|Oct/Nov 2003 fiction|
"Let's explore this recurring dream of yours," says Lloyd the shrink, and Joe tells him, "OK. 2 men are waiting outside my apartment. I hear the scuff of their jackboots, I hear muffled voices. Why don't we go in, already? and He told us midnight, stupid. In the dream I'm drinking a beer. The tube's tuned to Carson. The men arrive at 11:48. They stink of cigarettes. I can smell the phantom of old smoke through the door. Carson breaks for a commercial. I write in my diary. This had better work."
He's not lying on a couch. That's strictly for TV. He and Lloyd sit in comfortable chairs in a sunny office that might belong to an architect.
"What had better work, Mr. Castle?"
"You've lost me."
"I've hired the men to attack me."
"And I'm still writing in the diary. Tulsa is getting on my nerves. The people here are upright apes."
Lloyd says, "You were dreaming about Tulsa? Have you ever been there?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
"I was just wondering. In the dream you obviously didn't like Tulsa very much."
"I don't like cities in general."
"How do you feel about Albany?"
"I've lived here almost 2 years. I hate it. This is a bureaucratic little town."
The paintings on the wall have a generic quality. There is a decided lack of strong color. Pastels offend no one.
Lloyd says, "Continue."
"Anyway, at 11:56 the men in the hallway are all, "I'm tired of waiting," and "It's only another few minutes," and "I don't like this guy," and "Joe Stomp-On may be a weirdo, but his money is still green." From 11:57 until 11:59 they formulate theories as to why I'm paying them to break in and kick the crap out of me. Am I gay, am I crazy? Like I care. What do their theories matter so long as they get the job done? I've got bigger fish to fry. There's a war on. Entropy must be stopped. Earth Mother is counting on me."
Lloyd says, "War? Earth Mother?"
"I don't want to get into that," Joe says. "Anyway, the dream. What happens, the door swings open and I tell the men, fists and boots only. OK, cigarette burns are fine, just not in the eyes because I'm not much use to anyone blind. The men are young. They have bland faces. Like sculpted bread dough. But with the underlying intensity of volcanoes about to explode. I see this is their stance. They can't wait to wail into me."
Lloyd glances at his watch. The 45 minutes are almost up.
"What are their names?" he asks.
"Names?" Joe tries to recall. "I didn't dream any names. Is that important?"
Lloyd makes a note in his pad. "Not particularly. We're all afraid of anonymous forces intruding upon our lives. Your subconscious mind was probably working out a bit of free-floating anxiety."
It's like something clicks inside.
"You know, I just realized something," Joe says.
Having gone to the shrink in a moment of weakness, he stumbles into an epiphany.
"The dream, man. I was seeing the future."
In 5C, a 15 x 15 studio apartment under the roof of 1394 Miller Avenue, he awaits orders from Earth Mother when (the word if never enters his mind) they come. Jets taking off at the nearby airport rattle the windows. The bar across the street spits out an assembly line of noisy drunks until 4 in the morning. Someone stole his bicycle the week after he moved in. Grabbed it up right outside his door. He'd bought a used Schwinn after a few weeks of Albany's public transportation. The thieves cut through the chain and left a bag of dog turds by the door. It's that kind of neighborhood.
The apartment walls = filthy off-white.
Where the phone once hung, a much cleaner space surrounded by a fog of faded pencil notations.
Daphne; 426-8851; nice body.
Florence; 388-0001; won't go down even if you beg.
Li-Li; 774-5201; don't forget the whiskey.
Robin; 426-4993; Four Stars!!!
Sharon; 388-1932; bow-wow.
The list of names, man. They reach from floor to ceiling. They spread out on both sides in a rough oval.
Lucy; 429-3290; psycho, but easy.
Andrea; 388-2202; nice tits, weird hands.
Sylvia; 774-8484; bottle blonde.
A very industrious Romeo once lived in 5C.
Dana; 388-8302; brother's a cop.
Michelle; 774-6660; 34-DD, woo-woo.
Names, names, names. Joe has to stand on a chair to reach those nearest the ceiling. 1 night he takes the time to read the entire wall. Eats up 4 hours of his life. He shakes his head in disbelief. G-O-D. This guy must have had women doing the conga to his bed. When did he sleep? Work? Go to the john? Such a sex life = dangerously obsessive. You wouldn't want to admit envying the 5C Romeo. What does it say about a man, he has justified about sleeping with so many women? Yet Joe experiences a vicarious thrill every time he pauses to reread a few of the names. All of those females, walking naked across the same floor where he stands in his socks and washing themselves in the very shower stall he uses on a daily basis. More of a downer is the damage the wall must have caused to their sense of self-worth. How was it see so many names and know you were merely another conquest, 1 among 100's? Did any of the women become drunks as a result? Give up on life and beauty and hope? Commit suicide?
Joe would bet big money the 5C Romeo had never been a soldier. You serve a higher cause, you learn a few things about respect.
From 1983 to mid-1984 he hangs around Albany, waiting. No messages from Earth Mother or her lieutenants. It's 16 months since Joe received the last set of instructions from Mousie. This was back in Fresno. Joe was living in a trailer with a woman he met in a bar who wore stretch pants and so much makeup you'd swear her face had been rendered bulletproof. G-O-D, Joe hates to think about her. Lisa snored. Cut her toenails at the dinner table. Had a tattoo on her left breast, This Side Up, whatever that meant, her only explanation was, "Tequila should be handled with care." Mousie stepped from the shadowy rubble of an abandoned El Gringo taco stand where Joe used to buy lunch before the place went belly up, then burned down. Mousie, who smelled of wood chips and cheese and moldy leaves. Who chittered softly and pushed Earth Mother's message into Joe's hand as though the paper were tainted with botulism. Mousie, obviously anxious to be on his way. He hopped on one foot, then another. Like he had to pee something fierce. The paper read: Relocate to Albany. Depart within the next 48 hours. Travel by Greyhound bus. Wear boots and one glove for the trip. The boot must be white, the glove black. Eat a clove of garlic before boarding the bus. Draw a red heart on the inside of your right knee. Wink at 3 strangers the day you leave, but speak not a word to any of them. Say to the bus driver, "It's a lovely day to travel, but I'd rather be watching a good movie." Sit in the seat closest to the toilet. Eat 3 Milky Way bars. Drink nothing until reaching your destination. Do not sleep. Do not use the toilet. At some point during your journey, perform an a Capella rendition of 'Froggie Went a Courting.'
"What's in Albany?" Joe said, but Mousie had already stepped back into the gloom of charred cinder blocks and disappeared.
Earth Mother's instructions didn't always make much sense. Why 1 glove? Why the strange code words to the bus driver? Why the Milky Way bar?
He had to look up the lyrics of that song.
OK, Joe thought at the time. Mine is not to ask a lot of questions. Soldiers aren't entitled to the Big Picture. They do as told, end of story.
Pernell Roberts doesn't look anything like Wayne Rogers 30 years later. That's the major problem with the show, 'Trapper John MD.' Joe almost changes the channel. He doesn't have cable and nothing else is on but 2 movies he's seen and whatever boring crap PBS has lined up for a Sunday evening. Someone knocks on the door of 5C. ½ asleep, Joe doesn't want to answer if it's just the landlady after her overdue rent. Trapper saves another life. Maybe if he shaved off the beard and wore a toupee. Maybe not. The knocking turns into banging. Trapper makes a joke. That's supposed to convince you he's the same character from M*A*S*H. Joe catches a whiff of rotten meat and says, "RagBag. Crap."
Earth Mother's has, in her service, at least 5 primary lieutenants. There may be more. 1 day Joe may have to ask about that.
Mousie, fearful to the point of paranoia.
Gray Lady, 5000-years-old and leaking dust wherever she walks.
TopHat, arrogant fop who speaks, annoyingly, only in rhyme.
GlowWorm, who, in some previous life must have been a TV fanatic. Star Trek, man. GlowWorm has read all the current sf magazines. He usually has time for a beer or 2. With him it isn't always strictly business. If Joe could have any request granted, it would be to see more of GlowWorm. The 2 of them would be excellent comrades even if there weren't a war.
RagBag, hammering at the door.
"Joe, Joe," in a "Night of the Living Dead" zombie moan. Joe lets him in. RagBag shambles into the apartment, a crumbling skeletal apparition buzzing with flies and smelling of the grave. "Go to Tulsa," he wheezes. "Tuuuulsa..." Bits and pieces flake away from his body. Joe's hates the thought of cleaning up the mess, and says, "C'mon, OK?" RagBag shrugs an apology and says, "Soooory." Turns and drags himself down the hallway, trailing ooze. Reaches the window of the fire escape. Open. Climbs outside and clank clank clanks down the metal steps. The entire encounter takes less than 2 minutes, only enough time for the TV to try and sell bath oil beads and Coors beer to Trapper's diverse demographic.
1 thing Joe has to admire about RagBag is his sense of efficiency.
In Tulsa he goes 8 months without hearing a word about the war. It's Albany all over again. Dropped out of the loop, man. He's got an apartment building near Skelly Drive and works as a janitor in an office building downtown. At night he'll watch TV or listen in on his neighbors. There are no secrets in this building. The walls have the same thickness as sliced cheese and make excellent conductors of sound. Joe hears all. The couple in 6D fighting again, Bitch, Asshole, Screw you! Cat yowling. Babies crying. Bed banging rhythmically on floor. At least someone's having a good time. Joe stands by the window that faces Skelly Drive. Look at all those freaking cars. People coming and going. They don't know about the war. They remain in ignorance. Pity them. He holds a hammer in 1 hand. The mirror on the wall behind him has a crack down the middle. Joe can see 2 of him holding 2 identical hammers in his right hands. 2 left hands rest on 2 dirty windowsills. 8 months is a long time to remain idle. Something has to be done. A semi almost plows into some idiot in a VW who's doing 40 in the passing lane.
That was a close call.
"Talk to me, Earth Mother," Joe says.
Hammers raised high.
Past experience has taught him she responds well to his pain.
The 3 of him bring down their hammers, but not hard enough to cause any significant damage.
OK. G-O-D. Joe calls that 1 a practice run.
Raise the hammer again. He grits his teeth and gets ready.
Failure once again.
Think of this in TV terms.
Those were Takes 1 and 2.
Take 3, he vows, will be a keeper.
The only personal item of any value = this photograph of him at 10.
Look at that boyish grin.
The mop of unruly blonde hair.
The innocent eyes.
Joe recalls this as the last picture taken of him before he was recruited.
In 1967 Miquel Abgel Astorias wins the Nobel Prize for literature. Israel launches the 6-Day war. Zoltán Kodály dies at age 85. "More of the Monkees" hits the record shops. Lunar Orbiters 3 through 5 complete mapping the moon. Anti-war protests rock NYC and San Francisco. Race riots in many USA cities. The Summer of Love lifts off in Haight-Ashbury. South Viet Nam elects General Nguyen Van Thieu as president. Joe stands on the roof of the garage. He's reached the end of his 1st decade. His mom's long gone, but he and Dad are living on Munson Avenue in Baltimore.
He spreads his bed sheet wings, ready to fly. At 10 you believe in impossibilities. These are his special Underdog sheets. You got to know they will lift him into the clouds and take him away to a strange and foreign land.
19 minutes earlier and he's constructing the wings. 1st draw 2 wing-shaped outlines on big pieces of paper, then cut out the shapes, then trace fat magic marker lines on the sheets. The cutouts are vital. Paper he has lots of and sheets he has only 2. At the outset of the project Joe makes the decision to emulate the pteranodon. "Winged and toothless." Named by Othniel C. Marsh in 1876. Not a true dinosaur. Glides rather than flies. But that is OK because the pteranodon is so cool.
13 minutes earlier he's drawing in the dirt with a stick. Drawing #'s. G-O-D, is there any more perfect entity than an 8? 2 circles connected in lovely symmetry. Place 8 on its side and you have 8, a symbol he saw in a book once upon a time and a concept that is so incredible Joe gets dizzy. Infinity = forever. On and on and on and on and on.
24 minutes earlier, sitting in his room, reading The Hardy Boys. Making notes in the margins.
Joe and Frank need to quit wearing those cardigans. They look like a couple of wienies.
Get rid of Chet. He's an idiot interested only in his own fat stomach.
Guns. These guys need to have guns!!!!
He alters the book's illustrations, adding holsters to the hips of Frank and Joe. Guns in both hands. Mean-ass tattoos and cigars billowing thunderheads. Word balloons bristling with expletives.
Dad's in the living room, yelling into the phone.
"Look, I told you weekend shifts are no good for me. Monday through Friday is what we agreed on before I packed up and moved out here. What, you think I don't have a life outside of work? When am I supposed to kick back and relax? No, I don't put the company first. Who the hell ever puts the company first other than the guy who owns the company? Don't talk to me about duty, pal. Duty is for saps."
3 minutes before that, the phone ringing. Joe looks up from Frank and Joe as Dad stomps by his room. "That ass-kisser Davidson better not be calling me to take on an extra shift," he's muttering.
They'll be arriving shortly. This time it isn't a dream. Joe can tell because he feels quite clearly the beating of his heart, a detail that's always been missing until now.
Tulsa's turned out to be not all bad. OK, the beer sucks. No wonder they call it Colorado Kool-Aid. His hand hurts. Broken knuckles. He didn't feel like going to the ER and patched them up himself. Women chewing tobacco, that takes some getting used to. Casual racism, what a drag. Too many people wear cowboy hats here. It becomes a ridiculous cliché.
What it is, after breaking his hand, he receives a message from Earth Mother. The end is in sight, my brave soldier. Soon you will come to me. That's a promise.
The message reaches him via a newspaper article on urban renewal. He has to cross out many letters before the words spell themselves out for him. Takes all day and part of the night.
There's the elevator. The cage creaking to a halt, the metal doors sighing open. The tread of heavy boots on the threadbare carpet in the hallway.
"I hope you find me worthy," Joe says, waiting in the darkness of the apartment. "This is going to hurt something awful."
"Here we come," he hears from beyond the door.
"Let's do this," he says back in 1967, vaulting from the garage roof. It's a pretty good leap for 10-year-old legs, better so according to Joe's point of view. He doesn't so much jump as launch. 2 years from now NASA will reach the moon while the world watches on TV. He yells. This is it. Upupup. In another 6 years and nobody will care about the moon anymore. The wings expand around him, they snap and pop, they blot out the sun and 93,000,000-miles-old light. They fall apart. He plummets like a brick. Impact with the dirt only slightly less solid than steel. This isn't part of the plan. Legs twist the wrong way. Blood in Joe's mouth. His skull whipping back hard, then jolting forward as he rolls over and over.
Not the plan at all.
His mouth full of dirt.
Mud in his eyes.
A voice speaks through his pain.
2 broken legs.
Voice. Speaking from nowhere.
Voice echoing from inside a bottle.
Belonging to a woman.
No mistaking that.
The way she says his name, it's velvet.
"Who are you?" Joe says through the electric-green lightning bolts flashing across his corneas.
In 2 hours the doctor will tell him the right is broken in 3 places, the left in 1. And at that Joe is lucky because, by all rights, his neck should be broken.
"Joe," the voice calls out again.
"Yes?" Joe croaks.
"Is that all you can say? Just my name?"
"I'm still here, whoever you are."
"OK, now this is getting to be a bore."
"I am the Earth Mother, Joe. I am the spirit of the world. I am its soul and conscience, its beginning and its end. I am the ancient Ur-spirit, she who gave birth to all of the other spirits to come. My home is this planet's iron core where gravity itself is born. Billions of years ago I spun myself from interstellar dust and slowly became aware. Accreting matter over the course of eons. Slowly gathering mass. My body became whole, it acquired atmosphere and oceans. Throughout time I have been here, patiently waiting for the arrival of an avatar to aid me in my battle against the dark forces of the universe, they who would see an end to all energy, the worst of whom is Entropy. I have selected you to become one of my soldiers. You will fight in the great War. The sacrifices that come before that will be monumental. You will not flinch. I have faith. Together, we will ensure the victory of light over entropy itself."
Joe's cold all over.
There's a word for this.
He knows about that from Dr. Kildare.
The king of all medical dramas, ask anyone.
4 days later he's in the hospital, doing his best to remember what Earth Mother looked like. It's so foggy. Someone was with him in the back yard. The details remain unclear. At the end there, did soft hands gently stroke his bruised and battered face?
What he recalls with mathematical precision is the scent of lilacs.
"He's done for."
"Fuck'n hell, look at him."
"What's he saying?"
"Calling to his mother."
"Nobody's boy now."
What startles the 2 thugs, however, is the way Joe Stomp-on's apartment fills with light. It's like the sun's been cut open with a box knife. This in the middle of the night. They can see their bones through peach-pink skin. There's an overpowering aroma of spring flowers. It grows hot, then cold, then hot again. The atmosphere can't make up its mind. Someone says, "Come to me, Joe, the war is nigh, the forces of entropy are massing, now is your time to prove my trust in you was not misguided."
Not that the thugs believe their senses. Both of them are in denial. It's the acid they dropped earlier on, man, nothing but the acid. Joe's body is gone, but they're in denial about that as well.
Several years later 1 of the thugs finds Christ and devotes the remainder of his life to aiding the homeless. The 2nd thug vanishes the night after Joe Stomp-on's mysterious transformation. Some say he found a new existence in the sewers of Paris, or perhaps Berlin, but those are only rumors.