Snippets—On Character

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There’s this recurring character who appears in my stories. He’s not of one fixed identity; she can be another. Together, they build and destroy, damage and revive memories under a chain-linked arbor of narrative. I’ve called him Simon, her name has been Mary. They’ve both meant the same to me: an undisturbed arc of life after death.

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The Neighbor

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I was on a call, in front of my apartment building, telling a friend I couldn’t make it to trivia night because I had to get more work finished on my dissertation. He asked, “When’s that going to be finished–it’s taking forever.” “Soon,” I said. I saw a guy fumbling with a couple boxes enter into my building. I quickly ended the call and chased down the door before it closed.

The first time I met my neighbor was in the elevator. He cradled a box of papers in his arms and looked at the elevator’s floor buttons like they were about to tell him something interesting. There was another box at his feet with an Irish drum and a ukulele in it. I said, “Hi.” I said, “Nice bodhran. Nice ukulele.” He said, “Yeah.” That was the extent of it. We got out on the same floor, walked to the two doors closest to the elevator, and acknowledged that we were neighbors without acknowledging each other.

The next week, I saw a strange man get out of a green hatchback parked in front of the apartment building. His small, tasseled, black leather coat awkwardly hugged his soft body like an ex-girlfriend. He wore a newsboy cap, oval glasses, and fucking bike shoes cloaked by a pair of baggy boot-cut jeans. He turned, looked at me and either smirked or sneered, I couldn’t be sure. His beady eyes followed me as I passed. I felt that he was as judgmental as me. What a dick.

A couple weeks went by without seeing my neighbor. I forgot about him. His little coat, his newsy, and his wire rimmed glasses faded from my memory. But then he returned. It was hard to tell if it was him at first sight because it was nighttime and he had a head lamp on. He was by the front door, standing over his road bike, plunging his spandex-wrapped cheeks between its top tube. He was fiddling with his phone. I approached. He didn’t look up. I held the door for him and waited. After a moment he looked up, and then shewed me. Shewed me with a flapping hand. Shewed me and then smirked or sneered. I stood my ground, held the door, and he looked up again, raising his hands like he didn’t understand. I said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you say anything and thought you were swatting at something.” He said, “As if,” and looked back down at his phone. “As if.”

At 6am the next morning the knocking came. It started as a soft tap on my bedroom wall. It had a rhythm: boomp, boomp, boomp. But then it grew louder and faster, and then there was a soft whimper followed by a loud growl. A sex growl that was so vulgar and tactless, I felt less annoyed by being woken up by my neighbor having sex than sorry for his partner. But after his egregious sexual release, I heard her giggle, giggle like it was cute. Cute sex growls. I looked over at my girlfriend and she was staring at the ceiling. That growl will be seared into her mind all week, maybe longer even. The growling continued, every morning, the loud animal-like interjection soaking through our bedroom wall.

Things were going too far. The boomps and the growls and the annoying howls from his two miniature long-haired terriers began to wear on me. I couldn’t write in the morning any longer, I couldn’t read at night over the irregular strumming on his ukulele. I prayed for peace and quiet, for evenings in silence and mornings filled only with the sound of chirping birds and the whoosh from the local bus driving past. But things continued to get weird, and the frequency of our meetings increased.

The following week, I went on a walk to clear my mind and who was it coming toward me in full gallop but my neighbor, wearing an olive-green, wrestling onesie and a red, white and blue terry cloth headband. His pectoral flaps oozed through the straps of his ill-fitting suit, and I could tell the depth of his bellybutton from 50 feet away. Half inch. He and his girlfriend drew nearer, and I could hear him giving her running advice about proper running form. “Make your spine an oar.” “Envision that your feet are rocks wrapped in pillows.” “Don’t look at me, look straight, past the finish line, to your goal,” he said, all in the span of thirty-feet. They passed, and he gave me a nod.

It was at this moment, just after his incoherent mansplaining, that I realized that this psychopath is happier than me. In fact, way happier than me.

The reckoning came yesterday. It was a long day at work. My hands were swollen from swinging a hammer all day. The elevator opened and he was standing outside his apartment door in a blue kimono, both his dogs tied around his leg, with a bowl of cereal in his hand. He slurped a thimble of milk from his spoon and looked up at me. His dogs began to circle and bark. I’m sure the expression on my face asked the question that he immediately answered. “My dogs need a break from the apartment,” he said. “But this is the time of day where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, so I can’t walk them.”

“I wish I hadn’t put any effort into anything today,” I said.

He nodded in agreement and pulled the lapels of his kimono a bit tighter to hide his chest hair.

“I have a regiment,” he said. “Sex daily, coffee daily, work M through Fri, lunch at 1pm, run every other day, bike to work three times a week, ukulele every night to settle my existential disquiet. All great, but it’s the hour after work, the block of my dia” (why he said day in Spanish, I have no idea) “where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, when I feel the most special.” His face made that pained crease again; his smirk or sneer, I realized, was a signal of his hope that you understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. “Shit man, I must be boring you though,” he said.

“No, not really,” I said, in a state of confusion and pre-hilarity. “I’ve noticed that you take your regiment seriously.”

“You mean the kimono? Yeah, I’ve got a costume for every phase, changing into the right uniform for the job,” he said. “Helps me complete the task.”

His little greasy dogs stared at me, tremoring in place.

“Well…” I said, taking a step towards my door.

“What’s your best part of the day?” He said.

“Eating.”

“Besides eating,” he said. “Carnal desires are dope, but I’m talking about that human shit.”

“Human shit,” I repeated. “Okay, writing.”

“I knew it. I knew the construction thing was a front.”

“…”

“I mean, you’re not a football fan, I can see it, so you start tracing it all back, and nothing makes sense, man. You ever trace it all back while you swing that hammer, but none of it makes sense?”

His lips turned into the letter ‘o’ and he stood assertively still like he just dropped an existential A-bomb in our hallway.

“Yeah, well choosing the path of least resistance can keep the pedals moving, but a bicycle can’t get you over an ocean,” I said.

“BOOM!” He said and opened his fist, palm to the floor, to imitate a mic-drop.

“Keep doing you, man.”

“You too.”

I turned into my door.

“I forgot to mention,” he said, “that we play Settlers of Catan every other Friday night at 8pm if you and your lady want to come by?”

“What do you wear on your gaming nights,” I asked.

“My periodic table t-shirt,” He said, proudly.

“Sounds good. We’ll be there. This Friday?”

“Naw, next.”

I entered my apartment and both my cats were there to greet me. It smelled like the cat box. Feline wasabi. I pulled off my work clothes and looked at my dirty face in the bathroom mirror. Despite the grit and dust, I knew I looked better than I have in a long time. I reached for the hot water knob when I heard pounding coming from the other side of my bathroom wall.

“Put me in a story,” my neighbor shouted. “Enjoy your shower.”

“Yep,” I hollered.

I took a long, hot shower and watched the sediment on my body funnel down the drain. I toweled off and shaved. Clean, but alone. Liz was still working at a coffee shop up the street. I thought to myself, “I quit drinking nine weeks ago, so why do I feel so depressed?” My little cat waited outside the bathroom door and looked up at me when I opened it. “Have you ever tried to trace it all back, Kitten?” I asked her. “Tried to trace it back and ask yourself, ‘why do I always wait outside the bathroom door while dad takes a shower?’” She gave me one of her gravelly smoker’s meows, and I took her as answering, “No.”

I checked my email and saw that my university will not extend my deferment for another year. “It’s been four years… pay and finish or don’t… we don’t care…” was the gist of the head of the Postgraduate Department’s email to me. I checked the box and sent it to the trash bin.

I tried to write but was too tired to put down anything meaningful. I need a regiment, I thought. Liz came home and I told her I love her. I’ll write good words tomorrow. Better words tomorrow.

 

THROW AWAY FACES — SECTION OF A CHASE SEQUENCE IN OLD SEATTLE

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I jumped over the body of the splintered man and looked up to the roofs above. There, a silhouette stood looking down at his good work. He then ran along the ledge, then turning inward and out of view. There were two ways out of the alley, north or south. I elected to trot south.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” The Chief yelled.

I turned back and saw him standing as only a shadow backlit by his men’s lanterns. “I’m running south, you fly north.” I yelled back. The lanterns boggled then turned and with them the chief. I sprinted in the muck to the mouth of the alley and stopped on Columbia Street, facing the fire station. It stood out as if it were embossed with some twinkle of significance I was yet to understand. I could see it burning in an ironic blaze of sharp flames and blistering wind. Then, looking left, into the dead of the streets, the silhouette of long arms and outstretched legs flew across the street. There he is. I ran up the street and connected with his path and turned south onto 2nd Avenue in pursuit. The streets were nearly empty. Random nightwalkers shivered with the gaslight reflecting off the lines of stagnant puddles collected into the wheel ruts of the street. The killer’s athleticism, his mechanical gate sent the staggering bodies against the walls of the decrepit wooden buildings and I was loosing him. The poison from the booze and cigars from earlier in the night broke from their slumber and injected new violence into my bloodstream and I felt as if I was going to be sick. I had to run faster. I had to concentrate.

He turned right. I passed the St. Charles Hotel and turned with him onto Cherry. Yesler’s Hall stood like an arrogant idiot on Front Street. Without lanterns I couldn’t see the shadow any longer. He had evaporated. I guessed left and pushed south on Front and then he reappeared out of a doorway and stood in the distance looking back at me. He turned and continued, hovering over the softness of the street. But, I was beginning to warm up, I could feel the gears in my legs loosen and I coughed out the needles in my lungs and surged into a sprint down the block to its end. He veered right, the triangle block with the Puget Sound National bank at its apex pointing my direction down west with him, and our trajectories were linked because I was gaining on him now and being pulled closer. Together we shot passed Washington St. and I felt the tug of the rope as he cut off the open street and into the entrance of the Brunswick Hotel.

I pushed though the front doors and the garden pattern of the foyer’s long carpet came alive and the dahlia’s bloomed at my feet and her ivy stocks snaked up my legs as I stopped in a huff of panic. “Where?” I yelled to the gloomy skeleton key shaped concierge. Without a word he pointed to the end of the hallway and grinned. I ripped free from the stalks of ivy tied around my ankles and came to the end of the hall. There, to the right was a pine tar and burned oil scented bar manned by a barkeep building a glass pyramid of snifters on top of the cool slate. Could it be that the concierge and the barkeep were the same man? For, they looked the same and pointed the same and administered the same seditious smirk.

I punched through the back door and into the alley. Facing me was a Chinese laundry. A red lamp hummed blood in a window beside a wooden door dog-eared ajar. I entered and the weight of the darkness inside jolted me. The quiet set in. The smell of detergent and starch mixed with the sweet smell of incense. My heavy breathing shook the walls covered with wool coats and shimmering silk costume. My eyes had trouble adjusting, as if they were not meant to, as if I didn’t belong there. In this house I stuttered ignorant in the dark like a foreigner. Tapestries of kanji script pushed out from the hallway walls that I stumbled between to impress upon me that I was perhaps approaching a final act; that this race was to soon come to a sinister conclusion. I reached another door and back out into the cold nigh–onto a laundry platform subjugated with white sheets hanging from sagging wash lines.

“Here is the moon, finally.” The devil said. “How many days has it been since the last time?”

The soft voice knocked me back on my heels and the door slammed behind me, and then a shadow blazed passed. My blood solidified into mortar. I was bricked in, afraid; I had chased fear into a room of mirrors, of white screens of which echoed the alleyway where this nightmare began. The moon indeed was out, showing through a crack between the smoky clouds overhead. All was nearly still besides the sheets gently rippling with the breeze.

“What brings a Scotsman to such an unfortunate place? Could it be for a love of money? Have the English finally taken your wild spirits and made you theirs?”

I hadn’t the bloodiest of ideas what he was on about. However, my warming blood told me that he was wrong; I wanted his life and nothing more.

“What do you know of it?” I said, the words barely spilling out of my mouth.

“What do we know of wherever we are from?”

The ghost’s silhouette appears three deep amongst the sheeted lines, standing distortedly taller and thin from the projection.

“Possibly this is not the most opportune moment to traverse Smith’s social theory, but do you not see yourself living in another time now that your soul is again housed within the trees?”

“Not all Scotsmen are philosophers.”

“No, but the death of culture is a preoccupation that you carry like a stain on your pressed collars, is it not? But, enough of that!”

The sheet broke, and the man charged thought the rest, landing his shoulder into my chest with such force that I was lifted from my feet and sent back a meter, cracking the back of my head against the ground. But, when I opened my eyes, expecting him to be standing over me to reveal him self before ending me, he instead wasn’t there. I gasped for air, and tried to stand, but staggered and fell back to my seat. Again, he spoke.

“However, I’m happy that you came.” He said. “And, you came right when I had finally figured out my place in this town. Right when I realized where my place was in this miasma of social disunity. I find so much religion in this broken experiment.”

He spoke nonsense, but with such clarity, I could not help but be somewhat captivated by his words; they spun against the washing like American verse, and indeed perhaps he was an artist, I thought. I begun to feel safe, feeling confident in my assumptions that he had no desire to kill me. But, my own relief for life crushed me, for I had wanted nothing else to die, especially by his hammer, and now that I was there, I wanted to live? I deceive myself—instinct over the heart.

“Kill Me!” I shouted. “Kill me.”

“I don’t believe in suicide without principle.” The man’s childish voice stipulated. “Nor should you.”

“I will kill YOU then.”

“A redundancy, truly. Lets not talk in circles. Why not we cultivate our gifts amongst the deaths of others; isn’t that a more constructive mode of expression?”

Then, I heard a crash—what sounded like a door being kicked in—and the warmth of the devil being close withdrew his blade from my body, and I knew he had left. I stood and forced myself to ignore the pain in my chest and at the back of my head, and continued the chase. The connection I still felt—the tug of the rope tied around our respective waists carried me through another Chinese laundry like a weightless spirit. I ended out the other side and onto what must have been 2nd Ave. He stood waiting in the middle of the road adjacent to the Standard Theater. He looked still and black as a stencil, his long coat growing a popped collar into a murderous crown. He looked so magnificent in the street swollen with eroded kanji signage and decaying edifices that I could have loved him. The moon slipped away and the curtain returned. No, I wanted my revenge; there would be no more philosophy tonight.

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.

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.

ON AN ATHENIAN FIRE ESCAPE

Mary leaned back on the fire escape’s handrail and gripped it tightly with each hand. Her short wool dress hung loose. Her violet headscarf clung tightly to the dozens of course black ringlets pinned up into a mass on top of her head. Her nose was long and when she blinked, her large eyelids shimmered like copper pennies. She smiled at the camera. A thin gap between her front teeth stood proud like a black column. Josef focused the lens and triggered the exposure. The moment embalmed.

He lowered the camera and they looked at each other. The beeping of motor scooters, the growls of automobile engines, and the intelligible echoes of refracted alley conversations billowed up to the third story of the Athenian apartment. Mary removed her long tool-like hands from the rail and pulled a cigarette from a crumpled soft pack that sat lifeless on a wooden table beside her. She put the cigarette in her mouth and stood there looking at Josef. She sighed and pushed her hip to one side and flicked her eyelashes like whips at her young nephew.

Josef, as if pulled from a frozen lake, snapped immediately back into consciousness and instinctually pulled a lighter from the inner pocket of his wool two-buttoned blazer. He paused, stricken because he knew the contents of a jacket he had never worn before. Cigarettes, a lighter and foreign coins he’d never owned. He stepped towards her, reached in and engulfed her cigarette tip in flame until it crackled. He stepped back and smoothed his hands over the black lapels of the foreign jacket that seemingly had always been his, and the thin tie that looked familiar only from imagination. The silver lighter tucked inside his curled thumb tapped against his tie clip and pulled it loose. Mary gripped her cigarette between her thin lips, walked across the fire escape to Josef, and grabbed his tie. She yanked it gently and his attention crawled up from his chest to her eyes. She fixed his tie clip and adjusted his knot like she was the one that had dressed him that morning.

“You got handsome while I’ve been dead.” She said, exhaling a cloud of smoke that quickly curled and disappeared into the Athenian smog.        Josef was confused.

“You got beautiful and younger in death? Nineteen?”

“Oh, shut up. Eighteen.” She smiled, having enjoyed the morbid complement. “To think that I really wanted to die and turn into a crow. Ha!” She exclaimed. “Better to be young!” She paused. They looked into each other, the first time ever as adults. She had died when Josef was thirteen. “How’s your dad?” She asked.

“He’s okay.” Josef said.

“And Jean?”

“Mom’s good.”

“Is she still driving her brothers crazy?”

Josef looked puzzled. Uncle Mike had been dead for seven years.

“You know that Mike died, right?” He said.

“Yes dear, I’m aware that my husband is dead.” Mary said with an element of playful impunity and sass. “Old habits die hard. I’m talking about Paul.”

“Mom still enjoys giving him a run, but Paul’s good. Donna’s sick though.”

She didn’t react.

“So, do you see uncle Mike?” Josef asked.

“On occasion.” She said. “He sits with me on the rail.”

“This rail?” Josef pointed to.

“What other rail are you thinking of?”

“I don’t know, I just thought…”

She laughed.

“No baby, this is it. I’m just a chain-smoking teenager on an Athenian fire escape.”

“And uncle Mike?”

“He’s a crow.” She said then turned away and looked down the busy street.

Josef didn’t know quite what to say. He detected a hiccup of annoyance in her body language and so let the subject sit for a minute. He looked down the same narrow street that she was facing ahead of him. He watched the automobiles dart like painted flies into the grids of white boxes within boxes that were nestled within the bigger boxes and blocks that made up the city. The permutations made him dizzy. He switched his attention to Mary’s back. Her creamy shoulders looked rich like butterscotch and the tattoo of a stained glass butterfly enriched its amber surface. The butterfly wings, embossed with flecks of purples and greens inscribed on her youthful skin, relayed to Josef a message of the temporal spectrum of permanence that counterbalanced the idea of a fleeting present. A tattoo in the face of the afterlife didn’t hold any sense of permanence at all, and he wondered how far the present could be stretched.

In general, Josef didn’t believe in an afterlife, but always felt that if there were one, Mike and Mary would be together in it—victorious over disease. But, now eternity seemed even more complicated than he had already imagined, complicated with spirits still jockeying for meaning. That Mary missed Mike made the afterlife a let down. To think, the drama of life never ends, that death itself can’t settle life’s twists of fate. Disillusionment unsettled his stomach and Josef wanted a cigarette.

“May I have one?” He asked.

She passed the packet over her shoulder without turning around.

“You know crows.” She said after he lit up. “They’re always working.”

“Working?” He said, trying not to choke on the razors he felt he had just inhaled.

“Honey, hadn’t I taught you anything?” She condescended. “The sun dance?”

“In North Dakota, where you and uncle Mike used to go to during the summer.”

“Crow’s talons,” She said, “pinching spirits by the collar like laundry. Moving them from one world to the next.” She looked up and around her. “It’s busy work. He enjoys it more than the title insurance company.”

Her eyes appeared to change color—to violet.

“Do you still see him?” She asked suspiciously.

“Once or twice. Though it’s hard to know if I’m deceiving myself.”

“Of course you are, baby.” Mary turned back to face him. “So what’s bothering you?” She put a fresh cigarette in her mouth and crossed her arms like she needed to protect something. Josef stepped into her and gave her a light. She blew smoke in his face, but it didn’t smell like anything.

“Dean died.” He said.

“I know.”

“How do you know?’

“Because word travels fast in the afterlife.” She said, deadpan. “…Because the little piece of shit has been sneaking up on me.” She meant it lovingly, Josef saw. It was still her way of loving.

“Here?”

“Where else?”

“Sneaking up on you?”

“Scared me shitless. You know what scares dead people?” She asked.

“What?” He smiled. Earnestness had always been a part of her humor.

“Other dead people when they don’t know that they’re dead; scares the shit out of us.” She wasn’t joking after all.

“He doesn’t know he’s dead?”

“You know your brother.” She said as she bent down to ash. “Would you expect any different?”

“Did he say anything?”

Mary studied her nephew’s face. His urgency gave away something big, perhaps something bigger than she had been aware of.

“Please don’t tell me he has visited you?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I said about Mike, it’s hard to tell if I’m not just making things up.”

“No honey,” She said sympathetically, “you’re not deceiving yourself. Maybe about your uncle, the asshole never knew how to properly keep in touch with anyone, but Dean…”

She sighed.

Josef turned and gripped the fire escape’s rail. He searched for any thought or thing to occupy his mind to keep Dean away. Dean’s issues weren’t his problem.

“So this is Athens in the 60s?” He asked rhetorically, looking down into a little Greek grocery with sharp clods of Greek letters stamped on its large front windows.

“Well, it’s what you think it looked like.” Mary said.

A loud oscillating hum registered in Josef’s ear.

“What’s wrong with Dean?” Josef asked, unable to ignore the issue.

The hum turned into a pulse. The razors in his lungs spun like a thousand propellers.

“This was real.” She said calmly. Josef barely could hear her.

“What about Dean?” He asked.

She pinched the end of her cigarette close to her face and smiled.

“Coffee or tea.” Her lips smacked.

“What?” He said as he watched her lose color, and the shadows between the white boxes of buildings stuck between other boxes and blocks grow warmer and deeper. The black crevasses split and grew like ink in a fish tank, overwhelming the city. Athens was dying—this made sense.

“Finally,” He though, “something meaningful to mourn.”

She was gone again.

“Coffee or tea?” The impatient cabin attendant repeated.