ink to stone

IDENTIKIT — SECTION FROM MY FIRST NOVEL — MEET THE ARISTOCRAT

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My friend Jesse Montini-Vose and I are working on turning my first novel into a series of short animated films. Here is the first sketch and a section from the first chapter. 

Surprised that the Aristocrat knew her name, she snapped her head back to face him. She studied the terrible scene in front of her: the hooded man, the guillotine and the roses, and felt terror for the first time as if she was unaware of the danger she was in before, and had just now realized the severity of her situation.

“Why won’t you let me leave?” she cried desperately. “Can’t you see that I’m wounded and need help?”

“…”

His silence made her ashamed and she dropped her head in misery. Every creature within the oasis relaxed and allowed the evening breeze of the late sunset to pass through them. The aristocrat looked down at his coat and picked a piece of lint from his lapel. The collective exhale of the oasis normalized and the Aristocrat looked up, but refrained from pressing Beth any further. He turned in his chair and resituated his body, crossing his legs.

“There is no bother looking,” he said.

“At what?” She thought, defeated.

“It has been healed.”

Beth felt around her stomach, but couldn’t find the pain; the hole had been plugged. She felt actual fear in the bullethole’s absence.

“What are you?”

“…”

She closed her eyes to escape. She returned to the opaque plain of her subconscious and stood beside the petrified bodies of Alex and Cole, who still lay where she had left them. She looked up into the blank atmosphere and saw a black crow flap its wings overhead. “Crow?” She said, confused. The bird hovered overhead. She worried that he would get tired and fall. A snap popped at her feet and drew her attention down to Cole’s hand punching through his rock mold. The blue hand felt around for her ankle, then a black loafer came into view and ground its blunt heal into Cole’s icy flesh. The Aristocrat pivoted and swung around on the hand to face Beth. His lanky body towered over her and his chest heaved at her eye level as he peered down at her.

“These corpses are worse than bullets to you.”

“They were my friends.” She mumbled.

“Corpses will always be dead.”

“And memories?”

“Burn them.”

He raised his arm and attempted to place his hand on her shoulder, she pulled away and opened her eyes — she was back at the pass and caught herself from falling off of her horse.

“Twice in one day.” Their voices said together in her head — the Aristocrat sitting again at his chair.

“Stop it.” She yelled. “You have no right to be in there.”

“But I must know.” He said.

More ivy climbed up the legs of his chair.

“What?”

“I must know what brings you here?”

“I told you, I don’t know. I’m only here to cross over the mountains.”

“You are lost?”

“No.”

(He read her thoughts)

“You have a very limited concept of time to think that I am strange. If you knew where you were I would not be so wicked to you. You would know me quite well and know me as part of the mechanism.

“Mechanism?”

“Yes. So, I ask you again, what brings you here?”

“Brought me?”

“No, brings you. On what moment did you arrive?”

She closed her eyes to think, to disappear again. However, he still stood close to her in her mind, unwilling to give her peace. She jumped back, startled, but this time unable to pass back into consciousness.

“Shall we take a walk?” He asked.

He turned away from her and looked out onto the flat grassy plain.

“What secrets must mingle here?” He asked himself aloud.

Beth stood and watched him scan her thoughts.

The Aristocrat grabbed the collar of his mask and pulled the heavy canvas bag from his head and turned back towards her. Beth’s eyes mapped his face; for a moment unsure of what was missing to make it so grotesque. The lower jaw of the man was missing and all that remained were a set of decayed molars rotting at the back of his splintered mandible and a sick tongue unrolled. In contrast, his upper teeth were pearly white and hung down, exposed for exhibition. His nose was thin and pointy. His eyes were clear and encircled with bruised eyelids and a thin pair of bleached eyebrows to match his white periwig. His pallor was as if he had walked inside from the cold.  He ignored Beth’s hand pinching her lip, and in one unconcerned flourish pulled a blue kerchief from his coat pocket. He wound it tight and tied it around his head so a triangle piece covered his teeth.

“It’s rude to show your teeth to someone.” He said, turning only slightly to make slight eye contact with her.  Now, shall we?”

Beth’s world went dark. It brightened to a bustling café. He looked around in wonderment, scanned the white walls, the ornate crown molding, and the brass handrails of an iron spiral staircase that stood behind Beth. She stood at the opposite end of a round granite tabletop.

“Sit.” He said, as he took his chair. “Oh, my this is wonderful.” He gasped. “I’ve been forward in time, but never outside of, well…” He closed his thoughts.

However, Beth hadn’t heard a word from the Aristocrat. She was looking at a table on the other side of the room at a young woman wearing a white dress and black cardigan. Her hair was short. It was her. She sat with a young man wearing a black suit and a rounded white collared shirt. His brown hair was parted. Beth was unresponsive to the Aristocrat’s ploys to rouse her attention. She looked at the two, ensnared within the vines of melancholy, saddened by a memory she felt guilty to have forgotten.

“Guilt?” He questioned rhetorically. “No, no, your youth is nothing to mourn.”

His cold white hand pinched her chin. She pulled away, shuttered, and gave him a disgusted look.

“I’m not feeling guilty.” She snapped, noticeably upset. “I just don’t want to be here.”

“In your past, or with him?”

“Neither.”

“But, he seems like a nice boy?”

“A coward, actually.”

“I see.”

The young man stood and walked to the front counter. He collected two cups and saucer in his hands and returned to the table. He leaned forward, fumbled in a last ditched attempt, but the china crashed to the tile floor. Everyone in the café turned to see what the matter was, but Beth looked away.

“I want to leave.” She said, affected, nervously looking out the café’s large front window. “I’ll take you to where I can hurt you if you don’t let me leave here.” She said, now understanding the power of her own mind.

“They’re so in love.” He said, disingenuously.

All went black.

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FIVE DAYS IN NEW YORK CITY

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The fog had been thick for days in Seattle and that wet molasses which had descended from Alaska got me all caught up in myself and I needed to die in a good way and get out and forget about New Zealand too and become all that newness that comes when you leave home. I wanted all the heavy in my life to glance off my shoulders and I watched those good and bad memories slide off the airplane’s wings when it took off. I fell into New York City in the late afternoon and got wrapped up in her iron veins and was spit out in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and watched football at Cody’s where our waitress Kelly treated us like royalty while we drank pitchers of the local IPA and I was already making plans to never leave. I ended that night with a shot of grappa to wash down the wood pigeon ravioli I had just swallowed. The scent of big city and autumnal decay filled the blanks and I turned off whole.

The next couple days kept me spinning and loosing where north was or where south should be or where west was when the sun was going down. All that was there were building tops and stacks of brick, and limestone and granite edifices hammering their permanence down on the cityscape. Scurrying in between their toes were us little ants running around digging in the sand, forging paths which were erased as soon as they were dug. Footprints are impossible to imprint in cement, and you can’t make records of the past in New York City I don’t reckon. All that is there is the present and I liked that so much that I didn’t mind about getting lost in Manhattan. In fact that’s all I wanted to do was be lost.

Whenever I got hungry I ate a slice of pizza or a buttered bagel and every time I got thirsty I had a glass of water with a red wine and looked at my map while everyone else at the bar looked at their phones or the NY Times or sat chatting with a friend about this or that. I found the tether of a thousand conversations, the footsteps and heel clicks, cars honking, the rumble emanating from the subways the most refreshing braid of chaos. Seattle and Dunedin disappeared in her folds, which they had needed to for quite some time and I felt less buried than free and less forgotten than apart of a collective stream of volition, like a powerful river I suppose, and the last time I had thought of that was when I was in India flowing down stream with the wheel traffic. So I walked everywhere with everyone.

My steps took me all over and one day I walked from SoHo to the Lower East Side, to Hell’s Kitchen to see the M.I.A. show and met a whole bunch of crazies that could share a great time and then agree to never see each other again. This made the whisky burn less but the heart peak and all night felt only like a second. I woke up the next morning and thought about all that I used to have and what I can have in the future and what I had right then and all I knew was that I’d start with a glass of water and figure it all out after that.

That afternoon I Walked down 5th Avenue and swam through stone faces from Central Park all the way to 30 something Ave and went inside the Live Bate and loved how the dim lighting inside let the green and red walls speak nostalgic. In my head towered the cutouts of skyscrapers and bridges that I had only seen pictures of before. The city was real to me finally and that was what I was trying to get my head around over my morning glass of water. And everything after that was just a catalogue of good food and good old friends and art museums and parks and people watching. I thought to myself on a park bench in Central Park when the sun was setting on my last day that I’ve loved everywhere I’ve been and everyone I’ve shared life with during my travels. And the thought made me so relaxed I realized that I was exhausted.

Five days felt like one, but a very long and satisfying day. Living in the moment was effortless. I felt a part of something that had no end goal or sole purpose just an unapologetic attitude for existing. Everyone talks about the energy of New York City and I agree, but for me there was also an absence of absence and a different kind of redundancy far removed from always having one street to walk down or one store to buy milk at or one part of town to go to shop. It was also the diversity that was so invigorating; that there is every kind of person everywhere and we comingle with so many different stories being unsaid but regardless mixing together in the air above our heads. It’s what seemed to me to be an allowance to be whatever it is you want to be and an onus amongst the many to harness that and take it as far as it can go. I constantly had the feeling of diving head first into something and that is always a special feeling for me because it means I’m living. It felt like the kind of place where you could work to get found in or work to get swallowed in, like a spring or a well of endless possibility or distraction. The city is the center of the earth because it’s a profound statement about how we exist separately and together.

I want to be a humanist in New York City.

India Journal—Filthy and Exhausted—Return to Delhi

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11 January 2013

Joe and I have certainly gone mad. Ever since he chewed pan in Jaipur the back of his tongue doesn’t work. It’s funny, but also a little bit worrying.

We cannot pay bills without making mental errors and our conversations have become increasingly erratic and predominately about not bathing, not using toilet paper, and smelling like masala and general funk.

“I’m going to rent a room for an hour in Delhi before our flight out to take a shower.” Joe said to me on the bus out of Amritsar.

“Okay,” I said, “We’ll see what happens in Delhi.” I hadn’t much faith.

The past while I’ve been telling myself that I’m used to wiping my ass with my hand, but it has been a long-standing lie.

I haven’t taken a proper ‘water falling over my head’ shower in over two weeks. My last warm shower was ten days ago. My last cold bucket shower was a week ago. I dream of warm water and clean toilets and drinking water out of the faucet. These are gifts, luxuries of the 1st World that I’m cognizant of and want to utilize, enjoy and savior very much, and for the rest of my life. I’m going to get home and turn the tap on and watch its gliding clean silver pipe cascade into the sink. This I will definitely do.

So anyway, Joe cannot talk and I keep running into things. I’ve bruised both knees, smashed my thigh into the corner of a glass table, and cracked my shin on the corner of our bed frame in Delhi twice. I’m a walking disaster, an absolute Western time bomb of tired, and exhausted, and missing his friends, and missing his work, and missing fresh salads, and of course hot showers.

But, I’m happy. Actually, absolutely happy. Fucking happy. I think India gifted me with this strangely bizarre feeling in my heart that I can only refer to as optimism. I find this ironic, all considering, but life is ironic, and that is where the bulwark of its hilarity, joy and meaning seems to spawn.

14 -13 = 99

Dear Grandma,

There was this one time when I was young and in love that you told me a story about when you were young and in love. You were in the kitchen simmering milk when grandpa got home from work and the two of you started dancing in the kitchen. Your arms bumped into the saucepan and spilled the milk all over the floor. But, instead of cleaning up the mess you and grandpa paid no attention and kept on dancing on top of it. You said that when you’re in love nothing else matters besides moments like those. I imagine now, since your passing yesterday, that you and grandpa are dancing together again, not caring about the spilled milk, or of time, or of anything. You can stay in that moment forever. Your waiting is finally over. 

Your Grandson,

Josef

INDIA JOURNAL—DEATH ON THE ROAD TO DELHI

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January 8th 2013

There was no more fire blanket in Agra. No more mixing of heat waves and smog. Garbage fires burned like tea lamps. Seven boys and a full-grown cow hovered over a dying flame smoking on the street beside a burned out garage to keep warm. We mixed with the cold fog that suffocated the dirt alleyways. The soot soaked precipitation: an amorphous breath storm of nothing, pasted us to the walls, and we roved within it like moving pictograms appear to float in air.

A tuk-tuk chariot dropped us to the bus stop an hour early—an hour 45 in Indian time. We killed the added minutes conversing with two Germans about a tourist wearing a hospital mask taking pictures of a cow eating garbage on the side of the road. Some travelers here keep their head behind a camera, their senses hidden, everything at a distance to remain unaffected and deaf to the present.

We boarded the bus and sat in the very front. Above our heads, a 23-inch television sat precariously inside a cube cutout, propped up by a bible to keep it from falling forward. The bus was over-booked, so there was predictable chaos. Loud words slowly settled into begrudged acceptance. The Germans got on late and had to sit with our 22 year-old driver and his friends. Sardines were running this tin can. Two hours later we fought our way out of Agra proper, and the clock started. This was not going to be a 4-hour bus ride to Delhi.

The highway was a devil’s promenade. Grain trucks, hatchbacks, and motorcycles followed the dragon’s tongue north. The lizard’s cheeks were caked with bulbous sores of poverty—shacks, and camps, and mud hovels inhabited by the damned by circumstances beyond their control. It’s their birthright.

4-hour in, we had progressed 60 kilometers out of the 170 to Delhi. Endless tongue and timeless flatness swallowed time and left us stranded. I was fighting to finish the last two sections of On the Road: Kerouac’s decent into Mexico. At that moment I didn’t share his fascination or his feelings of freedom. Maybe two weeks ago when I was caught up in the bright storm of Bangalore’s flower market, but not now, not on this grey dead road, not on this rusted bus. The breaks hit, we slowed.

I saw the truck veer, the van pull, I saw the motorcycle flip and tumble like a weed of clipped springs. I saw the body of a young man lay like a baby on its side. He had baby feet. Their naked soles, fresh and pink, lay one on top of the other, toes curled in rest.

Time stopped because traffic stopped. Horns blared like trumpets calling the dead to action. Young men leapt from their hatchbacks and motorcycles and surrounded the baby, and like boys, stood there apprehensive to pick up the gentle soul lying so vulnerable and fresh. So, he just lied there alone. Like kings with myrrh and frankincense, the men on the bus all wanted to look at the child, they wanted to see the first born introduced to the world on the tip of the lizard’s tongue, in this universe that had lost meaning. I wanted to see the baby too, but just his feet.

Why no shoes? I asked myself. Why on earth would you ride a motorbike with no shoes on?

Our driver had a schedule to keep and forced his way to the shoulder to pass. The feet were no more, just a pulverized head lying bent back, an ugly retched throwaway face, no longer a beautiful baby boy. The apprehensive boys took pictures with their phones. I saw shoes stranded up the road.

I did something I haven’t done in years. I prayed. I prayed so hard that I curled up like a baby boy in my stomach and wished for the dragon to blow a breath and end this all right now. But, the devil sleeps in Delhi, and we were yet not close enough for him to care.

INDIA JOURNAL — JODHPUR — THE BLUE CITY

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JANUARY 2, 2013

The sun is about to rise in Jodhpur. The amplified prayer coming from the mosque down the street woke me up. The incessant honking of tuk-tuks and motorbikes has already begun. Towering above our guesthouse posited on the side of a cliff is a colossal stone fort capping its crown. This blue city is possibly the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

I’m sitting on my hotel’s roof above everything. Before me stands so many mud brick buildings on top and beside each other that you could bounce an echo from an alleyway at the north end of the city to the south without it leaking east or west on account of how tightly they’re packed. If the hand of god shook this place it would shatter. I pray that it never does because it’s too holy and blue.

The moon is on my back still, and the re-born sun is in my eyes. I’ve been away from home long enough that it’s beginning to melt; and India—this strange world—has become what’s real. The mosques, the Hindu temples, the faces and languages I don’t know, I know. I know what the slumbering beggars are dreaming, and what the howling dogs are screaming, but to be honest I don’t any longer know what Americans are thinking, nor the challenges that face me upon my return to New Zealand. Yet, I’m excited about accomplishing what I can manage. But for now it’s just me and this city of blue.

THOUGHTS ON THE WHITE WHALE

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My uncle Jed has always referred to Melville’s Moby Dick as a cathedral. The allusion filled my mind with images of leaky high vaulted ceilings and sopping wet church pews strewn with seaweed. Like the sea, I imagined the novel to be an ocean. I figured it to be near impenetrable and too vast for me to fathom. Since my early twenties I’ve often considered taking up the challenge, but always hesitated, telling myself that I’m still too young to read Melville’s masterpiece.

More times than not we read a particular novel because it’s recommended or given to us. Often our next read is laying on a table or a counter top when we’re between books and we figure that it’s worth a look. However, there are also times when a book finds you. The times when a novel so happens to fall on your lap and for no good reason you open it and it somehow seems to be tailored to your current life — it’s a remarkable occurrence that defies mere coincidence. It‘s as if you needed it and the novel gods tucked a special something under your pillow for you to find in the morning.

I found Moby Dick, or rather Moby Dick found me, after I had recommended it to a friend. I had no idea why I had recommended a book I’ve never read to a friend, but he seemed desperate to engage in some kind of material that mirrored his own feelings of being lost at sea. The more I thought about it, I realized that I was recommending Moby Dick to myself.

It was over two weeks ago that I was rummaging through my brother’s nightstand for a lighter when I found a 1961 paperback edition of the novel partially exposed under the corner of his bed. I would like to say that it was glowing, but in reality it looked incredibly worn out and ready to burst at the seams. As I’ve been coasting through it, pages have come loose from the spine and drifted to the floor; this particular copy will most likely never be read by another.

For four of the past five years I’ve been living outside of the United States. My hometown of Seattle—the beautiful emerald city in which I grew up in—by my mid-twenties began to feel like a prison. I felt landlocked, beaten down by the monotony of sameness that often plagues an adventurous spirit when he or she is in one place for too long. I moved to Ireland and licked Dublin’s cobblestone streets. I returned to Seattle to loose my marriage and then flew as far away as I could to New Zealand in search of whatever it was that was missing from my life.

Moby Dick is told from the perspective of Ishmael: a young man on a three-year whaling expedition captained by the mad one-legged Ahab. It’s not long after the Pequod pushes out enroute to the South Pacific that the crew comes to realize that they’re a means to execute Ahab’s obsession to find and kill the elusive white whale whom took his leg some years before. Ahab’s obsession becomes the crew’s ultimate goal as well; and as their ship sails deeper and deeper into the nothingness of the sea, the greater the myth of the white whale grows, until the sperm whale becomes an enigmatic monster of the deep. The leviathan transcends his massive bodily form and becomes a metaphor.

The white whale…

I had a dream as a teenager that I was sitting on a thick limb of a powerful tree looking out onto the Puget Sound when surfaced a giant white whale under the reflection of a full moon. The moonlight emanating from his slippery white skin filled me with a feeling that everything in my life will work out, and that success and happiness will accompany every endeavor I choose to explore. I’ve always remembered this dream as it was the most powerful dream I’ve ever had. I never knew that Moby Dick was a white whale until I begun the novel.

So, the deeper I crawled into the book the more vivid my recollections of this dream became. And beyond, the further into the book I sailed, the clearer the reflections of my time in Ireland, and the most current memories of New Zealand, returned to me. Faces, landscapes, moments of joy, or sorrow, of peace and war leaped from the pages in the strangest of ways.

The description of a sperm whale’s skeleton reflected the roads, alleyways, byways and trails I’ve traveled. The ship’s young lookouts becoming mesmerized by the expanse of the sea and overanalyzing its meaning while standing precariously on top of the Pequod’s main mast at the expense of their falling, awakened me to how I have overanalyzed the many components of my life that I have no control over. Likewise, Captain Ahab’s obsessiveness reminded me of my own slip into codependence that as of late I’ve found a terribly embarrassing feature I’ve acquired through the loneliness of travel. The sea itself, as depicted in the novel, became the vast openness of life. The white whale: the elusive corpus of meaning that I’ve been hunting for since I left home.

Ahab’s monomania subjugates him from everyone else and walled him inside his cabin. He speaks of nothing else, thinks of nothing else, but the white whale. All the interactions available to him, the sea of possibility that he drifts aimlessly on, the plethora of other whales caught by the crew and rendered for their precious oils, is ignored; and so the whole world it seems is passing him by. He is not living, but yet alive. Reading on, Moby Dick, the metaphor, became too huge to ignore. Without realizing it, my own story became enmeshed in Ishmael’s narrative. I was no longer reading a novel as much as I was reading into myself.

The white whale I chase is the unattainable measurement I have applied to what it means to be living life to the fullest; the whale is the impossible standard of intellectual potential I fail to match; the unrealistic parameters I’ve applied on loving and being loved; the unfair expectations I place on others. So what is the white whale really?

Ishmael joined the Pequod in search of adventure. However, his adventure became ensnared in the obsession of another. Conversely I’ve found, in the hunt of what it is to be a man, that I’ve been a man for a while now, but acting under the naive and impossible assumptions of manhood founded by the boy that dreamed of the white whale years before. The white whale is exactly enigmatic, mythical, and a monster because he is a complete waste of time. The whale symbolized everything that opposes living; he is the ghost we chase in the dark; the fractured echoes of the past that cannot be changed. He is the hurt and the pain that we hold onto instead of living. At some point the hunt has to stop. The present must prevail.

It’s funny how a book can hurt then heal you. It still amazes me how deep the form can dig into one’s life. The novel has the power to expose to each and every one of us the inner workings of the human condition. It has the ability to find you.

I suppose I had to come home to break a cycle. I’ve been leaving things for too long now. Chasing ghosts and taking for granted the many gifts I’ve been given by so many amazing people. I think it is time to start going places for a change. My adventures are not nearly over. New Zealand for example was a place I went to in order to run away from somewhere else, and because of that, I began to destroy myself like Ahab let the white whale destroy him. I was lonely even when surrounded by some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. All for the sake of chasing down an idea of a man that I already was.

For now I know that from now on home is wherever I am. There is no need to worry about anything else. No doors are closed. New Zealand is always there and so is everywhere else. A novel taught me this.

“Thus, I give up the spear!” -Ahab

INDIA JOURNAL — DESPERATE DAVE — MUMBAI

Dave is from Manchester. He’s an alcoholic. Dave’s an alcoholic in love with a beggar. He said to me that he’s been offered sex for as little as three Rupee. He’s a Manchester City fan. He said that he’s been in Mumbai for six weeks; the bar manager at the Alps Tavern said he’s been living in the train station for 5 years. Dave says a lot of things.

Everyone in Colva knew Dave. The businessmen, the bar men, the beggars, the rug salesmen, even the dogs. The men at the Western Union knew Dave very well.

That’s how Joe and I met the skinny, chinless man I called desperate Dave. We were eating at the Alps when he invited himself to our table and said that he was desperate and needed help. He needed to get his money held up in the Western Union.

His eyes shifted nervously as he told us his sad story and his accent became chewier the deeper he took us down his well. To get his money he needed a name and an address so the money could be wired to someone beside himself.

“Why?” Was the question Joe, the two Aussies we had meet at the hostel, and myself asked. “This bloody beggar that I thought was my friend stole my passport.” He said.

Dave said that all Indians are liars and cheats.

The Aussies wanted no part in it, but Joe being Joe wanted to see where this was going to lead and agreed. I actually didn’t mind because Dave’s fear was honest enough and he appeared far too high strung to actually pull off a legitimate con. So I said to Joe, “Go for it.” But that my signature stays in my hand, so don’t ask me for nothing.

Dave got smashed quickly and we went outside for a cigarette and he knelt down nose-to-nose with a three year-old beggar girl and yelled in her face to fuck off and go home — home being a mat beside the curb on the opposite side of the road. She just laughed at him. Enraged, Dave picked her up and her two year-old brother and threw them over his shoulders and walked them across the street to where their mother was asleep in the dirt.

Supposedly Dave gets angry when he drinks. But I get angry when drunks exercise their insecurities. He was lucky to have read my stare right when he returned, and he apologized. He said when he gets his money he’ll get us drunk.

The next evening I accompanied Joe and desperate Dave to the Western Union and while they were dealing with that mess I saw that there were phones there and I wanted to call home but I knew it was too late there. Under the circumstances it wouldn’t have been the best idea anyway.

Anything with Dave is possible and sure enough the name on the money transfer didn’t match Joe’s name, as it was still in Dave’s, so Dave had to call his mother in Manchester to sort it out. Joe and I got a beer with Dave while we waited for the money to be re-wired, and found Dave when sober to be quite the pussy cat, of course—just a starved alley cat too afraid of life to live it; killing himself slowly to end it.

Dave got his money. We walked off into the haze of Mumbai’s night. Two hours later, when we were trying to make a night out of New Year’s Eve, we ran into Dave on the steps of the Alps, pissed drunk and probably broke again. He looked lost in thought, wondering when the next Joe Stockman would arrive off of the steel trains willing to help.

We counted off the new year at the Georgian gate on the harbor—exactly where we started our time in Mumbai—then headed back to the hostel and listened to the fireworks explode in our ears, the taxis honk continuous, and the cheers rattle off the brick façade of the Taj Mahal Hotel until morning. Then we left it all behind. Left Dave behind us for good.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH ABOUT A LION

I’m fully aware that I’m their driver. That’s what I get paid for. They tell me where they want to go and I take them there. It’s a transaction. They want to see the city; I take them through the neighborhoods. They want to go to a view; I can do that too. The glass that separates the front seat from the rest of the limousine best defines our roles; it’s just me captaining the vessel, I’m employed so the beautiful people can consume their champagne and not have to pay attention to the road. In this regard the tint to the window between compartments obstructs any empathy between us, and casts only a reflection. They can only see themselves, which I suppose, since it’s their adventure, is fair. They can’t see my face and I’m too busy to focus on theirs, which is natural and obvious and for the best I suppose. Our relationship is transparent, a means to an end; at least I know it to be so.

I’m not a taxi. And it may surprise you that the variation of passengers I pick up is quite limited. There’s the affluent couples: their subsets demarcated by age. The young preload on cheap champagne and wine before having me drop them at a swanky pizza parlor. And often in these scenarios the drunker the young man in the back gets, the greater his urge to impress his girl. He wants to know my name, thinking that if we are on a first name basis that he can ask me to pick them up more liqueur; to deviate from the schedule and pick up more friends; to ignore his brutish and suggestive advancements on the poor girl that has found herself alone with a spoiled brute.

The twenty-somethings are not the easiest, but the best. They love hard and hate hard and show it on their jacket sleeves and gown straps. They are by far the most honest, at least if they let themselves be honest about their fleeting youth. They drink heavily to understand each other. Spend coin to understand fine food. Talk about the failures of their friends as if they are immune to the same fates. There’s an optimism that comes with a young couple when they forget about the rest of the world and create their own. I wish it lasted longer because it is a beautiful thing to watch.

The married are different. Some happy, some not; but contentment and stalemate look the same behind the glass. The mundane details of the day become something to ignore, but an impossible vehicle not to use to steer conversation with. They look out the window more. Observe the passing buildings, the October trees shedding leaves, the down and outs picking through garbage cans. They are affected and tip well.

The elderly couples on their way to the opera, or to their favorite restaurant, say little but often are in love with the gentle stream of long love. They burn the bottom of the limousine’s seats like coals. If I could just take the twenty-somethings, and the breathless old lovers, I would be happy. It would be like observing flame and then embers without the dying.

***

Tonight is cold and cloudless. I’m off to East Moyer, an affluent neighborhood where the streets are lined with ancient chestnuts whose thick trunks stand strong and tangled like a giant’s hand holding a bouquet up from the ground. The brick side streets glow from the street lanterns casting yellow light down from above. Off the bluff lies the black Atlantic swallowing itself. The mighty houses here in Moyer make ants out of the multiple SUV’s parked in their driveways. Their interiors are particular and clean. Their white walls are adorned with original artwork, mantels dresses with antique clocks and family portraits, bookcases crammed with first editions and folios belonging in museums, liqueur cabinets stocked to elude to refined control and temperance. Or at least, this is what I imagine.

I park outside of 1118 Harbor and wait. The first to open the door is a young man in a suit accompanied with a young brunette woman in a black sequined dress. To follow is a pressed white shirt buckled down with suspenders, and a good-looking upright young man in a waistcoat and bow tie. Their dates push out the doorway also in sequins, feathers and furs. Their dress, laughter and the scattered nature of their departure tell me that they’re in their mid-twenties, off to dinner then a costume party, and have depleted the gin stockade from the liqueur cabinet.

“My good man!” The suit says to greet me, “Can you tell what decade we’re from?”

He’s grinning, happy, full of himself and it is fine. He’s olive skinned, hair thick and parted well. The soft brown in his eyes picks up the yellow light emanating from the brick street and I like him for it.

“Chase. Chase Velo.” He shakes my hand. “There are my fools for the night. Don’t we look so? We’re off to Franco’s for dinner and then the Metropolitan for a ball. Did you collect the champagne?”

“Indeed Mr. Velo, it’s on ice as you asked.”

His fools stand together looking more like tonight’s chosen children. The regal blond in yellow and a feathered headband cuts in the pause.

“Chase, we allowed to smoke in the limousine? It’s cold.” She asked, crossing her naked arms, and squeezing them, pretending I wasn’t there. Her strong features but soft manner is perhaps an indication of her personality, strong and tender-hearted, all in one.

“What do you say driver? How is it?”

The waistcoat with a face cutout like a lion came in before I could answer no.

“Classless Lucy… really.”

I remained looking at her, she faked unaffected, her eyes neglecting the twitch indicative of a prior bad decision she’s now believes she’s stuck in. She was the unfortunate. The silence that followed his remark from the others meant that he’s a cutter. Chase showed restraint, looked at his date, as she looked at the ground. The lion was one of those types that cares less for a girl to make them want him more, and it works somehow, but all for all the wrong reasons. Funny how you just know, sometimes.”

“You’re welcome to smoke outside at anytime, miss.” I said to damn the lion. “I can pull over when and wherever you like.”

“My kind of driver!”

I looked to the soft voice that said it. Tall, dark, a slipping glacier of finger waves pasted to the side on her temple. Lips meaty, and I knew then that she was with the bold looking young man tied up in suspenders. Why, because all his words I could tell stayed in his month as something to chew on. She was the talker.

“We can smoke outside the restaurant. Lets stop wasting time.”

“Vivienne called it.” Chase said, giving me a wink as if I was to understand his girl’s needs as well as the rest.

“Let’s crack the champagne!” She said looking up from the ground.

I opened the door and watched them group together, Chase letting Vivienne in first, Bee the talker leading in her bold boy, and the lion leaving Lucy at the end of the chain.

***

Four bottles of Clicquot spared of their worth and the beautiful twenty-somethings cascade out of my limousine in the same order they entered. Vivienne with tempered grace, Chase with eager flames in his eyes, Bee a fresh application of lipstick, her bold boy, frank barely able to hold in his intoxicated identity, The beautiful lion dim eyed, and Lucy steady like the champagne had made her sober. Chase opened a silver case and passed out cigarettes to his fools and lit each one before his own.

“Driver.” He shouted. I’m one leg away from reentering my vehicle. “Come have a cigarette with us.”

I’ll always share a cigarette with my clients. It’s the least I can do, and I like Chase, and really all of them, including the lion, even if I have the feeling that he’ll break my heart by the end of the night.

I refuse Chase’s offer and pull and light one of my own cigarettes. Bee smiles and asks.

“I don’t want to call you driver; it’s so rude I think. What’s your name?”

“…”

“Soft, but strong.” bee laughs, “Love it, fits you.”

“Could have we found a better driver?” Chase praises.

Lucy looks at her lion looking at Vivienne. Frank watches Bee turn into a future bedtime dream. Chase sees Vivienne’s chin lift the skyscraper on the other side of the street. I see them all loving hard and hating hard under the surface.

They ask me questions about their predicament, about the future when this moment will subside into long workweeks without the energy to pretend. I tell them to forget about that and live in the 20s. They loved that and walk into the restaurant excited to be dressed like they were from a better time, drunk with the belle epoch illusion, excited by the ideal of being inhabited by the ghosts that made life a meal.

I parked on the exposed roof of the parking garage the next block over and looked out upon the bead-lit city. For every light there is a body at least. And for every body there’s a potential to love, love like the love I’ve felt for so many women in my past. I don’t know why I’m just a driver, something of a facilitator, a guy in a suit with a map in his head of every side street that makes up the city. What about my potential? Maybe just as I drive without a destination for myself, I want to watch life proceed without any invested interest. That so, I don’t drive at all, after all. Maybe because I’ve hurt too many and have  been hurt too often. I’m protecting myself. I wouldn’t want to be the one to collide with this limousine.

I get the call to return. Start the night again.

The fools slowly meander out of the restaurant. The chain is breaking and the night is still young. Chase and Lucy come out first. They’re drunk. Lucy no longer refined; something inside has happened. They talk like they’ve known each other longest. Chase is the one to sooth the situation. Vivienne, Bee and the bold follow. There is no lion and I gather this is where the masks break.

The skyscrapers grow taller. I get out of the car and offer cigarettes to the three so Chase can do his work. But Lucy asks in a dull voice, to hide any register of anger.

“Where is Vic?”

“At the bar talking about himself.” Bee says out the corner of her mouth as I light her cigarette.

Then I do the last thing I’d ever expect. It was the look of disgust on Bee’s beautiful face, the hardening of Lucy’s; the moment where I saw that Chase loved two women and Vivienne knew. When Frank said out loud that the lion is an asshole, as if offended.

“’I’ll get him.” I said. “I know the bartender’s here anyway, not a problem.”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I walked into the foyer, passed the host, and cut through the clatter of silverware and crossed conversations, to enter the bar. There the lion sat with a scotch, a young woman checking her phone next to him, and a bartender raising an eyebrow at me, instinctually knowing who I was looking for.

“Vic, isn’t it? We’re waiting for you.”

“Well wait then.” He said smugly. “I’ll be right out.”

“Lucy is waiting for you.”

“She can wait.”

The young women looked up from her phone, looked at me, said please to meet you and that I have your number to Vic, and then left for the bathroom.

“Have you paid your tab?” I asked.

“Aren’t you the driver?” Vic bit. “What is the driver doing telling me what to do? Have a drink with me instead. I’ll pay.”

“Finish up and lets go.”

He looked into my eyes, searching for a weakness, and sure I have a few, but not for him, not now.

“You think I’m arrogant don’t you? Well, that’s not it. And even if I’m wrong, I can say at least that women love it. You may not, but what do I care about that? Did you not see the woman that just left? Did you not see her? See, you wouldn’t believe what arrogance can get you.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Yes I am, but did you not?”

“Yes I did. Now come on, Lucy is outside.”

“Chase can have her. Take her home, do whatever he likes. Doesn’t matter much. She’ll tire of him within days.”

“That’s none of my business.” I said. “Lets go.”

He drained his glass, stood up, swayed, and walked passed me to the entrance.

***

I walked behind the lion deciding if I’d let the glass break between my passengers and I. However, what business is it of mine to interfere in the lives of others? And Vic had a point, a sick point about his character. His arrogance did make him desirable. He is desirable. Something about his defiant features and his inability to care about the feelings of others over his own needs makes him a bastion for broken spirits. And if I could feel it, then anyone else could, Lucy must, and must hate herself for it. His friends must hate him too but love what knowing him can give them. It’s an evil thing, security, especially when every one of us is insecure except for a person like Vic. Loving him must feel substandard, but in the real word the hungry follow. I decided at that moment when he exited the door that I hated him like I loath myself.

The slap came loud. Lucy put everything into it. The lion laughed.

“Go fuck yourself.” Lucy yelled.

I could see the slap wasn’t just about the girl at the bar, but for everything.

He laughed harder and grabbed Vivienne around the waist. She fought out of it.

Chase came in between Vivienne and the lion.

“What the hell was that, Vic?”

The punch came quick and Chase was down on the sidewalk. Bee got in his face and he pushed her down easily. Lucy pushed him back and he slid his hand across her face and went to grab her hair.

“What are you trying to do!” Vic yelled.

And before I could step in Frank took hold of the lion’s mane and thrust his nose into the granite wall of the restaurant, Lucy trailing within his grasp. But when the head hit, the hand released, and the body fell loose. Frank stood over him, huffing loud now that all the words that had been caught in his mouth were expended. And Bee looked at him terrified, and Lucy looked at the blood espousing from her true love, and Vivienne looked at the sleeping lion wishing that he would wake up a saint, and Chase felt unloved because he was bleeding too, but alone — and I, standing there feeling helpless knowing now that there was so much more to this story then I could ever have imagined.

Vic came to, looking at his friends as if unaware of what happened, and rested his back up against the building staring off into space. Lucy put her hand up to his face and he pushed it away and she tried to put it back, while she sobbed, but he grabbed it and threw it away again while Chase longed for it because Vivienne had walked away.

The lion refused help and staggered to his feet. Spit blood in the direction of his friends as he trailed off. And I refused to walk after him because he didn’t deserve any attention at all. We all watch and admired.

“Where you going?” Bee yelled at him.

“To the fucking ball.” He said and slowly faded away down the street.

The rest of us sat devastated on the sidewalk, all dressed up with nowhere to go but home.

THE DUEL (SECTION FROM MY FIRST NOVEL)

The crows had brought Simon to the hill. He left his horse at the bottom and climbed up its steep face. He settled into an earthen cavity behind the ruins of a stone bunker. He peered through an opening. There were two duelers, one dressed in white, the other black, as well as their seconds, and a judge. The pistols were raised. The signal was given and a loud crack rang out. The crows jumped and cawed on the moss-covered stones above Simon. The duelers stood — unwounded — a lead tangle somersaulted down a mountain of the same, mounded in between them. Simon dismissed the obvious; he was unable to believe the improbable, a draw. And, the judge, Beth’s father?

The two-dimensional men on the hill thickened into a rounded quintet, working as one machine, pulleys and levers strung together by a shared principle, connected by a unifying theory: to perform a metaphor. Still, the task lay undefined, and its purpose cloaked in costume and formality. Conjoined twins, fused by the principle of balance, the duelers were at the heart of the mystery. Or was the father: the judge to blame? They stood admirably, unaffected by mortal existence, bored by the human echo in the hollow of time.

None of this explained why her father was there. It was a bad omen. This place was a place of fear, a trial. The men exchanged the guns for reloading. Simon watched the duelers. They moved the same, breathed the same; there was nothing distinguishable between them besides their appearance. Appearance had become arbitrary; death proven beatable. He knew it. What was left? Her father looked the same, but a wax copy, a facsimile of his former self. Something was wrong, Simon had gotten things wrong. He wasn’t dead, this wasn’t about dimensions; it was about something deeper. He was a part of it, concrete like the judge, not a symbol —  not a diamond thought — but a personal shackle, unwanted, not a part of the scheme, but solid and unforgettable. This place wasn’t a world, but a kingdom of memory.

Simon changed. The kingdom dissolved, the men evaporated, there was only the boy. He blinked, Simon saw himself, but it wasn’t him. The boy was perfect like the cable to a gondola. His innocence transcended all violence, all war. There was no longer a war, hadn’t been for years, not in the original sense. Yet, there was a fight still taking place. He was a participant, a performer trying to complete the saga. How long had he been on the run? He didn’t know. Where was he going? Did it matter? It would find him when the time was right. He had no control. The lack there of was a relief somehow.

Simon stood up in the vacuum to engage with the boy, but the hill returned, the men stood at attention. The Duel — perpetual — returned to dictate the sun’s decent. This is how the tides turn, by opposite twins. The boy was gone.

Simon walked around the bunker, exposed himself to the machine. The duelers did not waver. Jeffers, Michael, and the judge turned their heads. Their eyes scanned, they twisted their lips with disapproval.

“Young man,” Said the judge, “you are underdressed.”

“Painfully.” Michael whispered.

“Magnificent!” Jeffers trembled.

“I escaped.”

(Laughter.)

“Hiding?” The judge repeated.

“From the Capitol.”

“Which Capital?” Michael asked.

“The Capitol’s scouts.”

(They didn’t understand.)

“The Capital of what?” The judge asked.

The judged looked down, resisted a thought, looked up, unaffected.

“For whom?” Michael grinned.

“Magnificent!” Jeffers gasped.

“The Capitol is the government we are at war with.” Simon said.

“…”

The judge closed his eyes to rub out his impatience.

“As I was saying; you are dreadfully underdressed. We are in the middle of important business.”

“Yes, yes, important business, very important business.” Jeffers said.

He fixed his spectacles.

“What kind of business?”

“Important business” The judge fired back.

“Truly, of the utmost!” Jeffers agreed.

“A complete waste of time.” Michael mumbled.

“Remember Michael what happened the last time.” The judge stabbed.

Michael tugged the kerchief tied tight around his neck that covered a deep scar.

“There is a score to settle between the two gentlemen.” The judge pointed to the duelers. “All debts must be settled, all honor must be restored.”

“Debts are paid and honor restored, quite right, debts and honor, balance is in order.” Jeffers stuttered.

“Who offended who?”

Silence washed over them. Stuck inside of their own minds, Simon waited for them to resurface. They attempted to rescue any information that could reveal how the duel started. No answers. Jeffers broke the silence.

“We are here you see, well, here you see, because we must participate. Yes, participate. We must participate because we always have, all of us. Yes, but some do actively, yes like you, actively participate in this exchange.”

“Shut up you fool!” Michael said. “He hasn’t any idea what you are talking about.”

“I don’t?”

Simon received no answer. They looked at him, pitifully, and confused; all they knew was the duel, no particulars. They feared the forests, the gorges, and the desert most. All they knew was the hill. They knew nothing of the war, of Simon’s misfortunes, or of the witches. They had no answers. They were pulleys and gears; too busy performing from the inside to recognize forms from the outside. Aristotle was a myth.

“It’s time.” The judge said.

He looked sad. Long ago he had done something wrong; it ate at him like a wound at his side.

Jeffers and Michael returned to their places beside the judge whom assumed his position at the table. Simon stood behind Jeffers and the judge and faced the duel. Aristotle returned and stood on the far end of the hill, between the two duelers.  His green eyes cut the somber grey that had settled over the meadow. A cold breeze swooped down — the boy seemed to bend with the wind like a reflection.

“Who is the boy?” Simon asked. “Do you see him on the far edge?”

“Gentlemen raise your weapons!” The judge cried.

The duelers raised their weapons.

“Gentlemen, proceed on my signal.”

The judge lifted his arm in the air. Two explosions burst, Simon flinched. The two pieces of lead combined and fell. Simon eye’s fell with them. He looked up to the boy. Aristotle: emotionless. Simon continued to stare. Smoke tethered between them. Aristotle mouthed words as the judge spoke.

“Gentlemen, due to the results of this last exchange, have the honor of either the man wearing white or the man wearing black been satisfied?”

The boy mimicked the judge’s address.

“Never.”

The Second of each shooter went to retrieve their master’s weapon while the boy smiled at Simon. He slipped from the other side of the hill and was gone.

Simon stood stripped. The games were useless. He had played long enough. They had nothing to do with him; he had nothing to do with himself. Identity was the last prank. Jeffers had called him active, he had realized that he was more so concrete, like the judge, but the spectrum of his existence transparent. There had never been meaning for him. The cabin, Beth’s fortress, where had it gone? Everything was malleable. All contradictions.

“Where is the cabin?”

“You always have been my boy!” The Judge said, wet eyed. “I told those two buffoons the weather was going to turn. Like clockwork the clouds roll in. I tell you, young man, if there is sun in the morning, it is sure not to last. Awe well, that is just the way it is, just words from a traitor.”

In his mind Simon recalled the camp, the sewers, the rebellion. He saw the knight’s tattoo and the crows. He saw bombs, freedom: the totality of terror. He saw a witch and a trunk. He saw the Aristocrat. That sick twisted man without a jaw.

“Why am I here? Why are we here? What is the point to any of this?” He shouted.

“Don’t raise your voice at me.” The judge responded.

Jeffers peered through the chamber of his master’s revolver and mumbled to himself.

“Yes yes, why, the most beautiful word to flower from opposition… Opposition is the giver and the taker, the machine of machines, indeed the mover of all things. …Scales and balance, yes, scales and balance. Where was I? Why? Yes, debt and honor restored and enemies befriend enemies. Suppression begets suppression until the bridge breaks, until the bridge breaks.”

Jeffers slipped the bullet into the chamber and locked the carousel into place. His intelligence flickered from his beady eyes and ripened Simon’s. Michael reloaded, looked up, but lost his will to speak. They passed the guns back to their masters. The judge looked up to the sky, finding solace where the silver clouds overlapped, an embrace that obscured a blue sky he knew was underneath. The seconds took their places. The judge lowered his head and stood prouder than usual.

“Tell her that I’ve always loved her.” He said, without looking at Simon.

Simon felt worry.

“Gentlemen raise your weapons!”

Both duelers raised their weapons.

“Gentlemen, proceed on my signal.”

He held onto his lapels, smiled, pinched the brim of his hat, tipped it, and bowed to Simon.

The moment sat sticky, the breeze continued to blow, the judge took a second to wipe the sweat as it slipped from the canal between his mustaches. Simon turned his head; the boy was back, standing in the same place as before. Aristotle completed the circuit — Simon wanted to leave. It was time.

The judge threw up his arm and two bursts of blue flung themselves from each pistol. Simon closed his eyes. In the darkness he heard a buzz approach, like a propeller, coming right for him. He thought he would never get the chance to open his eyes again. But, the propeller never severed. He opened his eyes. The boy had both hands clasped over his mouth in horror (this wouldn’t be the last time, Simon knew). Simon looked down beside him, a bloody hole through the Judge’s neck. He wheezed and wheezed. Then silence. The breeze caught his hat and it tumbled down the hill. Jeffers and Michael walked up to their masters —both  jealous — to retrieve the pistols. Unaffected with the gruesome death of the judge.

Simon stared into the judge’s lazy green eyes and watched the silver clouds from above reflect and move across them. It was like looking down from the heavens, through the clouds, and onto the grassy hill. The dual perspective was not without injury. Simon shook, his bones ached. His heart tore. He looked at the judge’s fading lips, curled into a half smile, and himself smiled by terror to complete it. Aristotle had disappeared again. The round was complete.