in the darkness as his hand reached for his cigarettes. “New plan. I’m going to sum it all up, and we’ll leave it at that.”

“Is it wise to switch plans unilaterally?”

No longer phased by the spider’s retorts, he shrugged as he lit his cigarette. “Do it all the time. Called adapting on the fly.”

“You change plans on flies?”

“Just a manner of speaking.” Pocketing his lighter, a thought occurred to him. “By the way, you must eat a lot of flies.”

“Not really. Never acquired the taste.”

“Then, what exactly do you eat? I mean…” waving his hand over the direction of the spider’s body, “…you have to be eating a lot of something.”

“Oh, this and that. I try to keep my diet balanced. Tell me about your new plan, Kyle, your summing up of it all.”

He held a deep drag of smoke in his lungs for a few seconds, then blew the smoke out slowly, a bluish white plume rolling through the air from his mouth. “First of all, let’s forget about the allusion to caretakers. We’ve done a lousy job of taking care of things.”

“Admitting the mistake is the first step toward correcting the mistake.”

Kyle thought for a moment, puffing on his cigarette. “How do you know these things?”

Shifting its weight slightly to one side, the spider lifted its appendages, the fangs moving in and out slowly, and then crouched backwards a few inches. “I have thoughts about these things.”

Kyle waited, dragged on his cigarette. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Kyle shrugged. “OK, then, so … we’ve polluted the world, screwed up the weather, murdered millions in senseless wars, used science and technology to make money for a few while ignoring the suffering of the millions we exploited to make the money, and we’ve created nuclear and biological weapons that might eventually kill us all off.”

“Why?”

Kyle looked at the spider, smiling the smile of a victory won, nodded his head. “I knew you were going to ask that.”

“Then, you have your answer prepared.” The spider crouched forward.

“I have.” Another puff on his cigarette. “It’s because we know things are going to work out in the end. We know that our science and technology will save us in the end, because they are, after all, an extension of ourselves. What you said about admitting the mistake being the first step to correcting the mistake. You’re right.”

“Thank you, Kyle, it’s…”

“It’s the way we do things, throughout our history. We make mistakes, we learn, we go on. And what gives us the will to go on is a thing we call hope.”

“Hope?”

“We have hope in the future, belief that things will work out.”

“And that’s it?”

Exasperated, Kyle blew a long plume of smoke in the direction of the spider. The spider backed up. “Hey!”

Kyle waved his hand in front of him, an effort, too late, to stop the barrage of smoke. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that. A little frustrated, I guess. What do you mean by: ‘That’s it?’”

The spider moved forward slowly to the top of the fan box. “Apology accepted. I meant, that your hope seems to put the future on a shaky foundation.”

“How’s that?”

“Shouldn’t you be doing something other than hoping?”

“We are doing something. We have people working on these things.”

“Who?”

“The scientists and the technologists.”

“The people who made the mistakes?”

“Well, yes, they’re the ones who understand the mistakes, and how to correct them.”

“And if they don’t?”

“They will.”

“How do you know?”

“Because that’s in the nature of humans. Nothing’s impossible for us.”

“So, the rest of you sit around and hope while the people who make the mistakes correct them.” “No, we keep track of what they do, form groups to protest and watch over the things we don’t like, pass legislation, write letters to the editor, post angry letters to news groups, promote dialogues, demonstrate.”

“Does it work?”

Kyle threw his cigarette on the ground, crushed it with his heel. “I have to get back to work.”

“You seem angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

“Flustered?”

“No, just a little drained.”

“You’ll come back…”

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Alone.”

“Sleep well tonight.”

“You too.”

***

Lighting his first cigarette of the day, Kyle looked over the puddles left by the early morning rain in the parking lot, the radio finally right. Yeah, predict it till it happens. Must be a lot of hand shaking at the station, maybe a few medals passed out, letters of commendation, promotions in the weather department, and predictions that, maybe, today we’ll have sun. To the west, small puffs of cloud trailed in the wake of the heavy cumulous clouds fading into the east. The spider looked dry and relaxed, legs spread over the sides of the fan box. Kyle’s hair was disheveled; his eyes, bloodshot.

“You look terrible this morning, Kyle.”

“Thanks.” Kyle pocketed his lighter, blew smoke through his nostrils. “New plan.”

“Didn’t like the way the last one was going?”

“It was going nowhere.”

“Time to change the fly.”

Kyle pursed his lips and opened his mouth with a pop. “Something like that. Here’s the way it works. Each of us humans do our own thing. We have scientists and technologists to do the science and technology things, accountants and financial experts to do the business things, laborers and clerks and salespeople to do their things. We specialize in our own areas and we all work together to make the world a place that makes sense. But, each of the things we do takes time and ability, just enough time to keep each of us busy with our own thing. So we have to rely on the people who are doing other things to do them right. And if they don’t do them right, we have to raise hell until they do them right. We can’t just start doing them ourselves.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“It is.”

“Sounds too complicated.”

The spider froze, Kyle dragged on his cigarette, eyes on the ground as a blue Cavalier drove past them, splashing through the puddles. The woman behind the wheel ignored Kyle as she drove by.

“What do you mean by ‘too complicated’?”

“Sounds like a lot of potential for things to get out of control.”

“Sometimes they do. But, we get them back into control and go on.”

“Can you give me an example?”

Another long puff, and then inspiration following on the heels of nicotine ingestion. “OK. Money markets depend on thousands of variables and the cooperation of just about everybody who works in the markets. Sometimes some of the variables go haywire and people stop cooperating. The market collapses. But, then, people start cooperating again and the market rebuilds and comes back stronger than ever.”

“Until some of the variables go haywire again.”

He flicked his cigarette into a puddle where it fizzled out in a puff of smoke, and reached for his pack in the same movement. “You’re making me smoke a lot more.”

The spider slid forward a few inches, the huge black beach ball body rippling with the movement. “Why do you light those things and blow out the smoke?”

Kyle thought a moment. How to describe why he smokes? How to describe why he does something he wants to quit doing. “They make me feel better.”

“Then they must be good for you.”

“No. They’re bad for me. They ruin my lungs and heart with thousands of deadly gases, make my breath stink, stain my teeth and harden the capillaries in my brain. They make it hard for me to walk up stairs without losing my breath.”

“And that makes you feel better?”

Bloodshot eyes rolling, head cocked to one side, smoke rushing out of his nostrils. “No! That makes me feel really bad. But smoking them makes me feel relaxed, like everything is OK.”

“Even though everything isn’t OK. Even though they’re killing you?”

“I don’t think about that part.”

Silence from the spider as it shifted its body again, the luminescent eyes motionless in their sockets, but turbulent with whatever fluids washing about under their surfaces. “Is this a hope thing, Kyle?”

“A what?”

“You hope that you won’t die from them?”

That’s gotta be it! Somewhere, somehow, this thing has read a book about psychology. “That’s right! I hope I won’t die. And, if I do get sick, doctors who specialize in making people well again will make me unsick. But, that’s not the point. I can’t just stop smoking.”

“Why? It seems like the right thing to do, especially for a being with such a well-developed mind that it controls the earth.”

“Controlling the earth is one thing. Quitting smoking is another. Smoking is an addiction.”

More shifting from the spider, the eyes compelling in their motionless movement. “Can you explain addiction?”

More smoke exhaled through nostrils, the bluish white plume rolling over Kyle’s jacket and shirt, dispersing into the air about him. “It’s when we want to stop doing something, but we can’t because we depend on it for a sense of well-being. A sense of well-being that we get from the thing we’re addicted to.”

“Then, why did you start to depend on it in the first place?”

Shrugging, arms upraised, eyes brimming with anger, Kyle began to reply, dismissed the thought before it formed, puffed on his cigarette again, staring into the deep wells of blue and green surrounded by fine hair, sunlight bristling along their short lengths. Only six of them? For a second there appeared to be hundreds, all focusing through the bone of his skull, deep into this brain. Shaking his head, he snapped the mood. “My friends smoked. It was the thing to do.”

“Your friends were killing themselves, so you joined them?”

“It’s called peer pressure. It’s a human thing.”

“Can I forward a suggestion, Kyle.”

“Be my guest.”

“Wouldn’t it have been better to have persuaded your friends to quit?”

“They were already addicted. And, besides, it was the thing to do. They wouldn’t have listened.”

“Sounds like the caretakers should learn to take care of themselves before taking care of the world around them.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“You needn’t get angry with me, Kyle. Just making an observation.”

Kyle sighed, flicked his second cigarette into a puddle, lit another. The spider watched. “OK. Point taken. We’re not perfect, but we try. We try to better ourselves; we try to better the world. Sometimes we make mistakes. Then, we correct them. Then we make more mistakes and we correct them. We get better as we go along. Things get better.”

“Convince me, Kyle.”

“What?”

“Convince me that you can make things better.”

Interest perked, Kyle stared deeply into the eyes, shifting his vision from one to another, wondering which of them was focused on him. All of them? How does it process input from six sources? The same way humans process from two? “OK. I’ll bite. How do I convince you?”

“Throw down that cigarette. Stop smoking now. Prove that just one caretaker can take care of himself.”

An exasperated sigh, another puff of smoke exhaled roughly. “That’s not going to prove anything. It won’t make a spot of difference on the rest of the world.”

“But it’s a start. It’s one of the caretakers correcting a mistake, making this thing you call hope something real. Just throw down the cigarette.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I just can’t. I want to smoke. No, I don’t want to smoke. I want to quit. But I can’t quit.”

“Why?”

“I’m not ready.”

“When will you be ready?”

“When things are better.”

“When will things be better?”

“When I quit smoking.”

“Kyle …”

“No! That’s not what I meant! It’s more complicated than that.”

“Kyle…”

“I’m getting confused. I’ve been under a lot of stress at work. I’m talking to a giant spider, answering questions that there’s no way it can be asking. Having doubts from something that lives in an air conditioning unit.” He stepped closer to the unit, bent down toward the spider, bringing his face inches from the terrible eyes. “It’s just too damned complicated for a spider to understand.”

“You’re right, Kyle. Not only does it seem complicated … it seems senseless. You aspire to control the world, but you can’t control yourself. It all sounds pretty fucked up to me.” The words bristled with the fury of thousands of bubbles popping soundlessly through Kyle’s mind.

“What would you know about it? You’re just a spider!” His own words burst through the air, flaring in a noiseless play of color in the hundreds of eyes spinning in the sockets under the bony brow.

“But I have one uncomplicated thought.”

Kyle pushed his face into the face of the spider, nose almost touching the coat of fine hairs below the eyes. “And what the hell might that be?”

“I’m hungry.”

The panic too late, as hundreds of eyes seemed to bore into his brain, the sting of fangs piercing both sides of his neck simultaneously, a sense of being lifted off his feet, a feeling of skin ripping against the barbed metal of the grill, and then numbness, all feeling dissipating into quiet terror, the words flowing dead-like through the remnants of his fleeing consciousness. “And when I’m hungry, I do something about it.”

***

Blistering heat. Too cold inside with the air conditioning turned up so you have to practically wear a sweater while you work, and then outside for a smoke and come back covered in sweat and freeze even worse. No wonder people get colds all summer long. Crystal struck a match, lit her cigarette, staring at the air conditioning unit. Must’ve been my imagination this morning. Maybe a trick of the heat. Too much pressure at work. Maybe coming down with something. That’s it! Coming down with that cold everybody’s getting. Viruses spreading like plague through the air conditioning. And then, from somewhere inside her head, like something effervescent bubbling into her awareness, the bubbles bursting into words strung together with no tone, no pitch, no base or treble. Just the meaning of the words: “What are you?”

(NOTE: This story was originally published as a standalone ebook by Echelon Press between 10 and 15 years ago. It’s based on a true story, of course.)

Killing Assholes

NOTE: This novella was published as a standalone ebook somewhere between 10 and 15 years ago by Echelon Press. It was originally published under the name The Baton, but after Dexter…?

Bullletin

I’m not a bad person. Not really. I pay my bills on time. Like, I’m a goddamn fanatic when it comes to paying bills. I’m not one of those dickheads who runs up a tab and then says “screw it, I got better things to do with my time and money than pay for something I already used.” I don’t do that shit. I pay my bills. My parents did. I do. It runs in the family, like almost a genetic thing…you owe money, you pay it off. And I’m a considerate driver. I mean, I don’t take any shit when I’m driving. I mean, some asswipe cuts me off, I give him the finger. It’s a woman…hey, I’m all for equal rights…I give her the finger too. But before I lost my license, I stopped for pedestrians. I stopped and let people out at intersections, even if it meant that the prick behind me honked his horn and I had to give him the finger. Or her the finger. Makes no difference to me. I’m that fucking considerate.

I’m not some kind’ve sexual deviate. I haven’t had it in a long time and, you know, like I’ve done some arm wrestling with the Big Snake, but I don’t bop hard bellies…nineteen’s my cutoff and no younger no matter how big their tits are. And when a lady says back off, I back off. No’s no in my book, same as hers. And I don’t watch porno flicks or read those expensive hardcore magazines. Playboy and Penthouse. That’s my limit.

I don’t cheat on my tax forms, even if I knew how to do that. I don’t steal. I don’t lie, at least unless I really have to and then it’s okay because I really have to. You know…life’s gray sometimes. I don’t talk about my friends behind their backs. I don’t do that ever, and I’ve smacked a couple of dicks in the head for doing that in the past. No excuse for backstabbing your friends. No excuse at all. I don’t cut into lines if I see somebody I know near the front of the line. I hate it when people do that! I don’t play my music loud. I figure my music is my choice and it might not be my neighbor’s choice, so I keep it to myself. That’s kind’ve a choice I make for everybody so, like, being considerate can even be empowering sometimes. I don’t give the check-out people in grocery stores or department stores a hard time when their computerized cash machines fuck up or the bar thing on the merchandise doesn’t work and makes the computer fritz out. I don’t give innocent people a hard time. Innocent people get a hard time from every direction…but not from me. I don’t do that.

But there’s one thing I do…and I gotta say that I really love doing it.

I kill assholes.

About one a month.

***

What finally broke the camel’s back was one day when the guy in the scabby t-shirt spit on the sidewalk. That was it. Shit. I was sitting on a bench eating a sandwich. He saw me sitting on the bench eating my sandwich. And the cocksucker spit…I mean, a big white stream of white gunk, the kind that’s thick and sticks to the sidewalk like dirty lard. I mean, what kind’ve asshole does a thing like that? And he was looking right at me when he did it. Like his eyes were saying: “Enjoying that sandwich, chump? Here, enjoy this.” Hack. Pitchu. White gob piled up on the sidewalk right in front of me. And I lost my appetite.

So I followed the prick.

Yeah, followed him. Really surprised myself when I did that. Just stood up and went after the dumb prick. He didn’t see me…didn’t even suspect that somebody was walking behind him about thirty feet away and sticking to him like a shadow. Probably all wrapped in thinking who he was gonna gross out next. Prick.

I followed him for most of the day…and what a prick he turned out to be. Like, right after grossing me out, and I mean, this was only about a block away, about two point zero minutes after grossing me out…he shoved a kid.

A kid.

Like, he was walking down the sidewalk all wrapped up in asswipe thoughts, probably laughing his brains out about grossing me out a block and two point zero minutes back, and he’s not even looking where he’s going and there’s this little girl in a sort of white and blue sailor’s dress and she’s just standing on the sidewalk right in front of this prick with her back to him. I dunno, maybe waiting for a cab or something…maybe waiting for a friend. But the prick I’m following comes up behind her and instead of just moving a few inches to the side and walking around her, the jerk reaches out his hand and pushes her. Just pushes her! Knocks her right down on her ass. And just keeps on walking. I mean, the little girl didn’t start crying or anything…just got back up and made a nasty face at the guy’s back and went back to waiting or whatever she was doing. I would’ve stopped and asked her if she was okay, but I didn’t wanna draw any attention to myself, following this prick and all, you know. So I just kept on walking and, shit, it didn’t take long before he was into it again.

This time with a dog tied to a street sign in front of a music store. It was one of those ones you read about a lot, attacking kids and stuff. Not a Doberman…the other one, with the flat ugly face. But it was all tied up to the sign and it wasn’t growling or dripping stuff or anything, just lying down all curled up and looking like any normal dog, but the guy I’m following slows down and looks into the window of the music store and looks to the other side. Prick didn’t look behind himself so he didn’t see me, but he suddenly bends over and scoops up a piece of red brick that was littering the sidewalk from construction on the building next to the music store, and not thinking that anybody’s watching him, he just ups and throws the piece of brick right into the poor dog’s side, and the dog takes to yelping and growling at the prick but it’s tied up to the street sign and the dumb prick I’m following walks around the dog just far enough to be out of biting range.

And what happens when the owner comes rushing out of the store after hearing his dog making all that noise? Old guy in one of those hats. Even wearing suspenders. The prick turns on the old guy and starts giving him shit for having a vicious dog and says that he oughta call the cops. Fucking nerve! The old guy just stands there looking between the prick and the dog and not knowing what to say, just looking kind’ve old and confused and worried about his dog…maybe even afraid that he’s gonna lose the dog if this creep calls the cops. But the prick just turns around and keeps on walking.

And I keep on following him.

By now I’ve got this guy sized up for a real creep. He’s about medium tall, real short hair like he’s one of those punk guys but he’s not wearing those fruity red boots or anything. He’s wearing a dirty brown t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and Jesus boots with no socks. I always hated those fairies in sandals. Think they’re cool, but they’re just a bunch of fucking fairies. He’s got squinty eyes and a long nose. Hate those too. And his mouth is kind’ve pinched up like he spends a lotta time sucking on his thumb or something.

And then he does it again.

Prick gobs another big white pile of spit on the sidewalk like something he’s been saving up at the back of his mouth for a long time. Even looks down at it and I swear he was smiling, thinking about the people who were gonna walk by that pile of shit and gag or barf or something. Cocksucker.

I followed him for another hour, watching him gob and strut and act like a prick, like when he went down a whole block with a key scraping the sides of parked cars. Shit, one of them was a ’78 Firebird. In immaculate condition! Prick should have his hands cut off for something like that!

That’s when I knew that I had to do something, something that was gonna really put him in his place, something that would, I dunno, even the score or something. The prick spit again on the sidewalk and it was, like, all this white froth blowing out of his mouth and that’s when it came to me. That’s when I knew what I had to do. That’s when I made up my mind that I was gonna do it.

I followed him home. I found out where he lived, at least what apartment building he lived in, and it was a real dump. No surprise in that. The sidewalk had all kinds of garbage piled up. Even the steps leading up to the doors of the buildings on his street had fuck graffiti painted on them. Just figure what the buildings looked like…and his was the worst on the block. But I knew where he lived. I knew where to find him. And that’s just what I was gonna do…find him every day for the next few days and follow him.

Prick wasn’t working so he just walked around every day with me following him and him doing the same messed up stuff every single day…spitting all over the sidewalks, scratching cars, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down and hanging around with a bunch of losers just like him, but he didn’t spend much time with them…seemed like they didn’t much like him either. Seemed like they cussed him a lot and said things that pissed him off, but then they looked pretty pissed off all the time. Buncha bald-headed leathered-up weirdoes is what they were.

But here’s what I did. I followed him and I carried a big empty Vitamin C bottle and a butter knife. And whenever he spit on the sidewalk, I waited until he got a good distance away and then I went over to the spit and scraped it up with the butter knife before it could sink into the sidewalk or dry up. Sickening shit that was, but I did it. And I didn’t barf once. Came close a couple of times, ‘specially at first, but I kept my cookies down. And I followed the prick around for nearly a week…until I had a full bottle of his gob. Man, it was starting to stink like something dead when I opened I up to put more in. You can bet I was glad when it was full and I wouldn’t have to be smelling that shit anymore, at least, not for more than one more time…and it was good that it smelled bad for that one more time.

If it smelled that bad, then it must’ve tasted twice as bad.

I think it was something like the fourth or fifth day that I was following him that I was ready. This time when he walked up the steps and through the door and into his building, I followed him right in. Not really close…just close enough that that I wouldn’t lose sight of him. But, hell, I wasn’t really all that worried about his seeing me anymore.

Nothing was gonna stop me now.

He looked around when I came through the door and he gave me a look like I was maybe the most unimportant thing in the universe let alone his life and he just looked away and started walking up the worst set of rickety-rackety steps I’ve ever seen in probably the worst looking stairwell on the planet. The walls looked like the people that died in World War III…like, when it ever happens. I followed him up the stairs and the prick never even suspected he was being followed, just walked up the steps real arrogant like and I followed him up to the third floor. The hall was the shits…I mean, the walls here were painted with bad smells instead of paint. He stopped at a door. He just turned the knob and walked in. Didn’t even keep the door locked. Man, I could hardly wait to see what this place looked like.

It was a dump. Just like the hall. Just like the prick I was following, and he was looking at me now…still with that fucking arrogant better-than-you look, but I could tell that he was worried about seeing me coming through the door with a big Vitamin C bottle in my hand. I could smell the worry, like he was sweating it or something.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said.

“Got a present for ya, prick,” I said.

That’s when he got really worried…soon as I called him prick. He knew I wasn’t no friend, and now I could really smell the sweat coming off his asshole body.

“Take your fuckin’ present and get the fuck out of here,” he yelled. He still had that arrogant look, but I could smell the sweat.

“But I put a lot of work into this present for you,” I said.

Now he looked a little bit puzzled like he almost wanted to know what the present was, ‘specially thinking that a lotta work went into it, but I could smell that he was afraid of finding out what it was…probably got a lot of rocks and dog shit wrapped up as presents when he was a kid. He sure didn’t look like the popular kind. Not like me. I was popular…or else.

“I don’t care how much work you put into it…take your fuckin’ present and get the fuck out of here now!”

That’s when I just dove right at him. I’m one fast motherfucker. People don’t expect that in someone my size, but it’s true…I’m like pig fat on a freeway. I took the cocksucker by surprise. Works every time. People don’t expect people to just attack that sudden. Catches them with their guard down, even if it’s already up. I was on him and he was on the floor and I was on top of him and I had one hand clutching his throat, squeezing the life out of him. His ugly hairless face was kind’ve bloated like and now he looked more pissed off than arrogant, but I could smell the sweat in his eyes like it was rotten hamburger. He tried squirming his body around, but I was too heavy for him. He was trapped. I pushed my face right into his ugly face and I said: “I spent a lotta time on this fucking gift for you and you’re gonna take it. You ain’t got no choice, ya prick.”

He just stared up into my face, gagging and turning purple, while I wedged the big Vitamin C bottle on my hand that was squeezing the prick’s throat and used my other hand to untwist the top. I tossed the top away and took the bottle in my free hand and held it right over his mouth.

“You ever hear the old expression, what goes around comes around, prick?” I said. He just gagged and looked confused. Dumb fuck. “I’m the guy who was sitting on the bench last week, remember? You ruined my lunch with this stuff!”

And then I jammed the top of the bottle into his mouth and watched the shit inside pour slowly into the prick’s mouth. Watching that thick shit emptying into a human mouth almost made me puke but I watched. I mean, it was like I had to watch, like it would be some kind’ve crime against God if I didn’t. So I watched. And when the bottle was empty except for the stuff sticking to the insides of it, I pulled it out and, really fast, I put my hand over his mouth so’s he couldn’t spit the shit out. That part felt really right. He was stuck with his own gob in his mouth and couldn’t spit it out. Stuck with himself, sort of.

And then something really weird happened. At first it made the hair all over my body kind’ve stand up or something, it was that weird, but then the weirdness kind’ve melted away into something else.

I mean, I couldn’t see his mouth because I had my hand over it, but I was looking right into the prick’s eyes and it almost looked like he was smiling. He wasn’t struggling or anything, just lying there with his mouth full of scraped-up gob and me sitting on him and his eyes were smiling. And then his eyes kind’ve went really dull, like, what’s that word? When something looks not as bright…luster! They lost their luster. And he still wasn’t moving, not struggling or anything, just lying there with a mouth full of gob and all the life drained out of his eyes. And that’s when I realized what was so weird.

Prick was dead.

***

I walked around for the rest of the day just thinking about that prick, what an asshole he was, how I followed him and scraped up his spit, watching him and getting to know what a complete asshole he was and then making him eat is own gob. But mostly I thought about that look in his eyes just before he died. And about the way he just sort’ve gave it all up and stopped struggling before he was dead, like he didn’t give a fuck, like he didn’t even want to go on living, like he was almost happy or something. I mean, that smile in his eyes…

I thought about the way that made me feel. It was almost like some kind’ve freed up feeling, like a lot of stuff was being lifted off my shoulders…or like some kind’ve cosmic vacuum cleaner sucked a shit load of crap out of me. It was like God himself was in my arms, in my hands, making it all happen, making it all come to some kind’ve close. It was like I was the last chapter in that asshole’s life.

I was the happy ending.

It made me think about assholes in general, about all the people in my life…in everybody’s lives…who make living more of a hell than it really is. I thought about those assholes who call you up on the phone…on your own fucking phone…and try to sell you something you don’t want and don’t need. I mean, one of those dumbasses dragged me out the shower when I still had a phone and I was dripping water and soap all over the floor while some idiot asks me if I want to buy gardening equipment and I’m telling the prick that I live on the third floor of a fucking apartment building but he says that it’s on sale and they’re never gonna be selling the gardening stuff at this price again, whatever the fuck it is–I don’t know dick about gardening–so I should buy it or I’ll miss out. “I live in a fucking apartment building!” I screamed at the prick. “The back yard’s a fucking parking lot!” And the prick still tried to sell me gardening shit. I hung up. I would’ve killed the prick. I would’ve jumped right through the phone line and killed the prick if he would’ve called back.

That’s what I mean about assholes in general. Like the people who make those automated telephone answering systems that send you around and around, asking for this option and that option, and sending you to this place and that place, and then they send you into some fucking dead end with dead end music like the shit they play in elevators or in some doctors’ offices. I think it’s supposed to calm you. It just pisses me off. And I really get pissed off at the ones that say: “Your call is important to us. Please hold.” If my call is so fucking important, then pick up the phone and turn off that goddam music! Almost seems like phones breed assholes.

* * *

My second asshole had a cell phone.

I hate those things. Don’t know how many times I’ve come a pube hair away from being run over by some asshole talking away on a phone while he’s, or she’s–and it’s really easy to be sexually orientated fair on this one–driving along yakking away on the phone, all wrapped up on the cell phone and not watching where they’re going, so god help anybody who gets in their path because they’re gonna ram their front bumper up your ass and probably just keep on driving and never even know they killed anybody. If assholes had uniforms, they’d probably have cell phones hanging all over their jackets like soldiers have grenades hanging there. Fucking grenades probably do less damage.

So there I was…about a month after killing Mr. Gob-a-Lot…sitting in a this place having a coffee and chocolate dip donut or three, and there’s these two guys sitting about four seats away from me and they’re talking away. One of them is small with dark hair and he’s like mostly listening to the other guy, who’s kind’ve big–maybe about one ninety-five or thereabouts–and they’re talking for about five minutes, mostly the big guy talking, like I said, but I’m kind’ve of studying them. I do that a lot…just sort’ve look at people and try to figure them out, see if I can guess what they’re about. Think maybe someday I might, you know, write a book or something. I think I got a lotta stories I could write about. But I’m thinking that these guys work together or something. I mean, they’re both wearing white shirts and ties and it looks like they just sort’ve dropped into this place for a coffee break to talk business maybe. And right when the little guy starts to say something, the big guy holds up a finger to shut him up and pulls out a cell phone and starts talking into it.

What the hell is the world coming to! I’ve seen this a million times. The big guy just starts yakking away on the phone as though the other guy doesn’t even exist, as though as soon as the cell phone rang or buzzed or whatever they do, the little guy just disappeared into some other world, like he existed only when the big guy wasn’t talking on the cell phone. At that moment, I could’ve gone right over to their table and grabbed that phone and shoved in right down the prick’s throat. “Fucking message on hold!” I could’ve yelled while he choked on his call. I watched for about five minutes and the whole time the big prick didn’t even look at the other guy…yakked away on the phone. The little guy looked kind’ve like he really didn’t give a shit at first, just sipped his coffee and sort’ve looked around the place, but after five minutes, he looked like he was starting to get a little bit irritated, and if the big guy had given a fuck about anything else but talking on his cell phone, he would’ve seen that the guy he was sitting with was getting just a little bit pissed.

I kept watching. By this time, I could’ve just started smashing the phone over the big guy’s head until I cracked his skull open. The little guy was starting to get fidgety. He took a business card out of his shirt pocket and started reading it and flicking it with his thumb. I wanted to just yell at him to just get up and walk out of the place and leave the prick with the phone sitting there talking all by himself. But he stayed and the longer he stayed, the madder I got. The more he flicked that fucking business card, the more I wanted to kill the big prick with the phone.

So that’s exactly what I did.

Not right away though. Not right then. In fact, as soon as I made up my mind that I was gonna to kill the prick, I calmed down. I wasn’t mad anymore. I was determined. I was determined that the prick with the cell phone was gonna die, so I just sat there all relaxed and drinking my coffee and watching the two men for about another ten minutes while the big guy yakked and yakked on the cell phone. I mean, there’s assholes and there’s assholes…making anybody wait that long while you just ignore the poor bastard while you talk on a phone sitting right in front of the guy so that he can’t do anything but try to not interrupt your call and pretend that his time is worth dick-all while the other guy just yaks and yaks. The little guy was getting more irritated. Like, it showed in the way his eyes were all over the place like he was looking for some place to escape but always coming back to the card he flicked with his thumb because there was no way out…except maybe to just get up and walk out. But he wasn’t gonna do that.

And that made me think…one of the biggest things that assholes have going for them is the fact that the people they fuck over don’t do anything. They just sit there and take it, just like the little guy was doing right now. Just sitting there wanting to get up and just walk out but glued to his chair because he didn’t want to look like an asshole by walking out on the other guy. I mean, shit, that might interrupt the prick’s phone call. They got all those books on etiquette and doing and saying the right thing, but somebody should write a book about when you don’t have to be considerate anymore, about that line that people cross over where you don’t have to treat them like humans anymore and you can just tell them to go fuck themselves. Maybe some day I’ll write that book. I got a lotta thoughts on the subject.

And then, wonder of wonders, the big guy finally finishes his call and puts the phone back in his pocket and, get this, he just like starts talking to the other guy like nothing ever happened, like he didn’t just spend nearly half an hour ignoring him and making him waste his entire coffee break listening to some fat tub of cell phone yakking machine blatting to some dumbass somewhere else who’s probably doing the same thing at that end. He didn’t even say he was sorry. I could see it in the way he looked while he talked. It was like the little guy was nothing more than some kind’ve stage prop in a play all about the big guy and everything that he didn’t have time for was just supposed to disappear but be right there when he paid attention to it again.

Yeah. This guy had to die.

I waited a bit after they left and then I got up and followed them. They were walking. That was a sign. It meant the big guy had to die. I mean, if they were in a car, I wouldn’t be able to follow them, but they were walking. They walked down the sidewalk about a block away to a discount furniture store. I was right…they worked together…probably furniture salesmen. The store was pretty shabby looking: big dirty windows with cracked tiles under them, and the top part of the building looked like it had cheap apartments and probably needed paint for the last fifty years. But there seemed to be a lot of customers inside looking around. Must be good prices. I walked by the door and slowed down just enough to read the sign with the hours listed. They closed at nine.

Nine.

That’s when the big guy would be mine.

I was parked across the street when the store closed. I was kind’ve split between which was the bigger high…killing the asshole with the phone or using a stolen car. I was fucked if I was caught at either of them, completely fucked if I was caught at both. But what the…with my record, I was already fucked. No loss!

He was the first out. That figured. Probably left all the paperwork for his skinny buddy. And, holy shit! He was walking out of the store with his cell phone jammed into his ear. But that was good. Meant that he wasn’t looking around, wasn’t seeing me waiting there across the street for him. He was all wrapped up in something that had nothing to do with here and now. And I was here and now.

He walked into a parking lot around the corner of the store and disappeared for a couple of minutes. Then his car pulled out of the lot and onto the street. He was driving away from me. Great! I didn’t have to do a ninety-degree, or whatever they call that thing they do. He was driving a Toyota something or other…no patriotism…but that figured. And the prick was still talking on the phone. Took the turn onto the street wide. Not paying attention. Not here and now, where I was waiting for him. I started up the car and followed him. Prick was all over the road, head bobbing up and down while he talked, not paying any attention at all to his driving. Pissed me off so much, I almost hit an old guy who came right out of nowhere on a crosswalk.

He finally pulled up in front of a small single-floor house in a sort of nice neighborhood, like the kind’ve place where there’s no bars on the doors or windows, but there’s all these signs that the place is close to bars…paint peeling on just about all the houses, garbage on the curbs that looks like it’s been there a while meaning that the city’s starting to give up on this street, same with the burnt out street lights and the street signs painted over with “fuck you” for god knows how long.

This is where the dumbass lived. This was his house. The lights were off. He lived alone…or the others were out. But I figured he just lived alone. Only real people in this prick’s life were at the other end of his cell phone.

His next call was gonna be a wake up call from reality.

Reality was parked across the street from his house, watching him, and noticing that there was no basketball net over the garage door. Something unnatural about that. Reminded me of when I was a kid.

I waited for the deep dark, the time when everybody’s probably in bed, even the dogs. I got out of the car and walked real casual-like up to his yard and looked around. Nobody was looking out the windows of any of the other houses, so I ducked into a clump of bushes and made my way up to the house. Fucking prickly rose bushes in there somewhere. Hate those things. There was light coming from a window at the side of the house and that’s where I went. I looked in and there he was, sitting in a recliner chair, watching TV, eating something from a white bowl. That’s when I noticed how big the prick’s gut was. Must wear a girdle or something in the daytime. His arms were big, but they didn’t look hard. I could take this guy…I knew it. I made my way around the house, peeking into all the windows I could see into, and it looked like he was alone.

It was time to kill him.

I went to the front door and knocked. Just like that…I knocked on the door and stood there like I was just any old visitor dropping by at two o’clock in the morning to pay a visit or something. Who the fuck knows, these days. Prick just opened the door. Didn’t even ask who it was. Cocky bastard, this one. He said: “What the hell do you want?” I just ran right into him. Pushed upward on his upper body and lifted him right off his center of gravity and down he went onto the floor. I kicked the door closed with my foot and then punched him a couple or three times with my fists until he stopped struggling as much. He could take a beating…but soon as he quieted, I jumped up and brought my foot down into his chest as hard as I could. I could hear bones snapping. Ugly sound, but this prick needed it. I looked around and saw just what I needed.

He was sort of squirming around on the floor with a dazed look in his eyes, or at least the one that he could still open. He must’ve farted, ’cause the air was filled with something that smelled like burning sulfur. He was moaning with a kind’ve gurgling sound. I didn’t have much time. I jumped across the living room and grabbed his cell phone from the TV table beside his recliner chair and then jumped back fast to where he was just starting to push himself up on his elbow. I let him have it in the side of the head with the cell phone. And then I let him have it again with the cell phone…this time square in the face. By this time, he wasn’t making any more noises and I wasn’t saying a word. It was just the two of us, looking at each other and the only noise was the sound of the cell phone smashing into his face until I was sure that the cocksucker wasn’t ever gonna talk on the phone again while some poor bastard had to wait for him.

***

Walking home from his place, I did a lot of thinking. I guess killing people does that to you. I thought about what a fucked up world telephones were making the place. I remembered when I still had one…assholes calling me up and asking me to buy all kind’ve crap I didn’t want. One time, this bitch calls me up–although I know some guys who’re bitches, just to be fair with the sex thing–and she starts asking me questions about what kind’ve shit I buy and I said: “I don’t do shit over the phone. Take me off your fucking list.” And she says: “I’ll do that, sir, but first, can you tell me how many children you have?” I hung up. Phones make it easier for assholes to be assholes. They make it possible for the assholes to come right into your home and fuck you up. Best thing that ever happened to me was losing my phone.

* * *

It was just a little over a month after that that I killed another asshole.

Started in a movie theater this time. I was watching a movie, minding my own business, and this skinny prick sits right down behind me. Lots of other empty seats in the place, but he sits right down behind me. Place was so empty I could almost hear the dumbass breathing. Prick even knocked my chair a couple of times. People should have their feet cut off for doing that. Then I heard some kind’ve crinkling noise, like paper or something. And then I heard it…the one sound that I really hate coming from another human being.

He was chewing gum. With his fucking mouth open! Making all kinds’ve snapping and cracking noises, bouncing the wad of gum off his tongue, wrapping it around his teeth, and making sucking noises with his lips. Whole theater with empty seats and this prick has to sit down right behind me and chew his gum with his fucking mouth open.

Big mistake, asshole.

And there was the feeling again…once I knew that I was gonna kill him, I calmed down. The sound didn’t bother me anymore, just fed my resolve, and I kind’ve enjoyed it now. I sat right through the whole movie listening to him chewing and smacking his lips together. Prick went through three pieces of gum. I turned my head sideways once and saw him putting the chewed-out gum under his seat. That’s why I never touch the bottom of a seat in a movie theater ever since I was a kid and put my hand right smack into a pile of sticky gum that I had to wash off in the washroom and miss half the movie. Man, would I like to run into the dumb prick who put that gum under the seat now. Right fucking now. But he’s long gone. Probably choked to death on a wad of gum.

But the prick behind me was here. Still chewing. With his mouth open. Right behind me. Pretty soon…pretty soon, prick wasn’t gonna be chewing gum anymore. I can’t even remember any of the fuck scenes in the movie…just remember trying to think about how I was gonna handle this one.

It had to be gum. Just like the prick who spit all over the place. This asshole had to die by gum. Fuck, that meant following him around for the next week, hoping the prick would spit out the gum where I could get it. But if the guy had to die by gum, then that’s the way he was gonna die and I would follow him around and I would pick up the slime ball’s gum wads and save them for him. This thing had to be done right, and I was gonna do it right.

I’m that much in tune with my inner balance.

The movie ended and they started playing the credits–credits for a fuck movie…yeah, sure–and the five or six people in the place stayed and watched them, maybe waiting to see if they were gonna give out the phone numbers of the sluts in the movie. Or maybe they just didn’t finish whacking themselves. But the guy behind me got up about a minute into the credits. I stayed where I was, just sort’ve looking over to the side to get a good look at him. Skinny, just like I figured, blond hair growing down over his ears, wearing a blue sports jacket with a wide white line going down one side. Prick wasn’t half bad looking and I wondered what he was doing in a movie like this when he could’ve probably been making it with the real thing. I waited until he was well up the aisle and almost to the exit before I stood up and started following him.

The sun was bright when I walked outside, but these movies were too dicey at night, especially leaving the building. Besides, I figure it’s good to work up your appetite for the nighttime just in case a little action comes along at night. Not much likely to happen in the daytime. I looked around and saw him almost right away. He was on the other side of the street, walking south. Hey, this was looking to be a cooperative asshole…that’s the direction I was gonna go. I crossed the street and followed him.

This neighborhood was a dive. Used to be kind’ve a nice place when I was a kid. Like, the stores used to have big picture windows with lots of neat stuff right up close where you could grab them after smashing the window with a brick. Not anymore though…like everything was barred up and some of the stores even had cashiers inside bulletproof cages with little slots all around where they could poke a shotgun out and like blow your head off. It was a lot easier to get away with things around here when I was a kid.

Two minutes into following the prick from the movies, and like doesn’t he just spit a big wad of gray stuff out of his mouth. Well, Mr. Gum Chewer, looks like you go out the same way as Mr. Gob-a-Lot. I looked around and saw an old cardboard coffee cup by some garbage on the sidewalk. I scooped it up and kept following the prick. I looked around. There were other people walking and standing around doing nothing, but nobody was paying any attention to me or the prick I was following, so when I came to the gum, I scooped it up with the cup. It must’ve still been wet because it didn’t stick to the pavement or anything. This guy was making it too easy for me. Gotta love it when that happens.

I followed him for about three blocks before he came to a door between two storefronts. He unlocked it and walked in without looking around. I went to a restaurant across the street, Dixie’s Diner or something…the words on the big glass window were faded and peeling. On one side of the front, I could see one of those sliding steel grate things that they slide over the front of the place when they close up. Like people just don’t trust people in this neighborhood anymore. Makes it impossible to pull anything. I went in and sat down where I could keep an eye on the prick’s door. Waitress was right on my case to buy something, so I ordered a coffee. Looked like this prick was going to be expensive to kill. Thought that maybe I should save receipts or something and claim them on my taxes the next time I ever filed the fucking things. Position: Asshole Killer. Expenses: One coffee at Dixie’s Dive.

About the same time the waitress was getting in my face again for taking too long to drink the coffee, the prick came out. I gave the waitress a dirty look and left. As I passed by the window, I saw her at my table picking up the cup and looking around for a tip. She looked up and saw me and gave me a dirty look. Watch it lady…I might start following you, so just shove your fucking tips down your throat till change for a buck comes out your ass.

I followed the prick for about a week…took that long to get enough gum saved up. Couple of times, people saw me scoop it up in the old coffee cup and looked at me real disgusted like, but I didn’t hang in this area much anymore anyway, just came around sometimes to check out a fuck movie or three.

This prick had a sort’ve girlfriend he dropped by to see whenever he felt like it. I mean, he spent most of his nights at a pool hall doing a lousy job of sharking…dumbass couldn’t bank worth shit and made about every fourth combination. Sometimes I stayed for a while after he left and got the gum he stuck to the bottom of the table. Had to be real careful about that…fuckers in this place see you doing anything weird and you ain’t walking home…you’re lucky if you can still take a cab home. But the cup was finally full…or about as full as I could wait for it to get. It was time to kill.

I knew about what time he was gonna get home on Monday nights–just before dark–so I was waiting by the pricks’s door when he got home. I had my back to him, leaning against the building like some kind’ve homeless bum or a drunk. I heard the key clinking in the lock and the door creak as he opened it. I half turned my head and watched him go in through the corners of my eyes, and when he was inside, I stepped closer to the door and put my foot out to stop it from closing completely. I stepped right in front of the door and looked up a whitewashed stairway. The prick was nearly at the top of the stairs and he wasn’t looking back, so I scooted in. At the top of the stairs, he turned left into a hallway so I hurried up, trying to be as quiet as possible, like trying not to creak any of the rotten floorboards with my weight.

Dumbass was waiting for me.

Right at the top of the stairs and at the beginning of the hall. Came at me with one of those Karate or Kung Fu kicks, kind that goes around in a big circle and smacks you in the side of the head. Fucking kick did hit me in the side of the head…last place in the world that’s gonna do me any harm. So there he was with his leg still off the ground and me pissed off because the dumb prick just kicked me and almost made me drop the coffee cup filled with gum. I punched downward with my left fist right into his dick and then I brought my right fist–squeezed full’ve the coffee cup and gum–flat down on the top of his head as he doubled up. Prick hit the floor like he was filled with lead. I went down on one knee and grabbed his neck and pulled his head up. I had the gum ready to jam into his mouth, but there was something weird about the way the prick’s head kind’ve just hung in my hand and his eyes were open but not seeing anything. Dumbass was dead.

I stuffed the gum into his mouth anyway.

But I didn’t feel too good about that one…left a kind’ve unfinished taste in my mouth, like there was still something I was supposed to do but I didn’t know what it was. Maybe I was supposed to say something to the prick before he died, or maybe he was supposed to say something to me. Maybe he was supposed to taste all that gum that came from his mouth. I dunno. I thought about it for a while and it didn’t make any sense…so I stopped thinking about it.

***

Instead, I started thinking about all the kinds of assholes there are in the world. I mean, it was kind’ve of scary at first. I was hearing all these voices, not God’s voice or voices from demons: I’m not crazy or anything…I’m just as normal as you. The voices I was hearing were the voices of all the pissed off, fucked over, dragged down, and tired people of the entire fucking world. You know who I mean…the people just like you who’re like sick and tired of people who call you up when you still had a phone and it’s the wrong number but they just hang up without saying sorry or anything, just hang up as though they’re pissed off at you for being the wrong fucking number. And I heard about the pissed off people who put shit up on bulletins boards in super markets and Laundromats and then come back a few days later and see that some jerk has pinned a notice right on top of theirs so that nobody can even see it.

* * *

That did it! I started hanging around the bulletin board at the Washing Green Laundromat. Just waiting…waiting. Like, it didn’t take long. She was one big, mean looking woman. Big with frizzy brown hair that looked like she dried it in the microwave or something. And she had on too much makeup. She looked like some kind’ve frigate in a parade. Like, right away I knew that she had a mousy little husband who said things like yes dear and yes dear. And she was dressed just the way you would expect…a plain top that didn’t say anything about how big she was, and pants that showed her flat ass. Like, I don’t wanna be prejudiced against fat people or anything, but how could this woman sit down with all that weight on that no-ass and not damage nerves or bones around that place where the rest of us stack our fat. I mean, she had her cushions in all the wrong places.

And then I saw her do it. Fucking bitch (and not all fucking women are bitches, but this one was) took a pin out of one of the ads on the bulletin board and pinned her ad right on top of it. Like, her ad completely covered the other ad…and she was using the other ad’s own pin! Man, that’s like beating somebody to death with their own tire iron. I mean, who would even see the ad underneath her one? They wouldn’t even know to lift hers and look under it for some kind’ve hidden secret message or anything. Whoever put the ad up that she covered was just wasting their time and their paper! I hate it when that happens. I mean, I try to see this from the eyes of the person who wrote the ad she covered. I mean, this is some poor slob who needs money and has to sell something because they can’t afford to pay the bills or some other thing and that’s why they had to put the ad up in the first place. And then some fat bitch with no ass covers it.

Fat bitch had to die.

And to seal it even more, the bitch looks right at me as though I’m some kind’ve dirt…like maybe I’m some kind’ve criminal scum or something. Like, she was gonna pay for that. I waited until she left and then I went over to the bulletin board and pulled her ad off. Some dumpy woman with a hamper gave me a dirty look. I told her that the woman who just left pinned it on top of somebody else’s ad and she said: “And that makes it alright for you to tear her ad down?” If I wasn’t such a fucking gentleman, I would’ve slapped the bitch right in the chops, right there by the bulletin board. But being a gentleman, I just told her to fuck off and walked away with the ad. It’s people like her give the assholes so much power, like those pricks who say jailbirds should have rights and all that shit. Nobody cares about the victims anymore.

When I got outside, I saw her car pull away, big new Buick. Bitch didn’t even need the money. I looked down at the ad. It was for some kind’ve church thing, a bazaar. It had an address. I knew where to find her. It had a date and a time. I knew when to find her. No phone number, though. But that was all right…I wasn’t the kind of weirdo who would play games with the people he was gonna kill.

I was waiting outside the church when she drove up in her big fat Buick. I hate Buicks; they’re for nose-up-their-asses old people who don’t wanna have anything to do with the rest of the world. That’s why every Buick on the planet has tinted windows…just like the one pulling into the church parking lot now. I was standing in a dark area not far from the front doors to the church…just waiting. She got out of her car and walked across the parking lot. I should’ve been waiting there, right in the parking lot, but I was by the front door. Fucking bitch went in a side door. Shit, I had to go in. Had to pay two bucks to some old cow who looked me up and down like I didn’t belong there or something. Figured I might come back for her some day…you know, people who pass judgment on others…biggest assholes of all.

There were tables all over the place, loaded with old used shit that people didn’t want anymore. Some of it was even new shit. Saw an electric wax buffer still in the box for ten bucks. Could’ve used one of those at one time. Then I saw a set of steak knives for a buck. Those, I could still use. I bought them. Then I started looking for the Buick Bitch.

She was at the other end of the room, giving orders to a bunch of old ladies standing around a table with cakes and cookies and other baked shit. She was looking at the old ladies with that same better-than-you look that she gave me at the laundromat. I ran my thumb across the blade of one of the steak knives. This was going to be sweet. I stayed at my end of the room…well away from her…just in case she might’ve recognized me from the Laundromat, and I watched her for about twenty minutes. That was about all I could stomach. I don’t like watching fat old bitches like her pushing sweet little old ladies around. But she wasn’t gonna be doing that for much longer.

I looked around the room. It was a big room. I saw a door about halfway down the wall on my right…and another one on the same wall, but all the way down at the end, where the Buick Bitch was still yakking out orders to the old ladies, getting them to rearrange the cookies and stuff as though making different patterns on the table was gonna make the fucking stuff sell better. I mean, a six-foot long table with cookies and cakes. How much bossing around can anybody on the planet come up with for six feet of church hall real estate? I figured it was the far door, the one closest to the table. She would’ve stormed right through it, taking the old ladies by surprise and making them piss their diapers. Wouldn’t be too hard to find it from the outside.

That was where I was gonna wait for her. As I walked back through the front door, I made sure the old cow at the admission table saw the steak knives. I smiled at her and she looked away from me as fast as she could. Not so fucking uppity now, old shit cow.

I walked around the side of the building to the door at the back and waited in the dark by some high bushes. I wasn’t worried about her coming out with other people. She wouldn’t. I wasn’t worried about her coming out in a crowd at the end of the bazaar. She would leave early, after she got bored pushing people around. And leaving early would just drive in the fact that she was above the others. Come in late…leave early. Stick around just long enough to make life miserable for a bunch of feeble-brained old ladies. She wasn’t gonna be doing that much longer. Not after tonight. Not after meeting my bargain steak knives.

I waited there for about two hours. About a couple dozen people came out, some in groups, some by themselves, but they didn’t even suspect that I was standing over by the bushes, waiting in the dark. Too wrapped up in their little church thing and their little church thoughts. Made me think about the time when I was a kid and I went to church every Sunday like I really believed or something. But I went. Until one day I went to some kind’ve teen thing, a teen dance and activity thing. There was gonna be a lot of knock-out church girls there, the kind that tease your balls off and never give more than a handful of tit…with their fucking bra still on. But I wasn’t getting much of anything anywhere else at the time, so what the fuck, me and my friend Earl went to the dance. Problem was, Earl was a Catholic. The teen thing was in an Anglican church. They told him he couldn’t come in. I told them to take their fucking cock tease dance and stuff it up their ass. Never went to church after that, fucking discriminating assholes.

The door opened.

And there she was, all alone, looking like she was disappointed or something with the whole world because it didn’t live up to her standards or something. I mean, like the whole fucking world was supposed to stop breathing and listen to her breathing so that it could pace her or something. Man, was her breathing in for a big change of pace.

As soon as the door shut behind her, I walked out of the dark by the bushes and walked right up to her. She gave me that same better-than-you look that she gave me in the laundromat. “Remember me?” I asked. She looked really angry and went to say something but saw the knives in my hand. “They’re for you,” I said. And before she could say anything, or scream, I drove one of them right into her throat. Her eyes opened up really wide, like you see in horror movies where some bitch gets killed by some kind’ve murdering psycho. Right away, I shoved another one into her stomach. She tried to look down, all wide-eyed, but could just bend her head a bit because of the knife sticking out of her throat. Now her eyes started to narrow as though she was confused or something. I stuck another knife right into her chest. It didn’t go in far though. Must’ve hit a bone, one of her ribs. Her eyes winced as though that was the first one she felt. Now she was looking at me, right into my eyes. I didn’t like that. She wasn’t uppity now, just confused and looking at me with one of those “why me?” looks that people get when shit they started comes back and bites their ass. I pushed another one into her chest. This one went in, right between the ribs and must’ve hit something important because now the Buick Bitch’s eyes were wide again…not as wide as before but wide, this time with fear. I reached into my pocket and took out the ad that she put up on the bulletin board and showed it to her. She looked at it and gagged. “Remember this?” I said. I shoved the last knife into it and pinned it straight into her forehead. It went in smoothly for going through bone. Good knives. Her face twisted really weird, like she suddenly looked really vulnerable and fragile. I almost felt sorry for her as she fell down with that fragile look all over her face.

***

I thought about that look all the way home. It was like, just before she died, something that was inside her came to the surface…like what she was until then was some sort of cover or disguise. I started thinking that maybe she was really unsure of herself deep down inside where we all know ourselves better than we think. Maybe she wasn’t such a bad person after all, I thought. Maybe all she needed was for somebody to dig through the shit on top of her personality and get to know her inside and maybe then she would’ve seen that the shit inside her wasn’t so bad after all, and that she didn’t have to be bossing around little old ladies and giving people like me better-than-you looks…and covering other people’s ads with her own. And maybe she would’ve driven a Ford.

Or maybe she was just afraid of dying. Maybe all bullying assholes like her are really just a bunch of cowards under the surface, and now she’s a dead coward. It didn’t take me long to stop thinking about the Buick Bitch.

* * *

It was the next asshole who stopped me from thinking about her.

I was sitting in the living room, staring at the wall, thinking about the Buick Bitch…you know, a relaxing evening, quality time with my thoughts…and suddenly it was like there was a minor earthquake or something. I could feel the floors and walls shaking and I could hear this booming sound coming from outside and it was getting louder and louder. I stopped thinking about the Buick Bitch and went to the window.

Fuck, it was like, when one asshole went down, they passed the baton to the next asshole, and there was the next asshole down in the parking lot in a big black Camaro, from the eighties I was guessing. Fucking million watt stereo pounding out that yappy ghetto crap where people who can’t sing just yell and swear a lot, sort’ve like barrio country music. The sound went something like boom boom boom boom fucking boom boom boom and it filled the whole air around the block with boom boom boom and the dumbass’s windows were all up! Guy must be deaf or something. He turned off the car engine and the music stopped. Then he got out. Young guy with short blond hair and a stunned look on his face. No fucking wonder. Probably deaf from the booming. He walked past a heap of garbage on the sidewalk and ducked into the building with the balconies. Some kind’ve rich deaf dumbass? He can afford a balcony. I didn’t remember seeing him around before, so he must’ve been new to the block.

He should’ve moved somewhere else.

Every night for a month, I listened to his fucking boom boom. He woke me up with it in the day. He dragged me away from my wall at night. He interrupted my thoughts. He disturbed my meals. He pushed his music into my life and backed me up into a corner. For a whole fucking month.

A month.

It was time. I didn’t even hear the boom boom boom that night…not once I decided it was time to kill him. It was like, when I decided to kill them, they were already dead so they couldn’t bother me anymore, and anything they did after that was just fuel, like throwing another log into my resolve. I waited until the next night…right in front of his building. And I had the perfect weapon. I picked it up as I walked by the garbage heap…a broken CD, sharp and shiny. I waited by the door. I didn’t care if he saw me. He didn’t know me from dick anyway.

I could hear him coming from blocks away, the boom boom boom in the distance, getting closer, getting louder, until I saw his car lights first and then saw his car. I could feel the air pounding into my face from the booming pushing it. Nobody has the right to force their music onto everybody around them the way this prick was doing. But he wouldn’t be doing it much longer. I ran my thumb over the sharp edge of the CD behind my back. It reminded me of something, but I had to stay focused on the prick getting out of the black Camaro. The music stopped. He banged the door shut–no way to treat a vintage car like that–and he started walking toward the door and me. I looked right into his face. He was younger than I thought, clean shaven, skinny. He was wearing some kind’ve band t-shirt, Prison, or something, and faded blue jeans. He looked at me looking right into his face and looked as though he was trying to figure out who I was or if he knew me or something.

Just before he reached me, I looked around…nobody watching. It was just me and him. He started to say something to me. That’s when I walked right at him and brought the CD up and slashed it across his throat. He looked shocked. It made him look even younger. I slashed his throat again. He just stood there, looking like he didn’t believe what was happening. Blood was spurting out of his throat. I slashed again and he sank down onto his knees. He looked right into my eyes as though he was trying to figure out why I was doing this to him. I said: “I’m the volume control.” He gave me a really confused look then and it made him look really really young, and then I realized that this guy couldn’t be much more than sixteen, and maybe he was just sixteen. Maybe he wasn’t new to the neighborhood. Maybe he was living in this building for a long time with his parents and he just got his license and the Camaro was his first car.

He was just a kid. He fell forward onto his face, dead. Blood from his throat started to spread out onto the sidewalk. He was just a kid.

I figured maybe I should cool it for a while.

***

And I did. For a month. And then I killed a litterbug…followed him for a week, picking up his litter. A month later, I killed some asshole who was standing in the middle of the sidewalk yakking to some other asshole about nothing. Dumbass saw me coming and just stood there so that I had to step into the street to get around him. I had to follow him for eight days before I got a chance to push him into an oncoming truck. It was like they kept passing that baton from one asshole to the next. Right after the sidewalk hog, I started tracking two dumbasses who threw a Frisbee back and forth right in the busiest section of the park, right in the place where everybody takes their kids and spreads out blankets for picnics and shit. They kept bumping into kids when they ran after the Frisbee and then they threw the Frisbee right into the middle of people’s picnics…and one day the Frisbee hit a little girl in the head and made her bleed. From that one I learned that a broken Frisbee cuts just as well as a broken CD. No sooner were they dead than I stepped into a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk. Got the dog, too. But that was the last time I followed anybody around picking up their shit. About a month after that I just jumped right into this woman’s car. Jumped right into the passenger’s side, right beside her. She was talking to another woman right in the middle of the street, yelling out their windows at each other, just ignoring all the people honking their horns at them to get out of the way. Just as soon as she finished talking and started driving away, I jumped in. Pushed her and her car over a cliff outside the city. Long walk back but it gave me a chance to think about things.

* * *

I thought about all the kinds of assholes in the world, the assholes who don’t flush the toilet and leave shit floating around or just piss all over the toilet seat so you get your ass wet when you take a crap, the assholes who give bartenders and store clerks a hard time just because they know they can get away with it, the assholes who speed up when you try to pass them in a passing zone and then slow down in the no passing zone, the assholes who draw underlines in library books or tear out the pages like I used to do, the assholes who draw fucked up graffiti on the natural beauty of bridges and freeway underpasses, the assholes who leave chewing gum under tables and chairs in restaurants so that you get their gum all over your fingers when you’re putting your gum there, the assholes who call you up when you had a phone and tell you that you’ve won something but you know fucking well that you haven’t, the assholes who make the phone systems that make it impossible to talk to a real human being even if that real human being is just gonna lie to you anyway.

I thought about all the assholes like shitty bosses, child beaters, wife beaters, animal beaters, terrorists, murderers, bankers, scam artists, politicians, thieves – especially the petty ones who steal from people who have next to nothing, like pensioners and welfare bums – pedophiles, lawyers, bad cops, used car salesmen, bullies, striking government workers, other religions, television holy rollers, cults, obscene phone callers, stalkers, rapists, tobacco companies, dictators, kiddy pornographers, vandals, and teachers who pile up the homework on Friday afternoon.

I thought: “Man, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

It took me until dark to get home, but that was okay…like I said, I did a lot of thinking. Maybe too much thinking. I thought about all the assholes that I took out. I thought about the looks on their faces before they died. That first one, the prick who went around spitting all over the place. The look in his eyes before he died…like he wanted it. But the kid with the boom boom boom didn’t look like he wanted to die. Even the Buick Bitch looked…like whatever it was coming out of her before she died. I tried to make sense out of it. They should’ve all been happy to die…their contribution towards making the world a better place to live for people like me. They should’ve seen it as a species quality thing. But some of them seemed like they really wanted to go on living. It was those ones that I thought a lot about while I was walking home. They all looked so confused, like they couldn’t believe that it was really happening. They looked afraid. They looked pathetic. They weren’t assholes for those few seconds before they died…they were just people dying.

I don’t know how many assholes I’ve killed. Lots. About one a month for a long, long time. And now I’m tired, especially after that long walk into the city, and all that thinking. I figure the thinking is what was more tiring than the walking. It drained me. It kind’ve scared me―all the killing left to do. By the time I got home, it was like this giant wall standing in front of me and I was standing under it with a slingshot, and I couldn’t even see the top of the wall.

* * *

And now I’m home, staring at my living room wall, my bare feet bleeding and cooling down in the night air coming through the window. It smells like somebody’s cooking chicken somewhere. I’d go out and get something to eat, but what’s the point? I’m not hungry anymore. I’m not thirsty, even though I haven’t eaten or had anything to drink since this morning. Jumping into that car was a mistake. People saw. But even that’s not important anymore. And none of the assholes who stare at me frightened, relieved, or confused…stare at me in my own mind, right into the backs of my eyes…none of them are important anymore. Only one thing is important now―that one last asshole.

That one last asshole.