THE SIREN THAT SOUNDS indicates a rig entering the breezeway. Waiting at the other end of the tunnel I watch the silhouetted vehicle approach. A wide array of construction supplies line either side--leaning fiberglass and metal ladders, stands of pipes and gutters, large wheelbarrows bearing small, stacks of pressure-treated plywood, soundboard, pegboard, Melamine, Hardiback, stacks of 4x8 drywall, quarter-inch, half-inch, three-eighths and five-eighths, with and without Mold Guard in bound pairs of heavy brittle sheets called books. The truck pulls up alongside and the driver's side window eases down. I ask the driver how it's going and the driver says pretty good while handing over an invoice of big things bought inside the store.
After a four-year absence I have returned to my home in the West. The blush of dawn greets each day less certain than the clockwork visitations I take to my past. Hidden hands, I feel, unseen agents of good and ill, have guided my troubles and successes alike.
Swubble, Unwin and Vilkins stand nearby thumbing phones. They wear hoodies with a ball cap under the hood, hiding their heads like the Unabomber, having never heard of the Unabomber, as they discuss fantasy football and spit terbacky juice. Working at Sawyer's Lumber is one of the better jobs in town. "He's got it," I hear heading to the 2x4s with a rig in tow. Swubble and Unwin were born the year I met my future wife. For Vilkins it would take another two to enter the world, in which time my bride-to-be and I were still beginning the Golden Age of our romance. Neither Swubble, Unwin, nor Vilkins has ever been married. Neither Swubble, Unwin, nor Vilkins has graduated college, owned a home, fathered a child, or started life over with nothing after a divorce.
The driver in the rig, nearer to me in age, has never published books, nor taught creative writing classes, nor taught his daughter how to read by the age of three, or at any other time. The driver in the rig, nowhere near being credit card debt-free and unable to perform a single pull-up, idly watches while I load his truck, half-dreading the prospect of having to unload it himself later.
Shrouded in plumes of gray exhaust, Tooley and Button operate forklifts. The tire-scored rutted mud, littered with green plastic straps cut from lumber units and wooden stickers of sundry sizes, holds pockets of puddles from the night's downpour. Winding shrink wrap around a pallet, Dolken and Chumley animatedly converse on anything except The Odyssey, and neither Tooley nor Button nor Dolken nor Chumley take any notice at all when the only co-worker in the yard twice their age stands a railroad tie on end and shoulders it to the truck twenty yards away.
Tarp-like wraps torn from lumber units to which they had been tightly stapled add to the clutter of straps and stickers. Brushing creosote-soaked splinters from the railroad tie off my shoulder, I set my course to gather the debris as the laden rig leaves the yard and the siren in the breezeway sounds again.
Dusk, and the golden leaves, profoundly prolific, dance across the street like the innumerable pages I've penned and scattered to the wind.
All of my coworkers impress me. I'm impressed by everyone I see at work, and everyone I see at work has my respect. Everybody there is smart. Smart, capable, and interesting. They're all real characters.
A hundred of us work for a very successful business with multiple locations. We sell everything needed to build homes. The business makes millions and millions of dollars a year. We're the only game in town, and we move an incredible array of product. For me it's a brand-new skill set. I love working with people, but my favorite part is when I drive a truck. Because that really is a skill. Check the classifieds. Two positions are always advertised: Registered nurses and experienced truck drivers. I'll never be a nurse--and I have no problem with that--but I'm getting experience driving a truck, and I like that a lot.
I also like operating a forklift. I've done it before. It's fun. And sometimes I use a chop saw and a table saw. With both I'm quite precise. I know how to use a tape measure, and with the table saw I know how to run a cut smooth and straight with the wood firm against the rail. Couple days ago a customer who had received a bad plywood cut on my off day was told by the front desk to ask for me by name. I like that.
I like everyone at work. Sometimes I get a chance to speak with people individually. Then I get to really learn about them. It's essential that we see each other's humanity. What a terrible waste to be stuck with people you can't stand. And I've been there. I've had that kind of job, where there were lousy people around. But those days are long gone.
I can even walk to work. Sometimes I take my VW bug, sometimes my Chevy pickup, sometimes I ride my mountain bike. It's all good. Like living in a TV show. I meet lots of people. I'm busy. Busy being self-sufficient, busy being involved in life. I am open to the universe. I have nothing to hide.
I've lived many lives. Enough to appreciate this one. Exactly as it is.
The fob to my bug doesn't work. It used to lock and unlock my car with the press of a button from a distance. Then one summer day I forgot it was in my pocket when I went swimming. Ever since then it's just a key. But the key won't stay down. It pops up like a constant boner. So I have to keep a rubber band around it or it'll put a hole in my pants.
Never mind all that. The point is, while things do work, they do so only barely. The bug itself, for example. Every single bit of it is falling apart. Evidently it was constructed by mentally deficient monkeys right before lunch break. I would never recommend a VW to anyone ever. Not even an asshole worthy of an open-handed face-slap. Mostly because why recommend anything to an asshole? But that's beside the point. Point is, nobody looks at VWs. Least of all mechanics. Not the one or two worth a damn. Or even an open-handed face-slap. Sure, the Divorce-mobile is, at first glance, entirely adorable. Which I entirely hate. But it was literally the only car in town. From a satellite dealership with one car left. And then they skedaddled. I've had more problems with that car than anyone has had with anything ever. Literally.
Forget the 98 million little plastic bits and pieces that have fallen or are falling off. Let's just talk about the turn indicator. Guess what? It doesn't work. Having a spine made of steel, I graciously rolled with that punch and said No problem. Why, I'll simply roll down the window, and use my arm to indicate signals. Golly life is jolly. Haha! So easy.
And then the window started sticking. And then it wouldn't roll back up at all.
Haha! So jolly! Not a problem.
Then the Service Engine Soon light came on my Chevy S-10.
So I left the S-10 on the street and pulled my bug into my ex's garage--that would be the garage at the house I picked out, the one with the shop next to it where I wrote most of my work late at night while the world slept--and I pulled out my old mountain bike. Sadly, in my four years of solitary confinement doing time in Northern California, my mountain bike's gears ceased to function. Plus one brake squeaks like a vat of boiling rats. And a tire with a slow leak stays perpetually low.
Surely, I said, the Lord doth test me.
I work my goddam ass off! I have yet to see the fifty year-old man who can lift anywhere near the shit I lift all day, plus write to beat the goddam band. Well, not now. But usually.
Everything's falling apart like fuckin' dandelion spores, yet still I manage to retain my pleasant nature. This has not in human history been done 'til now. Check the history books. Go check it out.
And women. Don't get me started. Too late! I deserve love. Big fat juicy love. What a craphole world where I, of all people, go loveless. What I get is a bunch of old cassette tapes. Because the CDs don't play on my ancient machine. The one I used all those times in my shop. Writing books, for humanity. The lid to my CD player pops up constantly like the boner key on my fob. So I have to hold it down with the last two copies of my three print books.
Spores barely holding together.
I know of no writing professor who puts so much on the line, or keeps such consistent readership. I know of no corporate-published author more inventive or capable than myself, and I've never heard of anyone who pays anywhere near the dues.
Sometimes I'll see a hundred pageviews in Russia. Sometimes it'll be a hundred pageviews in Poland. I'm thankful for my reliable readers in Germany. Plus a few in France. Randoms in Spain, Ukraine, Norway, Mexico, China. Countries all around the world. Sometimes places I never knew existed. Mostly of course the US. Everybody helps keep me going. If I wasn't so poor, I'd pay you.
It means more than I can say that you care about what I write. Or at least want to see me fuck up. I don't know what I'd do without you. Wouldn't feel as real, that's for sure.
Hundreds of pageviews at a time. And I have to wonder: Colleges? Prisons? Mental institutions? The pageviews go for hours at a time. Plagiarists stealing my work? Ah, how sweet. Whoever you are, you're terrific fuel. You're like God to me. Always there, invisible, never saying anything.
I worship you. You are my religion.
Bit of a racy place to work, Sawyer's. Yesterday one of the lads--a bright young fellow currently composing a lyrical treatise on the life of Proust, I'm sure--happened to remark in the midst of our admittedly philosophical assemblage--not unlike the worthy steps of ancient Athens--that, during the course of his own personal studies online, he learned of a fellow who, curiously enough, had his intestines blown out his mouth at the culmination of sexual intercourse with a horse.
We all took a moment to think about that.
Then another bright young man among our stately number rightly wondered, "How do you even write a eulogy for a thing like that?"
Here an additional beat passed, during which time one could nearly hear the veritable stomping of the proverbial hoof.
"'He loved horses, but it fucked him in the end.'"
Verily, whinnying brays abounded.
To which, centaur-like, I sagely added, "'At least he showed he had guts!'"
Learning, always learning.
The home center is old, too, and those of us who work in the lumber yard have seen strange things beneath the sagging roofs. Once, one of my coworkers saw a rat the size of a dog. Before I ever showed up, one of the workers went nuts with a nail gun till another guy ran him down with a forklift. But the strangest thing I've seen so far was a baby with a bow and arrows.
The baby was fat and unusually ugly. I saw it in the breezeway hiding behind the drywall. Figuring somebody was there with their kid checking out the half-inch mold guard, I went over to see what was up. Then this ugly baby whipped out a bow from behind a pallet of mortar mix sporting a shit-eating grin, nocked a wicked-looking arrow, and before I knew what the hell was going on sank it deep in my thorax. I heard it crack through bone. It hurt so bad I plunked right down on the 4x8 mason board.
The arrow looked weird, not just because it was sticking out of my chest. It looked homemade, like not from a factory or bought from a store. An inch over and it would have hit the radio I had clipped to the front pocket of my Carhartt. The baby came over toward me while I radioed in. "Front desk, copy." I could feel myself getting lightheaded, like I was right about to faint. Unsure if I'd held down the button, I called in again.
"Power on," the radio said. "One." The damn thing was always doing that. Crappy batteries or something.
"Go for front desk."
I could barely hear the words over the sound of my own heartbeat. I couldn't tell who responded, but it didn't matter. At the sound of the voice, the baby's ugly smile fell away and a shadow crossed his face.
"I'm hit," I said, and promptly dropped my radio. That was all I remember before everything went black.
The next thing I knew, someone was saying my name. In the center of the blackness was a small dot of light. I could see a tiny figure there, like through a telescope turned around backwards. It was one of my coworkers, the one who said he saw the rat.
"What happened?" I said, feeling disoriented. It took me a moment to realize that the arrow in my chest was gone.
"I have no idea. I just now got here and saw you passed out or something. Are you all right?"
"Where's the arrow?"
"Arrow? What arrow?"
"The one that was--it was right here, see?" I pointed at the hole in my jacket. There was a rip in it where the arrow went through. No blood, though.
My coworker looked at me funny. "I think you must have fallen down or something."
"I didn't fall anywhere. Did you see the baby?"
"What are you calling up front for?"
"Go for inside," came the response. This time right away.
"I think somebody better come out here."
What a disappointment. I didn't act like that when he said he saw the giant rat. They sent me home early that day. I couldn't believe they didn't believe me. It was a baby with a bow and arrow. It shot me. I was there. I don't care what anybody says, I know what I saw. There was an arrow sticking out of my chest and it hurt. True, when I checked I saw there wasn't a mark on me. But I know what I saw. Plus I even had the hole in my jacket to prove it.
Oddly enough, on the way back to my apartment something possessed me to stop at the used clothing store and look for another jacket. I don't know what made me do it. I'd never been in there before. But as soon as I walked in, bam, that was when I saw her.
Glamorous. She looked like a movie star. Easy on the eyes, and then some. Really classy lady, totally put together. Older than me, and a whole lot hotter, too. Completely out of my league. I wanted her. I had to have her. Every fiber of my very being compelled me to get her number.
She asked if I needed help. We chatted a bit. Eventually I asked about the ring on her finger. She said she wasn't married.
"You wear that there to what, keep guys at bay?"
"No, this is just the only finger where it fits."
"Do you...socialize? Maybe I could take you out sometime. Can I give you my number?"
"Let me get a piece of paper," she said.
Holy moly, it worked! I could feel the welling of a bizarre impulse. Vivacious. I needed to tell her she was vivacious.
Customer sense tingling, I looked around and saw the store filling up. The place was packed with prying eyes. Should I hoist her over a shoulder and dash out the door? The confines were tight. I'd have to lasso a chandelier and swing with her over the crowd. But dammit, no rope! Not a chandelier in sight. Securing plans to talk soon, I vanished like mist.
When I got back to my apartment I thought about what happened. "How very odd," I said to no one but the universe. "First I was shot by a baby with an archery set, and now I'm incredibly excited by a totally vivacious woman." I looked at my phone. "I should call her. NO! Too soon. Maybe in a few minutes. NO!"
Clapping a hand to my mouth, I rolled my eyes and wondered. The arrow...did it...have some sort of poison?
I picked up my phone and called her.
She didn't seem to recognize me when I said my name, so I described myself until she remembered.
"Wow, you work fast," she said.
"Yes, well I checked my schedule. How about dinner?"
"Oh, any night. Doesn't have to be night, either."
Waiting for her answer was like one of those moments at the Academy Awards right before the announcing of the winner. Everything got quiet except for the tearing of the envelope. And then she said the words: "Monday should be fine."
YES! So many people to thank! I knew I'd be forgetting someone! But what did that matter now? Dinner it was, then! The carpet store--surely they had a long roll of red for me to spill out for her from my rusty old pickup truck.
Ah yes, my old enemy, my pickup truck. Mentally connecting, I berated it.
"Why can't you pull yourself together? She's a classy lady. You're always trying to ruin things. Well I won't let you. I'll shield her eyes the whole way, then surprise her with the restaurant. So nyah."
The sunset was glorious that night. Much too glorious for me to eat any food. I went ahead and did that anyway, just because. But the thought of not having an appetite did appear.
They wondered what was wrong with me at work the next day. Mostly this was a holdover from the incident with the arrow which no one believed. There was a rumor going around that I had fallen off a ladder. This I knew because I planted it myself after hearing some of the others. That said, there weren't many people for any rumors to go around. Only a couple dozen of us working at the main shop, plus a couple satellite businesses in and around town. Most of those people I've never ever met. If I'd done something horrendous, everyone at work would have talked about it for awhile. But as far as anyone else could figure, I'd only been hurt at work, and it wasn't like I'd been there so long that they should care. So basically it was just a couple other guys in the yard who said anything about me at all, and that was only out of boredom.
"I can't stop seeing her face," I said to the guy cutting re-bar with me. He's the one I call Swubble.
"How many are we supposed to cut?" Swubble said.
"Thirty of the half-inch. She sure knows how to make her hair fall down. A casual toss of the head and it just flowed right over one shoulder."
Swubble fed another twenty-footer into the cutter. The long strip of metal sang slipping through. I adjusted it to meet the ten foot mark on the other side. "Do you still have the invoice?" he said.
"On the two-by-sixes," I said, fitting the bar in the hole of the cutter. Bringing down the bar I clipped the twenty in half and kicked it to the side. Twenty-seven more to go.
"I'm gonna walk over there on lunch and see if she wants some chicken salad."
"What do you mean?" I said, stopping another length of twenty at the mark in the mud with my boot.
"I don't know," Swubble opined, "do what you want, but from what I've seen, they always get turned off when you show too much attention."
These words hung in the air while I jammed the bar in the hole, cranked it down and snapped the half-inch like an uncooked stick of spaghetti.
"It's only chicken salad," I said.
Swubble shrugged. "Do what you want."
"Well of course I'll do what I want. What the hell does that mean? Goddam, it's only chicken salad."
"Didn't you say you're gonna take her to dinner?"
"That's in a few days."
Swubble shrugged again. We clipped a few more in silence. When we had twenty to go (or it might have been nineteen, I forget) I said, having stewed upon his comment, "What in your experience comprises too much attention?"
"Bringing over chicken salad on lunch, pretty much."
In my mind's eye I saw the baby with the bow shoot a rat the size of a dog. Then I saw the rat chasing Swubble. The smile on my face grew and grew as the vision progressed.
For what did Swubble know of such matters? He was barely out of diapers himself. Probably he hadn't ever even heard of Agharta. Made sense to me, though. I figured there must be an access point somewhere on the premises leading down to Hollow Earth. A tunnel beneath a stack of pallets. One of the advanced beings, a descendant of Atlantis and Lemuria most likely, an impish sort resembling a baby, had wandered out no doubt and gamely sported with me. By sheer chance? Maybe. Or perhaps the being was drawn to me, curiosity compelled by one whose emanations differ from the bulk of the herd. Nor was it inconceivable to me that I'd been tagged specifically for purposes of procreation study. An underground thesis on accelerated virility. Mine was not to reason why. Ever mysterious the ways. Cognitively I understood that she was simply a woman, this recipient of my desire. Naturally, of course. She was a human being, flawed and perfect, frail and strong. Yeah yeah, got all that. I wanted to get to know her, that was all, and I didn't want to wait forever. What, was I supposed to wait for somebody else to snap her up? I'm a man, dammit. What's so terribly wrong with that? Aside from the obvious, I mean.
Lunch came and lunch went. A couple hours before closing, as Swubble, Unwin, and Vilkins lounged around on bags of concrete mx spittin' terbacky and talkin' 'bout fantasy football, I stared dejectedly down the breezeway at the remainder of the Hardiback.
"I forgot to ask you how lunch went," said Swubble. "Did she like the chicken salad?"
"I dunno. I guess. Never saw her eat it. Told her she could keep the container."
"I'm guessing she freaked out that you showed up?"
"Yeah, little bit."
Vilkins spat. "Did you tell her how you got shot by a baby with a bow?"
"No," I said, staring at the Hardiback. "I think she figured that out on her own."
Inexpressible yearning as ever relentless, packing drywall with the boys, my mind's eye travels round my life.
When my daughter was four, my mother died. We had awoken to a valley blanketed in snow. After dropping my wife off at the college, I felt the inspiration to do something unusual by taking the kid to a café in town where she could have a big chocolate chip cookie for breakfast, followed by a trip to the park. That morning the park was all ours. No one else was there. The snow lay thick and unbroken, a pristine world in another dimension muffling everything else away, just the two of us in our snow gear with a circular sled and a cord attached for giving rides. It was the first time I let her slide down a slope by herself. I told her she could do it. "Hang on tight!" I said. At the bottom of the slope she looked back up and said, "Again!" A long time later we went back to the house, and there on the machine I found the message waiting for me. From my dad's flat tone I knew what to expect when I returned the call. Mom had died only hours prior. Right about the time I felt the inspiration, in fact.
I drove down to California early the next morning and returned two days later with one thing: a small blank writing journal bound in brown leather with a clasp. She hadn't written a single word inside. I could smell the cigarettes on every page. I took it back to my shop where I wrote late at night to record what had happened. Once I started writing in it, I just couldn't stop. I couldn't bear for the experience to die.
Somehow--and this was where the magic started--recording the bare facts morphed into a story. I had no plan. All I did was follow a voice, or perhaps better described as the beam of a flashlight trained only a few feet ahead. Everything was a surprise to me and a joy. I had nothing to lose, no expectations to fulfill. I was living in the moment, half-self-hypnotized, with a backlog of things to say, yet ready to be surprised.
The first story I wrote featured an elderly Irish woman in a small Northern California town. Mom loved the redwoods and was always proud of her Irish roots. She had a weird doll from her childhood kept in a box in the attic. Time and periodic heat affected it adversely. Plus she kept a lot of contact with bulb-headed gray aliens. Other than that, the story had little to do with her. When it was done, I started on another. I simply kept at it. An arabesque world fell from my mind. I wrote late at night while my wife and daughter slept. I wrote standing up in my shop wearing snow pants. This windowless structure adjacent to the garage got so cold, the ink in my ball point pen would freeze.
Eventually it wasn't only late at night that I wrote, of course, nor only in the winter. I'd catch a spare moment to write whenever I could. Indeed, I'd been writing all my life.
The outside world could never understand what I did in my shop. And they wondered, oh yes, they all wondered. They wondered with suspicious, hateful eyes as they strove to peer inside my precious sacred shop precisely because I did not want them to. Sometimes I heard helicopters hovering overhead. Literally. Vast amounts of public funds were wasted in that way. They must have thought that I had some sort of underground illicit operation accessed by that shop. They were dying to know what I was doing in there. Undoubtedly lives were consumed in the desperate attempt to crack the riddle. But I refused to let them know. And there was nothing they could do. Not the meth dealers across the street--scared the shit out of them one time when I shook one of their little lackeys around through the open window of a parked car--not the heroin house around the corner, nor even their clients in the choppers overhead.
Partially to confound potential prying eyes, I had devised an interior door. The shop's original metal door, on which I kept a padlock, opened outwardly; two inches behind it was the second door, made of plywood, which opened inwardly. And this was all situated in a corner which precluded possibility of anyone being able to see the inside of my shop. For that was my sacred writing zone. Off limits. Access denied. I kept them all in the dark for years, and I never once slipped.
"Sir, thermal imaging indicates he's flipping us off leaning backwards with both hands."
"Hmm. Must be hiding an interior chamber under the concrete. I can't take it anymore! Fire a missile!"
"Sir, the missile's stopping in mid-air. It can't figure out what he's doing, either! It's turning back on us--NO!"
Unwin, a coworker I named based on a page of Oliver Twist, requests a respite. Dolken and Vilkins, our cohorts in sheetrock, each take a moment to pack fresh terbacky deep in the lip fer spittin' purposes. Phones in hand they stare at screens, tiny little screens packed with the great big world. I check my own phone for messages from women seeking the raw sensuality that only I can give. Having taken the home-building world by storm with a passionate intensity unmatched, unbridled, unblunted by time, I've smoldered my way into the hearts of several alley cats, women whose honesty, talent, and affection intrigue me. One messages a selfie of her sweet smiling face, and the subsequent steam in my stride powers me through the rest of the drywall at a pace that takes years off of young Unwin's life.
Having unloaded the truck, we head across town to the yard where contractors pull through the breezeway for pressure-treated beams forklifted onto flatbeds and boxes of joint compound chucked in the back ends of rigs. Over the shrill blare of the chop saw and the high grind of shop plywood ripped we shout our lumber songs till the quittin' bell sounds and each man clocks his time card loathe to leave the Melamine and smooth shank hot-dipped nails electro-galvanized.
When I return to my apartment I realize, criminy, I've left my android in the yard. Damn, damn, damn. It's dark outside, and I had dreams of drinking beer. I had been looking at a message when a customer popped out of the molding room and I so I set the phone on a ledge behind a pallet of mortar mix expecting to return right to it all because I didn't want to have to say, "Just a minute, customer, I'm not done looking at my phone." But then I got repeatedly sidetracked and completely forgot. The night is cold and I can't let my android freeze. Hoping that hasn't already happened I realize there's no way around it, I have to go back.
Locking my apartment who do I see heading up the stairs but this one sketchy wench who blew me off, in the dismissive sense, when she found out what a straight arrow I am. Hot little body aside, her Tweekers Only policy did give me pause. The night I took her to dinner she cocked her head to one side and said, "Really, you've never done meth?" like she was talking about trying guacamole for crying out loud. From the bottom of the steps she probably does recognize me, even though I'm wearing a sort of ski mask, on account I work outdoors where it's buttass cold, but she's with someone else and backs out the door, as though she were a polite person, to make room for me coming down the stairs holding up my mountain bike. The friend she's with, a dicey slattern her own age, averts her eyes from me as well. On the icy porch I don ragged work gloves as the pair race upstairs making mysterious comments. It's strange to me she's still on my phone. Despite the fact I deleted her number, a little orange circle with her name appears every time I turn it on because I don't know how to remove it.
The glistening road dimly reflects the dull glow of the street lamps. Heading back annoys me, not just because of returning to work after putting in a full day, but mostly because I know I'll have to break in. Only technically, of course. Still it's a prospect I don't relish. In my pocket I have a light with an elastic strap that fits like a headband. I can wear it to improve my visibility on the mountain bike if I feel the need. Trying to save the battery though, I instead plan to use it only to find my phone once I'm in the yard. If I'd left my phone in the breezeway I'd be out of luck because that part's closed off. The yard however is easy to enter, in spite of locked gates and barbed wire. The main structure is so old, antique lumber flaps in the wind.
Invisible security beams positioned all around necessitate cat-like stealth as I head around to one side while the train blares by and slip back a crappy old board dangling by a nail. Reminding my mountain bike hidden behind a drift of snow to keep quiet, I scooch on in.
The yard shut down after dark feels like an abandoned amusement park. An empty Styrofoam cup tumbles across the tundra while silent forklifts stare. Knowing where the cameras are, I avidly avoid them. If somehow detected I will simply tell the truth, that I was there to get my phone before it froze. Just for kicks I creep around anyway in total ninja-mode.
Lumber unit stickers littered near Doug fir adhere to the hard-packed snow. Shrink wrap unraveling from pallets of cinder blocks and roofing paper whips like ghostly garments in the wind. Imposing collections of icicles hang from busted gutters ragged as the teeth of the Hydra. Sure enough, where I left it, I finally find my cell phone. And amazingly enough it still works. Equally amazing, I don't have a single message. What a bummer. I rather had hopes of finding something dirty. Hasn't ever happened, but that doesn't stop me hoping.
Mission accomplished, I pocket the phone. Just as I do, out of the corner of my eye I notice a moving light. Resigned to having been detected, my first thought is, Great, now I have to kick someone's ass. No way I'm getting caught, detection out of the question. Never gone to jail, never sold drugs, never had a venereal disease. Straight arrow, trouble unacceptable. I'll beat the holy shit out of this guy before I let anything bad happen.
What I initially took for a flashlight, however, soon intrigues me. It's not somebody else testing a forgotten phone, nor is it some smartass screwing around with a laser light. Rather it's a golden glow, a golden glowing orb.
The orb darts around the aged timber of a huge structure of shelving some twenty feet high and extending at least sixty feet, a structure precariously leaning like a castle formed of playing cards. Rickety stairs lead to insulation stored in the upper deck. The orb drifts up there, then suddenly returns below where three levels of shelving hold lengths of synthetic decking called Trex. In the deep recesses of a ground-level shelf, the glowing orb hovers about and gently bobs.
I can't help but wonder what the hell the damn thing is. I have to go and see.
The only way to get behind the Trex is to clamber across the back of the shelving. Having heard the song by T. Rex ten bajillion times, the opening notes of "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" inevitably enter my consciousness.
The glowing orb was strange enough. Yet stranger still, when I near it, it descends. But to where? I have to see.
Pulling the light from my jacket pocket, I take off my ski mask and strap the band across my brow. At the back of the Trex there's a hole in the ground. The hole is easily big enough for a large man to enter.
Being careful not to fall, I peer down inside.
At work the next day there is a snow shovel in my hands which I imagine setting aside. I can hear the others around the corner, shooting shit near the cedar and pine. It is one of nature's finest wonders, my coworkers coalescing together, mysteriously dispersing like birds at the first indication of a supervisor's approach, then coalescing again as the presence of the supervisor diminishes. None of them know what lies behind the decking. I envision myself entering their midst as one who walks in two worlds and informing them of my find. But something won't let this happen. A power beyond my control.
I linger around the Trex half-aware I've gravitated toward the secret aperture. Forklifting lumber units in the bay nearest it has packed the snow into a thick layer of ice which grips the concrete with such resilience, the furious attack of the metal snow shovel sends an ear-splitting clang that makes me wonder if hidden hands are using me to awaken something below.
Spools of rope sold in the store hold tremendous interest for me. As I silently consider the specifics of borrowing a spool for late night spelunking purposes, Cheswick, one of the supervisors, manages an appearance successfully unannounced. Discretely positioning himself behind stacks of fibrous blower insulation, Cheswick is there when Vilkins returns from a long vacation in the bathroom.
"Was somebody at the potty," Unwin asks, "or did you shit your pants on the walk back?"
Vilkins' voice beams. "Hustle along now," he encourages. "If you hurry you can still catch a whiff of the honey ham." Further discussion of his prior day's lunch meat intake ceases when Cheswick steps triumphantly into view.
To see the look on his face--which I do, strolling around the side to get a better view of the proceedings--you'd think Cheswick was a tagalong younger sibling who'd just caught the big kids passin' a doob. He doesn't say a word, only trots off with a shit-eating grin to go get Fritz or Ben. It's a scene that makes me reconsider an earlier post where I'd given everybody the benefit of the doubt and said they impress me. I like to start folks off with a solid A. Then if they fuck up I have to work down from there.
True enough, much of the time the boys do screw off. This however cannot be rationally blamed. The nature of the job requires a certain amount of down-time. I'm the only man in the world crazy enough, confident enough, and physically impressive enough to work a job so far beneath me at such an elevated state. It's different for me. Being twice their age, and the Yard Dad of everyone there, I know who I am. But they don't know who they are at all. Abandoned on vacation because I wrote books, for me it's a paradise to be in the same town as my kid. I've returned to my home after arduous adventures and resumed my kingship. That's why they call me Odissus, unaware that they've misspelled it. These guys don't have any of that. How can I blame them for the crack they smoke, the heroin they shoot, the hours they log groping one another, swapping chew-spit? Sometimes in the saw room, suddenly dropping Carhartt overalls, they like to compare thongs--and who am I to judge?
Cheswick though, he's a real douchebag, and because of that Fritz stalks out of the shop and hunts each dude down in the yard letting four of them know that they can go home.
The rest of the afternoon proves uneventful. Swubble, Unwin, and I hold down the yard-side of the fort with ease. Only in the last hour do I remember that on this night I am to take a woman to dinner. I met her at the health food store. The urgency I feel to explore the enigmatic hidden hole puts me in a tight spot. Do I drop a bundle on a woman and risk disappointment? Certainly descending into a cave has never let me down.
One time a woman came through the breezeway looking for 4x4s with her friend. Both of the women crept along in the car while I lumbered ahead in the yard. There were only a couple of cracked, warped pieces left, which at the time I didn't know would've been totally appropriate. Having radioed across the street for a new unit, I performed a dejected jig for the benefit of the customers with the embarrassed assurance that this is what I was required to do to entertain customers while they wait. The ladies loved my four-second show, this spontaneous bit of levity. Then another customer appeared, as so often happens, so I headed off letting the ladies know that the 4x4s were coming over on a forklift shortly, and that was that. Or so I thought.
A few minutes later, one of my yard brothers, Tooley, hopped off the forklift with a piece of paper in his hand, saying that the customer in the passenger seat wanted me to have her phone number.
Why how very jolly.
"She didn't happen to have a strange little arrow sticking out of her, did she?"
The next night I called her up. And she was nice. For a week or two there we texted pretty regular. True, she messaged me some ancient pictures that did not reflect her appearance in person, but I looked past that. Equally true, it wasn't like she was My Girlfriend. We planned on a dinner date a week in advance and she blew that off at the last minute, but I didn't make a big deal out of it. I took her out to lunch one time, and another time bought us lunch from a supermarket deli. No great shakes. It so happened that the evening of the deli lunch was when I took that one sketchy wench out to dinner, because in fact I'd met her first and we'd agreed to go out sometime. Being single I went ahead and did that. Because I didn't want anything hanging over my head, seeing how I got nothin' to hide, I also told the one who wanted me to have her number. I wasn't particularly interested in her. She spent ninety percent of her energy complaining about totally solvable bullshit. And I simply didn't find her very attractive. So the next morning when she sent me a long vindictive text it was easy for me to respond with two simple words, Good luck, and be done.
Meetin' the women, breakin' the hearts.
The chatter of the restaurant forms a wall around us while we talk. Behind me stands a statue, a life size warrior modeled after those thousands found underground in the pyramid tomb of China's first emperor. It's interview time.
"What do you do at Sawyer's?"
The honest answer is, "As a newspaper columnist for the last fifteen years who has also taught Creative Writing, I perform physical labor that guys half my age have a hard time doing because I got nothing from the divorce when my wife abandoned me on vacation after twenty years together for writing books," but instead I downplay it so she won't feel bad. Sometimes I drive a truck, sometimes operate a forklift, usually I pack drywall and move lumber around. She's not impressed.
At the table next to us Chuck Woolery happens to be eating a meal, and he turns around to ask us how our date is going.
"Well Chuck," she says, "I can tell he's not rich. I knew that as soon as I saw his pickup truck."
"Did it ever occur to you," Chuck replies, "that maybe he just might be an eccentric millionaire?"
"Thanks, Chuck." Impressed, I give him a thumbs up.
"Well then why does he work such a low-end job?"
"Eccentricity," he pointedly enunciates.
"I can handle this, Chuck. The reason why I work there, and I'm perfectly happy to tell you, is a very good one. Simply put, the reason is, I work there so I can have interesting experiences. For writing purposes. That's it."
She takes a big bite of noodles, being sure to soak up plenty of the sauce while it's still warm. She's feeling attacked from all sides. She's ready to ask for a doggie-bag, I can see it in her eyes.
Chewing her noodles she nearly speaks, pauses to swallow completely, then wipes her chin, shakes her head and pronounces, "I just don't think you've got enough money at all. And so you know, there is someone else I have to get past. I'm not over him. So no, thank you for dinner, but no. Waitress, can I get this in a doggie-bag?"
Spontaneous hisses of disgust issue all around. Even Chuck Woolery is frankly angry with my date. None of us ever saw him like this on Love Connection. That's because never before did he have such cause. But he visibly brightens when the waitress responds.
"No," she firmly states, "you can't have a doggie-bag. I want to know why you went out with him, why you let this man buy you a meal when you claim you're 'not over' somebody else. Who, some supposed fuckin' millionaire?"
Virulent epithets hurled from the crowd. Things start getting ugly. To quell the mob's rage, and to keep from having to see Chuck Woolery tear my date to pieces with his bare hands, I pay the bill and leave.
My hand grabs words floating in the air. From the falcon perch of my apartment I scan icy roads cruelly gouged by the Devil's chisel. Ram horn raised, eyes ablaze, I must needs scatterseed.
Hour fodder, for art is heaven, though hollow be the game, by singing some I can have fun...unearthing my Andre Previn?
That can't be right. Joggling my hand like a TV antenna, I adjust myself for better reception.
I prided myself at dinner on avoiding the topic of writing. What a pitfall that always proves. The women I meet just never give a damn. They couldn't care less about who I am, what I am, what I've done and want to do, my imagination, my ideas, what I think or how I feel. They're not like you at all. The women I meet are keen that I know they have no desire to make me feel special. The hour hand on the giant clock in the sky goes around and around and around, and though there could be love, because it's so impossibly easy, instead there is pointless avoidance. Everything I do throws a red flag, nothing ever right. The women I meet are like miserable coworkers hating every day and deathly afraid of doing anything. The more I lead by example, the more resentful of the job they become. And to do nothing doesn't cause anything to happen. Why would it?
The silent silhouette of a woman watches while I write, lies beside me in bed. I can nearly feel her body, nearly feel her warmth. Her vacant presence in my life provides companionship. A beautiful artist from another world, she was there before I met my ex, malleable, inspiring, shapeless as a void. I hear her call me from the cave, the ink-black ancient chasm, howling in the night of my heart with overwhelming mournful longing. Come home, she cries, Come home.
"Yard, copy." Freya's voice. Freya's good-looking and cracks me up.
"Go for yard."
"Customer heading out the back door to ask about the decking."
No way. The decking, seriously? No one ever does that. The Trex just sits there. That's its purpose. It's been discolored by time. There's no reason to ask anything about it.
"Ah, yard, did you copy that?"
Dammit to hell I haven't had time to investigate the cave. Well, actually I have had time. But why did I keep putting it off?
"Yes, copy. I'm on it."
The customer coming out the back door carries a strange cane. Not too many dudes trotting around with canes in the first place. But this one looks a little extra weird. Fancy. Like it got swapped for a big old bag of drugs. Which, from the cut of this guy's jib, doesn't seem too far off the mark. His dark brown hair and reddish beard hide the disturbingly feminine features of a tomboy. Standing over six feet tall and weighing around two-fifty, he waddles forth vaguely petulant with a center of gravity coming from the belly and carrying the cane as an affectation rather than using it for utilitarian purpose. The customer doesn't have much to say, so consequently this cuts down on dialogue--which irks me because you've earned the best reporting possible--but what little he does say, I am happy to relay, is tinged with some sort of foreign accent that I can't place.
"Is this your decking?" The customer puts the question calmly. A little too calmly. Something in his manner smacks of the unwholesome.
"This is the stuff," I reply, "not mine personally, though. I don't even like it."
Immediately regretting that last part, I am put on the defensive. "Well...it's not natural."
"Not natural? How is it not natural?"
"Because," I explain, sure in my footing now that I have decided I cannot like this customer, "it's not actually wood, it's imitation, made of plastic."
He pauses, trying to be calm and yet remaining subtly combative. The scent of his breath reveals the reason: He's drunk. Drunk and trying to hide it. He wants very much to show he's in control of his mental faculties precisely because he isn't. "That's an interesting cane," I say, taking the upper hand.
"Why, thank you."
"Is that a pine cone on top?"
"No. Only an imitation."
"Indeed. How very interesting."
"Oh, no particular reason."
This of course is far from true, and he knows it. Almost seems to sober up. In my travels I have studied the significance of the pine cone. There's a giant one outside the Vatican for a reason.
"Perhaps you'd like for me to show you a bit more of this rather fascinating decking."
"No thanks," he says, tapping his cane with an air clearly intended to convey finality, "I think I've seen enough. I'll take it. How much for all of it?"
Take it? What? This doesn't make any sense, and my incredulous chuckle indicates as much. But the man is adamant. Exactly how adamant I realize when he levels his gaze with narrowed lids. "I will have every bit of this decking, every last imitation stick."
I depress the button on the radio at my chest. "Inside, copy."
"Go for inside." It's Freya again. At the sound of her voice the customer flashes a dirty-toothed grin.
"Can I get a stock check on the Trex...all of it?"
"You want a stock count on all of the Trex?"
"Copy that. Customer looking to buy all of it."
"All of it? Seriously?"
The radio is off my jacket now, held up like a crucifix. The customer's smile widens further.
"I'm only kidding," he tells me. "How much for just the stuff over the hole?"
Apparently not everyone who reads my blog is best described as my religion. At any rate, certainly not Crackhead Joe. I didn't make that name up. That's what everybody calls him. A great favorite with the ladies, turns out. Sells drugs, been to prison, can't hold down a job. Crackhead Joe's a piece of shit. Women love that.
Freya went on and on about him. In her eyes he's the greatest damn thing since sliced bread. The sketchy wench I took to dinner thinks the same thing, too, according to Freya. In fact, the night I saw her and her friend going into the house where I live, they were heading to see him. Evidently sometimes he stays with one of the renters. Somehow they started talking shit about me, and that's how Crackhead Joe found my blog.
Deeply disappointing as it is, I can't say all this Crackhead love comes as a total surprise. After all, look around, success in this world is a goddam worm-burger. Think about it: You can make the best hamburger you ever had in your life right in your own back yard, but only you and a handful of your friends will ever know. It's the best but no one calls it a success because it didn't make any money. It's the worm-burger that sells billions. Judging by sales, the best stuff isn't remotely on the radar, and never will be, because success in this world is white macaroni and powdered fake cheese-flavored chemicals. Success is a reality TV asswipe with fake dumb hair even a clown wouldn't wear and a spray-on orange tan fake as chemical cheese, and all the phony successes of this asswipe-worshiping world drip down on a conveyor belt from the same plastic tube.
How much for just the stuff over the hole?
Fuck you, Crackhead Joe. Being a success in this world is no success at all. I don't care about your money. So now I know you read my blog. You wanna play games? You can play Suck a Pine Cone. You should try working sometime. One of us--me--lifts heavy shit all day long. I could twist you into a pretzel and chuck you down that hole without even breaking a sweat. I don't give a damn about all of your wild women followers, either--which for the benefit of the rest of you, the good readers worth worshiping, I should probably explain that, yeah, apparently he does have quite a few. Not as many followers as I have on Twitter I bet, but whatever.
A bunch of the women from work, Freya included, leave early to follow Crackhead Joe out of town and into the forest on some sort of protest march. The result is crazy local ladies on YouTube running around screaming and ultimately tearing to pieces, literally, a two year-old steer.
Half an hour after it happens the boys are watching it on their phones, bitterly complaining about the behavior of the women, while I start loading Trex on a Hyster to band up for Crackhead's order. Fortunately, I don't have to have it ready for him to pick up until the next day. Pulling some pieces from off to the side so no one will notice the hole, I plan my evening excursion precisely, visualizing the exploration with an exactitude perhaps bordering on alarming.
My growing anticipation to see firsthand what lies underground approaches a breaking point. Tense and withdrawn, I feel I could snap. When Fritz asks if I can stay late, covering the shift of a coworker pretending to be sick so he can get down and get high, I nearly lose my shit. Only for a moment. For quickly I realize that once again the hidden hands have helped. Only by closing up can I be certain that no one finds the access point, or moves the spool of rope which I have cached and will borrow to descend from the long metal bar that I will place across the entrance in order to spelunk.
During the final hour of work not a single customer comes through the yard. Reverberations of the slaughtered steer and a sudden temperature drop fortuitously combine. This is the night all right, the one I've waited for for years. Riding out the time in an idling rig for heat, I stare down the empty alley vaguely agitated by my long inexplicable obsession with subterranean realms. Almost all of my stories feature something to do with caves. I've often wondered why.
When it is finally time to clock out, I trudge back to my apartment fully intending to return in a couple of hours. Taking a circuitous route I pass by my old house in the quiet icy dark. Steam from a vent says my ex is doing laundry. Under one of the trees, bare now in winter, there used to be a bench made by my dad many years ago. Many's the time I parked my can right on it, staring at the barbeque with a beer, chucking a spitty stick for the dogs, picking from a stack of books to read to the kid, feeling on top of the world.
Inside, on the refrigerator, a magnet says Will Work For Books. Should say Divorce.
In all the world, who else has ever been abandoned, while on vacation, after twenty years together, for the crime of writing books?
Stewing, I reflect back.
Do you know how often I get to write? she once yelled.
Do you know how often I get to profess? I replied.
Four long fucking years.
The greatest thing I've ever seen was my daughter's eyes open at birth. I held her in my hands. My face was the first thing she ever saw. And the worst thing I've ever seen was her receding face looking at me through the back window of the car while her mother drove away.
Long metal bar secured over the hole, I begin unspooling the rope.
It's darker than dark down there. The light on my headband does nothing to help illuminate what's below. That one I wear so I can see right in front of me without having to use my hands. But I also have a high-powered light that fits in my jacket pocket, and an old flashlight with fresh batteries in my backpack for emergency. I pull the light out of my pocket and see the rope wavering around. I've got three hundred-fifty feet available. It all just keeps sliding right on down.
For about the first thirty feet or so the cross-section of the ground below has lots of chunks of rock that look easy to dislodge. The first danger I see is to avoid rubbing the rope against the sides of the hole and raining rocks on my head. The second danger is not being able to climb back up. The initial purpose of lowering the rope is to use it for scale seeing how far down the hole goes, and also to free it completely from the spool so that I can tie an end to the metal rod positioned over the hole. Next I pull the rope back up, coiling it carefully at my side, and settle in for the unenviable task of tying knots every few feet. It's the boring part of the job. I don't like it but I have to give the proper attention to every single hand-hold.
The train sounds even louder late at night. No other noise interferes with the horn's obnoxious blare. Images from recent days at work gnaw at the back of my mind. It bothers me to know I'm not a good fit. It bothers me because there's no good reason for it. The boys in the yard all play grabass, jostling around, giggling and spitting. Grade school reminiscences abound. I'm the wild bull in their fine china shop. Stuck inside my own head I can't see how old and wrong I look to them. They accept each other with open arms and open mouths, touching each other's privates, giggling and spitting. But whenever I appear, off they go like park pigeons, moving as one to the safety of a tree.
I'm not sure how much less rope I'll have to use by the time I'm done with the knots. I figure maybe fifty feet. I have foreseen the use of gloves in helping me to climb. The textured surface grips the nylon nicely. Probably they'll tear, so of course I have another pair in a pants pocket on the side of my leg. I think the hardest part will be just getting onto the rope. I envision the moment minutely: it will require sitting at the edge of the hole and leaning forward toward the metal bar positioned across it with the rope dangling down. For a crucial moment I'll be vulnerable. If I miss catching it by even a fraction of an inch, or somehow fail to grab on properly, I'll fall. A long way down. And that'll be it. But, I mean, what are the chances?
And now the knots are tied. Now the time has come. All those stories I wrote set in the underworld can't just have been for nothing. There had to be a reason. And there was. This is the reason. Something calls me. I have to go and finally find firsthand what the hell it is.
"Now then," I say aloud at the edge, hands extended, leaning forward, "for the readers..."
"Pint of Dead Guy."
Taking one of the four stools at the small bar area I rest an elbow behind me while I wait for my beer. It's not a proper bar, praise the gods in all their glory for that, but rather a tidy little corner in the market down the street. There's a deli, too, and folks behind the counter there pull the odd brew now and again as though special jist fer yers trooly. What makes the bars suck around here are the harpies inside. Barpies, I call 'em, low-class skanks who want nothing more out of their miserable existences than the opportunity to entice a man into their filthy midst for the sheer purpose of then being able to loudly proclaim, "Why, NO, I will NOT go out with you, and how DARE you for being heterosexual toward me after I batted my eyes at you and rubbed my nipples!"
This on top of days spent in the breezeway, where every time I hear the sirens announce a new customer and see another rig come through there's a little moment where my heart leaps and I think maybe this time it'll be some gorgeous woman who falls in love with me immediately and wants to stay with me forever. But it totally never is. And I mean not even close.
Yet lo, what is this? A beautiful creature, three feet away, softly sobbing. What with the livin', the lovin', the fightin', and the writin', naturally I twist my mustache and nobly inquire.
"Hey, you okay?"
Verily this fair young damsel haveth a duffle bag on the floor at her side. Geez, she's actually crying. Damsel in distress and everything.
"I don't have anywhere to go. My ride drove off and left me. The cops hassled me, told me I better be gone tonight. I don't know what I'm going to do."
Well then there now. Retainers, my lance. A quest, I ride.
"Slow up. What's goin' on?"
The young lady restates, elaborates. Looking like a goddess she plops her duffle out of anybody's way takes a seat one over from me.
"I'm Wendi," she says extending her hand, "Wendi with an 'i' at the end." My hand swallows hers as I introduce myself, but I have to lean back on account of her breath. Interior and exterior not in harmony. She says she comes from down south. That her ride took off without her. Plunking her duffle on the seat between us she starts fishing around inside. Takes things out, spreads crap around. Goes on and on about her ailments. All quite dramatic and so numerous as to seem suspect. Detailing misfortunes stacked on misfortunes she happens to reveal exciting lingerie, then folds it.
"The cops hassled me," she repeats, getting up and swiveling me around. "It's cold outside. I have nowhere to go and I don't know what I'll do."
Leaning back I cover my beer with one hand so it won't taste like the smell of her breath.
"My parents used to beat me," she says, neatly folding up my feet. "I suffer terribly from scurvy." Folds me up to my knees. "Got it on the high seas." Folds me up to my waist. "Just nowhere to go at all." Folds my arms. "So cold outside." Folds my shoulders. "Haven't eaten in days." Folds me up entirely, packs me next to the lingerie. I hear her zip the duffle and feel her shoulder the strap.
Later on, at my place, I go ahead and reveal to Wendi my deep dark secret which I hide online with you, my religion.
"I know where there's a cave," I whisper.
"Oh I've always loved caves."
"You have? You do? Really? Me, too. I don't know why. It's just that, well, sometimes my life seems guided by hidden hands which I feel come from caves. Like this game my older brother had when I was a kid, long before you were born. It was called Electric Football. There were big magnets you couldn't see that moved the figures with little magnets attached so it looked like they were alive. You probably think that's all pretty weird."
"No, not at all."
"You remember how I told you about my writing?"
"Of course," she says, nodding. She looks like a goddess. It's an overused word, but she looks like one. I want to tell her all about what I found. I feel as though I could. Somehow though every time I try, something stops me. I want to tell her and I want to tell you. Truly, my writing is like my cock. A glorious secret, long and substantive, going and going and going, bringing continuous pleasure, the only drawback being it takes me a long time to come. Although when I do, it is worth the wait.
I offer her more wine. She takes another glass of red. Feeling as though I could fall into her eyes, in spite of her breath that smells like hell, I am reminded of Nietzsche's admonition to beware looking into the darkness too long, lest the darkness look back into you.
At Sawyer's Goob informs me we have a new coworker now.
To look at Goob, you'd swear you've met smarter livestock. And let's face it, you definitely have. His eyes are half-lidded and he slobbers when he laughs. Sometimes, when you want to find him because there's a buncha mud on your boot and you need something to smack it against so you look for the back or the front of his head, you find him in a field grazing. Even the flies that spin around Goob, lazily traveling through one of his ears and out the other, seem slower than the rest. You feel sorry for them. And yet, when it comes to anything involving aim, Goob always comes through. It's totally incredible. Defies all reason. Pull a chew toy from his mouth, put it in his hand, instruct him to bank it off a wall thirty yards away into a garbage can--full of garbage, mind--and damn if Goob won't do it with a big dumb grin stretching across his big dumb face.
"That was sick as shit!" he'll say.
Look Goob, snow! Make ball, Goob, make ball! Go way back, Goob, way back! Hit the match, Goob, hit the match!
By golly he'll hit that match. Bet money on it. And the match will strike. With a fuckin' snowball.
"That was sick as shit!" he'll say.
"What's the new guy's name?" I ask.
"Crackhead Joe!" Goob replies, sinking an empty chew can into the garbage on the other side of the saw room. "He's sick as shit!"
Swubble, Unwin and Vilkins concur. This comes as no surprise to me. Only six or eight years earlier most of them were in high school together.
I'm twice the age of everyone around me. I think of Wendi, how I want to keep her, but I know the right thing to do is help her get home to her kids.
I notice an increase in bullshit sessions when Crackhead Joe is around. Off to the side watching the others I feel like Will Samson. They talk abut cloven hoofprints in the snow. All around the yard in the frozen patches that remain and in the mud, clear unmistakable evidence of cloven hooves. Some say pigs, others goats.
They're all wrong.
I go inward. Images of Wendi's face twisted around so I could see her eyes rolled back and watch her face express response to my thrusts. I'm not too keen on this chick I met staying at my place all day while I'm at work. Her breasts looked close to flat out of the padded wire bra. She was very vocal, the little actor. Only a few moments after meeting Wendi I knew she couldn't be believed and that she either needed to be self-absorbed to pull herself out of a rut, or was in a real deep one because of being so self-absorbed. But it didn't matter to me because a few hours after we met I also learned that she was over twenty years younger and had either the most personal of locations for a light-coloration birthmark, or a badly botched bleach job. However, I do understand even if she doesn't. Much as I want to believe her, much as I want to keep her, she needs to be with her kids.
I leave work early to clear her out. Get her on a bus, anything.
"Wake up," I say with a hand on her shoulder. She huddles in the fetal position on my bed. "We have to talk."
"What?" It's well after noon. She seems unable to open her eyes.
"We have to talk. Wake up." By the gods, I don't want to kick her out. Better it should be in the daylight, though.
"You know," I say, "I never have once seen you check your insulin."
Now her eyes open. "You don't believe me?"
She begins putting on her clothes. It pains me to see this. "I don't know," I have to say, "maybe I'm making a mistake. But you need to be with your kids."
Takes me two hours to get rid of her. She finally gets a ride lined up to take her back where she belongs. On the way to the bus station, where a friend of the family will be waiting, she sits close to me in the cab of my pickup with her tiny hand on my iron thigh, and her Greek goddess head leaning on my shoulder. I think about how much I love driving her. And I also wonder.
Did I make a mistake when I confided to her in bed the wonders I beheld underground?
There's concrete now behind the Trex. Right over the spot where the hole to the underground should be. Upon perceiving this, I feel the energy of being watched. My bewilderment at the loss of underground access is immediately supplanted by a mixture of curiosity and repugnance.
I turn around. There in the breezeway it stands, leering. Top half, human. From the waist down, two-legged goat.
The goat-man has a conniving face and could stand to wear some clothes. The dark hair on his weird head is thick. Somewhere in the curls there may be hiding two short horns. Slender build, skinny guy. His sudden savage smile reveals lamentable dentistry. Exultant, he barks, then skips away hard hooves a-clack backwards down the breezeway and out into the street.
I follow him out at a sprint, snatching a rake leaning against a wall mid-stride and snapping it against the corner of a weight-bearing 6x6, discarding the useless end and positioning the stick for strikes. When I reach the end of the breezeway though, the goat-man is gone.