The Best Book We All Weren’t Buying

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These guys, am I right?

By now it’s a given that the Platinum Age of Television began on Jan. 10, 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos, when indie cinema sensibilities started trickling down into the storytelling on that “vast wasteland” people of a certain age used to call the Idiot Box. After that defining date, cable TV–both premium and basic–began to allow for a model that let tightly contained long-form narratives like Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica (at its best anyway) Breaking Bad (and its so-far worthy successor Better Call Saul), Orange is the New Black and even The Walking Dead unfold over shorter seasons, without outstaying their welcome, and often telling stories as worthy of our time and attention as any Great American Novel or Important Awards-Baiting Film. The upside of this is more great entertainment at the click of a button. The downside is constant access to and constant replenishment of the narcotic that’s been my biggest bane since early childhood.

As we move further into the 21st century, a similar phenomenon is occurring in my other favorite serialized storytelling medium. In the funnybooks, the indie comics sensibility has made definite headway into the mainstream, allowing for a greater diversity of art styles, narrative approaches, creators and characters. This is probably most evident in one of Marvel’s most popular recently launched titles, Ms. Marvel, in which a teenage daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim herself develops superpowers. The subject of personal faith probably hasn’t been this front and center with a mainstream superhero since Daredevil’s Catholicism. But the book’s second boldest choices have less to do with featuring a Muslim female than with its choice to be irreverent, smart, and boundlessly interested in the lives of young urban people coming of age in a way that’s reminiscent of a basic cable dramedy. And the art style is reflective of that in a way that’s hip and indie without losing track of the fact that’s it’s set in the Marvelverse, intricate and detailed without being overly busy, cartoony without seeming juvenile.

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Marvel seems to be leading the pack with this kind of book, letting writers and artists who’ve done great work in and out of the mainstream take a book and character and really put a strong creative stamp on them. Hawkeye would be another prime example, a book that felt like a wiseass character-driven cable action comedy series from the first issue, and that has made some of the boldest creative choices of any recent superhero book while keeping things on a mostly small, narrowly focused scale. The most acclaimed issue so far is an almost wordless noirish detective adventure told from the POV of Clint Barton’s recently adopted dog. It’s hilarious, clever, and a masterpiece of visual design.

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Both of these books have received attention, acclaim, and whatever passes for reasonably strong sales in the current comics market, but by far my favorite book representing this trend toward smart, funny, indie explorations of the Marvel world seemed to slip through the cracks. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man just ended its run after a mere 17 issues. Granted, that was five more than its originally planned twelve, but when it got the initial extension, I imagine all involved were hoping for an ongoing. I was (and yet also wasn’t!) It’s a curse that’s also a blessing, in its way, because writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve Lieber were granted the freedom to make the book they wanted, and to give it a proper ending. In the past, in comics as in TV, this opportunity to close the loop was rarely afforded, and many books and arcs were left open-ended as their titles died on the vine. Much like a particularly satisfying show that ends while still at peak creativity (many of my friends kept whining for more Breaking Bad but I thought it ended right when it should), there’s plenty to be said for a short-run comic that sets out to tell a tight yet sprawling story and is able to do so within some nicely defined parameters, escaping the trap of treading water and giving in to mediocrity due to creator changeover or simple exhaustion.

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Focusing on a new incarnation of the Sinister Six and pretty much eschewing Spider-Man altogether is a terrific choice, because from the title on down, it establishes these characters as the coattail hangers they are. Because this is not just a story about bad guys, it’s a story about losers, about the guys on the margin who are always being beaten down by the heroes, manipulated by the major players and big bosses, and left to fend for themselves when the shit goes down. They may have big dreams and big plans, but they will never be A-list baddies no matter how hard they try. It’s just not in the cards. Personally, having written my first book, The Villain’s Sidekick, about just such a guy, I am of course all about this. And I’m sure there’s a whole other level of fun for Spencer and Lieber just getting to play in this little corner of the Marvel sandbox, where they get to dream up lives and backstories and motivations and nuances for these characters that haven’t been considered or explored in their entire histories, which in the case of guys like Boomerang and Shocker runs to nearly half a century each. A key difference between my story and this one is that Spencer succeeds at keeping his anti-heroes very much on the wrong side of the law. There may be one–the more recently conceived Overdrive–who longs to flip from bad to good like Hawkeye or Scarlet Witch before him, but in the end it’s a pipe dream and he’s just another sorry schmuck whose life is defined by a long string of rotten luck and poor choices.

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Many of Spidey’s more infamous gangster-type rogues and bosses put in appearances–from Tombstone, who’s daughter joins the new Sinister Six (who, it’s worth pointing out, only boast five members throughout the series, yet keep the name regardless), to the Owl, to Silvio Silvermane (who’s severed yet still chatty head is both a major McGuffin and constant thorn in the various characters’ sides). There are superfights and action sequences and occasional stakes, but this is really one of those books where it’s all about the largely comedic dialogue (and the amazing, perfectly complementary artwork, which is filled with clever gags of its own). Fred “Boomerang” Myers narrates the book, and despite his many machinations and double-crosses and general not-a-good-guy-ness, I found myself rooting for him to pull out some kind of small victory, even if it was the hollow win of a nefarious plan gone right for once. He frequently introduces a staple character with the dismissive eye-roll line: “This guy, am I right?” If you’re familiar enough with the Marvel stable, you’ll find yourself agreeing time and again.

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And just to demonstrate that creating a fun book that asks you to root for the bad guys isn’t as easy as it might sound, I recently attempted to read the first volume of DC’s apparently popular Harley Quinn solo series. Also a comedic farce about a villain’s lackey, the words that came to mind while I tried to wade through it’s soup of moronic slapstick violence, terrible puns and cheap jokes was “hot garbage.” I think Harley’s a great character in the right hands, but this book seemed pitch at a level just south of adolescent. At one point, while she helps an aging cybernetic Federal agent (real name: Sy Borgman; hilarious…) snuff some Russian sleeper agents (who really don’t deserve their horrible, played-for-laughs deaths) they take out a female spy named, get this, Ivana Brekemoff. Again, hilarious! Right? No, me neither.

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Suffice to say, if you enjoy the company of wiseass wannabes and amoral a-holes with wicked senses of humor and the scruples of a basement rat, if more than once in awhile you find yourself wondering what the henchmen are thinking, how they live, or what they do with their downtime, you could do a helluva lot worse than giving Superior Foes a shot.

http://www.amazon.com/Superior-Foes-Spider-Man-Getting-Together/dp/0785184945/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1423863876&sr=1-2&keywords=superior+foes+of+spider-man

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Far to the Crack

This is another story dashed off most likely in the wee morning hours of a meth-fueled comedown in the basement (it would be a stretch to call it a bedroom) of the townhouse in SF’s Lower Haight that was my primary residence for the better part of ’98. Apparently I wrote two versions of it, and while both have their merits, on reread I prefer the punchy energy of this one. Though chances are I’ll publish the other version next just for comparison’s sake. I’m not sure either is entirely successful in relating the story I wanted to tell, something about semi-militarized meat delivery drivers in a pre-apocalyptic wasteland of the Southwestern U.S. that had been abandoned by the govt. after a manmade toxic disaster. Somewhere under all the testosterone and self-consciously cybergrunge aesthetic I think there’s a redemption story trying to smuggle its way out.

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Far to the crack

A story from the Safety Belt

By Stephen T. Brophy

An impenetrable curtain of sand slaps the windshield, obscuring the white-hot horizon. Somewhere beyond the tumultuous orange cloud lies Cali, the golden homestead, prefab plastic suntanned ancient Rome, reenvisioned without irony by semiconscious imagineers of the Holowood Dream Machine. Somewhere back there, to the East, an impotent President prays to whatever God’s been preselected for a miracle cure, preferably one without too many deleterious long-term side effects…

I can’t go back for him. I can’t because it would mean my ass, too. I can’t go and cradle his head in my arms, give him comfort in his final moments. I can’t because for him, those moments have already passed. Besides, I doubt he’d want it. I do not mourn for him, alone here in the cab of his truck. Not just because I didn’t know him well, but because tears have never been much my style. Even as a baby, my Grandma Plowhorse told me, my capacity for extended, meditative silences was almost eerie. But then, Grandma Plowhorse was a full-blooded Navajo with a legendary gift for genealogical myth-making. Me, I never went in for all that Native American reservation bullshit, got out as soon as the getting was good and never looked back. My partner, though, back there on the roadway with his body all perforated and broken, wolves, buzzards and vermin hovering for their share of what the cannibals can’t finish, he and Granny Plowshare would have got along just fine. His collection of fully-posable, self-customized totemic action figures dangling from the rearview, ceiling, doorhandles, and most every other inch of nonessential space in the cab are plenty testament to that.

The Cracker Mac Daddy, what he called himself, a great fat redneck with a penchant for whisky and a history of dirty biz. DeepFed field work that took him to the farthest-flung, warrest-torn corners of what he called “this massive bastard planet.” Spoke broken bits of a hundred international lingos, all in his corn-syrupy slo-poke Bible Belt drawl. His visible skin, face, neck, forearms, even the fuzzy vee of chest exposed by the open throat of his Western shirt, a grisly cross-hatch of scar tissue and crude tattoos, badges of honor, merit, memory, whatever, like the dolls.

No…he’d said it through teeth so clenched I thought they’d shatter. They’re not dolls.

What are they then?

Action figgers.

Yeah?

Yeah. More’n that. They’re…they’re…symbols, y’know, icons, tokens. Of what? The fallen. The lost. The forgotten and the damned. Each one, see, is a perfect likeness of one of the soldiers I served with.

Friends?

No. This goes beyond friendship. These people were…fellow warriors. Ah, you wouldn’t understand.

Maybe, but I’m trying.

They were like braves. You get me now? Folks who did one thing, very well. What?

Fight. Kill. Die.

That’s three things.

No. T’ain’t. And these, these are how I remember them. See?

The doll…uh, action figures.

Yeah, like, like, kachinas. Get it. If I’m in a bad way, I can look at one of these, think of the person, and I…this gonna sound screwy and I don’t usually share this, but, guy like you, you oughta get me.

Yer, what…?

Anyway, they give me a little bit of their power.

Where do you, what, you get these at a toy store? Find em, steal em off kids, what?

They’re made for me. Each of these is an exact likeness of the man. Or woman.

(At this, he fingered the curvy, limbless, molded plastic torso of a redheaded GI Jane.)

Why are they all…messed up?

That’s to show what become of em. How each of em looked, last time I saw em. Toymakers do that? No. I do that part myself. It’s, well, kinda cathartic. Ah. Think I’m nuts.

Probably. Who wouldn’t be? All the shit you musta seen. Nuts not to be nuts.

Right. But I ain’t. I’m the sanest man ya ever met, I bet. Cause what I know, it’s enough to drive ya that way. Beyond right, wrong, good, bad, beyond leftist politics and reactionary dogma. Truth. Pure and simple. Humanity, so far from God, so close to eternity. Ya go and go until somethin breaks and no one can fix it, right? That’s all. Do what you’re made for. Just do it well. What else is there? Couldn’t tell ya. That’s right and that’s just fine, how I like it. What you believe in, Johnny?

The OmniBank, Monolith, and the almighty dollar.

Yer on yer way, boy.

To what?

Whatever. Fate. Destiny. A fat steak and a good fuck. But remember, a perk’s just a perk, t’ain’t a reward.

I’ll keep it in mind.

Do.

Alone in the cab now, trying to figure out the control system, all these dials and lights, myriad as a shuttle cockpit. Alone but not really. Mac Daddy’s pantheon of comrades all around me, staring out through their damage with dead little eyes, those that still have them, staring and giving me none of their secret strength. And in the back, a dozen plus head of live cattle still left, settling down now after their restless upset, the unexpected savagery of the SkullChasers attack, beyond their bovine comprehension. Still, no one to talk to, no one to help me reconcile the events of the last mad hour.

New to this, my first long haul, partnered up with BeefCo.’s number one meat runner, I didn’t figure he’d like me much, from what I’d heard about him. But we’d found a few things to talk about, if not a lot of common ground. Now he’s gone and I miss him. Sacrificed his Cracker ass so that I might live, not that I was so important. But the delivery had to get through, else we might both as well be corpsed. No turning back, not with BeefCo., unless you could afford to cover the cost of the meat, at retail price. Six months working gratis might repay the debt, eighteen if they only took a percentage, and that was if they let you back on long haul, highly unlikely. Shitcanned in the end, either way, Bob Buck and Co. didn’t brook sissies or cowards or drivers that couldn’t go the distance. Right job for a semi-retired soldier of misfortune like the Cracker, no doubt. But me? No warrior here, just a guy who liked doing bongs and watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, wanted a girlfriend who didn’t expect much, and enough liquid in the bank to make rent and maintain a low-key hassle-free approx of the so-called good life. Desperate times called for creature comforts, a roof, some hooch, tunes. Fuck the serious shit. But here I am, lips deep in it. Nothing at all like delivering pizzas in the burbzone. Sure, you can get killed doing that, too, but at least there’s tips.

Try it man, it’s good money, and if you do alright, Monolith’s got a tracking system, you can move up, motor pool, security, the sky’s the limit.

I never drove no big rig, hominy. Gameboy don’t count.

So, you fudge it on the rez, dudeman. Not a lotta guys wanna do this.

So why do I?

Cause, JT, you been outta work since two Xmasses, and the odd lawn job just ain’t gonna cut it, and the brown bud border runs gonna get your ass slammed.

Oughta just make this shit legal, hominid.

Fuck it, tobacco companies ready to jump right in on that, cut you down and out, no room for the small bizboys.

Too too true.

            Well, what say?

What day you say they interview?

I could just swing the truck around (not without jackknifing) or pull over (and be instantly set upon), go up topside with one of the autocarb’s (and get plugged with a hundred SkullChaser crossbolts), do something bold and rash and stupid and at least try to save the fat ragged bastard, too old and used up to be risking his half-plastic ass to throw a couple cows down as a sort of peace-offering-cum-decoy, appease or else slow the onslaught of those cannibal biker freaks. But no, the Cracker tells me, whatever goes down, ‘cludin me, just keep the rig on the road and goin’. And, he adds with a wink, ya ever call em dolls again, I ain’t responsible fer their actions. And that’s that. Goodbye, Cracker Mac. Son-of-a-bitch. Not everybody gets a burial. Cracker said that one, too.

Safety Belt rolls by outside, manmade badlands, scorched earth backdrop for a toxic odyssey. I journey further, keeping to the edge of the no-zone, no safer, really, in a big rig with nowhere to run. I wonder, as I chew on Cracker’s share of the beef jerky, what would happen if I just set the cruise control, logged to the coordinates of the onboard computer, and bailed. Truck knows the route better than I ever will, no doubt. That ever happen, Cracker, dust-crusted semi pulling into Cali, right into the BeefCo. Exchange nexus, hissing and pissing oil as it settled into a tired patient idle, no driver in sight? Here I am, look what I brung ya? Cracker has no answer, a hundred some-odd miles dead and gone.

Have to figure, most of my family, definitely Granny Plowshare, probably lots of others, several years since gone the way of Cracker and his comrades. Not the same way, mind, but rather poisoned as victims of the intentional fallout that ravaged and rendered uninhabitable this soulless stretch of contained Armageddon, what the mediators of buzzpop cleverly nicked the Safety Belt. Aftermath, many believed, of some government con to sever Texas and much of the Southwest from the precious resources of the Greater United Estates of AmeriCo. No way, I say, and some things Cracker drawled seem to confirm me. Fed’s haven’t got that kind of pull, not anymore, much less the imagination. Nah, only one bunch could pull off such a devilish deed and actually stand to bennie from it, what with their HQ smackdab in one of the superscrapers towering over downtown HousTex. Only Monolith. My boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, only a few more bosses removed than I’ve got room for.

Rumors abound about the Belt and its attendant dangers, but thus far, the reality far exceeds even my wildest expectations. Tumor dogs, polyploids, manimals, feral chickens, no such childhood terror fables are any match for a full contingent of flesh-hungry motorcycle devos sporting handmade weaponry and their previous victims’ skulls over the headlamps of their custom-jerried hogs. I soiled my only khakis and when I finally can’t stand my own smell, figuring even a sudden crossbolt’s worth the risk, I roll down the driver’s side window. Almost right away, flies find their way in start buzzing my lap. Night falls, I hold out that long, pull over and have a good wash, kill the rest of the first day’s whisky and do a jolt of megamphetamine before I get back on the ancient broken highway. No rest for the wounded.

Get the babbling loonies, wired to the eyesockets and feeling the amp tingle all the way to my split ends. No one to talk to and every shape-shift shadow out the window a potential agent of looming doom. The radio long since given over to white noise, the atonal squawk of music from the Big Bang Era. I have to talk to someone, so I direct my garbled, nonsensical, all-give-and-no-take commentary to the seared, scarred, charred, and chopped figurines that comprise Cracker’s morbid pantheon. Try with all sincerity to remember their names, the few he told me, make them up whenever memory doesn’t serve. So much for honoring the dead.

I become particularly chummy with the one called Smokin’ Hole Jimi, who got his spine twisted up like a corkscrew after encountering a high-voltage containment wire, a near-invisible monofilament of secreted, waiting death. I have to resist the urge to twist his legs back around the right way, since that seems to be all that’s troubling him.

Try to strike up a flirtation with the red-haired mine-blast amputee, Hypodermia, try to make her feel attractive, okay about her ruined self, but all I get for my valiant efforts is a steely scowl and sobering silence.

“C’mon, guys, the night is young and so are we. Let’s light em up and burn em down!”

Nothing.

“Jimi, you know how to rage on the stage, huh? Let’s tear the roof off this whole theater of operations!”

Nada.

“Eddie Chunks. Special Ted. 2Fro. Give it up for the g-force, ya’ll! We need total all-out jam warfare deep inside the enemy perimeter! Can do?”

Zip.

“Alright, I give up. Don’t say I didn’t try. They ain’t pinnin’ these morale problems on my red ass. No way. Hey, what was that? You guys see that? Nobody? I swear, I thought I saw…”

Flashing by, just for a second, less, a patch of almost ghostly white in the uninterrupted darkness. Not a rabbit, maybe a coyote, but on two legs, not four, and wearing, I think, a T-shirt. Slowing down, why, I don’t know, amp logic, probably, making me hit the wrong pedal, making me downshift and ease off on the blast even as the schedulator counts off how much more time I’m losing. And dumbass, drug-buttered me slowing down to manually check stats on a possible psycho hell-bent on slicing me up for Sizzlean. Eyeballing the passenger sideview, just a smudgy square of night and the reflection of the rig’s running lights. And then…something else, staggering, lurching, clawing at the sidepanels as makes its way towards the cab. I’m frozen, can’t even remember how to manage the shifter.

“What’s my move, Jimi?”

Jimi swings on his lifeline of nylon fishing twine, slowly twisting until his feet face me and his face faces the armory box.

“Oh, right!”

Faculties snapping back into some approximation of action, I key the codelock and dig in the box for a suitable weapon as the whatever-it-is draws ever nearer. Grasping at the door handle now, desperate, wanting in. The top of a head appears, a round white dome, shaved not quite clean, scalp nicked here and there in the non-pro process. Then some eyes, the standard two-set, wide, wild, blue as they say the sky used to be, blue as it is in old vids, but how real is that? Peering in, frightened and curious and maybe completely deranged. A boy, I think, a kid, maybe thirteen, fourteen. Way out here? All alone? I point the White Noise gun at the face in the reinforced window and the eyes drop back out of sight.

Should haul ass, right? Throw it in motion and roll. Any sane man would. Like the Cracker. Shit, Cracker never would have stopped in the first. But I’m not the Cracker, and only questionably sane, this point, and more than any of this, I guess, I’m desperate for some company.

Sliding out the cab, all I can hear from everywhere is ticking, some kind of time-bomb ambience. The dash-Geiger, the schedulator rollover, the cooling engine—when’d I shut it off?–and little drips of fluid underneath the truck. And a more musical sound, the chirp-tick of what sounds like electric crickets. No boy, no being, somewhere far off a howl, and no moon even to bay at. A sudden scuffle as I bend down to peer into the shadowy gap between the undercarriage and the blacktop.

“Hey, hey,” I say, more abrupt than soothing, how I meant to be. “It’s okay, kid. I ain’t gonna zap ya.”
Silence. Kind of. Tick tick tick. Chee-urp. And some breathing, stereo mix, me and the kid.

Slowly, the kid slides out from under the truck, shakes off like a wet dog, and stands there, about ten feet down, just glaring. In one hand, a mean-looking blade, no handle, serrated edges and a kind of hook at the point. Holding it out, just a little, trying to look menacing. I’m unmoved. All fear gone, a wave of near-relief behind the megawatt ampage.

“Need a ride, kid?”

No reply, silent as the dolls inside, only the blue eyes aren’t so cold, so dead. Betray a hint of fear and plenty suspicion. Understandable.

“Can’t talk? What? C’mon, I gotta get movin’ here. And I could more or less use the company. What say?”

Kid lowers the knife, blade comes to rest alongside the seam of ragged Levi’s. Gesture of faith, I do the same, pointing the static stunblaster at cracked asphalt.

I try to feed the kid, try talking, get tight-lipped grunts and wild gestures in reply. Wild child, I figure, dumb bastard savage. How’s it stay alive? I wonder, but I don’t want to get too personal right off the bat. Kid keeps mute, staring at the broken little warriors, batting at them with grimy, blood-crusted fingertips.

“Leave her be,” I say, catching the kid trying to pull Hypo fom her dangling place. Suddenly protective, these stupid toys, but just because I don’t want to piss off the Cracker, dead though he’ll ever be.

The kid makes a motion, the universal gesture of for furtive scribbling, and I point at the glove box. Could get interesting. Kid fetches pen and notepad from amid the stowed rubbish, and I think I see something in there, something out of place maybe, but then the little door snaps shut on whatever it is. The kid there, scribbling away, then holding out the pad for me to read by the pale green dashglow.

“What ar thay?” it read.

“Hey, you speak the lingo. What up?”

More scribble. “I ain’t a idjit.” Written in near-perfect dialect.

“So I see. Anyway, long story, and not mine to tell.”

I started to wonder what the little punk’s trouble was, just mute or something grisly, like the tongue cut out.

“How come you don’t talk, kid?” Plunging on in.

The kid looks pensive for a long set of seconds, and kind of embarassed, too. Then shows me. A quick flash, lips pulled back in a grimace, revealing a crazy metal gridwork criss-crossing yellow-brown teeth, some missing, others just broken, some kind of botched backwater orthodonture. Thank the God of EZ Payments for my dental plan. No, thank Monolith. Evil fuckers sure take care of their own. Long as we stay useful. But this mess, shit, kid’s mouth like the site of a train derailment. Then it dawns.

“Wired shut, huh?”

Kid just nods.

“What, you break your jaw?”

Head shakes again, side to side this time, a negative. More scribble.

“Punnitchmint,” the note reads.

“Jeez, you musta been a bad boy.”

Kid looks puzzled, just for a sec, then furiously writes some more.

“I’M A GURL!!!”

And so she is. A puberty oversight. The slight lumps suddenly more visible beneath the soiled tee, finally making sense on that skinny frame. And the lashes around those beautiful blues, delicate, fluttery things, like insect legs.

“Sorry. My bad.”

The kid just shrugs.

“Got a name?”

“Andi,” she writes.

“That it?”

“Andi Monument,” the paper reads, once she’s added the surname.

“Johnny,” I say. “Johnny Throwdown.” Extending a friendly hand. “JT to my friends. What’d you do so bad, Andi?”

“Tok nastee.”

“Nasty, huh? Nasty how?”

She doesn’t write anything, just looks at her dirty hands in her lap, the pad and pen hanging loose and useless. A loss for words. Ashamed.

“C’mon, we’re all friends here. Jimi don’t mind. Do ya, Jim?”

The kid watches me funny.

“What’d ya say? Huh? Hypo wants to hear it.”

Heavy sigh and sluggish reluctance, Andi Monument writes down her crime for me.

“FUK GODD.”

I laugh at that, and Andi looks kind of horrified. “That it? Jesus X,” and she winces at the expression. “Where you from?”

She writes some more.

“Haretij Farms.”

I let out a low whistle, impressed and sympathetic. Heritage Farms. I know a little bit about the place, one of the more high-profile Safety Belt enclaves. Real Right White Wing Fundamental cases, Xian paramilitary survivalist types, a town with room for 144,000 souls, not one more, a number of some Biblical relevance, though I’ve never known what. The unofficial Safety Belt census tags the actual population a damn sight lower, though.

“Sucks for you, kid.”

“No mor,” she writes. “I gott out.”

“So ya did. Wasn’t easy, I bet.”

Her eyes go wide, she tries a laugh, a kind of painful snorting behind her barbed wire braces. I have to like the kid.

If sunset was uproarious purples and pinks and oranges and yellows almost off the spectrum, dawn is ashgray and toxic, drab harbinger of some horrendous nuclear winter on its way. I pull over, finally, all caught up on the schedulator after an all-nite drive. Spec-check the fuel reserves, enough blastahol to get us out of the Belt, long as our luck holds. One eye on the horizon at all times, wary of any potential weirdness, perpetually ready to crest. Mind-mangled crashdown, flaming psychic tailspin in the wake of the previous eve’s overamp. Speedfreak apocalypse, this no-place ready-made for it.

Nourish the cows, twice around the rig to survey and assess yesterday’s damage, patch as best I can whatever places the armor plating didn’t hold. Shorted by those BeefCo. sons-a-bitchin’ underbosses, no long-haul trailer this, weak-walled and cheap-fixed, rusted out and weather-wrecked in many integral spots. Not nice, cutting corners on us, underbidding their own profit margin or whatever. Like I know shit about the big biz.

Dig in the auxiliary toolkit, come up with tin snips, needle-nose pliers, a hacksaw blade no longer than my fuck-you finger, a hi-intensity laser coil. Go to work on the kid, impromptu oral surgery, stopping short and refiguring my strategy whenever a tooth chips or her gums start bleeding. By the time I finish, Andi’s lips and cheeks all swollen and torn, four hours gone and the schedulator’s resumed its wage-garnishing countdown. No partner, no matter, every unmiled minute’s costing me a pretty penny, nickel-and-diming my company credit rating down toward the deep red.

Crack an icepak from the medkit after packing Andi’s maw with sterilizing gauze. Sure she means to thank me but she passes out from pain and exhaustion right after I administer a squeeze tube of oatmeal pabulum. Anyway, her mouth is out of prison but still on parole, she won’t have much to say out loud for a day or so. Let her sleep it off, take a quick midday nod for my own ass, re-amp and get right back to rollin’.

“Where to, Mac?”

The Cracker didn’t laugh at my intro line, or much else for that matter. Neither does Andi. Missing my friends and all that flip hipster cynic shit that passes for funny where I’m from. Toxic morning shadows rolled back when Andi was under the knife, the rest is just unrelenting waves of unfiltered solar heat, cottonmouth from inhaling sand.

Andi moans alot in her sleep, I get shot through with empathy pains just listening to her. Harsh life, this, dragged from some suburban somewhere that must have seemed normal compared to the ironically monickered confines of the Safety Belt. My first full-fledged foray and already I want to never come back, cash advances and Monolith prestige ratings be damned. Little girl looking like bad news from Auschwitz—I know that much history—and whoever did her like this, probably her own family, still in their skinhead-secured sanctum feeling smug and self-righteous about the deed. Rough justice meted out with ruthless impunity, wonder what they do to post-juvie offenders, and no social services or overreaching enforcement agencies to answer to. At least half of why they ran, that, lawless Aryan trash who answer only to some Anglo-sadist remake of the original Xian deity, a wrathful Old Testament redneck with a bushy beard and a sawn-off double-ought lightning rod. Yahweh re-envisioned as a race-baiting hate-monger, dumb, drunk, and hungry. BeefCo. even makes occasional runs up Heritage way, so the Ku Klux Klowns can help themselves to the bloody red feast that is just a wee part of their sacred entitlement. Glad this ain’t one of those gigs, hard to resist igniting the fuel tanks and running the whole flaming fleshload into their full-of-it midst. How’s this for some wrath of God, you race-baiting trailer trash halfwits? Such are my thoughts, brainbaked in the wasteland.

“Where ya headed?” I finally get to ask, whenever Andi wakes up, sometime around dusk, if the sky’s right, never mind my memory of events.

Wincing as she struggles to form words with her stuffed and puffy mouth. I indicate pen and paper, and in her delirium, even that proves a struggle.

“bIG Crak,” she manages to write.

“The huh?”

“In thee Erth,” she adds.

“Forgive my idiocy. I ain’t read Revelations.”

Again, she looks slightly aghast, as if I’ve committed some heathenish act of treason. Scrunches up her brutalized features in concentration, at it with pen and paper again.

“mY frend Litl mAry tol mee. BIg kined ov hol. In thee grownd.”

Meteor Crater, all I can think of.

“Where?”

“aRiZone.”

“Hmm.”

I scan the dashmap until I find it.

“Aha. You’re talkin’ the Grand Canyon.”

“?”

“The Big Crack, that’s what they call it. The Grand Canyon. It’s a National park. See?” I point it out on the screen. “Mighty goddamn big crack alright.”

Another quizzical look, kinda fearful, like she might bear witness to my almighty smiting at any moment.

“Oughta wire my jaw, huh?”

That gets a kind of smile, with accompanying wince. She gets a lightbulb look, scribbles more.

“Doe yew beeleev?”

“In what?”

She points at the roof of the cab, presumably beyond.

“Shit, I dunno. Not my area of expertise, really. Do I think there’s soemthin bigger’n all of this, all us, well, it sure seems that way sometimes. I mean, this mess couldn’t have just come from nothing. And I kinda hope it’s so. Do I think whatever it is gives shit one about our sorry asses? Doubt it. No more than we think about the fleas on a dog, probably less. Some people call it God, or Allah, or Jehova, or whatever. I call it Nature. The Universal Mind.   Too big to figure it out in our measly little lifetimes. Too huge to even worry about.”

More than I’ve ever said out loud regarding my spiritual philosophy, and I can tell Andi isn’t quite following me. For a minute I’ve forgotten her age and the negligible educational standards of her homeplace. Although I’ve tried not to use too many of the Big Words.

“How bout you? You a believer? Must be. Gotta know God to wanna fuck him.”

She scowls at that, like a little kid who’s just had her first bite of spinach. Puts pen to pad in a quivery flurry.

“I don won du that.” Making an “eww gross” face for emphasis.

“Well, ‘Fuck God,’ right? Wha’d you mean?”

I smoke most of one of Cracker’s First Strikes while she composes her reply.

“Long story. Heritage people are chosen, right? Chosen for what? Where we live before was Ohio Canton. I had friends—lots! And Charlie my dog too. Daddy says all them people dead and gone to hell. To burn. Why? Not? Cause Daddy says they have bad thoughts and bad ways don’t love God don’t know him does Charlie I say he say no! Then when some people come and ask for food or water they get beat sometimes killed they burned the village with the dark people have a name for them I don’t think it’s nice Daddy did the burning to he says those people had the devil in them back but I don’t I think the devil with us!”

“I get ya. You don’t see why God would let all these shitty things go on and let his chosen few go off killing and hurting everyone that doesn’t fit within their narrow little Xian vision.”

She was even more confused. At that moment, I loved her, overcome with dumbstruck emotion in a way I never let myself get back home.

“You’re a smart little kid, Andi. What you’re talking about, they call it hypocrisy, babe. And it is fucking worldwide rampant. Human arrogance, manifest destiny, earthly dominion.”

Here came the flood. All the unbidden high dollar college scholarshit, the unformed notions gleaned from half-read books. My past playing footsy and grab-ass with the new ruined loser me and this poor kid’s sincerely struggling synapses, popgun epiphanies firecracking in her revelation headset.

“You’re right! You’re right! Don’t you get it? They lied to you! Not Fuck God. Fuck Daddy. In his big fat fortified whitebread ass, fuck him! Fuck him and all his Bible-bashing proto-Nazi uberminions!”

My words a cascading ack-ack-ack barrage of venom and righteous fury, worthy of the most evangelistic dogma, a drive-by crucifixion perpetrated with a verbal nailgun. Years of apathy-dampened hate-filled fervor bubbling to the surface, mindlessly misdirected at this helpless daughter who I suddenly loved and only wanted to help.

She was sobbing, hands trembling as she pushed the nib so hard into the pad that it punctured the sheet and the pen spurted , leaving an inky stigmata.

“I no I no I no I want to find the Big Crack where my friend went and throw myself in like her who want a world like this who want a world at all….”

And there at the edge of the Safety Belt, at the crossroads of nowhere and wherever, I braked the truck to a shuddery shrieking halt so sudden it got all the leftover cows going up back, mooing and lowing and stampeding in place. And I grabbed that sad and fractured little girl in my arms and kissed her misshaven head, no doubt another symbol of her undeserved punishment, and I cried with her, cried for her, and Grammy Plowshare and the Cracker Mac Daddy and all the damned and doomed and dangling action figures swingin’ from their nylon nooses all around us and for everything they meant to a dead man I hardly knew and it felt so miserably wretchedly fucking good that for just one moment awash in the poison-painted late afternoon Safety Belt sky I felt like maybe God finally really had reached down and smacked the back of my head the way my own Dad used to whenever I spouted something vulgar or just plain dumb, like, wake up, asshole, this ain’t just about you. For a moment only, though. Then I pulled my shitpile back together and got wiseass all over again.

Had to go into the mainframe to reroute the itinerary, convince the truck’s computer brain that there was a damn expedient reason to cut South. Lucky for me, Cracker still had the manual. Unplugged the schedulator, to make it shut up more than anything. Two major violations, already a flashfax would be beaming over to payroll, and I didn’t give shit one. I was quit as they come, and they could hunt my raggedy red half-breed ass to the farthest reaches of this “massive bastard planet,” far as I was concerned, looking for what I took off em, and they probably would. That’s Monolith’s style, after all, and I hear they’re used to be something called the Mafia that did biz the same way, only those guys had colorful names and distinctive faces. No matter. At that moment of stunning universal clarity, when my decision got made, whether by me or for me, I wasn’t so sure I wouldn’t just throw my own ass off the lip of that monster crevasse right behind little Miss Monument. Now I have a better idea.

When I went into the glovebox for the manual, I found something, an object buried in amidst the chargeless batteries and spent shell casings and empty ammo clips and the archaic paper maps and scraps of tissue and ignored Regional Defense citations and all the irrelevant detritus of Cracker’s happy mad road life. Another figure, if you didn’t guess, unmarred, unscarred, not a match burn or twisted plastic limb. All done up in cowboy camo, some little demolition dude, tricked out for some personal Armageddon, grinning wicked. After I let the cows go, which took some doing, dumb, reluctant beasts, fated for the food table either or, I hung the uncanny plastic likeness in a place of honor, in the midst of his warrior pantheon. Couldn’t bring myself to bloody him up, tweak him into some fractured lifeless version of the man, rather remember him the way he was, vital, fiery, all piss and blastahol. Hope he don’t mind.

The vast chasm is just across the way form here, filled with orange and purple and all the other colors of the morning sun. Now all I have to do is convince Andi that there’s a better way to get to the bottom of that Big Crack than going over the side. Not easier, not as fast for sure, but much more of a view, or at least more time to take it all in. I hope she’ll go along with it. We’ve made it this far.

I seem to remember hearing that there’s Indians living down there, or used to be. If they’re still around, if the Crack in the earth hasn’t swallowed them up. I don’t know if they’re my people, can’t remember, or if they’re some old enemy tribe, from back when those things used to matter. Whoever, whatever is down there, at the absolute bottom of the world, I only hope they’re willing to teach me something more than what I already think I know.

grandcanyon2

NEVERMIND

Perusing some old files and digitally stored scribblings I came across this oddball short story I wrote back in 2002. I remember it was intended for an anthology of post-9/11 stories, and it was inspired by a daydreamed image of the former site of the tragedy being used as a giant holographic advertising billboard in the not-so-distant future. It’s mildly prescient in the way it’s obsessed with how the then-nascent realm of online socializiation seemed to be taking over our lives. There’s a dated preoccupation with “selfphones” because at the time they were still far from the 100% saturation point they achieved within a few short years. At the turn of the millennium, it was mostly a certain breed of self-important ahole who  seemed to think having a phone on their person at all times was a vital part of their identity and daily life (something to think about the next time you set out to smack down a Google Glasshole, I suppose). I wouldn’t own a “selfphone” of my own for another three years. 

It’s kind of a mess, this story, mildly lacking in real narrative purpose, but I do like a number of the sentences and the tentative effort to address the anxieties of the new age I was struggling to comprehend. And since I can’t imagine what the hell else I’d ever do with it, I figured why not share it here.

Gaudi911

Image: The Future That Never Was. Antoni Gaudi’s proposed 1908 design for a rocketship-like office building to occupy the site that would become the World Trade Center

NEVERMIND

     A 400-ft. image of the Christ appears over the Manhattan skyline, somewhere in the vicinity of the Ground Zero Memorial. He speaks in a booming voice that momentarily drowns out the urban cacophony. This is not a miracle. This is advertising.

“Whether I’m walking on water, or across the burning desert sands, I do it in Tevas®.

Teva®—they’ll save your soles.™”

Just as suddenly, He is gone. But fear not. If you missed Him, He’ll be back in an hour.

I’ve just come from a second-run screening of Elvis vs. Elvis over at the Disneyplex near Times Square. Elvis vs. Elvis is the fourth piece of Holowood product featuring the hillbilly rocker’s iconstruct–in a dual role this time–and depicting the exploits–largely fictionalized–of the King working as an undercover federal agent under J. Edgar Hoover in the late fifties. In the latest installment, Elvis goes mano a mano with his embittered fat future self, who travels back in time to preassassinate JFK and sew up the 1960 election for the conniving Tricky Dick Nixon.

Not recommended.

You’re probably asking yourself, why do I bother, why drag my ass out into the big bad world when I could just stay home in Far Rockaway and dripload the whole cinemagic experience via Intra/Vid? Sure, I could come up with a whole line of spew-ha about how I’m a purist who prefers to share the filmgoing experience with my brotherman and sisterwoman, and/or there’s something in the collective unconscious that responds to the hazy prismatic refractions of the mindreel lightshow that is but the pixellated reflection of our shared and long-buried precultural memory, but the sad truth of the matter is, I’m just not I/V compatible. I haven’t got the biochip, not for I/V or anything else, and not just because I can’t afford it. Call me oldskool, call me neotraditionalist or cryptoconservative or whatever, but I cling to a kind of premillennial notion that my body should be the final barrier between myself and ever-encroaching technology. Sure, I’ve got an artificial heart and prosthetic pelvis, but that’s strictly a quality of life mandate. I draw a line at cosmetics and convenience.

I descend into the subway and decide on a whim not to go straight home, but instead take the orange line to my old stomping grounds on the Lower East Side, maybe grab a bite and a quick pint. The subway is like a giant elevator, I’ve always thought. No one makes eye contact, no one smiles at or even acknowledges the strangers sharing the cramped confines that render intimate space a quaint concept. I would say that no one speaks but in fact almost everyone does, a low murmur of one-sided conversations taking place all around me. I must be the last person under a hundred years of age who doesn’t have a selfphone. The latest and greatest in instant communication, tiny implants in the occipital bone ridge and throat that allow for constant contact with everyone anywhere always for whatever. The final step in rendering every human being in earshot indistinguishable from looneytoons murmuring aloud to the voices in their heads.

As I stand clinging to my handstrap, pretending to read the latest issue of Boilerplate on my palm-handy slaptop, a woman right next to me babbles conversational nonsense, an endless loop, the same three pieces of information cycling through her skull. It’s called Cold Fusion…it happens in a glass of water…no, you can do it right at home… Again and again. I’m never sure whether these are distinct and separate calls, or if the same poor schmuck is being repeatedly subjected to her string of manic inanities.

On the seat right in front of me, a kid, barely a teenager, sporting the latest in slamhop gutterpunky strung-out style, rocks back and forth, head practically in his own lap, worrying at the links of his walletchain like a Mafia widow at her rosary beads. The only way I know he’s not simply streetbingo is I hear him say, Hey, it’s Xeno. ‘Zup? somewhere in the midst of his own self-directed ramblings. A girl seated next to him and similarly attired carries on her own subvocal chitchat; after awhile he puts a hand on her knee and runs it up under her pleather skirt so I think maybe they’re actually together.

I remember last century, when the hands-free cellulars first came on the market, an eerie uncertainty at the sight of a smartly-dressed bizchik coming towards me on a downtown street, talking loudly and gesticulating emphatically for the benefit of some anonymous specter.   She pushed no shopping cart before her, maintained an air of professionalism and respectability in dress and bearing, yet there she was, locked in conversation with no one, for all the world like any madwoman punctuating the urban populace. Then I noticed the twist of black wire trailing from her ear, the micromike clipped to her crisp lapel.

As I became somewhat accustomed to this forward lurch in progress, still I fell to doubting my own better judgement in the face of homeless schizos. Who’s to say they weren’t bleeding edge techno-evolutionaries with access to up-to-the-nanosecond personal gadget-tech and the codephreakers’ stereotypical indifference to dress codes and hygiene?

Even now, I often experience a moment of unsettling disconnect when someone I presume is addressing me suddenly blurts a conversational non sequitur so obtuse it could only mean they’ve got someone on the inside line. I’ve been at lunch, or on a date–rare as that occasion may be, and getting ever rarer–and found myself shushed in the middle of a fascinating interchange that I presumptuously considered myself to be taking an active part in, having never realized that my dining partner or acquaintance had at some point taken a call. It happened just last week, with my own sister. And no, jokers, that was not a date. I’m not that desperate. Yet.

I’ll be 63 this August, middle-aged by modern standards, yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m an old man who’s outlived his usefulness. I’m not retired, not even unemployed. Just lazy. Always have been. And anyway, ever since the new administration placed ever-heavier restrictions on the so-called free press under the Loyalty Amendment, I haven’t really had a helluva lot to do, professionally speaking. Which is a pretty good indication of why I’m not doing too well, opposite-sexually speaking. That and the fact that I’m not what you’d really call a social animal. I go somewhere too public, a live music venue or a nightclub, those events I deemed myself too old for a few decades back, even if it’s someone I really like, something I really want to witness firsthand, or have to attend for work-related reasons, I usually spend the whole time just waiting to leave. Riding it out, you know. The movies, that’s a whole different animal, but this little sidetrip, this is an occasion, and even I don’t know exactly what it is I think I’m celebrating.

I rise into the late spring afternoon at Houston Street, and I’m struck right away by that sensation of instant familiarity and utter alienation, not so much like bumping unexpectedly into an old lover as meeting them for lunch when you finally think it’s been long enough, then realizing that there’s not enough time in all of eternity to put the right distance between you and your own tragic archeology.

Has it really been so long? Years? I wander through these streets, the former parameters that defined my narrow world when its borders seemed to be at their most expansive, unable to shake the feeling that I’m out of place, judged as such by every stranger I flash past, wrong and everyone knows it. Guilty, somehow. Of insignificance, irrelevance, a relic of a world where birth certificates were tangible items, something you could hold in your hand while you ran your fingers across the notary’s noble stamp, an existence thoroughly approved. Nevermind I was never quite worth the paper mine was printed on. Just another stumblebum who never lived up to his full potential, never made good on all that early promise, wasted the miracle of his own being on a steady diet of edutainment, junkfood, and day-to-day oblivion.

Everything’s the same but improved, changed for the better in all the wrong ways, a whorepaint façade caked on over the wrinkles and seams and cracks and cosmetic surgical scars. Much of whatever I used to love about this brownstone village has been subsumed by inevitability, and replaced with something suitably in keeping with the Generican Spirit of same-faced franchise that defines the latest age. What’s left is irrevocably altered, overtaken by the gravitational forces of progress and the tidal pull of a generational shift. Fastfood infringement forcefully overtaking the multiethnic urban stew, repackaging and selling it back to us with clever names and a drive-thru brusqueness. Death to the neighborhood and an end to any sense of place.

All hail the McDeli.

On Avenue A, I stumble across a true relic, a sorry site that managed to survive the bullet train of urban evolution more or less intact, beneath the radar, between the wheels. The Pharmacy, which used to be just that, sometime in the late middle of the last century. My local watering hole, before I fled for safer climes and a one-time only wife-and-child scenario, how I came to be living alone and more or less forgotten in the ass end of Queens, out past the useless ruins of JFK. Many an empty night spent here, spent like a shell casing. Stepping through the convenient time portal of an alcohol blackout, night after night of a life that belonged right where it ended up, on the cutting room floor. Let the others cuss and kiss and fuck and fight. Content in a corner, a quiet observer of the distant humanity swimming boozily past my eyes behind aquarium glass. Fodder for another unwritten novel, another searing expose forgotten on the brain’s back burner.

I press my hand against the cool filth-frosted glass of the front door, letting out a lungful of regret and mild anxiety before I push on through.

Entering a public space has always been a tricky endeavor for me, that moment, half-true and half-imagined, when all eyes in the place seem to swivel my way.                 The sudden awkward lurch of feet that no longer feel like my own, like a quadriplegic learning to maneuver his prosthetic exoskeleton, or a screenwriter taking the stage at the Oscars. Out of my element in the out of doors. Probably why I like the movies. The anonymity of the darkness, immersion in a crowd of likewise lonelies, one cave for many hermits.

I sigh again on the other side of the threshhold, a soft breath of relief, utterly beneath the notice of the only other souls inside, the bartender and a blobby gray shape over at the end of the bar near the jukebox.

The girl working behind the bar—and I say girl because if she’s eighteen I’m a Pulitzer Prize candidate— is cute, too cute for the dayshift, which means she’s got to be brandspanking. I try a smile, expecting nothing, which is exactly what I get. She doesn’t even ask what I want, just stares at me blankly and keeps dipping pint glasses into a sinkful of soapy water, waiting for me to come up with something, a joke, perhaps, or a line, or just an order. I can tell which she’d prefer, give it to her straight, no chaser, no charm, no hint of personality to muddle up an otherwise utterly conventional and yes, generic transaction. Forget for a second that we’re just two people, the only two people–no wait, there’s the grayish blob–but anyway, ostensibly two humans sharing the same choked, mist-clouded airspace. Nevermind that we could treat each other as something other than consumer/provider, two automatons enacting a process of exchange and nothing more. Anyway, that was the level she wanted to keep it, and who was I to argue? Just customer number whatever, maybe only the second of her whole customer service career. Either way this was no auspicious occasion, that much was decided the moment I wandered in her door, written off in an instant as just another lonely broken man with nothing better to do of a midweek afternoon than drink his life away in her indifferent presence. Not that she was wrong, but it wasn’t like I was a regular, here or anywhere, not anymore. And anyway, hadn’t she practically sneered at the sight of me? Am I that bad? Am I sneerworthy? Or did paranoia throw that mask on her pretty, featureless face in the long shadows of this insufficiently and emptily nostalgic New York afternoon? And is it wrong, nevermind futile, of me to long for a long-forgotten and quite likely mythic era of manners and mores and other interpersonal societal conceits?

So I order a seasonally appropriate pint of pale ale and kind of watch her without watching her, as she’s the only reasonably interesting thing in sight, if you don’t take into account all the tawdry knickknacks and knock-off gewgaws that are somehow meant to infuse the place with a sense of premillennial authenticity but only serve to underscore the nationwide urban franchiseness of the establishment. A medicine cabinet full of old steel and glass syringes, shelves of ancient prescription bottles, brown and nearly opaque, their rubber droppers rotting in murky and mostly anonymous liquids, yellowed and crumbly quaint cardboard signage advertising the wondrous modern miracles of a bygone age, every last bit of it minted in and factory shipped direct from Hong Kong, or Korea, or Taiwan, or Indonesia, a subsidiary nation of hapless worker drones supplying the world with its endless stream of unnecessities, the petty trifles meant for nothing more than set dressing in the places where we waste all our excess of precious time.

She’s the kind of girl, I can’t help noticing, that I really would have gone for forty, thirty, maybe even twenty years ago. Anyway, sometime well before this particular make and model rolled out onto the showroom floor. Does that sound crass? I know it does, and you can bet that doesn’t win me any points in the woo-pitching department either, not with women her age, my age, or any age in between. She’s got this wild hair, newer than new and I thought for sure they’d done everything there was to do with hair way before the century flipped, razored here and braided there and dyed and streaked and cornrowed and blown out and it’s like fifty different hairstyles all at once, it’s the United States of hair, a freak-flag for the fuck-you generation, and I’m more than tempted to give it a one-finger salute. Yet for all this inspired contempt part of me wants to fuck this girl more than it wants to see another sunrise. I sip my beer and try to think about something else.

The blob at bar’s end is slobbering on itself as snorts and snorfles and odd grunts that could be construed as words or at least attempted phonemes emerge from its face at irregular intervals. I’m not being rude here, not trying to at least. I honestly cannot tell, not from this distance and probably not with a photon microscope, whether this being is male, female, indeed if it falls anywhere on the gender scale. Just barely recognizable as human, distinguished by its ability to remain upright on a barstool and nurse some toxic concoction. Its very existence seemingly defined by its patronage. Suddenly, it shouts something, hi-viscosity spittle spraying from its facial orifi, sprouting bulgy black optical orbs from the folds of its flesh as if from nowhere. It’s trying to communicate with me, I think. It seems to be angry. I realize I’ve been staring. Bourgeois politeness failing me at a none-too-crucial juncture. Anyway, I look away. I hate rudeness. Really. Giving, receiving, the whole cold contemptuous process that is fast becoming the most common form of direct eye-to-eye interpersonal communication between humans. I want to go over to this person, whatever it is, to apologize, shake its hand, buy it a drink, give it a hug. But I imagine that it smells. Whatever. I certainly didn’t mean to piss it off.

I finish off my ale and order another one, injecting a hint of distant familiarity into my words. Nothing. The bare shoulder is so cold I swear I can see steam pouring from its pores. If I haven’t won her over yet, I’m never going to, I guess. The masochist in me thinks it might be fun to stay all night, or at least until shift change, gathering a beery buzz and testing dusty methods of thawing out the icy femme. If tonight’s a no-go, I can come back tomorrow. And if that’s a bust, the night after. And so on. Not to bed her, not for some silly notion of conquest, empty-headed Holowood bullshit tradition of the octogenarian and the ingenue. Just so she’ll see me. And so I can see her. Two human beings coincidentally sharing the same time and place on a planet teeming with more than enough facile, soulless uncaring shits to keep the machinery of social exchange slick and thickly lubricated. The realist in me knows that tomorrow night I’ll be at home watching lo-beam digiporn in 3D surroundsound. I could always invite her to join me. Write her a love poem on a napkin, slip her my analog digits with a wink and nod. Watch her heart melt from a darkened doorway up the street with a zoomlens ocular implant I neglected to mention earlier out of slight embarrassment, and which I assure you is nothing more than a necessary tool of the journalistic trade.

Amazingly, when I look up from my second beer and this prolonged reverie, the boozy blob has sloughed off its barstool and shambled out into the deep blue evening, leaving me, my barmistress and a boisterous platoon of East Village neo-hipsters, an army of replacements for me and my kind, or more likely, the children or even grandchildren of my replacements. They throw me a glance each, like they’re sharing it, passing it down the line, a glance that sees right through me to the mirror behind the bar where they can check their hair. Looking them over, I realize in an instant what I’ve always really known: I was never this hip, never really hip at all. Just another poseur who came late, left early, and made an impression on no one. From the way they greet my unfriend, the way they grope and fondle and otherwise violate her–not at all against her will–it would seem that every one of them is her boyfriend, or girlfriend, a sudden gust of chummy intimacy sweeping through the deepfreezer and bypassing me entirely. My long-ago nights here at the Pharmacy were never like this, or rather they were exactly like this, me, perched alone in a reality once-removed, a stammery social clown unable to locate a point of entry into the sweet warm bosomy banquet of true fun.

I slink off my barstool, leaving a ridiculously generous tip, as if that will somehow compensate for my lameness, like I can buy my way out of a gray and shambling existence. Who am I kidding? She’ll sweep that stack of Sacajaweas off the bar without the barest thought for the man who left them, barely remember if it was a man, or anyone, or if that money just appeared from nowhere, another chunk of her inheritance, a payout of the gathered interest on her natural blessed birthright.

Outside, it’s one of those curious spring evenings where the temperature drops an unexpected ten degrees as soon as the sun skips town, and I zip my threadbare jacket against it. Jesus is back, towering over the skyline, or maybe it’s just the young Kris Kristoferson, selling me jeans or a sportcraft or a new brand of carcinogen-free tobacco products.

I’m halfway to the subway when I see it, a hulking mass in mid-collapse, a gray shape with black orbs disappearing under fleshy lids as it lays itself down on the sidewalk in slo-mo, Its fellow citizens, those that share its short stretch of the world, hurry past or skirt around it like more trash to be avoided, ignored, to be picked up later, by itself or somebody, else left to rot. I hesitate, who wouldn’t, then I go over and kneel beside it. I was right. Beyond human, and even that’s just a suspicion based on lack of contrary evidence, I still can’t tell what the hell it is. Whatever it is, it seems to be having a seizure. I feel around for what I hope will be a hand, find it, a rough, dry, paw-like appendage, and give it a squeeze. I try to tell it, this person, that everything’s going to be okay, even though I’m none too sure. The black orbs have rolled back to pure white, and a pinkish tongue is lolling from blue/black lips where fresh spittle mingles in the corners with ancient crust and cankerous scabs. All of the panic and fear of this being seems to be flowing from that paw and into my own hand, up my arm and straight to the center, the hungry pit, gorging myself on all that anxiety as if it could provide some kind of sustenance. I try to let go but I can’t, not because its grip is too tight; mine is.

I look up from that fright-twisted face, its life visibly receding, and reach for the arm of a passerby, a man in an expensive trench coat who narrowly and deftly evades my entreaty. Please, I’m saying, and a couple of people actually glance over. Could someone…Please… Over and over that word… You’d think I was speaking another language, the response I get. I tap the hard ridge of bone just behind my ear with my free forefinger, the new universal indicator for Can I borrow your phone? or something. Please, someone, call…somebody. Call…whoever you call. But no one hears me. Every one of them immersed in their own life-or-death banalities, babbling away into the aether, aware of the two hunched and desperate figures in their path in only the vaguest, most peripheral way. They can’t help. They’re all somewhere else. Tapped into the infinite invisible infomist drifting all around us. A world that I’m not part of, a wave that crests above me but never breaks, billions of potential friends and neighbors who won’t give me a second glance because they know without even having to consider that I’m not, never possibly could be, one of them. Swooning from my own desperation and the ebbing pulse of this seizure-gripped being’s death-terror, my eyes futilely scour the nearest reaches of Houston Street for something called a payphone.

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