E
Jul/Aug 2004 fiction

Metal Game

by Joel Best


So the plan is to put in my hours at Subtown, scrape together enough money to blow out of Tulsa, and head over to Florida, where theory holds I have family in Miami. Cousin Raymond—Mom talked about him often enough before I ran away from home for the last time. Raymond living fat in the sun. Raymond, who's got no job but owns this big house and a Ferrari, and no one can figure out how does he pay for it all. Stay away from that man, Mom told me. He is no good, Carl, worse than your stinking daddy, god rest his soul. And I always said, yeahyeah, because it made her happy, but I gotta say, after being on my own for eight years, banging head against wall in one crappy job after another, going nowhere at the speed of light, Ray had started sounding pretty good. A little like Heaven. You get to be twenty-six, I figure, it's time to start getting your shit together. Miami is as good a place to start as any. You need a plan.

Call this one Plan A.

"We can go together," I tell Ilsa.

"Yeah, uh-huh."

"Really."

"Okay."

"You don't believe me."

She glues rhinestones to a crucifix made of twisted coat hangers. We're sitting at the kitchen table in our underwear. Goddam, the Oklahoma heat. Tulsa is a huge armpit. No wind. We've got the window cracked, and bugs are finding their way through tears in the screen. I pick a gnat out of my nose and sneeze.

"It is what it is, Carl," Ilsa says. Then, "God bless."

She has gone through the program, all twelve steps. Twice, I think. The first time didn't take. Ilsa is always one day at a time and it is what it is. She smokes like a demon and drinks lite beer. Who knew it didn't count the same as bourbon?

"You'll like Florida," I say. "It's warm even in February. No tornadoes to come along and blow you over the horizon."

Tulsa has early warning sirens mounted on telephone poles about every other block. Every Saturday at noon they blow like the world's coming to an end. It scares hell out of Mrs. Santiago's cat. You'll hear him through the walls, going apefuck. I want to go next door and tell Smoky, be cool, it's just a siren. And would if Mrs. S. weren't half a head case who talks to herself and carries a straight razor in her garter.

Concentrating on the crucifix, Ilsa says, "Hurricanes, though."

"Yeah," I say. "But hurricanes aren't anywhere near as bad as twisters. The weather service always knows about them days before they come near the coast. There's time to name hurricanes."

"Any more rhinestones?" Ilsa asks.

I hand her a box of sparklies, and for now we put Florida aside.

For a long time I lived with six other guys in a house that was all bedrooms. Then it was a long month in my car under the railroad tracks. Then the Y for year. After that I shacked up with Ilsa in this two-room apartment over a bakery. Mrs. S, our only neighbor. You stop smelling bread after a while. You stop smelling anything as a defense mechanism. Like someone repossessed your taste buds. Ilsa makes crosses, and I write bumper stickers. We eat a lot of sandwiches, and I have faith. You can actually make money writing bumper stickers, I'm always telling myself. I read about it in a magazine someone left at the bus stop. There's this guy who wrote HAVE A NICE DAY, and he made a pile. I saw the pictures of his mansion, this swimming pool big as a lake. You could almost imagine sailboats cutting across the water, tacking past the diving board. If he managed it, I'm always thinking. If HAVE A NICE DAY captured the public eye. Writing bumper stickers, how hard can it be? At most you need ten words. More than that, it's hard to read from a distance of two car lengths.

I have a vocabulary of considerably more than ten words. I just need a clever saying to stick in everyone's mind. That's harder to arrange, but I just know. Call it confidence. First you gotta believe in yourself. After that, everything else falls into place.

Ilsa constructs her crosses from found objects. Flattened tin cans and bits of mica, sticks wrapped with discarded string decorated with feathers, bundles of wire coated with buttons and X-mas tinsel. She sets up at the local college where other vendors sell scented candles and used books. On a good day she'll earn thirty dollars. It helps she wears tight clothes. Those college boys are all dogs for sure. She puts together the crosses in our apartment. Nights when I'm not working at Subtown, we share the kitchen table. Ilsa and her crosses, me and a legal pad full of scratched-out words.

BELIEVING IS SEEING

"I don't think so," she says.

A PENNY SAVED IS ONLY WORTH ONE CENT

Ilsa makes a face.

LIES ARE TRUTHS FROM ANOTHER DIMENSION

"That one has possibilities," she says.

I write it again on a clean sheet of paper. Six words. Not too many, not too few. Choose a good font. Either Courier or Times New Roman. Keep the color scheme simple. Red letters on white. Or white letters on blue. Bumper stickers require easy-to-read lettering and plenty of contrast. When you're whizzing along the highway at seventy-five, there's no time to differentiate periwinkle text from a robin's-egg background. Like anyone would even bother to try. Bumper stickers need word of mouth in order to gain popularity. It's that kind of phenomenon. Everyone knowing what they'll see practically before reading the words is what makes good stickers great. HAVE A NICE DAY became a cultural affirmation. Who doesn't feel good seeing that one? Every time. Happy warmth in the pit of the belly. Don't even have to read the words. They've become something other than shaped sound. A symbol. HAVE A NICE DAY is practically Zen.

WHERE'S MINE?

"Too vague," Ilsa says.

SAVE THE STARLINGS

"What!?"

IN DOG WE TRUST

She flips me off. I'm just fooling around now.

Later on we get a little stoned and dim the lights. Squish all the bugs that have invaded the apartment and shut the window. Pull off the remainder of our clothes and sit in front of the fan. Naked as God intended. We take turns gazing into the big mirror hanging beside the bed. In the right frame of mind, you're supposed to be able to see all of the people you've ever been throughout the ages, all the fleshly shells your immortal soul has inhabited during its steadfast journey through eternity. Your face turns plastic and melty. The shell you currently wear sloughs away and reveals what came before. It's reverse-reincarnation caught in the looking glass. Like a holy experience. Ilsa takes the process with the same deadly earnestness as a funeral. Tonight she sees the skin of her face peel back to reveal a naked skull. She holds me tight and says, "I'm all bones, Carl. It is so fuck-ing beautiful. Maybe I was Death in a previous existence."

She is what they call Goth. Ink-black hair and lips, too much mascara, silky clothing the color of night. The crosses fit in well. Ilsa wears two small ones around her neck, one silver, one gold. For balance.

"How about you?" Ilsa shoves me to the mirror, holds me there.

"It's just a face. My face."

"You're not trying hard enough."

"Okay. A wizard."

That idea she likes.

"Wizards have power, Carl. Yeah, wizards are good."

Near morning she rolls over me and settles into the hollow of my back. Running her fingers across the mass of bruises along my ribs and spine, Ilsa wants to know how is work going.

"Same old crap," I tell her.

 

First time I see Subtown is while walking along Peoria Avenue in search of empty cans. The Oklahoma sky is the color of taffy. The sweat's in my hair, my eyes. Saturday nights, this stretch of road is the Strip, bikers roaring around and partying until dawn. Peoria's five miles of hogs and tattoos, gas fumes and fist fights. Sunday morning, the beer cans and used condoms are so thick on the street you can't see asphalt. On a good Sunday I'll collect ten, twenty dollars in cans. I have a garbage sack over my shoulder. That sun's a real bastard. Help Wanted, is the sign in Subtown's window. This place used to be a dry cleaner, now it's a sandwich shop. I'm not finding too many cans today. Having overslept, I got a late start. The bums have scoured Peoria almost clean. Subtown sits between a liquor store and a deli that looks like it's been closed forever. The deli's windows are dusty on the inside, and I have to wonder, where does the dust come from in an unoccupied store? What kicks up dust that has settled comfortably on an undisturbed floor? What smears it on the windows? Does Newton know about this? What about bodies at rest wanting to stay that way?

For the hell of it, I apply for a job in Subtown.

The manager's an unattractive woman smoking a slender black cigarette.

Her name is Eva Butler.

"Will you steal from me?" she asks while scrutinizing my application, and I say, "No," and she tells me, "You start tomorrow. Get your hair cut. And wear clean pants."

My first shift, I meet the machine boys.

"What do you mean, machines?" Ilsa asks when I'm back home again. I'm still wearing my work shirt, bright yellow with brown letters, Fill Your Tank At Subtown. I've had a couple of beers to unwind, and I sit at the kitchen table with the legal pad open to a fresh page.

"Machines," I say.

"Yeah, I heard."

She's hot-gluing sequins to a crucifix made of braided hair. I don't want to know where she got the hair. Hers is black, the crucifix a metallic blonde. All those sequins glitter like eyes. The crucifix has this spooky way of following you around the room.

"It's the kids who hang around Subtown," I say. "They travel in a pack and look like people, but the truth is they're constructed of metal rods stretched over with latex skin roughly painted to resemble living flesh. Don't ask how I know. It's an intuitive thing. You had to be there." Half an hour ago I dropped some acid. Every word I say turns into a black bug that scuttles from my lips and makes a dash for the darkness under the refrigerator.

"Cool," Ilsa says. "Metal rods and shit."

"Listen closely and hear the grinding of gears and the spark of electric motors," I say. "Two of them got into a fight tonight. It was something to see. Knives whickering and all. I'm mopping up afterwards, and the blood smells of rancid oil."

Ilsa reaches for more sequins and laughs through her nose. She's thinking, machine boys, Jes-us.

"You're making this up, right?"

"Not at all."

"Where do they come from?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are they aliens?"

"No."

"Robots from the future?"

I shake my head.

"Then what?"

I don't know what to tell her. The machine boys are new to me. I'm still rolling them around on the surface of my consciousness. Any brand-new experience, you need some time to envelop it and figure out, top from bottom.

"It strikes me that they might have once been human," I tell her.

"So what changed them?"

"Maybe they changed themselves."

Ilsa sighs.

"You ought to quit that place. I mean, for real."

"I just started."

"But machine boys..."

"The money, Ilsa. I need the money."

"To get to Florida."

"That's the plan.

"And leave me behind."

I stroke her cheek. "You worry too much."

The floor, black and shifting with my discarded words. There's a whine in my ears. That's tinnitus. Didn't know I had it until I was almost twenty and someone made a casual reference to complete silence, and I said, of course there's no such thing, and they said, huh? and I said, what about the way your ears whine in the dead of night? and they said, you've got tinnitus, man. That's ringing in the ears caused by acoustic trauma, or maybe otosclerosis, or presbycusis, or even Ménière's disease. And I said, holy crud, no kidding. And they said, it can also be caused by too much wax in your ears, dude.

In bed, Ilsa lies as far away from me as she can without falling off the mattress.

"What are you thinking about?" she asks hesitantly.

And I say, "Bumper stickers."

 

Here are some stickers I've actually seen.

HELL WAS FULL SO I CAME BACK

SUPPORT MENTAL HEALTH OR I'LL KILL YOU

THE GENE POOL IS DRYING UP

5 OUT OF 4 PEOPLE DON'T UNDERSTAND MATHEMATICS

I ONLY DO WHAT THE VOICES TELL ME TO

GOD'S WATCHING—LOOK BUSY

HORN IF YOU'RE HONKY

I can do better than that.

By a million miles.

Confidence is what counts.

 

The machine boy called Mark gives me a new name.

He's a skinny shit. Skanky hair, pimply cheeks. Ribs show through holes in his T-shirt. He chain-smokes Marlboros. Sixteen, and he passes for a worn-out twenty-five. I'm not saying he belongs to a gang. This isn't West Side Story. Mark still goes to school. I see him getting on one of those yellow busses that haven't changed since I was a kid. That's about all I ever know about him except that he leads the others, that they follow him like steers after a Judas goat. He brings them into Subtown night after night. Smoke up the place and make noise and turn my life into misery. Once I ask Mark why does he act out, and he looks at me like I was speaking in tongues.

Subtown is their private kingdom. A crappy sandwich shop, but it belongs to the machine boys. They fill up the booths and drink sodas. Nobody ever buys anything to eat. Subtown has four booths in the dining area, then the counter where you place orders, then the prep table, then me, then the back room. The shop's arranged like a World War I battlefield. I'm working in the trenches, the machine boys are my adversaries. They're poised and ready. Mostly nothing happens. It's like this movie I saw. Soldiers sitting around, talking. There's no enemy in sight, they're taking it easy. War's mainly squatting on your heels, I've heard. So one soldier goes on about how, after the war, he wants to be an architect and build skyscrapers, and the others are saying, wow cool. Then he suddenly pitches forward, his brains in his lap, and a second later you hear the sound of the sniper fire that stole his life away. The moral of that scene is bad shit can happen so fast you don't have a chance to see it coming.

Midnight on a Saturday, the rain pounding down like God zipped open the sky. It's a slow shift. Who buys sandwiches during a monsoon? Subtown's quiet as the inside of a box. Three machine boys sit in the booth closest to the counter. Mark, this machine boy called Terry, and one whose name I don't know. They all look the same. Machine boys are stamped from molds. I've had a few beers from my stash in the walk-in refrigerator. My muscles are rubbery and loose in a good way. I'm cleaning the prep table, wiping up bits of lettuce and tomato, thinking about bumper stickers. Suddenly Mark the machine boy is out of the booth and over the counter. I feel the wind of his movement. And a knife at my throat. Mark isn't even breathing hard.

Never saw it coming, I'm thinking. Just like a sniper's bullet.

"How's it going?" the machine boy asks. His breath is a lover in my ear. He moves the knife fractionally, and a thread of blood makes its way down my collarbone.

"You know you're hurting me?" I ask, and Mark nods. His face is a rock. On the sandwich counter, maybe three feet away, a bread knife sticks out of its slot. You keep those knives sharp as hell. It's a well-known fact that a person is more likely to cut himself badly on a dull knife as a sharp one. Mark sees me looking at the cutting board, and he says, "Try it."

Our conversation has taken two seconds. Start to stop, my heart's beaten twice.

I don't move. The machine boy's knife digs a bit deeper. A notch grows in the underside of my chin.

"The thing is," he says, "I could kill you right now."

"Jail," I tell him very quietly.

"Fuck jail," Mark says. And I get it. Incarceration means squat to a machine boy. You're already trapped within metal, how much worse could it be in a cell?

Subtown gets into your pores. I'll go home after a shift, and Ilsa will wrinkle her nose. "Pickles," she'll say. Sandwich pickles come packed in five-gallon drums. Try to get the brine off your hands. It's like glue. A few minutes before Mark the machine boy jumps me, I had opened up a new drum of pickles. My hands reek, and I know, forevermore, that fear will be associated with the tang of dill.

Mark has no fear. The word isn't part of his programming. Machines have no emotions. I have no doubt he could open my windpipe without feeling good or bad. It's an action. Digital. Kill me or let me live. One or zero, yes or no.

He hops back over the counter, gathers his drones, and departs into the night.

"What's your name?" Mark asks before disappearing into darkness, and I tell him, "Carl. You know that." And he says, "No way. Here on out, you're Woodstock."

Which is how I get my new name.

 

"I'm surprised those kids even know about Woodstock," Ilsa says. I'm scribbling up some new bumper sticker slogans. My chin hurts. The apartment is an oven. The cut on my neck itches like mad.

NOBODY'S UGLY AFTER TEN BEERS

WITHOUT CHEMICALS, LIFE ITSELF WOULD BE A DRAG

"Not the concert," I say, rubbing the cut bloody. "Snoopy's friend. You know, the little yellow bird."

"What, you're a bird?"

"Yellow is the operative word."

"A coward?"

YOU'RE NOT FAT—YOU'RE FULL OF SHIT

HOO KNEEDS LITERASY?

"A kid jumped me. "I'm twenty-five. You do the math."

"He had a knife."

"Still."

"What were you supposed to do?"

Some people find equilibrium with the machine boys, I'm thinking.

Make your own plans.

Adapt.

In a world where the glass is almost always half empty, discover a way to visualize it as half full.

HALF A GLASS IS BETTER THAN NONE

There's Joe Stomp-On, one of Subtown's regulars, for instance. Who gets the living hell beat out of him every few days by the machine boys.

They bust into his apartment.

Use fists.

Use boots.

Tie him to a chair, work him over good.

For this he pays good money. Fifty bucks a session.

He's a kind of legendary figure for the machine boys.

Nothing at all like the Lone Ranger.

Pale guy with watery blue eyes. Black pants, black shirt, black sneakers. You look at him and think, vampire, woo-oo-oo. He'll drift in after dusk and order an Italian sub, extra pepperoni. Sack of ripple chips. Pink lemonade, large. I'll put his sandwich together while he leans against the counter and struggles to breathe. His ribs have been broken so many times, they're weak as toothpicks. I watch him suck in every breath. You can almost hear the grating of bones. Working at Subtown, I don't need to think about what I'm doing. My hands know what to do. I mean, a monkey could perform my job. Slice the roll, slap on the meat, cheese, and veggies, slosh on the dressing. Slide the order into a sack. Smilin' Jack races across each and every wrapper, submarine sandwiches held high in his meaty hands. Subtown's mascot grins like he just had a lobotomy. Hey Jack, I want to say. So what's the secret to this weary old life of ours?

Smilin' Jack, he doesn't tell you shit.

Joe wipes his mouth with a handkerchief that's more red than white.

I hand him the sub and ask is he okay?

"It's been a good night," he says.

"Good? You look like you fell off a roof."

He smiles and looks off at something I can't see.

"That arm must hurt," I say.

"Oh, yeah."

"You know, I think your nose may be broken."

Joe Stomp-On shudders, and I'm thinking how if this is winning with the machine boys, I prefer to keep on losing.

 

Ilsa wants to do the mirror thing. I want to get stoned. As a compromise, we do both. Tonight, I see nothing in the mirror. Like my face has evaporated. I'm trying to decide is this a good omen or not when Ilsa pulls me down on top of her and we waste some calories.

"Some plans," I tell her in the quiet that follows, "are better than others."

Ilsa nods into my chest.

"Be careful how you move through life," I say.

"You got that right, Carl."

"Don't make hasty decisions."

"Sometimes it's better just to stay put," Ilsa says.

"I'm not talking about Florida."

"I know that."

"There's a path I have to follow," I tell her, not knowing exactly what that means.

Ilsa gets up and goes back to the kitchen table. Works on a new crucifix. And I know I've said the wrong thing.

 

Sometimes the nights are calm and quiet as an underground lake. To pass the time I pretend to be a guest on a public access talk show. The man in the other chair wears a shiny suit and drinks coffee from a mug that says I'M MR. BIG. Tell me about the machine boys, he says. Do you have any idea what happened to them?

It's interesting you should ask, I tell him. First, there's Chuck, who now sells sneakers for a living. Just the other day, I was in a sporting goods store and bought a pair of running shoes from him. He didn't remember me. I mentioned the old days, and he got a funny look. I think he was going to cry. That surprised me. Chuck used to be hard as they come. Joe Stomp-On used to talk about him all the time. Chuck and his magic touch, Joe would say. Oh, baby. Then there's one of the other machines, Dale, him I see in the street now and then. He lives in a cardboard box and talks to a sock puppet. I give him quarters but never try for conversation. Mickie, now... he was the youngest of them. I remember reading that he got thirty years for knocking over a pizza joint. I've exchanged letters with him. Recently he turned to God. I hope that works out.

What about the leader, Mark?

That's not a subject I want to discuss.

We're here to listen, Carl.

I don't think so. Some memories we keep inside of ourselves, wrapped tighter than birthday gifts. But I will tell you about something else. The other night I took a walk by the park. I'd chewed a little blotter. The sky was sheets of mica hinged together by armies of invisible zombies, the stars were openings to another dimension. Anyway, I heard sounds of movement in the bushes. Metal jangling amid the foliage. Faint clinks and rattles and the almost inaudible hissing of minute steam engines. So I was thinking, way cool. I slipped through the bushes like smoke. I smelled oil, hot and pungent. The metal sounds were close. I got down on my hands and knees and wiggled forward in marine fashion. Worked my way through the last bits of greenery. In a clearing, a group of machine boys rolled in a tangle on the ground. Their artificial skins hung on nearby shrubs, discarded like so much unwanted clothing. They were a mass of writing rods and aluminum joints. The odor of metal and plastic and lubricants was overpowering. I thought of wrecked cars piled up along the highway. Remember that really bad accident a few years ago? Dozens of cars and trucks colliding in the fog? It made the national news. Lots of people killed. The fog burned away, and all that metal cooked in the sun for hours until emergency services could pry the mess apart. Anyway, I saw the machine boys and wondered, is this some sort of accident that just happened, or is it an activity that had been planned? The machine boys moved ceaselessly. They merged into a single unit of multiple legs and arms and heads. The earth beneath them was torn up and churned into a muddy pudding. Steam rose from the mire. The newly formed unit stood and marched back and forth, staggering, plowing into trees, bowling over a concrete fountain...

The talk show host receives the signal that we're about to break for commercial.

Any last thoughts? he asks.

The machine boys operate according to a logic different than ours, I say straight to the camera. It's as powerful as the forces that bind matter together. A person has to be careful that kind of logic doesn't carry him away.

 

Ilsa leaves behind this note: "Just not working out." And I don't know does she mean me, her, or the universe? Ilsa's cross money has been covering the rent. My Subtown checks go for food. Plus a little each week put away for Miami. On my legal pad, I'm figuring out the numbers. So much for rent, so much for eats. 5 out of 4 people don't get math. The numbers refuse to cooperate, and I decide it's time for Plan B. Shoving a handful of change into the phone in the hallway, I try calling Cousin Raymond: I'm coming, is that all right, by the way I'll be needing a little financial aid, just for a little while until my feet are firmly planted, etc. etc. Family, I'm thinking. You gotta be able to count on blood when times are tough. These are the ties that matter. Blood and its viscosity.

"You're trying to reach who?" this anonymous voice asks when my call goes through. It's a lousy connection. Like I'm talking through a bowl of Rice Krispies. Snap, crackle, pop. "Raymond Hobbs? You said Ray Hobbs?"

"Yeah. He's my cousin."

"What?"

"My cousin."

"Huh?"

"Cousin." I'm shouting myself hoarse. A woman sticks her head out of a door down the hall and hisses at me, shut up already.

"Raymond Jacob Hobbs?" the voice on the phone hollers.

"You got it," I holler back, shaking a fist at the woman. "Is he there?"

Suddenly the line is so clear the guy on the phone could be standing next to me.

"This the same Ray Hobbs owned an import business?" the voice wants to know, still yelling.

"Don't know anything about that," I say in a normal tone.

"Who are you again?" The voice is suspicious. And still blowing out my eardrums.

"His cousin, Carl. From Tulsa."

"He never mentioned a cousin."

"I can hear you," I say. "Look, is Raymond there or not?"

"He died last year."

"Oh."

"Bought it in a car accident. Ran into a ditch. No seat belt. The cops had to pry his face out of the windshield."

"Jeez."

"You know, Ray owed me money."

I hang up and formulate a new plan. Call it Plan C. C for C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A. Where the sun also shines, add to which the possibility of seeing movie stars.

 

At Subtown, sitting in the cooler. Three in the morning after a double shift. I don't feel like going home to an empty apartment. Had a few beers from my stash and chewed some blotter, but can't relax. Working a double will disconnect you from reality. Fifteen hours I've been slinging sandwiches. The outer world has receded to a dim, white point. Call it a distant star. I know a few stars. Deneb. Vega. Betelgeuse. The customers came and went steadily tonight, a conga line of hungry zombies. Next, please. Ham and Swiss with peppers and Russian dressing. Next. Genoa salami and American with mustard. Next. Turkey and provolone with mayo. Late in the evening the machine boys paid me a visit. Hey, Woodie, they said. How's it going, Woodie? Mark tossed a burning cigarette at me. His drones laughed.

Something, I've come to realize, has to be done about this situation. Plan C will take time. California requires more cash than Miami. I'm figuring sixty bucks for a bus ticket plus another two-hundred because only an idiot goes to L.A. without pocket money.

The machine boys and their logic. It gets me down. Mark and his knife, oh yeah. Next time he comes over the counter, I'm figuring. Next time will be one bad scene.

My pretend interviewer has asked more than once, so what did you do about the machine boys? And I've nodded and said, at the end I finally had to do something drastic.

In the cooler I'm writing in the air. Perform these acts in the following order:

Buy a buttload of acid. One hundred hits of high-quality blotter, the kind that launches your brain into orbit.

Buy it over the space of a month or two.

Don't buy from the same dealer.

Score in different parts of town.

One hundred hits that will pretty much turn your cerebellum into scrambled eggs.

Squirrel away the blotter at work.

Somewhere none of the other employees think to look.

Or Eva, either, that bitch.

Wait for Mark to come in alone one night.

This may take some time.

He doesn't often travel without the drones.

Be patient.

Yeah.

He shows up, you tell him this soda's on the house.

Thanks, Woodie, he'll say with a sneer.

Glug glug.

Guess what happens to all that acid?

Make sure you get the cup from him before he leaves.

Wash it out good.

Better still, wash the cup, then burn that fucker to ash.

The best evidence is that which no longer exists in the physical world.

The cooler is a world of chilly air and soft humming of fans. Messages in the air rise from wooden crates of lettuce and plastic-wrapped bundles of ham and turkey and corned beef.

You're a sorry mess.

Thanks for the compliment, I say to the cold cold words.

What a turd.

Tell me something I don't know.

Sitting in a refrigerator, feeling sorry for yourself.

I have a plan.

Plan D?

Betcha ass.

Good boy.

Take care of Mark, I'm thinking, and the rest of the machine boys lose their power.

 

So, lots of things.

1) Eva gets fired. There are shortages in the drawer at night. She says it's all a mistake, and Subtown decides not to press charges. The new manager, Mr. Simmons, has a stick up the ass. Makes me get a haircut. Gotta wear clean pants every day. And one of Subtown's paper hats with the slogan, Put Something Good In Your Mouth. He catches me writing bumper stickers during a slow period and says, you have time to lean, you have time to clean.

2) Receive a postcard from Ilsa. Golden Gate Bridge on one side, her spidery handwriting on the other. I got her pregnant, is why she left. I am an inconsiderate fucker, Ilsa says. Don't bother coming to look for her because she's moving on and No Idea Of Where. By the way, she's keeping the kid and will teach it that all men are pricks, so hahaha. Ilsa signs the card with a skull dripping blood. The only time I was ever in Frisco I had to stay in the Tenderloin. Cars backfiring (or gunshots) and tires screeching (or someone screaming) and you stop paying attention after a while. See me if you want to buy hashpotcokeanything, the super told me the day I moved in. The fog got in my joints. All the endless hills. Dingaling, look at the trolleys.

3) Get a check from No-Vel-T Inc. when two of my bumper stickers sell. Fifty big dollars. I cash same, splurge on Chinese for dinner and put the rest in the coffee can containing my California money. Send letter to No-Vel-T Inc. and ask about royalties. Receive answer a few days later stating that slogans are purchased for a flat fee, something I had not known until then. Always assumed there was more money in bumper stickers. You see them for sale at the mall, two or three dollars apiece. Thousands of malls, millions of stickers. Even calculating cost of printing and distribution, figured my share should have been higher. Still, I'm stoked. Fifty dollars may not be much. Call it a beginning.

WHO TURNED UP THE GRAVITY?

HIT ME—GIRLFRIEND IN TRUNK

THIS SIDE UP

Will send these to different distributor, hope for better pay.

4) Finish buying my hoard of acid, though not quite one hundred hits, only seventy-nine. Four different dealers in four parts of town over a period of two months. Me wearing jeans and T-shirt one time, then a raincoat and sunglasses another, then a stocking cap and sweater and rubber boots another. You gotta be clever. Dealers have memories. Especially when they're being hassled by the cops and some tough detective says, you want some leeway on this possession-with-intent charge, boy, then maybe you throw us a little bone. Seventy-nine will have to be enough. In any event, am running out of money and patience.

5) Psych myself up for the job to come.

No backing down now.

Get it done.

Be a man.

Proactive is the word of the day.

 

Ten minutes to three on a Sunday morning, Mark the machine boy slouches into the shop, a cigarette hanging from his lips, and he's alone and already half-stoned, and he's dropping into one of the booths, and I get the soda ready, pouring in the little vial of LSD with a finger of liquid carefully distilled from seventy bits of blotter, and then I add the soda, and Mark drinks it down. The clock on the wall goes tick tick tick. Less than a minute elapses before he screams and runs into the night, and I'm thinking, fade to black, baby. I retrieve the cup, wash it out, pour bleach into the sink, take the cup outside, strike a match, and have a little fire. Marshmallows would be nice.

Otherwise it's been a quiet night. Around nine a machine girl came in and ordered a turkey sub. Flirting with her eyes. One thing for damned sure. You don't pay too much attention to a machine girl even if she holds her body in a way that says, come and get it. She wiggled while she ate. It was like watching a snake in motion. I enjoyed furtive glances of her yellow hair. Faith, I think, is her name. Joe Stomp-On may or may not have come around near midnight. It was raining again, I thought maybe a shadow slipped past the door, heading to the alley. Came some thumps and groans, then nothing. Between midnight and two, only seven customers. Drunk. Drunk. Guy getting home late from work. Attractive woman who darts out of a big, black car to buy a sack of chips. Two pretty guys holding hands. Another drunk.

The next day I'll hear about how one of the machine boys threw himself off a traffic bridge on Colter Avenue and flew like a great metal gull in a graceful arcing curve that terminated abruptly with the street below. Heading out of town, I'll stop by the scene and have a look. I'll touch the spot where Mark's head impacted the concrete. It will strike me weird how much the remaining stains resemble clotted blood rather than dried oil.

Before shutting off Subtown's lights and locking the door, I write WOODSTOCK HAS QUIT THIS CRAP JOB on the prep table with ketchup.

 

To this day I write bumper stickers. Mostly for my own amusement. Never has been any money to be made, my friend. That is what they call it the big pipe dream.

A FRIEND IN NEED USUALLY COSTS YOU TWENTY BUCKS

WHY THROW SHIT AT THE FAN IN THE FIRST PLACE?

WHAT'S REALITY DONE FOR US LATELY?

Really, you'd think there might be a market for that last one.

 

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