Death’s Daughter

I pilgrimaged to see her titanic head
floating against a skyline of shampoo bottles,
then swam up through black hair
and climbed into her ear.

A poetess,
a flaming thing who lived in soundwaves,
she wore cigarettes—
and oh! I thought,
how entropy became her!

Then her brain broke.
She mumbled to animals, saw faces in furniture,
and turned fearful toward the summoning light.
In her fever she forgave the rooftops,
and I, Sir Savior Worldhero,
drove deep into her madness.
I pled her down from sense precipices
and battled badge-eyed police with uniforms as skin.

It was October, and the cold wind cleaned my face.

“This is the afterlife,” she whispered,
“or the beforelife, with Stef Serpent from Eden.”

I stilled her skull
in the shadow
of the church
on the hill.

And she pulled me out of myself.

I had had other plans.
I wanted to become world dictator of words.
Trapped in the smallest of all rooms with myself,
I had been eking out a thousand-word novel,
and I had fed my mind to the clockwork of syntax,
and crucified myself on semi-colon and em-dash,
building the ruins of an idea I could live inside.

Now a new idea took me.
I had to rescue her,
I would take her over all borders,
personal and national,
up immigration mountain,
to my hermitage…
and she would give me a heart,
I guess.

II

I married my favourite audience,
a Victorian ghost with charcoaled eyes,
all black skirts and sad classical music,

and put her to bed for a year.

I had been working part time,
now I sliced my life into shift strips,
groveled in garbage jars
and waded hipdeep in greasepits.

And hiked home to tidy her head.
And ate her paranoia for supper.

Grappling in sheets,
long-shadowed in red rainstreets,
we talked the ten thousand miles of the trail to her childhood,
probed her cranial catacombs and dusted under her brainstem,
and found there three hundred of her father’s vodka flasks,
and a Bible with a thick black cover, and no words.

Then, sleepless, full of her, sore and penless,
I biked black windways under cinder skies to factory cities,
to erect sixty smokestacks in a clock circle,
every minute dribbling smoke from drabbest inferno;
I patrolled the fortresses of my enemies and masters,
jingling magic keys to the Land of Boredom,
where the hours crawled on thirty-six hundred legs
past binders and sticky notes, duplicated space,
and bosses’ nests. All my meanings rotting inside,

I went to bed to erase myself.
I limped in circles in a sphere of light.

Years died.

III

It seemed she’d outsmarted madness,
then one twilight she disrobed to greet the Lord—
as a favor to me, she did not look into His ravening face.
But I harangued her: so it began.
I jumped on her brain. I deflected her hungry touch.
I instructed her in all she shouldn’t be,
yet stopped permitting her into my alternative reality.

At work I obeyed a conveyor that carried autoparts,
that never slowed though an aged comrade cramped,
coughed up his heart, and waned into the roar…

At home I shouted from the privy,
gnawing cold day-old rat,
sobbing that I was born in Eden
and that she took it from me.

Night after night,
I vomited a piece of my mind.
She spoke of love and I spoke of time,
and it snowed thirty seasons straight
on the spattered stageboards
of our kitchenettes.
Finally she grounded her knees,
warped her fist through the window,
and declared herself the most sane agent of angels,
servant of the Plan and loud speaker of the Word.

This happens:
people turn 30,
regard the flaming ruins of their twenties,
and this one, manic and lost, retreats to her parents’ god.
and that one, tired and angry,
asks himself why he ever needed to save her.

Was it ever even possible?

I began to have my doubts.

And when she told me that she prayed for my poor lost soul,
that she feared for me if I didn’t repent before judgment,

I left.

Dust Keys (2010)

she hung right over there, boneless and clear,
a sky-thing strung up on cloud gallows of hair,
in that gristly winter,
in those last shots before the old unending black,
where the white jungle scribbled on the high blue night,
and the trumpet swayed between hothouse shrieks of paradise,
and the infinity of the pen fell to the oblivion of the page,
crumpled words floating ill-shaped in the sunlight.
I broke until I could understand what I was breaking
and I took,
and am taking,
and now, on this melting rim of morning,
light comes in like an endless fist,
and snow speaks and flames bang and
only a soiled path leads back through the sucking splash,
past the hustle of rash bells, past the smashed clocks
of our baroque history chiming like built birds rising

into the memory of our first night:
we sat by the graveyard gates.
(And there a clarity if just these lines would obey)
In that particular darkness, then
with the headlights moving so low below,
our awkwardness was a bright scratch on death’s strongbox.
O’s rebel jaw, her long brown arms
and claws, her piñata skull scattering wet candy;
that chopped hair forced back behind one ear. That feral stare.
Planning to be sad she had packed only black, soon unsuitable—
at times. Taller than I but in the way she defied
my loom was implied
as realities were passed through and left behind,
death murmuring from the radio sky:
death, in her bouts of déjà vu like bubbles of terror boiling,
bobbing up from the unknown, unaccounted-for past;
death, in skin janglings that summoned up old crimes
and their twilight-filled bootprints on her brain;
death, in how she spoke with such love of mania,
tugged out a chain of questions in final despair,
laughed dust. She came trusting me
like a knowing toe trusts cold ocean, O …

Oh whatever – it was my fault.
I said to her, come, rest with me awhile
I’ll take care of you I’ll garden your head;
but when it wasn’t easy,
and since she couldn’t wait until I wasn’t busy,
I whinged and stormed and finally made her leave.
Now I sit here, in my precious privacy,
weaving my spit-lace of words,
knowing she’s worse off than before me,
crazier and lonelier, re-shattered and cast out.

O?

O

O,
where are you? sleeper,
where do those fingers walk?
On the roofs of Soho retoned rainbow?
On the glowing-howl cell walls of psychic jail, part two?
On the minor keys of a cold polyphonal brightness,
The keys of motion, mood and ocean,
The keys of air?
Are you—
Are your songs speaking to you, dear? They never cease,
I know, and these questions make no sense
and I have no right to ask them
but it’s this silence,
that’s all;
this silence in here,
and those sirens outside,
and this February rain,
and a looping vision of your slain bliss:
you out dancing, all ruffles and eyelets,
your cheeks gleaming with mutating green,
your sweet hot breath briefly in my ear,
your whispers lost in the throbbing air,
in the woofing booms you spun away into,
the blade peak of you
floating back across
the gulfs of light,
of hard and heavy days,
the gulfs of night.

Listen, I—

No, forget it.

Minus One

On the morning after first snow, my mother and I drove for two hours into hilly German countryside to visit a family who have a summer house next to our property in Newfoundland, and whose vacation the year prior was ruined beforehand by the near-sudden death of the mother, Matilde, from lung cancer.

My mother took it hard. She considered flying over the Atlantic to attend the funeral, but couldn’t afford it. She settled for lighting a virtual candle.

The closer we got, the deeper the snow. We followed serpentine roads along the flanks of mountains, curving over valleys full of whitened beech and outposts where hunters waited for boar. Ponies and goats grazed on forty-degree slopes. Every twenty minutes we would pass through a wedding-cake town with antique village houses in tidily ascending ranks.

The family’s house was a three-story triangle with an intricate system of patios spiraling around it from base to peak, framing windows that faced those of distant houses on the other side of a valley whose misty floor had been squared off and quantized into farmland.

At the door we were greeted by Matilde’s husband and eldest son, both underweight, unshaven, and bespectacled. They smiled with pale warmth.

After we exchanged hugs and exclamations they took us on a tour of their house, which had been the town hall and school until the second World War and still had many ornately carved wardrobes and cabinets, gold-inlayed fortresses of black wood that made the sticklike modern chairs and tables and the plasma TV look temporary and unserious.

The second floor was cozier, mostly given over to bookshelves stocked with quantum physics and literary fiction. It had belonged to the couple. Matilde’s husband, Lars, switched rooms after she died. The door to their conjugal room was shut, but the opposite door was open on his new room, which had only a mattress on a wooden floor beneath a clean rectangle of painfully blue sky.

Lars led us to the bathrooms: one room with a hexagonal jacuzzi tub under a matching skylight and the other with a toilet that sported various nozzles and a remote control that he pressed for us with an air of self-mockery.

I interrupted my mother’s cheery patter to ask him who owned all the books.

“She did.”

Bent over the remote control, which was now tinnily issuing Beethoven, Lars had answered my question without looking up.

At sixty-seven, he still looked like a student — the quantum physics books at least were his — but bleakly detached and unimpressed. Sometimes when others were speaking he would snort curtly, as if what they were saying was maddening, but then he would say something colorless.

The third floor belonged to his middle-aged son, Horst, an underfed wraith who looked much like his father but more sickly, with purple lips that twitched and pulsed while he hovered at the edges of our group, piping up only to correct his father. Horst had returned home after completing his PhD in Engineering and never left again or, to our knowledge, had a girlfriend. His triangular space under the roof’s peak was cluttered with gadgets, hand-assembled model planes, and empty beer cans from all over the world, and had as centerpiece a knee-high statuette of a generously-chested Nordic maiden riding a harnessed lizard.

I asked him about his life, but every question was met by a monoxide-poisoned smile and answers that seemed almost deliberately banal, as if I’d done something naïve and he was slyly mocking me. I asked him how he passed his time; Horst answered, “Living.”
Over his computer table was a line of photos of his mother. The leftmost picture had her as a beribboned sepia baby; in the middle one she was young and stylishly trench-coated in a crowd of protesters, her fist raised, yelling; the rightmost photo showed her in crowish late-middle-age sitting on their patio, wearing sunglasses that disclosed her eyelashes and smoking, her cigarette hand obscuring a wry smile. On the table beside her was a whiskey tumbler atop a paperback with a curling cover that bore her name.

She had weakened quickly. After a Friday afternoon nap she found she couldn’t walk anymore, was hospitalized, intubated and catheterized, sedated, and gone by Sunday.

After the tour, we squeezed into their car and drove to a graveyard on a steep mountainside. It had snowed all afternoon, and upon turning onto the final side-road we plowed into a snow-bank. Our wheels spun in place.

I got out and watched, standing next to Horst. His hands were stuffed into his hoodie’s pockets, his purple lips and weak eyelids quivering with cold. Lars backed carefully down the hill, easing onto the main road, revved his engine, and then rocketed up through the drift, spraying snow, and around the corner, crunching to a stop in front of an old belfry.

On the hill, a sloped grid of tombstones was interrupted only by the wooden cross on Matilde’s grave. The cross will be taken down once the earth has settled, my mother said, and burst into tears, turning away orange with embarrassment. I hugged her for a long time while Lars and Horst stood over the grave looking down, their faces like old leather wallets.

Before we left, my mom kneeled and affixed two round pins — one with the Newfoundland flag, the other with a pink heart on white — to a crocheted poem that leaned between a brass angel blowing a clarion and a stuffed puppy that had frozen solid, its plush mouth ajar in puppy ecstasy.

The Insemination

With her right claw Genu46 grips the child and tugs her beak from its ribs. She dribbles softener on its forehead, then cuts from combed hair to snub nose and tenderly peels back the floppy bone, exposing lobes packed with eggs as round and white as pearls.

She gapes briefly but catches herself quick and tunes down her mood engine until she’s calm enough to tweeze out the eggs.

Afterward she darts up into the pea-green sky over the human village and cuts off east toward her roost, skimming over winged trees fluffy with spring feathers. On the horizon her roost, a glossy black pillar, slopes up hairlike into clustered stratocumuli.

Inside, Genu46 skips her usual friendly beak-rubbing and slips off to the chapel, where she discovers Genu85 perched in front, his eyeball cocked at the gauges set into the altar. In the altar’s testing chamber he has placed an entire brain—eggless, of course, like every day.

Normally 46 tries to be patient with 85—they all do—but today she shoulders him aside, plucks out his junk specimen, unseals her eye canal and lets one egg roll into the altar.

All sixteen gauges bong in unison.

46 and 85 glance at each other. 85 begins to twitter in happy hack-brained excitement, and even 46 permits herself some joy in the instant before her mind is overridden by an incoming command:

DELIVER THE EGGS.

Her personality dissolves like sugar into water. Only the smallest grains of self still blink on and off, sparking through the depths of an ocean of nonbeing.

Her beak siphons the egg back into her eye pouch. Her body turns to leave.

The chapel is crammed with her roostmates—they line the pews and are stacked along the walls up to the dome, tiers of glassy eyeballs arranged so that everyone can stare at her.

But her legs carry her past them, through deserted maintenance halls, and into a bright corridor to mountains and plains and oceanic sky.

Her body launches itself out and her wings lock into hummingbird mode and carry her straight up.

The landscape rapidly contracts, rivers and forests pulling together into a mottled, blossoming flesh. Her roost tapers and curves down into a shiny black spiral.

Other colossal spirals appear in the far distance, dozens tangling on pale plains that curve off to the end of the world, where red waterfalls cascade sparkling into astral darkness.

Her wings slow, three nozzles emerge from her tail feathers, and then she blasts up out of the atmosphere, a cyclopean magpie rising on triplet jets of white flame, a speck departing her planet, which looks like a reclining human wreathed in clouds, with a red umbilical ocean, ribs made of mountain chains, and a bald head with closed eyes and a serene smile.

Three eye-moons orbit its torso, sweeping their gazes across its length.

And near its left knee, the thin black hair of her roost.

In the back of her mind a half-crushed feeling rears up and she plunges after it, chasing the pain into herself, shrinking, as she falls inward, to a dot of mind snowing toward an electric island of fragmented emotions.

With time other human planets spin past, vast sleepers clothed in clouds and feather-forests, their transcendental smiles reflected in the glassy dome of her deserted eye.

Meanwhile, 46, deep inside herself, glitchy and incomplete, views and reviews the footage of her roostmates filling the chapel. Again and again they stare at her, the Finder of the Eggs, the One, with all the camaraderie gone from their ancient faces, replaced by disappointment and an awful distance.

As her body passes the sun, a gargantuan glass orb containing an irradiant organism with feathery membranes swirling around its blinding core, she’s composing a speech for her return in which she reassures everyone, and especially poor deluded 85, that she found the eggs only because of their work ethic, their determination, the unbreakable unity of all their people everywhere—they who had searched so long and so bravely for the eggs.

The sun fades behind her. The stars drop from view. Her body ascends through silent darkness toward a matte-black ceiling and angles into a short tunnel to a metal room.

She’ll say she was only ever the insignificant emissary of a noble, superior, and devoted race.

A mechanical pincer drops down, seizes her eye, and yanks her into the air. A green laser hums in sideways and halves her skull. Her body and most of her brain drop.

Her eyeball is scoured by microlasers until it shines and turns translucent—revealing the clutch of eggs stored behind its pupil—and then the pincer pushes the eye into a slot in the roof.

Her eye, wedged in place, looks out from a submicroscopic gap in a smooth pale surface that extends beyond all horizons, curving around 46’s entire universe—

All her reality contained in a round, glowing shell, a cosmic pearl that fills all space.

I press one final button.

Her pupil squirts the eggs. They spray out, glittering in a light that is not light, travel up your gaze and through your eyes and thud into your brain.

Your figments wriggle toward the eggs…

The Freshness of the First and Foremost of the Finest of the Lines

All philosophies condense to a line, with time,
and all songs dwindle to a single sooty melody,

and even if you sawed the locks off your senses,

even if you turned these letters
until light came through,
so that what’s behind them
could demand to be rescued,

even if you left behind the sentence,
tossed the whole scaffolding aside,
and let each moment become its own manifesto,

you would still fall back

to foil scraps and pigeon shit,
upturned take-out and puked noodles,
smashed flasks’ stained glass,
and sweatered smokers kicking
at the torn grey tissues

of dawn clouds.

Unprayer

I do not expect, O Lord, to ever believe in you again.

There was a time when your body was sunlight and you spoke through chills and inklings. I heard angelic choirs in an engine’s whining shudder. All history was evidence of your existence, and the lightning bolt a proof.

These days you get drunk and fall off bar stools. You were a trillion light years across; now you’re roommates with Zeus in the back of my skull, and you hammer on the bone walls in the hopes I’ll let you out.

I never will, though I sometimes allow you walk-on parts in my fantasies. With real fondness I watch you ham up your old omnipotence—beautiful again despite your destroyed face, amen.

Later I see you in the shared kitchen, slumping in a stained t-shirt over fried sausages and ketchup eggs, cheating at a crossword. With a grunt you lean back to open the fridge, glancing over the magnet-hung photos of Mary in her prime and the all-star son himself, handsome as ever. You drink the grape juice straight from the bottle.

The Answer

Heinrich has crummy yellow eyes. His hair is gelled into short hedgehog spikes. He smokes six cigs in a four-hour shift. Starting off he’s uneasy. He watches nervously for the approach of the floor bosses. He worries out loud that the local bully will come over and call him a faggot. When he lags behind the conveyor belt, he hisses, “Impossible! Impossible!” and hurls boxes to the ground.

Later he mellows. Sipping on a single energy drink for hours, he shouts over the conveyor belt about nineties electronic music and the shittiness of work cliques. He praises my precise stacks and frets over his own. Looking at the ground he jokes with the fork-lift driver. When the driver leaves, Heinrich frowns and informs me that the driver always torments him.

After the shift he invites me to sit on a concrete ledge with him while he smokes. He offers me half a chocolate bar. He tells me a secret: he lives at home, with his mother. But he can’t leave her, because his father is dead and she depends on him. He wants to see the world. To have adventures, to meet more people like me. Instead he works here at the warehouse, ruining his body and giving up his life for minimum wage. But after work on Friday nights, he goes into the city to have a small adventure. Would I be interested in coming?

All the drive to his house Heinrich fidgets. Cursing at the rain speckling the windshield, he worries that our night will be ruined. He turns up the bass woofers till it hurts, then turns them way down. He complains that I forced him to meet my wife when we dropped by. It had been a terrible idea, he says, she clearly had not liked him. I protest. He says we should drop it, he doesn’t want to fight.

The rain has stopped, he announces, leaning over the wheel and looking up at the black sky. He turns up the bass again. He cackles and slaps me on the knee and tells me that we’re going to have a wicked time.

Now he wants me to guess how long it’s been since he hung out with someone.

“I don’t know, a year?”

He frowns. “Four months. You must really think I’m a loser, huh.”

From an easy chair his mother greets me without looking up from her crossword. She is an indistinct mass behind heavy black glasses. I meet his sister – a rosy cheerleader studying psychology – and then Heinrich leads me down to his basement room. It’s got off-white carpeting, wooden paneling, and a seventy-inch TV with turret speakers. The entire wall behind the TV is covered by a glossy digital print of the Brooklyn Bridge under red skies. Heinrich gestures at a boss black armchair.

“Sit there, sorry – the room’s only set up for one.”

He runs up the stairs. I hear him ask his mother to make me a sandwich.

“Why don’t you make it yourself?”

“Mom! Come on! Please?”

Bearing a cold-cut sandwich and two beers, he comes back in factory-faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt with a skull-and-feathers. His hair has been freshly hedgehogged. He hurls himself down ass-first on the edge of his bed and then springs back up and turns on his sound system and LEDs; prismatic colors rinse through the speaker cabinets. He beckons me over to watch his computer tower’s wicked black fan pulse and vanish into blue glow. On the seventy-inch screen his desktop’s background cycles through pictures “of places that don’t exist”: Martian bubble cities, last-boss citadels, red Edens. He turns on a video comparing gaming laptops. He apologizes for his mom as I scarf down the sandwich, then apologizes for the laptop video and turns on scientists talking about theories of time. He says he’d love to talk like them. He asks if there’s just like one big book he can read that will update him on everything that intellectuals know.

Heinrich offers to play me some music he made, then immediately rescinds the offer, shaking his head and muttering something I don’t catch.

He apologizes for his room. He had lived down in an apartment owned by his mother, but the neighbors complained about him playing loud music on weekend nights, and finally a man kicked in his door and slammed him against a brick wall and choked him. Heinrich moved back into his mother’s house the next day, but she wouldn’t give him his old room… so: life in the basement. He shrugs and drains his beer.

Upstairs Heinrich digs up an empty 2L soda bottle and dumps in grenadine syrup, a flask of Jägermeister, and two cans of extra-strength energy drink. Then he goes to the bathroom, and his mother struggles up from her couch and takes my hand in her two wet ones.

“I just want to thank you for spending time with Heinrich tonight. I hope you can be a good influence…”

I try to smile.

At midnight we rush off late for the bus to the city. Heinrich scurries in front, talking over his shoulder about all the different ways he’s worried our night might go wrong. His fist is clenched around a bulging red plastic bag that swings against his jeans.

On the bus we sit together. Crossing his arms and then uncrossing them, he sinks in his seat, leaning forward to protect his hair. He complains that the chamomile tea he chugged hasn’t calmed him. Peering out the window at farmland, his eyelids heavy, he murmurs that he hopes everything will go okay.

We disembark in the old city square. A medieval fortress, a cobbled plaza lined with antique townhouses home to pubs, strips clubs, discos, casinos, brothels and fast food. We park ourselves on a grassy ledge in front of a particularly grimy disco and he rummages in his plastic bag and takes out the 2L bottle of Jägermeister and energy drink. He pours the mix into two red plastic cups and hands me one. Slurping happily he grins out at the crowd.

I pee behind a piss-smelling wurstwagon and when I come back Heinrich’s talking to a leonine blonde who smiles at him through fake lashes, and her shorter but otherwise identical friend who stands off to one side, inexplicably shaking her phone like it’s a mixed drink. Heinrich is complaining that people think he’s a weirdo for always coming alone. The lioness, glossy and self-assured, keeps interjecting, but Heinrich just speaks over her, apologizing abjectly, desperately, and then yammering on, telling stories with friendly outrage about all the times he’s been publicly shamed. Eventually she stops trying to reply, and she and her friend stub out their cigarettes and go back inside.

Rain dots the sidewalk.

Heinrich yells, “Tim! TIIIIIIIIIM!”

Tim looks like a melancholy brown bear that only uncomfortably walks on two legs. He plods over with his diminutive friend Devin and after a round of backslapping and introductions little Devin pipes up that they were just going to do some coke, and would we like to buy in?

Heinrich swings his red plastic bag like a windmill, then drops it, punches the air, and screams YEEEEHAAAAAAW!!

…without smiling.

We creep under some scaffolding and up over a low wall into a parking garage, where we sit cross-legged in an arc against a low wall, our sneakers almost touching. Heinrich and I dig up bills while Devin cuts four equal lines and then snorkels his up with aplomb. Tim follows suit, slugging his chest afterward and hallooing into the echoing garage. Heinrich rails his and then snuffles around with his 20€ proboscis after stray powder. I put a rolled-up five to my nose and snort, but only a few flecks vanish.

“Faster! Faster!” shouts Heinrich. He gets up on his knees and points at me imperiously. “Try the other nostril!”

“It’s just as blocked! Haven’t you ever noticed how nasal my voice is?”

I give him what’s left. He’s stunned. At first unwilling to believe. He weakly pushes it back at me. Then a look of awed happiness rises through his face.

“Wow man, you’re a real friend, aren’t you?”

The tiny dose of coke never confronts me. There’s a gentle buoyancy and a certain impatience to get my words out. Tim corners me. Heinrich has mentioned that I’m a writer. Tim, whose bulk blocks my view of the others, says things like, “If you examine it from through the lens of the late Marxism of the Frankfurt School …” He talks slowly, eyelids half-closed as his furry voice lumbers after a single gigantic thought that he never quite catches.

When he casually mentions that he “has been to known to go crazy on coke,” I chuckle and shut up for good.

Tim tells me a story: once he was drinking screwdrivers with some university friends and one of them, playing around, pushed him. He fell backward, onto his open book-bag, and smashed the vodka bottle and some beer – all the booze he had till he got paid. Everyone laughed. His back was cut by broken glass and blood ran down onto his new white capris. And he was too broke to buy more booze. But no one had any sympathy, in fact they mocked him and said it was his fault for getting so wasted… so Tim went to a construction site and fetched an iron rod and threatened to beat their heads in. The guy who’d pushed him – an expert on Derrida – wrestled away the iron rod and smashed up Tim while everybody stood around and watched. The next day, home from the hospital, Tim tried to commit suicide for the third time.

I ask Tim what he thinks about Heinrich.

“Heinrich? He’s a nice guy, but he … he needs … I had a friend, he used to sell speed, right … and one day, Heinrich comes up to him in the grocery store, and wants to buy some speed … this guy doesn’t have any … I mean he’s in his jammies, on a chips-and-cola run … but Heinrich doesn’t believe him, he thinks the dude is fucking with him, and he breaks a beer bottle – full, from the shelf – and shoves it in the guy’s face, and screams at him to hand over the speed…”

I glance over. Devin is bent and solemn with ear cupped, listening to Heinrich jabber. They’re both smoking hard.

At three, Tim suddenly announces that he and Devin have to leave.

Heinrich claps him on the shoulder.

“Hey man come on, we’re all have such a good time,what’s another hour or two?”

Tim removes Heinrich’s hand, laughing.

“Sorry dude, gotta work in a few. You know what it’s like.”

He turns to go, but Heinrich snatches at his arm and pretending that its a joke he gets down on his knees and clasps his hands and prays to the sky that Tim and Devin will stay around and have some more fun. Tim scowls.

“Dude!”

He’s already walking away.

Heinrich leads us around the beer-bottled square, looking into every face we pass. “The two of us aren’t enough to make a party,” he says, and then stops short and puts his hands on my shoulders and looks in my eyes and pleads that I don’t take him wrong. He says he needs to make it clear that he’s grateful to me for coming out tonight and spending all this time with him. He says that I have proven myself to be a real friend, even though it is after all best to be careful about calling someone a friend. For example, he says, can he really be sure that I won’t tell everyone at work that he lives in his mom’s basement? What if I go in on Monday and tell everyone how he spends his time and they all laugh at him together? What if they find out how pathetic and doomed his whole existence is? What if by trying to make a friend for once he has made his shit life at the warehouse and in his shit fucking basement finally and for real impossible to bear? After all, how can he go on living breaking his body stacking boxes for not enough money to live on? Not enough money to respect himself, or even have some fun sometimes – he’s spent next to nothing and he’s already broke! If it weren’t for how much it would hurt his mother, he would have killed himself a long time ago, he’s known ever since his father killed himself that the old guy was smarter than he was, his father knew that no one wins. No one! Not you or me, friendo!

Sometimes Heinrich interrupts himself, craziness crawls into his face, and he yelps and laughs maniacally. The few around glance over warily. Holding high his red cup, he calls out to them: “Hey, can do you me a favour? Could you guess how much of a fucking loser I am? HahaHA! I live in my mother’s basement!”

A muscled luxury dude assesses Heinrich’s narrow shoulders and fragile chest, his hair spikes and faded jeans, and says, “Oh come on kid, how old’re you? Nineteen?”

Heinrich’s skipping toward him, cackling. “Thirty-two, motherfucker!”

“Oh shit,” mutters costly dude, sidling away, “I guess you are a loser …”

“I hate my life!” Heinrich screams into the increasing distance between them. “I hate my fucking life!” He turns back to me and sees my face and suddenly looks chagrined, desperate: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry … you know what’s happening, don’t you? I told you, right?”

“I have a hunch…”

“A hunch! A hunch! H is for Hunch!”

He spots someone sliding through a parkette. He calls out, “Hassan! Hassaaaaaaaa-aaaaaaan! HAAASAAAAN!” and the silhouette stops and turns into a bony ash-locked man in a filthy beige trenchcoat, who waits silently for Heinrich, his face withdrawn behind white curls.

As we approach, Heinrich explains, “He’s a good guy, he always says ‘Thank you’ …”

Hassan, who looks like the fossilized skeleton of a Renaissance angel, falls into step with us. He doesn’t say hello. Heinrich wants to know what he’s been doing. Hassan shrugs. Heinrich tells him that he met me at work and that I’m from Canada and that I’m moving to Berlin soon and probably won’t be back. He says that I’m probably trustworthy. Unlike Tim. Tim has always had in it for him. Once upon a time he trusted Tim and it ended in bad, bad trouble.

Hassan never gives a sign that he’s listening. His dagger-eagle profile is always half turned away.

Heinrich’s nose has turned red. He rubs it and sniffles.

The sky is now less than black.

When Hassan wafts off to pee, I lean over to Heinrich and say, “Be careful. He doesn’t like you.”

Heinrich looks over sharply: “Hey man, Hassan is a good guy! He’s here every week, unlike you …”

Hassan drifts back over, and Heinrich pointedly strikes up a monologue in his direction.

It blooms into a chilly grey morning. Heinrich moves us to a glass booth in the middle of streetcar tracks crisscrossing cobbles under a golden clock. In a dull-red electric wheelchair sits an old man with stubbed arms and legs like those of a supermarket turkey. Heinrich greets him by name and offers him a cigarette and then wedges the cigarette between the old man’s pursed lips and lights it. Hassan leans back against the smudged glass wall and stares at the ceiling, his jawline an arrowhead. His fingers delicate as wires intertwine in steady rhythmic loops. Heinrich smokes and stares with narrowed eyes at me for a long time, and finally says, as if only now coming to the conclusion: “You have to remember: we’re not friends. You’re a good co-worker, that’s all. A real friend would come and hang out every week, not just once. But you have no money, you live too far, and one of these days you’re just going to vanish off to Berlin.”

I said that we had different ideas about friendship. It was true that I wouldn’t be around for long, but while I was here, I intended to listen to him and have patience with him, even if sometimes he was mean. For me that’s—

“Waitwaitwait: I’ve been mean to you?”

“Everybody’s mean sometimes.”

Eying me as if I’m insane: “Why didn’t you tell me sooner!?”

“Because it wasn’t important?”

Suddenly he looks skeptical, and then crafty.

“When, exactly, was I mean to you?”

“Oh man, I can’t remember.”

“You being honest?”

“Heinrich!”

“You can’t even give me a single example, and you want me to believe you? I can’t trust you, motherfucker … you laugh at me when I’m not around.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You’re going to tell everyone that I’m stupid.”

“I have never once laughed at you. Have you laughed at me?”

“You’re the one who laughs…”

But what has happened around us? In our glass booth amid the streetcar tracks, the ring-shaped bench has become home to the strangest crew. The limbless old man is arguing with a fish-faced woman with protrusive buckteeth. She’s squeezing the arm of a thick boy talking to himself in a gentle Pooh-bear voice. Next to him sits, fuming, a spherical man with a red choleric face with so many pores that he resembles a deseeded strawberry. Hassan stares yogi-like skyward and alone in some other place. Tears roll down his arrow jaw, dangle briefly from his ears, spatter his trenchcoat’s lapels. Heinrich’s on his feet and offering cigarettes to everyone, greeting them by name, slapping them on the shoulder. He repeats to each person that he’s had a terrible, frightening night around people he can’t trust. He gives four cigarettes to a kid he seems to fear, a dirty boy with clean circles around his eyes, looking like some kind of inverted raccoon, with a holey green garbage sack between his ragged feet. A skinny Japanese man in a bob-cut black wig thanks Heinrich effusively and then begs a second cigarette for his friend, a drag queen with jowls sagging down over enormous pearls who is just now jiggling across the cobbles.

Then a ponytailed wraith floats in and everyone rises and rushes toward him babbling.

Heinrich and Hassan crouched behind a crumbled fortress wall, bent over folded-up paper with tan powder in it. Heinrich complains that it’s chunky. He worries he’s been cheated. I sit facing the street and warn them whenever somebody comes by – not that either cares. Hassan is bent almost double, his grey curls concealing his doings, but Heinrich is half-turned toward the street, and keeps getting distracted by the words tumbling out of his mouth. It seems to take hours for him to get ready, and then, his face hanging over the paper, furled bill plugged into his nostril, he rolls up a urinous eye and says, very quietly, “You want some?”

I shake my head.

He swoops down and snorts the short brown line. Then he straightens up, dusts himself off, claps his hands and rubs them together, smiling with great satisfaction. “You were wrong.” He turns to Hassan’s tousled crown. “He said you didn’t like me. But he was wrong, wasn’t he?”

“Mm.”

Heinrich turns back to me. “Hassan did something amazing just now. I offered him some H. And he said – can you fuckin believe it – he said I should keep it! – he said that he had his own! Do you know how hard it is for a fucking homeless heroin addict to say that?”

Hassan, sitting cross-legged, hands on knees, is leaning way back, almost reclining, his pretty white locks over his closed eyes, swaying.

I remind Heinrich that my train home leaves in an hour. He says he’ll walk me to the station. But every time we start to leave, he pats my arm fondly and says hold on hold on and goes back over and whispers to Hassan, touching his shoulder, leaning in, smiling like he’s been washed clean of sin.

Once we’re on the way, Heinrich stops every few steps to illustrate a point or to look me in the face to make sure I’m listening.

“Hassan is a good guy. You know what he did back there? But you’re a good guy too. Really. It’s rare: I feel like I can tell you anything and you won’t judge me or laugh at me. Do you know how rare that is? How fucking extra-ordinary that is? I don’t tell anyone that I live with my mother! and you can’t tell anyone, because it would destroy me – but somehow I know you won’t. I trust you. You got a hug for me? Hhhmmmfffff. Thanks buddy … god I was so nervous we would fight. I thought you would come and see how pathetic I was and it would be awkward and terrible at work on Monday and you would laugh at me with the others and that would be the final straw for me, the last time I ever reached out to anyone … That’s why the chamomile didn’t calm me down … the chamomile always works, but I was just worried, I wanted so bad for us to get along. But now, oh my god, it’s hard to believe – it worked out! Here we are in the sunshine! And we didn’t even come close to fighting. You know … I sit before work in my car in the parking lot. And when I see you come in… You come in on your bike and go around the corner. And I see you and I smile – just like this – I get a big old stupid grin on my face. Because you won’t laugh at me, not like the others … when Horst comes by and makes fun of me they always laugh at his jokes. They’re scared of him. But when he came by you just looked at him like he was an idiot, and for once – the only time ever – he didn’t get to me. And it’s because you were there, my friend. It all seemed so simple. I could just choose not to feel bad. Horst didn’t matter at all. And if he called me a faggot, so what? I’m not some homophobe. I made a friend at a disco once and he needed a place to sleep and when we got home I said he could sleep on the couch but he wanted to come on the mattress, so I said okay, and he got up there, and then he wanted to go down on me, and I was drunk, and I thought, okay, sure, any port in a storm, haha, whatever – but I couldn’t get it up! His awful little mouth moving around down coldly down there. Then he wanted me to go down on him, and I thought about it, I considered it, and it made me want to puke. So I said no – and he got so mad! I moved to the couch, but then I couldn’t stand the thought of being in there with him, so I went upstairs to my old room and slept there, and when I woke up my laptop was gone … and my new camera … no, I’m really not gay at all, but if I were into men, it would be men like you…”

I ask Heinrich whether he really threatened Tim’s speed-dealing buddy. Heinrich seems confused. He has me relate the whole story. Then he cocks his head sixty degrees and narrows his bloodcurdled eyes. “Tim made that up! Tim … Tim … Tim’s antisocial. We were drinking together once and he just whipped his cock out and pissed right in front of everybody, in front of girls! And then he was mad at us for getting mad … But his friend, Devin, Devin’s all right. Devin just sitting there with his hand to his ear and listening, really listening, instead of just pretending … that’s rare. You don’t find that much … Of course you listen too, I see it, but there’s one thing I just don’t understand about you: why are you here? What do you want from me? Did you really think we were going to have a good time? Didn’t you see this coming all along? … But no no shh you are here, and you have been nice to me all night…”

He stops us for so many hugs and fist bumps that I miss my train. We wait on a mezzanine over the tracks. He squawks, the squawk echoes. He calls out: “Echo!” Looks dirty us. I take us down to the platform, which runs from beneath a glass overhang out into drizzly grey. Sober commuters in rainwear stand around on their phones. Heinrich sets down his eternal red plastic bag and puts his hands in his jacket and gazes out into dripping wetness. After a long time, his first silence in hours, he says, “This was a bad idea. You shouldn’t have come.”

“Heinrich …”

“Because it’s just once. You should come every week, and we could do this every time, and you would be my friend. But it’s already over. And every week I’ll want you here and you won’t be. And it’ll hurt.”

“I thought—“

“You thought it would help me.”

“…”

“You were wrong. And what makes it worse? When you’re in Berlin, I’m going to miss you a lot more than you’re going to miss me. You have the city, your wife, your writing. I don’t have anybody. The first day at work after you’re gone is going to be so depressing. I’m going to sit in my car and you’re not going to come by on your bike and I’m going to cry. And I hate that that day is going to come.”

“I’m sorry.”

The train booms and rattles in, doors hiss and commuters rumble past. Heinrich grabs my shoulder.

“If you were in my place, what would you do? Would you move to Berlin? Or would you get a better job? Go back to school? Would you find a wife? Just don’t say quit heroin. Say anything else.”

I step onto the train and turn to face him.

Solitude of the Employee

At the specified hour the employee strode into the national HQ and presented his summons. After a brief interrogation, he was pushed into an amphitheater. On its semi-circular tiers, behind executive desks, dozens of bosses conferred, muttered into phones, or glared down at him with hands buckled across paunches.

The employee’s personal boss—young and crisp, stiff as a soldier—rapped on his desk.

“We’ve ordered you here because your colleagues have testified that you often stare at nothing in particular, lost in private thought.

“In other words, you have been stealing the time that we purchased from you.

“Personally, I believe that such behavior deserves swift exile—with prejudice.

“However, here at Corp Inc. we subscribe to compassion, and the directors will settle for removing the part of you that stares into space and imagines other ways of existing.

“It will be stored safely, in isolation. You won’t feel that different, but there are a few side effects…”

“Okay,” said the employee, and stood up. “I’ll make this as easy as possible for both of us.”

And he bolted.

He hurtled through the generic hallways, skidded into a stairwell, and fled down concrete steps, past bare pipes, toward the coolness of fresh air.

But the corridor led to a catwalk forking off through windy darkness.

Eying a distant EXIT sign, he edged out onto the open…

And found himself high over an immense cavern split by an agitated river.

The rocky walls and ceiling, the wet boulders of the riverbanks, were webbed with thick white strands that sagged everywhere with bulky cocoons.

Inside each cocoon, just barely visible, was a junior boss in suit and tie, knees curled to chest.

The employee crept across the catwalk through echoing river-roar until he reached an iron staircase that spiraled down toward daylight. He had descended several flights when the thin stairs began to reverberate with someone’s ascent.

It was a muscular, clean-cut boss in a white dress shirt tucked into chinos.

As they passed each other, he realized that the other man had his face, but harder, and perfected.

He emerged into noon dazzle on a lush hill over a strange city.

A city he’d seen in dreams.

A fractal city that shifted under his gaze, its streets opening at impossible angles on ever more castles, skyscrapers and pavilions, circuses in ancient forests, ziggurats and temples and hypermodern black cubes. There were carved stone dwellings teeming with monkeys. There were single-acre farmsteads sailing down canals, past floating nightclubs lit by throbbing holograms. There were mammoth trees, growing out of abandoned churches, whose boughs supported colonies of eccentric treehouses.

But though he often called out, no one ever answered.

He was alone.

This Page Hallucinated Its Letters

That bird just described itself.

Three hundred explanations got up and walked around
but always came back to the same place

The canalhouses gazed into their own reflections
and hungered for the lives in their windows.

Wind kissed her and watched her walk away.
The night held her hand,
and the trees attempted to persuade her,
and it was the moon, I believe,
that nosed into her hair.

The song heard itself,
and stretched out on the purple mattress above the garden,
warm and safe and young, for now.

Message From The Devil (Vibrations in a Red Crystal)

“It was Lambros. I went out with her food and he had her leash and was taking Sally out the back gate.”

“Lambros? That boy with the huge forehead?”

“His kid brother.”

“That little shit.”

“He was laughing the whole time, pulling on Sally. She didn’t want to go, she was looking back at me and whining, but he dragged her into the trees.”
“Seriously? Why didn’t you follow him?”

“Christie—you have to let me tell the story.”

“Oh, so I can’t ask about what happened to my fucking dog?”

“Of course I followed them! I ran as hard as I could!”

“Okay! I’m sorry, all right?”

“It’s just that I tried to jump the fence. And my foot caught. And I fell on the gravel. Which gave Lambros even more of a head start.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, I know… Anyway, I caught up by the footbridge. Sally was nowhere. Lambros was on the railing, grinning like he’d just played a hilarious joke and now got to enjoy the grand treat of watching me bumble through. And then I see it: right beside the creek there’s a circular hole in the ground, with a ladder set into its side.”

“A ladder. In a hole.”

“Yep.”

“And how did we never notice it before?”

“It wasn’t there before.”

“Are you sure?”

“…no. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“Did you try calling for Sally?”

“Well, by the way that asshole kid was smirking at me, I figured he’d thrown Sally into the hole. I’m not going to lie, I wanted to do things to that kid’s skull that would have put me in prison for a very long time. And right away I thought about Maria and Bruce’s—“

“Oh my god, their cat.”

“Yeah… But I figured I could deal with Lambros later. Call social services on his parents and get him committed or whatever. Something nasty and satisfying. But I pushed it out of my mind and climbed down the ladder after her.“

“But she wasn’t down there, was she? What did Lambros say?”

“So. I climbed down. It was warm and almost dark. I was in a sort of large room, there was junk everywhere, old electronics, busted couches. Twisted metal wire. Like somebody had been hoarding in this weird hole. I call out Sally, Sally! Nothing. I walked around a little, found a passageway. Another room: the same deal, maybe less junk. Dim light that I couldn’t find the source of. And only two exits. Around this time I stopped calling for Sally and just listened. I guess I got a little nervous. I started wondering who had dragged all this shit down here, and whether they were still around…”

“Eric…”

“Please listen. Because next the rooms got cleaner, emptier. The trash disappeared. The paint looked newer and brighter, and there were windows way high above, too high for me to look out. Then I heard people, lots of them, some kind of market, somebody yelling out prices. I went through another passageway and came out into a street I didn’t recognize, in a city I’d never seen before.”

“ERIC…”

“And there were all these people rushing past me. But something’s wrong with their faces. Their eyes were split four ways, like… like quartered golf balls. And they had noses like red cucumbers. White gloves. And big hanging mouths and rows of teeth like sharks do. Their throats were full of teeth.”

“Okay so there are two possibilities right now. One is that you’re completely insane and who knows what the fuck you did with the Sally.”
“You know what, it really could be that I lost my mind. I totally agree with you.”

“The other possibility is that you’re the biggest tool who has ever existed.”

“Christie…”

“You think I’m an idiot?”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

“I have a Master’s!”

“I know.”

“Here’s what really happened: you thought this like scrawny sixteen-year-old kid was going to whup you, and you made up this entire fake story which no one in the world would ever believe—nobody I know, nobody who has ever lived would fall for it. You’re a coward, AND a liar.”

“Sure, I am a coward. You’re right.”

“I don’t give a shit! I just want my dog back!”

“I was a coward when I climbed down into the scary hole, when I went through all those rooms, and when I went into that strange city with the weird people. I was a coward because I was willing to risk my life to avoid the fit you would throw if anything happened to your precious irritating shitting yapping idiot dog.”

“It’s starting to sound like you’re the one who got rid of her.”

“I couldn’t. Too much of a coward.”

“…”

“…”

“There’s an easy way to settle this, isn’t there? Let’s go look at the hole.”

“We can’t.”

“Let me guess: it’s not there anymore.”

“I can’t explain it either.”

“Your story’s so full of shit, man. How did you get out of fairyland? Did the hole like, close behind you at the last minute?”

“No. I went the other way. The people ignored me completely, they didn’t seem dangerous, and anyway in a few minutes they were all gone. I was alone in the street. I could see deserted high-rises for miles. The sun was too close and too big, it went down between two condos as if it were welding them together. Then I heard a crack, and the street split in half and began to fall apart, but jumped back into place. I hauled ass in the other direction, up a hill, and the sky seemed to sort of melt down and flow toward me, washing away the buildings as it came, and then washing away me… Then I wasn’t in the city anymore. I felt like I was nowhere. Like I didn’t have a body. I felt like a network of vibrations in a sort of red crystal that went on forever, underneath everything, vibrating. I felt like red lightning crackling everywhere at once superfast, but in a space so big that I could never branch through it all. But all that energy was swirling toward a center, to a tight black bubble, inside of which was this intricate lightshow — our entire universe, sustained by this awful red energy. The last thing I sensed was that the universe had not been created by a kind God. There had never been a God, only a Satan, and the evil he had planned was bigger in conception and in time than anything we could understand. All the evil we humans have ever experienced is only a by-product of his ultimate plan. And when I saw this, I woke up by the creek. And the hole was gone.”

“Do… you… realize that if you had just admitted to losing Sally, I would have been mad, but I would have forgiven you? Someday? But by lying… I mean what… what are you even trying to accomplish? Are you actually insane? I mean literally insane. Because how could you ever think I would be stupid enough to believe you?”

“Christie, I just came back from a first-hand encounter with the absolute evil at the center of existence. You think I still care whether you leave me?”

Something yapped.

Christie cried out and ran to the window. The garden gate was swinging open: Lambros bustled through with Sally in his arms. She snuffled his neck, licked him under the chin. Christie gave me a quick look that compressed twelve years into less than a second, then opened the window and called smiling to Lambros. In his soft voice he explained that he’d found her by the creek. But when she leaned down to take Sally, he looked in at me and grinned, baring rows of teeth, like a shark, all the way down his throat.

I skipped sideways into the bathroom and locked the door. I sat on the tub and put my face in my hands, and laughed. Briefly.