Orel Keeps the Past Alive (1981)

Orel stood in his kitchen, frozen in a movement, forgetting where he put the butter. He reached for the cupboard below the cups and there was the butter plate. He returned his attention to the cutting board where four slices of bread lay waiting for his culinary artwork to begin. There was only one way to make a sandwich, according to Orel Meyer. He’d perfected the art throughout the years, making slight tweaks to the quantities as his tastes slowly changed. The main ingredient was not your typical bologna, but mortadella, the real stuff. It’s hard to acquire, but there’s an Italian delicatessen in San Antonio where he’d buy four pounds at a time, paper in between the slices, packaged in one-pound bundles, double-wrapped, ready for the freezer. The same went for the Provolone Picante, paper in between the slices, etc., etc.

He was stationed in Bologna, Italy during WWII, not far from Genoa, where he worked in the Navy as an underwater welder. There, mortadella entered his life, and it never left. That is why he spent so much care with his sandwiches because he cared about the past, what it meant to him, how it shaped him, and the good memories he had of a time when he helped save the world. Through the years, somehow all that, the totality of the war and his life in Europe had been reduced down to a sandwich; into a perfectly edible box of meat and cheese. To Orel, though the past gets smaller the farther you travel from it, like a pearl of light at the end of a tunnel, the essence of that time stays alive and should be cultivated and celebrated.

            It was late, perhaps eleven in the evening. Orel stood underneath a hanging light just to the left of the sink. He was a big man, 6’2 220 pounds, but all muscle. He’d always been that way, the big boy on the farm, a juggernaut of a football player. He stood underneath that lamp and shadows clung to him. It was in stark contrast to the pure whiteness of the kitchen. White cabinets, white tile floor, white walls, and even white curtains alongside the windows. Orel prided himself on not updating the kitchen. If you take good care of the past it doesn’t need to be updated, he always thought. So, though it was 1981 the kitchen was a reflection of 1946, the year he and his wife bought the house, on a secluded tract of land in the Hill Country full of old sunburned oaks and plenty of cedar to choke on come January.

            Orel finished his sandwiches, set the table, and sat the two plates down. He prayed. “Lord protector, I’ve seen your light, and once I saw that light, I’ve never looked away. Though that light was hidden, it wasn’t too far, as long as I was brave enough to look for it. Lord, when I found that light I finally understood what powers you have, how you can turn things inside out, and make anything possible. Lord, with your guidance, I’m not afraid anymore because I see how trivial this life can be when I’m caught up in distraction. I ask you, oh Lord, to bless this meal and may it not be my last. In your name, we pray, Amen.”

            Orel looked at the empty chair across from him, to the glass of milk, and to the plate with the sandwich and froze like he’d lost the butter again. How long had she been gone? He thought, how long from this earth. Was it this decade or the last? He used to know quite well, but with present circumstances, her passing had become a blur, nearly a figment of his imagination, or rather a bad dream losing steam on the back of time. They met in ‘39, married in ‘46, had kids in ‘47 and ‘49, vacationed to Italy in ‘63, he began diving again in ‘74. She died in… Orel imagined she was sitting with him, that she was knitting at the table, that she was listening to the radio and letting go of her obnoxious laugh. “No, but up here, that’s gone,” he said to himself. “Up here it’s all gone.” He took another bite out of his sandwich and it tasted stale. He set it down and began to pace around the kitchen. He couldn’t remember when she died and the thought hammered him with guilt.

            The kids in ‘47 and ’49, landed a job as a machinist in ’50. Italy in ’63. My first dive in ’74… nothing. He went to the living room and stood there looking at her empty recliner. He thought back to the days she used to sit there in her curlers listening to the radio. She always had a cigarette burning beside her and a fan on hot days. She’d yell at the boys to do their chores while reading passages from the Good Book. She died in… He still couldn’t remember.

He remembered the cancer, how she acted like she wasn’t scared, but shut herself away like she was infectious. She shed weight in multiples. Then, she went to bed one night and never woke up and the smell of death permeated the sheets, the walls, and the rug. However, Orel kept the room the way it was, to respect the past, to honor it. Never mind though that he hadn’t been in the room since.

            Orel crept up the stairs afraid to wake the dead. He slowly made his way to their old bedroom and pressed his forehead against it. “For the love of God, what year did you die?” he asked, but it was still a gaping hole like the answer had been extracted from his brain. He opened the door into the darkroom. Switched the light but it wouldn’t turn on. Dead bulb. He could see the outline of the bed to his right, centered on the wall, and on either side of it a bedside table. The alarm clock flashed 6:42 am and he began to ache because he remembered that was the time he found her. But the ache was quickly replaced by confusion as the strong odor of cigarettes clouded the room. He rushed downstairs for a flashlight and when he came back to the room he heard a wheezing sound coming from the far side of the bed. He aimed his flashlight at the source of the wheezing and turned it on. His wife sat on the floor, her back against the wall, curlers in her hair, pale as an onion, black and white, smiling at him, but wheezing. Cigarettes were everywhere, put out on the carpet, and piled into mounds. She just stared at him with tarred-over teeth, smiling like she was so happy he decided to open the door. Orel slammed the door shut and ran downstairs.

            “That is not my wife,” he yelled descending the stairs. “That is not my wife.” He began to pace in the kitchen again and noticing her place setting, ran his arm across it sending the sandwich and glass of milk across the kitchen. If there was one emotion Orel Meyer had little experience with it was fear, Orel was afraid. He’d been so close to God lately, so close to his wife, so how was it that a demon like the one upstairs could appear to a man like him? He needed answers and he needed them now. Against his better judgment, Orel decided to do what he said he would never do, dive at night, alone. It was the only way he could get answers.

He went down the basement stairs, pulling the light cord halfway down. The dark stone floor was clear of objects, all storage behind sliding doors, his tools curated in a museum of pegboard and matching hooks screwed into the rafters. He heard the radio switch on upstairs. He shuttered and went to a workman’s armoire, and opened it. There, he pulled out a wet suit, stripped, and slithered his way into the foam skin. He put on his fins, gloves, and goggles. Mounted his depth gauge and flashlights, and made sure his tanks were full. He connected his regulator, and double and triple checked his equipment like an experienced diver does.

            He then made his way out into the yard. He saw the silhouette of his wife in the kitchen window pulling a drag from a cigarette. It was evening, but sweltering hot. He walked to the old well on his property and descended the ladder, into the darkness. At the bottom, he undid the lock and hoisted the wooden hatch. He looked up and saw a narrow circle of the night sky above him, the stars shining brightly like memories. He looked down and saw nothing but blackness. He said one last prayer before diving into the blackness, where the room of light is, to ask his real wife when she died.

Myth or man: A conversation with Akira — Excerpt from The Green Turkey

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I’m still in Arashiyama, near the bamboo forest, at a small sushi restaurant. It’s a square shop barricaded with gridded paper screens. I’m sitting at a bar and next to me is a Japanese man wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which I assume means he works in the tourist industry. He’s pushing fifty. Freckles are chained underneath his eyes. His hair is greying. He’s lean and fit, and also oddly content to not have his food yet. He’s not reading on his phone, nor checking on a social media update. He’s simply staring forward, lost in his thoughts. Then, without turning to me he says, “Ahi tuna sushi is very popular in the States, but have you tried Yellow Tail? Now that’s a treat.”

“I have once,” I say. “But I’d had too much sake beforehand to properly taste it.

“And today, too many cigarettes and Oi Ocha,” he says.

“He turns to face me and I see that he’s blind.”

“You’re right, can you smell it on me?” I say.

“As soon as the door opened and you entered. American. Smoker. Iced tea.”

“I hope it’ll not spoil your taste,” I say.

“No, but thank you.”

He remains turned towards me and seemingly hyperaware of my movements. As though, he can hear my eyes move and my facial expressions crane. He chuckles and turns back. He says something to the sushi chef in front of us and the chef looks at me briefly before continuing his work.

“I told him to not service you with the best fish because you’ve spoiled your tongue today,” he says, chuckling again.

I’m a little confused about how to receive this news, but I remain a keen participant.

“Maybe, that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want him to waste his best product.”

Now, the blind man laughs.

“You’re not your average American,” he says. “Somewhere close to Canada, but with a Westcoast accent. Seattle, it must be. Yes, your restraint matches there as well.”

“Good guess,” I say.

His smile snaps shut and he says gruffly, “It is no guess.”

“My apologies.”

He loosens up again and smiles.

“Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”

The tokkuri soon arrives and we clink plates.

There’s an awareness to this man that defies explanation. He’s the one who grasped the tokkuri, he’s the one who pours the sake, he’s the one who clinked his sake plate onto mine. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can see his eyes rolled back inside his head, I’d have said he was a liar. Both of our meals come at the same time and we eat.

I mash a mound of wasabi into a pool of soy sauce and separate the leaves of pickled ginger from one another.

“That’s a lot of wasabi,” he says. “You like intense tasting things.”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“People who like intense tasting things are intense thinkers.”

“My thoughts are usually quite loud, can you hear them?”

“Yes,” he says, but then looks away and continues to eat.

“I hope I didn’t offend you?” I say.

“I was sure I had offended you.”

“No, I’m just unsure of your intensions, that’s all.”

He laughs and says, “My name is Akira.”

I introduce myself and we shake hands.

“Tell me, what tragedy brings you to Japan,” he says.

“How do you know that?”

“Because your demeanor is heavy and I’ve been around it enough to know when I sense it.”

“I wouldn’t want to bother you with it,” I say.

“You’re right, I’ve been rude,” he says, “it’s just that I don’t speak to many people, especially Americans from Seattle.”

I hesitate, something’s strange about this man, but to his defense, something has been strange with me since I arrived to Japan. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to humor him—what’s the worst that could come of it?

“My brother is dying in Nagoya,” I say. “And, my mother is dying in Seattle.”

“I’m very sorry,” he says. “Is there anything I can do?”

“If you can ease their suffering and make it quick, I’d be much obliged,” I say.

“Of course,” he says and lifts his plate to toast.

“Well, that was easy,” I joke.

“You never know who you’ll run into at a sushi bar in Kyoto,” he says, chuckling.

The sushi chef looks up at me, then to the strange blind man, and then back to his fillet of tuna.

“Do you believe if two family members are dying at the same time they can bind to each other, and one feel the pain of the other?” I ask.

“It would take strong feelings to make something like that happen, but people don’t think like that anymore,” he says. “In old times if one person was showing the symptoms of another patient and visa versa, that’s what they’d think. Why do you ask?”

“It’s nothing,” I say.

“You find yourself thinking things you’ve never thought of before,” he says.

“Perhaps,” I say.

The man brushes his hand across the thick black cane resting beside him on the bar and  smiles.

“We seek answers when there are none.”

“I’m just confused about what’s happening to me,” I say.

“Intense thinking leads to intense emotions,” he says, with his mouth full.

“Are both your mother and brother intense thinkers?”

“I’d say so.”

“Then the idea of their connection will be intensified by their legacy.”

I don’t follow?” I say.

“When you ponder one, it will match their intensity, but if you ponder both the intensity is quadrupled. It sounds like they might be working out their past with each other. You must figure this is more important than their deaths.”

“So you do believe they might be bonded?”

“They are mother and son, of course they are, this isn’t magic.”

“I know, I—”

“You must sleep more,” he says. “Things won’t be as confusing if you sleep.”

I nod feeling as though this man is reading my thoughts.

We eat some more in silence, joke around a bit, and Akira tells me of some of his favorite shrines in the city. “From the train station you must walk to Fushimi Inari-Taisha,” he says. “When you arrive you must then walk through every gate.”

“I will,” I say.

He comes in close to my face.

“I mean it,” he says. “Inari is fickle and quick to anger.”

“I understand.”

“You seem like a good person, let the shrines cleanse you.” He turns his head around as if he’s hearing something far off and trying to identify where it’s coming from. “The rest of this sake is for you,” he says. He stands up, slips on a red yukata and grabs his cane, which looks more like a katana sword’s saya, and says, “I have a tour group to lead, I need to be sharp.”

“Of course you do,” I say, “Arrigato. Thank you for the advice.”

He bows and says, “It was a blessed chance encounter.”

He leaves. When I’m finished I ask for the bill. Akira’s meal is on the ticket. The extra sake softens the blow.

The House of Uncommons

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Margaret Thatcher is tall, lean, and trendy; she could be an art museum curator if it wasn’t for her need to understand her own mental illness through others. Though, if she’s fucked up in her life, it wasn’t too catastrophic—she doesn’t put on airs during our sessions and appears to care for my wellbeing. Her office is shared and typical for a publically funded community psychiatric clinic; a khaki box otherwise empty besides a framed print of Picasso’s Guernica hanging on the wall. I feel agitated. Ms. Thatcher’s subdued presence triggers a smudgy emotion inside of me, one which has lingered far from the emotion that bore it, the feeling’s a cross between being nude in public and dropping food on the ground in front of strangers. There are no windows.

“How’s the writing?” She begins.

“Shannon left.”

Margaret Thatcher sits back in her chair and exhales the “Oh shit” she formed inside her mouth.

“Wow, okay. I’m sorry, Josef. You must feel very upset.”

“I know that I am, I know that I should be, but I feel unable to processes it—I suppose I feel guilty. I thought I was doing my best to make her feel better after the assault, but I didn’t help her recover at all.”

“Helping others through a traumatic experience is a tough business. Maybe you did better than you thought?”

I take a second to think.

“I concocted ideas of what she needed and tried to force them onto her without considering I was wrong.”

“How?”

“I let her alone when she needed someone close. I was too close when she needed space. I was thoughtful and patient—I was forceful and impatient to motivate her, but always on my terms. I did everything right and saw nothing get better, so I did everything wrong in hopes to inspire the opposite effect. I could have just asked her what she needed.”

“The former sounds like the flawed logic of desperation.”

“I was anxious and unable to wait. The weight was bearing down on me. Things had to get better when I needed them to.”

“So, since things weren’t improving quickly enough you took control of the situation by blowing it up?”

“It felt like things were going too slowly and I was close to a breakdown. If she were to see me lose my shit, like I’ve done in the past, she wouldn’t want to be with me anymore. Self-destruction wasn’t a conscious choice, but looking back, the only choice to reduce my anxiety.”

“Self-destruction is a common option we choose when we’re overwhelmed and cannot acknowledge and communicate our feelings properly. What’s troubling about patterns of self-destructive behavior is outsiders can clearly see the individual in question’s ill-conceived plans, but the individual is too wrapped up in self-denial to calculate that their trajectory is on a collision course with reality.”

“I remember thinking things were coming to a head and I should prevent that from happening. But, a second after the thought I reckoned a collision was the natural progression of the situation.”

“I hear that a lot,” Margaret Thatcher says. “We also know your family history and how much self-destructive behavior, perpetual conflict and overly simplified resolutions are the norm. It’s easier to stick with what you know.”

“When emotional responses are sought after like drugs to the addict,” I say. “How the hell did we become this way?”

“It was something your mother learned, something she and your uncles were raised with and used to survive in their broken home. You hold onto the ideas surrounding how positive relationships should be and begin a complex process of mimicking several archetypes of normalcy in the hopes you can fake it until you make it, but it’s still acting. It takes self-discipline, counseling, and time to rewire your brain from that kind of behavior.”

“We’re all high strung, anxious, co-dependent, and insecure— I wish I could control how rushed I always feel, how unsteady and ashamed. I wish I didn’t have this maniacal inclination to always be in good standing with everyone. To always quash conflict.”

“Conflict in the world or conflict you perceive is directed against you?”

“I suppose both.”

“I don’t see you trying to change the world?”

I smile and lean forward in my chair.

“Well, I’m apprehensive to change the world after what you did to it, Margaret Thatcher.”

She rolls her eyes.

“You have two more Margaret Thatcher jokes left this session,” She says, dryly.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about people not liking me.”

“I know, I’m your psychiatrist.”

“I look back on my life and think about all the wrong moves I made. How much I went out of the way to seek validation from those I thought were cool, while ignoring the extended hands from friends I took for granted. For someone who cares so much what people think about him, it’s bizarre who often I put myself in embarrassing positions.”

“What do you believe are your thoughts and feelings that keep you from having peace of mind? In other words, what is inhibiting you from being a consistent and dependable human being?”

“My thoughts are always agitated; I’m always anxious. Often Angry.”

“Why do you think you’re always anxious?”

“Because I can’t help but see everything in a state of decay.”

“What do you mean by that? Decay?”

“Entropy. I had to go to the hospital last night to see my mother in the ER and when I got there she was laying on the bed asleep looking like a dying child.”

“Is your mother’s mortality perhaps changing your thinking to see everything through this lens of entropy?”

“No, I’ve thought this way for a long time—I can’t stop thinking in the past. Often good times that are gone, or times I embarrassed myself. When something good happens I remind myself it will soon pass.”

Margaret Thatcher creases the right side of her tan bob behind her ear leaving a single tendril hanging in the gap between the arm of her glasses and her cheekbone.

“Why are these memories milestones of decay?”

“Because they ended poorly.”

“Or, is it that they just ended?”

God damn Margaret Thatcher going after my negative thoughts again.

“I don’t know, perhaps. But, when I think about the embarrassing moments, I cringe and think how can I have such a lack of self-control to indulge such poor behavior?”

“The process of nostalgia is often evoked to stir in us a sense of serenity and closure. However, if that picture is then compared to our image of the present, the here and now looks less than desirable. Perhaps you already know your nostalgic memories are as false as your embarrassing ones. In my opinion, nostalgic memories are more dangerous than self-loathing thoughts.

“I thought you were into nostalgia?”

“Is that another Margaret Thatcher joke?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, that was number 2, now say something smart.”

“I’ve never wanted a relationship of any kind to cease to be; I’ve wanted the connection to always remain even if our roles change.”

“Is this strictly romantically?”

“No, I mean all relationships. Friendships are the easiest to maintain, but somehow I’ve exhausted those connections too often as well.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“I lost many friends after my divorce. I lost more in New Zealand.”

“You’re not alone and friendships forged abroad will always be loose and eventually fade.”

“But, I want a perfect record.”

Margaret Thatcher stares at me as if she sees something inside me that I cannot and begins to smile.

“Your hopes are valid but unattainable. You will lose relationships, you will watch friendships come and go, you will be faced with the inevitable consequences of living in the world, where both good and bad things happen.”

“I wish I had a better grip on my emotions.”

“But to GRIP them, as you say, means you must be outside of them in order to secure them.”

“Okay,” I say, “To control them.”

“What is control?”

“To not give in to temptation.”

“Very Catholic.”

“I forgot, Margaret Thatcher, has a thing against Catholics.”

“Margaret Thatcher joke number 3 for the win,” she says, invoking a weak fist pump with her eyes scanning the chart balanced on her lap.

“How could I not?” I say.

“Control.” She says to keep us on topic.

“It’s to always respond in the right way. To instantaneously weight a situation and perform appropriately based on its demands,” I say.

“So, it’s some Victorian idea of behavior and restraint developed through good breeding and a high moral and ethical compass?”

“Uh, is that what my answer sounded like?”

“To me, it sounded like a bunch of, excuse the expression, poppycock.”

“Is that a Margaret Thatcher joke?” I say.

“No, it’s a you joke.”

“Ouch, nice one,” I say. “Look, I go up and down, left and right. I’ll have a good couple of days and then the anxiety comes back. I’d like to write more, but I can’t draft anything with a semblance of consistency. I’m unstable. I can’t work more than twenty-five hours a week without exhausting myself and getting worse. I’ve never held a real job because I can’t concentrate or be stable enough to do my tasks at a consistent level over time. I run my own contracting business because I can’t have a boss. I can barely work with others anymore because before, I’d get such profound performance anxiety I’d lash out. I’m something to laugh at. I have no control.”

“No, you suffer from rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” she says.

A pause. A dog barks, but from Where? Margaret Thatcher’s lips are pursed with the pride inherent in a well-executed bombing pattern. I riposte.

“No, I think it’s just a learned behavior from my mother; I’m not like her, I don’t eat my fucking meals over the sink.”

“…”

Margarette Thatcher’s green eyes glint just below her bangs and then pop with emerald smoke curling up towards the ceiling.

“So, I’ve been nuts this entire time,” I say, “and people have been placating me?”

“That’s a meaningless sentence. Tear it apart and ask yourself if it holds water.”

“It’s a reactionary thought which bears little on reality and more so upon my insecurities,” I parrot back to her like I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Correct.”

“But, are you sure? Bi-polar? I’m actually fucking crazy?”

“Josef, you’re not crazy. I’ve been observing your behavior for a couple months now and have been almost certain for a few weeks. However, I wanted to wait and be sure, and to also notify you when you were ready.”

“How the hell is now the time when I’m ready?”

“Because your family needs you to fight for yourself to help them, and Shannon needs you to accept yourself so you can begin loving her.”

I resonate with what Margaret Thatcher is saying, but afraid of what it means. I feel emotional.

“Have you heard of lithium before?”

“Yes,” I say, less than excitedly.

“And?” She asks.

“I’m afraid it will turn me into an uncreative zombie.”

“Well, you’ve been complaining about being an uncreative spas the past two months, what do you have to lose?”

“Good point.”

“Look, it’s all about the blood work. We’ll get you on the right dose, which will stabilize your mood without making you feel like a manikin.”

“I suppose I’ll have to trust you,” I sigh.

I look again from Margaret Thatcher to the Guernica print and realize that I’ve been screaming in the inside like the cow in the painting for years.

“You put that print there on purpose, don’t you?” I say.

“No, but someone did,” she says.

I look away and my eyes begin to swell.

“This isn’t a loss, Josef. This is a chance to gain control back.”

“What if I’m scared to have control? I’d rather keep wanting it than to actually have it.”

The Green Turkey —Preface

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I like this courtroom. It’s not modern—one enclosed in glass, secured with metal fittings and detailed with sculpted plastic moldings that make impossible shapes look natural. No, it’s an old oak-clad room with a high ceiling, a square space wrapped in over-waxed wainscoting and decorated with heavy art deco furniture. The floor is granite, the aggregate of which, the size of Perry mason’s eyeballs. There are tall windows to my left letting through the sun. The light leaks through the shades and I can see dust particles dance in it and settle on the empty seats of the jury box. The atmosphere’s pleasant, tranquil if it wasn’t for the feeling of impending doom inside my stomach. The jury is in chambers deciding if I killed my mother for the right reasons—that same question still burns inside of me, but I’ve lost track where it is; it feels like it will never be resolved, lost in my veins.

It’s complicated. I’m a murderer, but my conscious is often clear. I see things simpler now since I took a look inside my mother’s denture-less mouth and saw the image of the woman she used to be crawling up from the darkness of her throat. I see strands of DNA in place of skin and bright colored steam emanate off the bodies of strangers. Goodness makes me cry. All is passing, all thoughts are fleeting, every moment for me feels like this is the end of my life. I could be calm while drowning and smile while choking. I could be found guilty and bow to the jury. I’ve accepted all the possible outcomes.

 

My lawyer, on the other hand, has not, and she tells me I’m emotionally compensating due to my current levels of stress and anxiety. She calls my enlightened state of being, monking, i.e. pretending to be all-knowing and unaffected by a reality I have no control over. She’s right, but for now, must be wrong; going Buddhist monk is working, at least I’ve convinced myself so. Regardless, it beats the hell out of trying to go Albert Camus/existentialist with it, my first phase of denial. In the end, becoming L’Étranger made me feel like an aging hipster bursting out of his leather pants while trying to shine his beetle boots in front of an impatient firing squad of twelve jurors.

Speaking of annoying, my lawyer has a nervous habit of giving me pep talks when she’s feeling pessimistic, like right now. Ironically, She’s also trying to convince herself that she’s in control of a situation beyond her grasp. She’s not monking, per se, but it’s still a form of compensation. She’s lecturing me about what’s REALLY going on, and how our case has a fair chance of success. I stopped listening to her ideas a couple minutes ago, instead, counting what words she repeats the most. Strong—as in a “strong indication,” “strong chance,” and a “strong possibility”—twelve times. Perhaps, eight times. Regardless, five times. And, Not the end of the road, four. I don’t mean to be rude, and it’s not her inability to realize her veiled doubt is subconsciously leaking into her language which bothers me (I mean, I’m pretty much fucked), it’s the fact she thinks she can convince me otherwise. I know she’s coming from a good place, that she’s trying to deal with her own stress and anxiety, but it’s not like there’s anything we can do now, and convincing ourselves we did enough, isn’t enough. It’s better to monk the situation than to over-analyze it or turn beatnik.

Tamar Chansis-Corbin is such a good name for a defense attorney—a speed reading, top-5 Harvard Law graduate, type-A attorney. She’s taller than me and rail-thin. Her hands are long, slick and purposeful like shellacked shoehorns. She has a dense afro parted down the middle, which she lets eclipse on the weekends. Come Saturday, Her glasses likely come off too. On weekdays, in court, she rocks a pantsuit or a pencil skirt and blazer. Pearls every other day. Small earrings, irregularly. Eye mascara like Nefertiti, calligraphy on deep golden skin.

Tamar wasn’t the first attorney to visit me, but she was the first visiting creature who exhibited human traits. She walked into my cell confidently, but vulnerable, which matched the state I was in after being grilled by two Seattle homicide detectives for 17 hours, and 48 hours deep into a beltless suicide watch and three ham sandwiches. I won’t lie, I was attracted to her, but that attraction let me trust her at a time and within a system where I trusted no one. Plus, we are from the same neighborhood in South Seattle, pre-gentrification days, so there’s a bond that comes with that. She was new—backed by her father, partner to a firm, a successful defense attorney letting out the line on his protégé—and I was new to this too. It might sound counterintuitive to want a young and inexperienced lawyer, but she had the resources, and she was working the case pro-bono. I don’t know what else to say besides it just felt right.

“You listening to me, idiot?” she says.

“Just the words.”

She looks away, up to the bench, and sighs before looking back.

“I don’t need this monk shit right now; I need you to listen to me.”

“Yeah, okay, but don’t you want to know what words I was listening to?”

“No?… NO.”

“Fair,” I say.

“In the event you’re found guilty we can appeal.”

“I know.”

“I know you know, but I need to tell it to you again, so you don’t begin chanting Om instead of fighting your conviction because you’re one with the universe.”

“I can be one with the universe and also refuse to take it up the ass,” I say.

“How inspiring,” she says with zero affect.

“The title to my memoir.”

She disengages in refusal to admit she thinks I’m funny. She hates smiling more than Anthony Scalia’s ghost. I’ve tried really hard to crack her shell, but she’s tough and also smarter than me.

“You know what I should be found guilty for?” I say.

“What?”

“This outfit. It’s fucking hideous.”

Like my high-school picture days, I’m wearing my older brother, Eligh’s clothes. A dated black blazer over a massive jade green silk shirt stuffed into a pair of pleated khakis, all resting on top a pair of black and white oxford saddle shoes. It’s honestly the weirdest outfit imaginable, but my suit went missing this morning and Eligh raced home in rush hour traffic to throw something together. He’s in the middle of moving and found them in a trash bag of old clothes that hadn’t been moved yet, or opened since 1998.

“Guilty of smelling like Value Village,” she says.

“Or, teen spirit.”

“That a Grunge joke?”

“Don’t be so Kurt.”

“Oh, god, please stop,” she sighs. “Like I said, the jury can come in at any moment. This is day three of deliberations, so time is on our side. —If they’d took only a couple hours, we’d be screwed.”

I continue to nod to Tamar, but I slightly turn my head to face Eligh. I mouth, “What the fuck?” to him while pointing to my outfit. He smiles and mouths back, “Sorry.” Tamar looks at him and smiles; I can’t fathom this.

Eligh’s nearly twelve years older than me, the last of mom’s first marriage. We look like brothers, but there are distinct differences. He has more hair, I have more common sense. He loves money, I love books. He can’t hold a relationship, I can’t be alone. Though only the difference in hair volume is likely genetic, I’d like to think they all are. I suppose that’s what we have in common though, the ability to believe whatever we want to for the sake of convincing others of whatever we need them to believe. I suppose that’s another form of control, a way of monking with the masses, a way to temporarily put insecurity aside and be the one that is in the know.

“You’re going home,” he mouths to me, after giving Tamar too long a look.

“Where is home?” I say.

He rolled his eyes.

“Not here, idiot,” he says.

“Seriously,” Tamar interjects, having read my lips. “You’re a published author and yet your proclivity to descend into cliché and melodrama makes me want to puke.”

“I blame my mother; that’s why I killed her,” I say.

“That’s not cool.”

“Mom would have said that was my Irish sense of humor talking. Although, I could never understand what that really meant.”

“Um hmm,”

“You just um hmm’ed me; take it back,”

“Um hmm,” she repeats.

“Psst,” Eligh hisses. The press and other randos in the seats behind look over to us.

Tamar smiles, again.

Eligh points at his watch.

“What’s taking so long? I’ve got a WhatsApp date with Aja in an hour.”

Aja is our older sister. She lives in England and is married to a Morris dancer. They love Doctor Who and take travel pictures with a stuffed skunk. They’re dorks, but good people.

“My fate takes time,” I say.

“So does the freeway,” Eligh says.

“Don’t you dare smile at him again, Tamar.”

“Your brother’s cute,” she turns and whispers.

“He’s fifty.”

“But he looks forty.”

“If I lose this case I’m reporting you to the bar.”

“Um hmm.”

I turn around and look at the empty bench in front of me. I imagine The Honorable Judge Maddox is in her chambers eating a salad, drinking a blood orange San Pellegrino, and already knowing the answer to my guilt or innocence. This whole fucking show is so Kafkaesque because the law has so many doors with so many ignorant guards; because it mirrors our broken society, but still operates with such a resolute and cold logic; because my name is Josef and I’m on trial.

 

Another hour goes by and Eligh is gone. I again look behind me and the diehards are still here. Pete Sorenson, the jack ass from the Seattle Times who wrote that I’m “the epitome of white privilege,” when ironically, he is. Tabatha O’Riordan, who wrote, “What if he’s a saint and not a villain?” which is in the running for the most painful cliché title of the year. My favorite diehard though is Omeed Faraz, a second-year Seattle University law student who asked my permission to sit in on the trail as part of his fieldwork for a class called: Ethics, Morality and the Law. I’ve let him interview me a couple times to hear my side of things. I can never tell if he’s shy or afraid of me. This gives me no sense of power, but of loss. To be branded guilty is one thing, but feared by good people, something else. Still, the most objectively I’ve been able to consider my situation is with him. He’s a good listener, and like Tamar, a lot smarter than me.

The last diehard is my father. He sits in the back seats either playing Sudoku, solving chess problems or reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. The two former are staving off the aging process, while the latter negates his hard work. However, I’ve never read them, only watched the first two seasons of the series, so I should shut my mouth.

He looks up from his work and stares at me, but only when he thinks I’m not aware of it. I think he’s trying to understand why I did what I did to my mother. How he should care about her death after being divorced for so long. Perhaps, he’s trying to figure out if he still loves me, or if he can love me? I suppose, if I’m convicted he’s all alone; in a way, surviving the figurative death of his only son. He’s meditating on the prospect of mourning. Lately, eye contact between us is rare because I think he wants to spare me the embarrassment. He sees that I’m distressed and so wants to let me be, like an injured animal in the woods. He can’t do anything to help me, so perhaps keeping a distance is the safest way to manage? I get that being the defendant in a high profile legal case is way too much attention for Leonard, what I don’t get is Game of Thrones.

 

“You didn’t like Game of Thrones?” Tamar asks, rhetorically. “You’re such a hipster.”

“Why does that make me a hipster?”

“You don’t like anything that’s popular in the mainstream unless if it’s enjoyed ironically.”

“That’s not true.”

It’s totally true.

She grabs her purse and pulls out a stick of lipstick and applies the crimson fudge to her lips in front of an open compact.

“That’s a nice color.”

“Shut up,” She says but flashes a coy smile.

Finally! But, my triumph makes me weepy, and I look away to regain my composure.

“What’s up?” she says.

“I’m going to live out my days surrounded by dangerous men.”

“Welcome to my world.”

 

***

 

I lay awake in my cell staring at the bright red exit lights above the door where the guards come and leave. I can smell pizza, hear the excitement attached to men speaking about football, and the listless turning of my neighboring inmates. I’ve been called a momma killer by a guy who killed his girlfriend. I’ve been high-fived by a janitor named Karl, who only listens to John Lee Hooker on his classic yellow Discman. I’ve had a guard named Obi say he thinks I’m a good man. Another guard named Tommy, who hopes I get the chair. I’ve lost weight, but sit-ups still kill my back. I can’t read because I stare at the page and ruminate about all the things I cannot control. Trivial things like what will I be fed tomorrow, or which guard stole my suit?

Eventually, the overwhelming things flood my thoughts. I think about my girlfriend, Shannon who might be my ex-girlfriend now—After all, she did say I was fucked up, said it was over and hasn’t been in to visit me in over two weeks. I think about my brother, Fran and imagine what he used to look like before being eaten alive. He has long hair, wears a Hawaiian shirt and is leaning on a golf club winking at me. I think about mom and the times we recited the rosary after passing a car wreck on the road.

Even though I don’t believe in it, I think about what hell might actually be like, and then I imagine being strapped naked to a wet couch watching Game of Thrones with Martha Stewart. She whispers the directions to every recipe she’s ever published in my ear and begins to scream at me for making her life miserable. Another sex scene to obfuscate the banality of exposition erupts on the screen and my cock gets hard. Ms. Stewart gets a great idea and pulls a razor-sharp carving knife from her purse.

“I have an idea,” she whispers into my ear while stroking my penis, “It’s a take on zucchini pasta (zoodles)—dick ribbons.”

I begin to scream but bubbles come out of my mouth and children come into the cold room to play. They scream at the sight before them and their parents rush into the room. They initially turn away in horror, but then usher their kids out and blame me for it all.

“You started this. You, started this mess,” A distressed mother screams, coving her eyes. Blood spills over my lap and runs down my legs.

“I build my recipes for the common housewife,” Martha says.

Luckily, I have other nights where I’m fine and think of movies I like and try to re-watch them in my head. I can replay Wayne’s World, Clue, and The Usual Suspects in their entirety. On these nights I know my love for my mother is true and that I did the right thing. Fran enters my cell wearing his long hair and a Hawaiian shirt, swings his gold club and winks.

“It’s going to be alright, otouto,” he says.

My father appears sitting on the edge of my bed, how I remember him when I still played Little League and asks if I’d like to do a chess problem together. The other inmates in my block yell good luck tomorrow from their bunks and promise me small gifts upon my release, like a taped mirror to look down the hall with, and a quality shank with fresh tape.

Most nights I’m an empty vessel, like that dancing bag in American Beauty, or Ryan Gossling. I can read for hours but remember nothing the next morning. I write, I think some of the best prose I’ve ever written with a crayon (suicide watch), but when I reread it, the paper looks something akin to what a parent of a toddler would put up on the fridge and say “That’s great!” about. On these nights, I believe I’m being inhabited by my former selves. It’s not a reasonable explanation, but one that mystifies the world and makes life less predictable; Scientific query and western demystification are not allies in here. I feel depressed when I use logic to address my actions because perfection is implicit in logic. Linear modes of inquiry are so lame. My ghosts try and communicate with me, but there is static between us and that is why I can hear them, but when I write down their wisdom it comes out looking like toddler drivel.

So, yeah, long story short, I’m monking it and Tamar is right, I’m an idiot. I’ll admit it, but it’s a form of manageable insanity that’s keeping me from becoming too co-dependent, obsessive, and dark. That’s what happened to me when I got divorced. That’s what happened when I was homesick and moved back to the US. Those were the ghosts of me who visited and are trying to save my life. They know I will lose my case and are preparing me for the worst. I have agency when I get to decide what affects me or not; it’s my last ring of defense, my safe room.

However, tomorrow is the day the jury will make a decision and that decision will be my biggest test, one I will likely fail, it holds too much weight. It’s funny that this whole thing started because of writer’s block.

 

 

A Letter to Enoch Campbell 27 years after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 (first draft)

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March 23rd, 1916

Dear Enoch,

It’s been 27 years since you threw me out the window of the burning cabinet shop on Madison and Front Streets. It’s still a mystery to me if you did it to save me, or kill me. Perhaps, it was a bit of both. In 1889, Seattle was a troubled city and we were troubled young men. You were still reeling from the death of your wife, and I was destroying the faces of Seattleites under the naive assumption that I could halt a thing as salient yet wraithlike as historical progress, through murder. I suppose, young men have a tendency to think they are mining the center of things when they’re still only scratching the surface. Ego, a basic understand of things, and tenacity get you far in politics, but no more than an inch into the stony skin of life. Sacrifice is a pure enterprise, but fails to mix well with modern intellectualism. You should know that I plan to kill again.

You and I are different in many ways—I’m sure you have spent more time considering and convincing yourself of that than I. However, what we have in common is a hatred for authority and a healthy loathing for fraternal orders. The schoolyard, the sporting team, the university, the office, government—fraternity infests them all. I saw how much you hated the law firm where you worked in Seattle, but how at home you were in Madame Lou’s “hotel.” Anywhere is better than in the midst of a group of apes beating their chests and strategizing their moves within a game no one else wishes to play. Here’s a word for you to ponder: patricide.

I cannot tell you everything about my motivations without telling you everything. You need to know how I was ruined. I want you to know how the events of my life affected me and sent me down a path of masculine uniformity. I once was a man who was willing to strip others of their dignity to maintain a world in which I was king. Now I’m a killer of fathers resolute in the fact that my own ending will be misunderstood and gruesome. So be it—the world is currently at war by such notions of domination.

Before you is a manuscript which tells the story of my life before our paths crossed in Seattle, and what followed after the burning of the city. Before and especially after, I met many people who for better or worse changed my life. It’s important for you to know because I want us to be clear before I end our lives.

Like I said, sacrifice is a pure enterprise, especially when our motivation is to appease a theme that is prehistoric, pre-conscience, and a central building block to our species: To consume and be nourished. To eat them. Eat them all up.

 

 

I’m Not a Newt! I’m an Author.

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“Could you please put down your phone,” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, without looking up.

“No, like right now.”

“I just need to finish this post,” I said, feeling like I was working against the clock, playing a dangerous game with my girlfriend’s patience.

She sat impatiently, looking at me like I was a cat she was about to throw across the room. All I had left was to add the hashtags. But, which ones to use? If they’re too popular you get lost in the shuffle, too small, what’s the point? Be clever, be funny, be humble; rather, be a humble-brag monster of explosive optimism and saccharine contentment. #superpositivebooklover. #blessed. Post.

Oh, for fuck sake, I’m a tool!

That’s how social media marketing often feels. Not only am I a tool, but a poor man with a gambling problem throwing coins down a well, waiting for one to jump back up. The big bite. Impossible.

When I received an offer from a publisher to publish my historical crime novel, Throw-Away Faces, I was excited. Finally, I’ve made it! I knew next to nothing about the industry, but my publisher seemed legit enough. Beggars can’t be choosers when approaching a publisher unsolicited. I told myself this on more than one occasion. Yeah, okay.

Well, now that the book is published, all I can say is that I’ve accrued thousands of hours of rewrites and edits (good), relationships in the industry which will serve me well down the road (good), and a huge phone addiction predicated on wagering the worth of my book on the amount of “likes” it gets on Instagram or Facebook, or my author’s rank on Amazon Central (VERY VERY BAD).

What I didn’t know getting into the game is that the book market is absurdly competitive and awash with a lot of shit. It pays huge dividends to have an agent when shopping the book, and once publishers show interest, to pick one who pays their publicists to manage your marketing. This is key.

Otherwise, get ready to hate your life, and possibly your book, because you’ll be throwing countless emails, letters and time into review queries that will never be looked at by newspapers, journals, and magazines. And, money into many .com black holes. This will boil down into an ill-conceived effort, commonly called a self-marketing plan, to master nuanced and disingenuous forms of marketing communication forged to manipulate strangers into clicking a link to buy your book. It’ll never be enough. You will look in the mirror and see a Gollum.

When you’re fatigued, your publisher will offer you cooperative packages that are vague in description, but enticing. They whisper sweet nothings into your ear, “Take a load off, Joe.” “Let us do the work.” “We’ll send your book into the hands of the most talented, sexiest, and trusted reviewers in all the land.” And, can you blame yourself for giving in? No, you really can’t, but you will anyway.

The other option is spending countless hours online making virtual friendships and alliances, which is fine, and the right way to do it, but the task is a full-time job and will yank you out of the world of the living.

Don’t get me started on the writer’s block I’m currently experiencing because I now have the attention span of a newt who happened upon a horsefly turd convention.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Fine.” It wasn’t; I didn’t sell one book. I didn’t get a word written for the sequel. I didn’t do my research. I clicked the refresh button a lot. My phone says my screen time is up from last week. I drank too much coffee. I went down the spiral.

I forgot I’m an author.

So far, this is what I’ve learned from the experience: Do what you think is right to get your book out there, but not at the expense of your creativity. At some point, you just have to let it be, write the next one and make it better than the last. You’ve made your bed for now, but you can get a new one. The worth of your work has nothing to do with a stranger’s thoughtless click of a “like” button. If it was, your time would be better spent engaging in #vanlife.

In the end, stay an artist. Stay balanced. And next time, get a publicist.

You’re not a newt.

Throw-Away Faces—Historical Crime Fiction—Preface

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Greetings readers!

Throw-Away Faces will hit bookshelves January 10th, 2019. Here’s a sneak peek. I’ll be posting more in the coming days. If you’re interested in learning more about the book, including a more in-depth synopsis, visit www.throwawayfaces.com TAF will be available for pre-order very soon. you can visit my publisher’s webpage here: www.blackrosewriting.com

Thanks for stopping by!

-Josef Alton

Dear Doctor Dooley,

You will not remember me, but you tended to a friend of mine who died many years ago. At the time when we met outside Glasgow I had no idea we would be linked through a common fate, death following us wherever we settled. Unlike you, I did not choose an occupation waged inside the crypt; I became a lawyer. As I write I am aware of the irony entangled within my words, and I will leave it for you to ponder. I will say, however, it was not the opacity, rigidity or even the aridity of the law that deadened my heart, but
rather its miscarriage, and further still a disturbed individual who waged an ill-conceived crusade against a miscarriage of justice through an evocation of evil.

It is not my intention within this letter to explain the details of my ill-
fated journey into the forests of the American frontier. Rather, I tracked you down some years back to find you long since departed for Ireland and I let the case rest. It was not until last week that I picked up the newspaper and read about the strange patricides taking place in Dublin and their disturbing similarity to the murders I experienced in Seattle when I was a young man.

I have spent the past few days writing furiously to reconstruct the events of June 1889 in Seattle, as I saw them. I know of no one else in Dublin, and I am sure, based on your standing as a doctor, that you have the proper friends to contact if this manuscript moves you and perhaps compels you to inform the Royal Irish Constabulary of the innocence of the girls suspected of murdering their fathers, and also the resurrection of a killer. I leave this manuscript with you in good faith, as I left my friend in your care many years before. Let us pray for a more positive result than the conclusion to our first meeting those many years ago.

Your servant,

Enoch Campbell 

Throw Away Faces—The Cell of Nostalgia

byres

 

XI

       When I was a child in Glasgow I could see Ben Lomond[1] on a clear day from my father’s office window. It was not often but when he was free he would tell me stories of the Highlanders that lived above the city. He told me tales of the Highland caterans[2] stealing livestock for blackmail and tales of Rob Roy[3] MacGregor’s blood feud against the Duke of Montrose.[4] I would look at the dim outline of the mountain as he recited the long list of events that led to both the Stuart Rebellions.[5] And when he was done with those stories we would look down onto the city and he would tell me about the riots that took place against the Union with England[6] and the Malt Tax Riots.[7]

He said long ago our family were Highlanders, but not anymore, no matter what my grandfather and uncle said. He said that we were outlaws, but at a time when most men were. Back then there was enough lawlessness going around between those abusing their powers and the malnourished, that it was pointless pointing fingers at people from so long ago. Ben Lomond and the city below it held these stories.

When I was a few years older a factory was erected next to my father’s office and blocked our view of the Highlands. Ben Lomond was gone and Glasgow was too for that matter because all we could see out of the window was a wall of stones.

“They brought the Highlands closer to us,” father said, to console me the first time I saw that the view was erased, “all this stone and mortar is from there.”

His words did not console me. I recall it was about that time that I stopped daydreaming about the Highlands, what my ancestors might have looked like, and of Rob Roy. The tall buildings kept my eyes turned inwards, when maybe lang syne the vastness of Scotland’s countryside made men more contemplative of their relationship with the wild. Our summer visits to the Isle of Skye never made me feel that way. I remember my feet always being wet, and shivering in bed with little more than a sheet to keep me warm.

Upon my first break from university I visited our new country home in Bearsden. The white-capped Ben Lomond was framed inside a windowpane rising above my father’s desk in his study. It meant nothing to me, but it did to him and so I smiled and said to him he did the right thing to move mother away from the retched smoke of the city. 20 years had been too long in one place and Bessy, our old castle, had become a prison.

 

[1] Ben Lomond: Mountain north of Glasgow located at the foot of Lock Lomond. It’s doubtful from Enoch’s central Glasgow location on Byre’s Road that he could have seen the mountain, but I made it so.

[2] Highland caterans: A Highland band of marauders, professional thieves, and/or mercenaries.

[3] Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734): A Scottish outlaw and folk hero. A traditional Jacobite, MacGregor was pro-Stuart and Catholic. He was also a cattle herder, and engaged in blackmail to protect people’s herds from theft, sometimes from his own theft.

[4] Feud with the Duke of Montrose: After losing his lands he (MacGregor) waged a blood feud against his dispossessor, James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose. The tales that follow include a series of adventures where Rob Roy escapes capture and execution. Bloody brilliant!

[5] Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745: The 45’ explained earlier (Pg. 47, note XXX) both were failed uprisings to reinstall the Catholic Stuarts to the English monarchy.

[6] The Act of Union 1707: At this time, England and Scotland were two separate states, each with their own parliaments, but under one monarch. Following the War of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), which saw the overthrow of the Scottish Stuart Dynasty from the English throne, the new Protestant English monarchy increased its effort to consolidate power on the isles. Scotland, politically fractured and near economic collapse, was forced into union in order to open England’s colonial markets for trade. The Act of Union expanded English control in Scotland at a time when Scotland was looked at as a threat, and physically speaking, a harbor for England’s continental enemies to exploit, namely the French.

[7] Malt Tax Riots: Began on June 23rd, 1725 in retaliation to the imposition of the English malt tax. As the economic promises of the 1707 Act of Union had yet to materialize, Scottish citizens took to the streets in protest and openly riot. The fiercest riots and anti-English sentiment existed in Glasgow.

Prologue: A letter, a manuscript, and plenty of murder still to come

Co-Dublin-Dublin-old-image-of-Trinity-College-and-Bank-of-Ireland-c.1910s-with-vintage-tramsPROLOGUE:

Dear Doctor Dooley,

You will not remember me, but you tended to a friend of mine who died many years ago. At the time when we met outside Glasgow I had no idea that we would be linked through a common fate, death following us wherever we settled. Unlike you, I did not choose an occupation waged inside the crypt; I became a lawyer. As I write I am aware of the irony entangled within my words, and I will leave it for you to ponder. I will say, however, that it was not the opacity, rigidity or even the aridity of the law that deadened my heart, but rather its miscarriage, and further still a disturbed individual who waged an ill-conceived crusade against a miscarriage of justice through an evocation of evil.

It is not my intention within this letter to explain the details of my ill-fated journey into the forests of the American frontier. Rather, I tracked you down some years back to find that you had long since departed for Ireland and I let the case rest. It was not until last week that I picked up the newspaper and read about the strange murders taking place in Dublin and their disturbing similarity to the murders I experienced in Seattle when I was a young man.

I have spent the past few days writing furiously to reconstruct the events of June 1889 in Seattle, as I saw them. I know of no one else in Dublin, and I am sure, based on your standing as a doctor, that you have the proper friends to contact if this manuscript moves you and perhaps compels you to inform the Royal Irish Constabulary of the innocence of the girls suspected of murdering their fathers, and also the resurrection of a killer. I leave this manuscript with you in good faith, as I left my friend in your care many years before. Let us pray for a more positive result than the conclusion to our first meeting those many years ago.

 

Your servant,

Enoch Campbell

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.