Vignette: Floating chance

The body floated, bloated, down the river toward the sanitation facility where it would presumably get caught in the filter and cause a nightmare kind of day for the plant supervisor, who’d have to call the cops, then sweet-talk his team into helping guard the scene until the investigators arrived, then wait for all the photos and little yellow tent markers to be placed before he could get on with the day’s duties.

He’d act all day like it was an inconvenience, like a large tree trunk had gummed up the works rather than a former person But then he’d go home and cry into a tall glass of tequila-less margarita mix about the fragility of human life and all the regrets he had — how he’d never seen Spain; how he’d never applied for that MFA program; how he should have asked Stephanie to marry him when they were teenagers so he could be divorced with three kids by now instead of dragging the scent of sweat and sewage into his empty studio apartment next to the Kwik and Save.

And then he would fall asleep — floating, bloated, almost inches off his sheets as he dreamt of the life he’d have if he had taken all the chances he’d been offered, before he’d have to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

Vignette: Still life of an in-joke

“Let me get that heifenweiser,” Charlie said once taking her coat from Leslie and slinging it over a director’s chair that sat next to the apartment door. Above it hung a dartboard with three darts pinning a picture of the president to it. At least, she thought it was the president: His face had been obliterated by holes.

Charlie turned into the kitchen, leaving her to meander into the larger room and get a better feel for who she had just decided to go home with, much to her friend’s chagrin.

It was a strange haven, to be sure: The blue fuzzy dice hanging off the ceiling fan. The stuffed Pusheen cat sitting on the window sill. A couch draped in a sublimation-printed tapestry depicting the final battle of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, still creased and reeking of the plastic that encased it during shipping. A desk cluttered with playing cards, dice, magazines, hand-scribbled notes, and a smooth copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that didn’t have a single mark or crack in the spine — so meticulously scattered that it looked to be on purpose, a still life painting befitting an eccentric nobleman-thinker. When she picked up one of the clear boxes of different-sided dice, she noticed a clean line of dust that had settled around it.

It felt like the scene from The Great Gatsby where one of the partygoers drunkenly discovers that his host’s books have never been read.

Charlie returned from the kitchen with two bottles of beer, each bearing a label written only in German and bearing a scantily clad woman sunning herself on the wing of a 1920s airplane.

“Cheers,” he said, clinking the neck of his bottle to hers. The glib-globs of the orange lava lamp on the side table reflected in his glasses, which were just big enough to be ironic.

Everything about this place seemed to have been procured and placed as part of some inside joke that Charlie had, and it made Leslie wonder if she had been selected to be the next oddity to be used for his personal image.

Vignette: Modern Day Lovecraft

Less than a week later, they were back at her place, reiterating the same moves as they had at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, this time perfecting them. A finger tracing down a spine, an arm looped around a waist, a glass of whiskey — this one undribbled — in a single free hand. And then he saw it.

“Is — is that my ticket stub?”

“What?” She didn’t want to move her mouth away from his, but he was already pulling apart, staring at the tiny square piece of paper on the minibar.

He plucked it up with two fingers, setting his drink down and confirming with his own eyes that yes, this was the movie ticket stub he had found in his wallet while fumbling around for a condom. It had been in there for easily a year and a half: The movie had come, gone, arrived on streaming-on-demand, and lost big at the Oscars.

What was confusing was that the rest of the bric-a-brac he had observed — albeit through bourbon-blurred eyes — was gone. The minibar now played alter to the evidence that he had seen Vice at the Riverside 21 AMC on December 29, 2018.

It wasn’t confusing to her at all, however. Such was the life of a modern-day lovecrafter: No longer were menstrual blood, bull testicles, red wine, human hair, cinnamon or anise required. Instead her spells called for some combination of movie tickets, club wristbands, a dollop of aftershave, scotch, and pizza grease heated above an overheating Switch. Love potions were easier when they were intended for women: a drop of nail polish, a smear of nightly moisturizer. A rhinestone that had fallen out of a cheap statement necklace.

“You didn’t need to keep it,” he said, pulling away fully now and examining it. “Why’d you keep it?” His face was that of a woman discovering a man has a closet wallpapered in black-and-white surveillance photos of her.

“Just— don’t even worry,” she said, snatching it from between his two fingers and taking it into the kitchen, where she made a big show of throwing it into the trashcan (but instead aimed for just behind it, where it would remain free of coffee grounds and ramen wrappers).

While she was doing this, she didn’t see the twitch of his smile as he rolled one of her tiny earring backings between his thumb and forefinger, which were clutching it deep inside his pocket.

Scene of the write: The last bar on the crawl

By the time we get to the final bar on our list of dives to visit on a clear but cold Saturday afternoon, none of us remember what it’s actually called. Partially this is due to four other bars that gleefully poured us shots and beers, called out the owner to give us a history of the joint, and allowed us access into their digital jukebox so we could play Celine Dionne’s “My Heart Will Go On” and all the Lizzo our liquor-loosened lips could name.

This bar is different. It’s the kind of place where, if walking in with a couple friends, you’d turn right around and leave.

The place wasn’t always a dive: The bar itself serves as the entrance to what was once a restaurant, and clearly a popular one in its heyday. Tables for two, four, six sit either in the middle of the floor or stacked on top of each other in the corner, half of them still draped in red-and-white checkered tablecloths that can be wiped down with a washcloth.

Before you can intrude on this museum, a mannequin — draped in a blanket for modesty, with a blond plastic wig and vacant, store-rejected eyes — stops you in your path. Her arms splay out like a priest’s at an alter, and before her is a brown couch that has played host to so many overnight patrons that this place might also be a B&B: Beer and bedtime.

Next to the sleep setup, you’ll notice a high top with a bag of tortilla chips and plastic tub of off-brand salsa, sitting out all day for anyone (anyone?) to munch on while they drink $3 whiskey-and-cokes and try not to think of how dirty the couch is right behind them. It’s easy to forget when you look up and see that a Svengoolie-hosted B-horror film from the 1950s is playing above the bar on a TV the size of a compact car trunk.

The date I brought with is starting to get deep in his questions for me, as if the beer and shots have made him more introspective. They’ve only made me need to pee. Again.

“So your last relationship — were you in love?” He asks.

“It was complicated,” I say, wondering if I have enough cash in my bag for another whiskey-Coke.

“Do you want to be in love again?”

The mannequin and I lock eyes.

“I don’t know,” I say. “The last time I was, it didn’t end well for either person. I learned I could be in love. He learned he couldn’t.”

Character sketch: Damsey Lemonwax

“And who are you?”

The bounty hunter glowered at her from where she slouched in her chair, legs flopping out wide like an abandoned rag doll.

“Um, Damsey,” the defector said. “Damsey Lemonwax.”

“What kind of name is Damsey?” The bounty hunter’s partner asked gruffly, even though as his eyes flitted back to his friend, Damsey recognized a spark of hope in the purple irises — he wanted to impress this woman.

“Short for Damselfly,” Damsey sputtered. “M’parents were lunatic hippies who never once thought what a name like Damselfly could do to a woman trying to gain respect on a factory line.

Memories of Coop, Wren and Bernard played in her peripheral vision like old movie clips projected on the walls — how they’d used a black marker to fix her name tag on her first day. Some of the more senior workers were mean sonofabitches, Wren had said, and the less she gave them to pick on, the better off Damsey would be.

Truth was, it was never going to be her name that made her notorious in the factory. Cursed with Diligence, Damsey couldn’t help but work five times faster than any other mechanic on the floor, first resetting tooling kits, then screwing on wiring spacers, then wiring entire fuselages. She was one of four other employees who had the unseen talents that having the set of magical gifts that Diligence brought: fast hands, perfect working rhythm, an eye that caught and brain that fixed what few defects she made.

Coop begged her to pull back, to coast. He said she was only going to make things harder on herself if the managers noticed. But Diligence doesn’t defer, and the more Damsey tried to slow down so she could blend in with the other workers, the more it seemed her “Gift” made itself known.

Of course, once management recognized that they had yet another worker with Diligence, they fired the other three electrical mechanics and made her work her line alone — with a mere $3-an-hour bump in pay.

“It’s really unfair,” she sighed into a stale turkey sandwich one day at lunch.

“Tell that to the three people you got fired,” growled Bernard, who had long since stopped being her friend, if he ever was to begin with. “I’m sure they find it unfair, too. Last I heard, Porcupine Cubbins was seen sitting with an upturned hat outside The Union, busking for change with that shitty ukulele of his.”

The word union bounced around Damsey’s head for a bit before it implanted itself in her brain.

“A union isn’t a bad idea,” she said quietly, knowing that the managers liked to walk around the lunchroom specifically to squash any talk of organizing. “If we got everyone to unionize, we could get better pay, better benefits. Make them hire more people. Just because the four of us have Diligence doesn’t mean we should be doing the brunt of the work without better pay. And we could use our strength to get everyone else better comp and conditions, too. You saw Margaret’s foot yesterday after that accident.”

“Gnarly,” Wren agreed, face twisting almost as grotesquely as Margaret’s toes. “But what if no one joins us? We’re not exactly the favorites of the factory. They let go Bob’s best friend and his sister-in-law because of me.”

“That’ll be part of our conditions,” Damsey said. “We’ll make them rehire the people they let go at twice the rate. Otherwise we’ll stop working.”

Damsey never got that far, though. The first informational meeting for their closest friends on the factory floor went without a hitch — 29 people crammed into the back room at McGowan’s to hear what the Diligents had to say. But something happened in between that first meeting and the first day they planned to picket the drive before their shift, and Damsey had gotten pulled into the managers’ office and given a stern warning.

She didn’t heed it. She didn’t heed the next one, either. Turns out that Diligence didn’t just make her fast at her job. It also made her stubbornly committed to her cause.

“So that’s how your hand got broken?” The bounty hunter nodded to her bubblegum pink cast.

“Yeah,” Damsey shrugged. “Something like that.” She tugged the sleeve of her blue jumpsuit as far over the cast as she could. Coop had signed it with his one good hand before they went their separate ways, as far away from the factory as possible.

“Well, kid,” the bounty hunter’s friend shrugged.

“Don’t call me ‘kid,'” Damsey snapped, a reflex from her factory line days.

“Jeez, sorry,” he said. “You in with us or not? We could use someone with your, er, expertise.”

“Depends,” Damsey said, wiggling the one left finger that still worked. “What’s the pay?”

Axiom Thorne: Before there was Ansel

I’m sure by now you’ve inferred that I got my warlockian powers just in time for Ansel to mysteriously disappear from the landscape of my life. You forget: I’m the one painting this picture, and it’s not a landscape, but a self-portrait, which means you get to see exactly what I want you to see the way I want you to see it.

If you squint and look past the last layer of oils I smeared on the canvas, you’ll see another figure. Stephan, the baker’s boy. He was beautiful, and he hated me.

No, that’s wrong. He liked me, but in the way you like having an old scab ready to pop off the skin: Something to pick at.

If it wasn’t tripping me in the mud, it was baking pine needles into a cookie that he slipped into our weekly order with a note that said “For sweet Axiom, Love S.” Mamma said it was because he liked me. I still say it was because he was an asshole.

But the thing about picking at scabs is that you eventually peel off all the crusty, curling skin and hit fresh flesh underneath. And when you do, it bleeds.

We were playing along Bounty’s Creek. “Playing” might be the wrong word, as my version of it was watching Stephan pluck tiny fish out from the shallows and place them on rocks to flip, flop and bake in the hot sun. I was entranced, not repulsed, by the way the light glinted off their scales, almost strobing as they danced away their last breaths. But Stephan couldn’t care less, sweeping the dead bodies back into the water to make room for his next victims. Whenever he’d pivot around, the light would flash off the gilded viper fang that hang around his neck — a trophy from a kill, he’d boast, even though we all knew it was purchased off one of the roving traders that came through town.

I must have stepped on a twig or sneezed, because at some point he noticed me standing in the brush, a voyeur to his routine pescacide.

“Freak,” he spat at me, the one word stinging my ears.

Says the boy killing fish for fun, I now wish I had retorted.

This was about two weeks after I had first encountered the Man in the Scarf and Diamond Shoes and he had tapped me on both cheeks and told me I was magic. The tattoo on my ankle at that point looked like a couple of overgrown freckles.

So how was I to know that Stephan had said the magic word?

Just after the last fish on the rock flipped its last flop, the sun grew dark, as if a cloud had crossed it. Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, I saw instead that a mass of dark speckles had gathered above us.

Stephan let out a loud swear, and I turned to see if he was looking at the sky, too. Instead, his eyes were trained at the ground, where it looked like a landslide had started at my feet, slipping down the bank towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it wasn’t dirt but thousands of gleaming beetles clamoring over each other to get to the water. But then I realized the water wasn’t their target.

The baker’s boy didn’t dance like the dying fish. Instead, he screamed, and the bugs from above funneled into his open mouth while the bugs from below coated his skin. It was funny, really, watching a once-human body become a wriggling mass of black exoskeletons clicking and clacking against each other. Once they had had their fill, they collapsed to the ground and skittered away into nothingness.

I stepped to the edge of the water. There wasn’t even a smudge of flour where Stephan had been standing, as if the beetles had just carried him away. But there was one thing: a sliver of something shiny poking out from the silt, just past where the water lapped against the shore. It was the gold viper fang from around his neck, still attached to the chain.

Plucking it from the muck, I polished it on the hem of my shirt. Without a look back, I trudged up the bank to the high road as I clasped it around my neck.

Vignette: The Dictator’s Punishment

When they finally extricated The Dictator from his home, they stood him on the front porch and surrounded him with their guns aloft, the barrels creating a starburst pattern around his crimson faux-military getup. And from there he had to watch as they deployed his punishment:

With the flip of a small red switch, it all happened at once. Streets named after him were rechristened with the names of the people who died under his policies. Portraits of him in government offices were taken down. The buildings he had prominently displayed his name on Lost their signage to become just another skyscraper, just another hotel. Every internet post and social media account bearing his name was wiped clean. Book publishers replaced his name in every draft with just “A Man” and pulled existing copies containing his identity from the shelves.

Nobody eradicated the facts of what he had done and how he had ruined everything he touched during his rule. They didn’t ignore the ways he had come into power. To forget history doomed the country to repeat it, and no one wanted that.

What they did do was remove the memory of his name. They denied The Dictator a legacy. Because in the end, he was never concerned with doing good for the country. He was only concerned with implanting his name in its history, raising it in ten-foot letters across the fruited plains and purple mountains majesty.

Once they barred him from re-entering the home, they let The Dictator walk freely among the people he had once ruled. The Dictator waited for someone to yell something, throw something — anything to assure him they knew who he was and remembered that he once had power.

But no one did anything. No one spoke to him directly or whispered his name. A woman hustled past him with a quick “excuse me” that he heard her reiterate to other strangers on the street in the same tone.

The Dictator wasn’t special anymore. He was just another person on the street, and it was the worst torture a man like him could ever be asked to endure.

Vignette: The Return of Calvin

From the sidewalk Calvin saw them all sitting at the bar, nursing pink martinis in precarious glasses and golden beers as tall as chihuahuas. Outside it had begun to snow, making the glowing yellowish interior lighting even more warm and welcoming. The laughing patrons in their thick Irish knit sweaters, with their sharp haircuts and soft smiles, only added to the effect.

He had been standing outside long enough to lose track of his nose, fingers and toes, all carried off by the cold. A couple snowflakes slipped down the back of his jacket with perfect aim, and he took it as the universe’s signal to either muscle up and walk in, or keep going in search of somewhere else to thaw with a glass of Scotch or port, or any of the other pricy potables he had suddenly begun to crave.

But before Calvin could turn to go anywhere — the door, the crosswalk — Tyler looked up from where he had nestled his nose into Melissa’s neck and gazed straight through the window. Their eyes locked.

Tyler’s expression was the same as everyone’s that day when Calvin turned up. The internal dialog was broadcasted through the twinges and tweaks of his facial muscles, which morphed like a grotesque time lapse feed:

“That guy looks just like that weird dude, Calvin. Wait — is that Calvin? No, it can’t be Calvin. I know what that guy looked like and that is not him. But he’s got those weird amber eyes that Calvin had. It’s definitely him. But how could that possibly be him? It’s not him. Well, maybe?”

And, as he had all afternoon since coming back to his hometown, Calvin put the man out of his mental misery by giving his signature floppy wave, a trademark that earned him the popular kids’ ridicule in high school, much more than his baggy thrift store jeans and obscure graphic t-shirts ringed with sweat stains.

The bell above the bar door rang, and suddenly there were six open seats at the bar as the entire group rose to repeat what Tyler had done, gawping at Calvin in his sleek leather coat, bright cashmere scarf and dark designer jeans that framed his toned legs. He shrugged as he pulled his Burberry wallet from his back pocket to pass a gold American Express card to bartender before asking for a Glenmorangie 18-year scotch on the rocks and asking to keep the tab open.

“Been a while, Melissa,” he smirked as he pulled the glass toward him. Flanked three on each side, he felt them watch as he took a sip without the hint of a wince. “Looks like Tyler’s keeping you warm.”

“C-Calvin,” Melissa stuttered. “You— How—?”

“It was a good trip, thanks,” he said, tipping the glass in salute. “Did a lot of thinking. Some personal growth. I tell you, though. It’s great to be back.”

Calvin sipped his scotch victoriously as the onlookers gaped. Resurrection was a lot more fun than he thought it would be.

Vignette: Slim for what

“I’m not skinny for you,” she said, bolting upright in bed. She pulled away from his fingers as if they had turned to cattle prods reaching out to trace the ribs under her skin.

Truthfully, she wasn’t doing it to look like a magazine ad or provoke even more men to buy her disgusting vodka cocktails or catcall her from their cars. She woke up at five every morning to exercise, ate small lunches, avoided the sweets aisle at the grocery store, etcetera, because she liked when people underestimated her. The pitying, hungry smiles they flashed at this bird-like creature whose skin was too tight for her bones as they assumed the least of her until it was too late — she had swallowed them whole, and she hadn’t gained a pound.

Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.