(PERSONAL NOTE: This one took me a long time to finish because it’s personal and I wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible. Many big thanks are owed to Bryan Foland for his help in editing, encouragement, feedback, and hours spent reading and rereading this story as both an editor, a friend, and as my cousin. Thank you, Bryan, for helping me stick the landing on this.)
Everything I know about the city of Baltimore can be summed up by mentioning Edgar Allan Poe, the HBO series The Wire, and the most profane baseball card of all time. To my grandfather, a city with claims to fame such as these may as well have been a city on Mars, so in January of 2015, when we got word that he was in Baltimore, it was surprising, to say the least. It wasn’t a planned stop for him and he had places to be, so a side trip to Maryland at that point in time was very out of character for him. Then again, death does odd things to one’s travel itinerary.
Two days earlier, my grandpa had collapsed in a hotel lobby in Corpus Christie, Texas where he and my grandmother were staying for the winter. He never woke up. Several states away from their home and family in Illinois, my aunts flew down to retrieve my grandma and make arrangements for Grandpa’s body to be flown back for his funeral. He’d always loved being at the head of every family gathering, he would have hated to miss this one.
Grandpa never liked to fly when he was alive, and judging by the way he was tossed on the wrong plane like a piece of flea market luggage, his posthumous feelings on it were likely no different. This mistake seemed to justify his distaste for air travel seemed and felt like his final “I told you so” moment, one that he will relish for all of eternity.
“We’ll laugh about this someday,” was the sentiment throughout my family, who was already overwhelmed with funeral plans and travel arrangements for out-of-towners like me.
“I’m gonna laugh at this today,” was the sentiment in my mind. The man who hated seafood needed to be retrieved from a city known for lobster dinners and crab legs in order to be on time to his own funeral. What is not funny about that? Besides, you know, the funeral part.
Eventually he did make it to the church in Illinois where his services went off without a hitch. As with everything in his life, it was a production getting him there, but once it went smoothly, it was like none of the mishaps had ever happened. We could almost hear him saying, “I told you not to worry and that everything would be fine”, a parting shot from someone whose travel mishaps during and after his life drove us all to the brink of the asylum.
The day following my Grandpa’s funeral was a typical January day in Northern Illinois, that is to say it was sunny, but cold with a bite that I was no longer accustomed to. Despite knowing this was the norm, I’d not brought many winter-appropriate clothes with me from Florida and so I ended up searching the basement, attic, and coat closets of my parents’ house until I found an old winter coat that came close to fitting, a forgotten pair of my combat boots, and a hat. It was my Grandpa’s winter hat.
Grandpa Rood’s hat was a thing of legend in our family and when I was growing up its appearance signaled the true arrival of winter. It was black pleather with earflaps (one of which always stuck out to the side at an odd angle) and was lined with fake sheepskin. I placed the hat on my head, looked in a mirror and embraced the fact that I looked every bit as goofy as Grandpa had when he wore it, but nowhere near as endearing.
I headed out for a stroll around town. It wasn’t quite an epic journey, as a town that barely shows up on a state map and holds less than a thousand people doesn’t take long to see. Still, it was January cold, so it wasn’t long before my toes were numb and the wind, unbroken by the open and empty cornfields surrounding the town, cut through me like a straight razor. I saw the town’s café directly ahead of me and shuffled toward it as quickly as I could without shattering my toes, which I was convinced were nothing more than ice cubes at the end of the feet I could not feel.
I walked into the café and felt the warmth of the air around me. I let it crawl over my skin and break through the cold that had chilled me to the bone. I walked to the counter, placed Grandpa’s hat on the surface and ordered a cup of coffee.
“I’ll have the same,” said a gravelly voice to my left.
I looked to my side and my Grandpa was sitting on the stool next to me. I had no idea when he got there or how, but there he was, in all his gruff, leathery glory. The restaurant was slow, with us being the only two patrons plus a few bored employees who paid us little mind. Two coffees were set in front of us as Grandpa picked up his hat off the counter.
“I’m so glad you brought this,” he said as he reached into it and pulled a piece of the lining aside. He withdrew a crushed, flattened, and weathered pack of cigarettes from the hat then looked at me with a sly half-smile. My grandpa rarely broke into a full-fledged smile, so to see just a corner of his mouth turn upward as a glimmer of light danced across his eye was the rough equivalent of seeing a four year old gain access to a full cookie jar with no adults around to stop them. He lit a cigarette with a match from a gas station book and immediately fired jets of thick blue-gray smoke from his prominent nostrils. It mesmerized me when I was a kid and I imagined Grandpa to be some kind of dragon in bib overalls, and I found it no less hypnotic as an adult.
We made small talk over coffee. I asked him how Baltimore was and he told me it was hell on earth and should be avoided at all costs. I nodded and told him that sounded like solid advice, even though I knew he never left the airport. He asked me how Florida was and then he told me a story about the time he picked oranges there and used them to bribe state troopers at the truck scales on his way back to Illinois. I listened and pretended it was the first time I’d heard it, as is my generation’s version of respecting our elders. I told him I miss him and he awkwardly nodded and drank his coffee, as is his generation’s version of showing their emotions.
Twenty minutes later, our coffee mugs drained, I stood and reached for my wallet but he stopped me and insisted on paying, I allowed him under the condition that I got to leave the tip. I did so not because I wanted to divvy up the spending, but because I know that Grandpa’s idea of what constituted a good tip stopped evolving in 1967 and I suspected that even the afterlife wouldn’t have brought enough enlightenment to him to change that.
Grandpa placed his iconic hat on his head, earflap forever hanging at an angle off the side of his head, and dropped a few dollars on the counter. I looked in my wallet for the tip as Grandpa crushed out his cigarette. In my periphery, I noticed that as the last wisps of cigarette smoke disappeared into the air, so did he. I looked around the restaurant, but he was nowhere, gone as suddenly as he had arrived. I looked at the counter to see the pair of empty coffee cups, a few ragged looking dollar bills, and a crushed out cigarette in an ashtray. I threw a couple more dollars on the counter, simultaneously feeling curious as to how a ghost was able to carry cash and feeling flattered at the fact that he spent it on me. I walked out into the cold, feeling warm despite my lack of a hat.
When you live in Florida, opening your front door means more than going outside. It means you’re inviting the bizarre nature of this place to interact with you. Past the givens of the climate, like near-unbreathable humid air, heat that hits you like a blast furnace, and prehistoric bugs, you never know what manner of lunatic scenario is waiting to greet you. No matter how routine your morning may be within the walls of your home, it was all up for grabs once you opened your front door.
I went about my morning as I usually do, rolling cigarettes and brewing a pot of coffee that was as black as my heart. I put the first of my bent and twisted rolls of tobacco in a holder clenched between my teeth and lit it with a wooden match, as a right-good gentleman of Florida is groomed to do. I poured the contents of the coffee pot into an oversized mug that read “World’s Dumbest Ass”, a charming birthday gift from my gaggle of children. Smoke curled from my nostrils as I slowly released my breath, preparing myself for the inevitably strange. I opened the door and was greeted with a living wall that reflected blinding pink light straight into my face.
Slowly my pupils adjusted and reopened, revealing a mob of flamingos stretching across my property, crowding nearly every single square inch of outdoors on my half-acre lot. It was literally an uncountable number of birds. They stood on my lawn, flower beds, lined the tree branches, stood on our cars, our mailbox, and sat on powerlines. They squawked and fluttered their wings, turning their heads on those lanky pink noodles that pass for their necks to stare at me as I stepped out onto my porch. This was not even in the ballpark of the oddest thing I’d ever found on my lawn, but it was, by far, the pinkest.
“A plague,” a voice from within the mass of pink feathers called out.
“Oh, for fucks sake,” I muttered to myself, recognizing the voice immediately. It was the wizard who used to sell me weed.
“A plague upon your house, Master Rood.”
The source of the babbling stepped slowly out of the flock, attempting a dramatic reveal without realizing that his shouting nonsense about a plague had already given him away. The sea of feathers parted, as if on cue, and revealed him. The wizard stepped forward and approached me while packing the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe, not noticing the pile of flamingo shit he stepped in on his way to the porch. His standard-issue wizard hat stood higher than I’d ever seen it, due to its not being restrained by the roof of the AMC Gremlin he lived in. He wore a ragged, beard that hung to the rope belt at his waist.
“What is this thing, now?” I asked flatly when he finally got to me.
“You’ve been telling people not to buy from me,” the wizard said, “and so I have brought this plague upon your house.”
“Plague?” I said. “I thought plagues were supposed to be locusts and toads and such.”
“Yes, well, it’s not quite Biblical, but…” He looked down at his pipe.
“So you got high and decided that would be the perfect time to try your hand at some Wrath of God kind of shit. Fantastic.”
“Actually,” he said, “I think this turned out perfectly: the biggest flock of flamingos in the world all in your yard? This makes you the biggest piece of white trash on the block!”
“I didn’t need these birds to claim that title,” I said.
The wizard went on to explain that he’d caught wind of treachery and betrayal by me. He’d heard that I had been in Rooster’s Lounge telling people not to buy weed, make deals, or engage with him anymore. All of these things were true… sort of: A future version of me showed up there one day and warned me about side effects and consequences from dealing with a grungy wizard and his magical pot who lived in a condemned car behind a condemned bingo hall… but that’s a story for another day.
Point being, the wizard lighting his pipe in front of me and holding his first toke for an impressive period of time had heard about the incident, but was not clear on the details enough to understand that the version of me with the warning didn’t even exist yet and may never exist at all so long as I heeded his warning. He also didn’t understand that the person Nonexistent Future Me was warning was Present Day Me, whom he was currently plagueing.
“I think you’re confused,” I said.
“I think you’re an asshole,” he responded, his voice wheezy, coughing, and weak as he let out his smoke.
“So you just put stoner plagues on people you think are assholes?”
“Pretty much,” he said. The hand that held his pipe extended itself toward me. “Want a toke?”
I started to reach for it.
No, no, no, you dumbass. When’s the last time this douchebag offered you a deal that was win-win?
I had a good point. Getting high with this shitbird wasn’t going to make him go away. I put my hands up, palms facing him.
“No thanks, dude,” I said, “I’m sticking with hugs, not drugs.”
I extended my arms wide and cocked my head with a smile.
“Come on, big guy. Bring it in.”
“Fuck you,” he said as he stormed off. As he approached the flock, he spread his arms wide and the flock parted, making a path for him. He fled my yard like a petty, stoned Moses, fleeing the Pharaoh’s army… if Moses had been mad about Pharaoh buying weed from someone else. He disappeared into the flock. The sound of a door slamming and an ancient starter laboring cut through the morning air. Eventually, the motor came to life; not with a roar, more of a groggy realization of consciousness, like a coma patient coming out of its fog. The car revved a few times, found a gear, and started moving, the sound of it soon lost to distance and the honking of a hundred trillion flamingos on my lawn.
I sat on the faux-wrought-iron bench on our porch and watched the birds as I pondered my options. If I did nothing, steered clear of the wizard and his weed as I had been doing, then Nonexistent Future Me would continue to be nonexistent, never come back and warn me, so word would never get to the wizard, and I would not be plagued.
But if Nonexistent Future Me doesn’t ever exist, how will I know to steer clear of the wizard and his weed? I won’t, and so I’ll indulge, the side effects will happen, and Nonexistent Future Me will come back and warn me.
“I’m not used to waking up to this.” From behind me, Patsy’s voice snapped me out of my examination of the paradox. “Most guys just bring flowers.”
“You should know by now that I’m not most guys,” I said.
“Oh, I’m fully aware,” she said, sitting down next to me. She leaned into my shoulder and curled her feet up to the bench seat. We sat in peace, watching the pink avian mob on our lawn. I soon settled into enjoying them and reflected on how, despite the efforts of its residents, Florida’s lunatic moments could be very peaceful and relaxing on occasion.
“Seems to me this would be a great day for us to call in sick and watch the birds,” Patsy said, clinking her mug against mine.
“Any chance ‘watch the birds’ is a euphemism for something else?” I asked hopefully.
It was not.
(please pardon me… I’m taking a break from my usual nonsense to bring you something a little different this time)
I have this friend who is nine kinds of oblivious. Not necessarily to what is going on around her, but about who the fuck she is. She has no idea, but she’s the candle in the darkened room… if only she could see it.
Oh, she sees the light. She’s aware that there is a light source in the room, she just doesn’t realize that it’s her. She sees the world as a dark, depressing version of itself and she feels sad and defeated, but just can’t bring herself to surrender. She can’t give up because of the light she sees, which is her inability to surrender… due to the light… which is her… It’s a vicious circle of the greatest kind.
She wants to surrender. She wishes she could surrender. She wants to throw her hands in the air and say that it’s all fucking pointless and it’s all fucking bullshit and the world’s a nihilist’s fucking paradise… but she can’t. She’s too optimistic for that and there’s no such thing as an optimistic nihilist. If there was a way to break that paradox, she would surely be the one to do it, but there’s not. She’s an optimist in denial, but we all see it.
Instead of surrendering to the darkness, she cocoons herself and regroups, bringing all the strength she can muster from any source she can find. She is a warrior poet. She is a Viking berserker. She takes on the darkness of the world head-on, no time for pussyfooting around with passive-aggressive bullshit. She charges with new-found strength and tears the darkness a new asshole, through which more light can show through.
She is all the good things, my friend. She is cats and weed and science fiction optimism, finding her smiles in those things and in friends. I sit in a circle with these friends of hers, friends who are won over by her light as I am, and we pass the joint. I let it pass me, neglecting to take a direct hit due to over a decade of sobriety, but I indulge via the Secondhand-Smoke Loophole, inhaling deeply and holding it infinitely in an attempt to make my brain swim and find my friend’s wavelength without losing my chip.
My friend is younger than me, but she’s who I want to be when I grow up. She’s the stone thrown into a pond, whose ripples affect everything they touch, inspiring others to be better. She is the one who will make a difference for the world. She is the one who will win the day.
She is the candle in the darkened room… if only she could see it.
“I’m searching for my spirit animal,” I said.
“Why?” the bearded lady asked.
“I feel like I need a spiritual guide.”
“And you want an animal?”
“Isn’t that how it works?” I asked. “Power animals? Spirit animals? No one talks about spirit people.”
“Sure they do, honey,” she responded, “they’re called ghosts.”
My fingers massaged my eyes behind my glasses as I tried to release the tension this conversation had started. I’d walked into the North Fort Myers double-wide because the sign in the window promised “other worldly advice” and I was in need of guidance. Once I was engaged in conversation with this hookah-smoking bearded lady, however, I started to think I’d have been better off taking advice from a newspaper horoscope.
“I can read your cards,” she offered, motioning across the room to a TV tray covered with mismatched sets of Tarot cards. It looked like the bookshelf in my boyhood home that was filled with board games, most of which were missing pieces, cards, dice, and rules; a hodge-podge of contest fragments that often resulted in made up rules, fist fights, and sobbing. With that in mind, I could only imagine the catastrophic results of a Tarot reading from something similar. I thanked her for her time, threw a crumpled ten-dollar bill on the table and walked out the door.
I set across the vacant lot next to the trailer where my car was parked. For the first time, I noticed a small perch that marked the home of a burrowing owl and the reason this lot was empty. More than occasionally in Florida, one could find these small birds sitting upon these perches and watching passersby with suspicion as passersby watched them with fascination.
Out of the hole at the base of the perch leapt a tiny owl who found his seat upon it. “Are you looking for me?” it asked..
“Why… would I be looking for you? I can see burrowing owls almost any time I want to.”
“I hear you’re looking for a power animal.”
“Then I would like to offer my services.”
“You’re hired,” I said.
“Excellent! I can start right away.”
We stood for a moment in an awkward silence.
“So…,” I wanted to get the advice train rolling, “what kind of… um, guidance… do you have for me?”
The owl craned his neck almost all the way around, looking for people who might try to get in on our pow-wow.
“Not here,” he said, and he leapt back down into his burrow.
“Wait!” I screamed down the hole. “Wait! I can’t fit down there! Don’t leave me!”
I dropped to my knees and frantically started digging. The Florida sun hammered me and sweat poured off of me. I felt light and dizzy and weaker by the second, as if I was wasting away to nothing, but still I kept digging. I hadn’t felt this terrified of being left behind since my parents had “forgotten” me at a rest stop in Iowa when I was six… but that’s a story for another day.
I looked down to see a stream of my sweat flowing like a river down into the owl’s burrow. I did a double-take as I looked at my hands to find they were melting. My whole body was liquefying and joining the stream that was flowing down into the owl’s world and soon, there was nothing of me left above ground except a pile of clothes and a pair of Chucks.
Below ground, I slowly rose from a puddle under the opening to the underground dwelling. The burrow was surprisingly roomy, giving me room to stand up and stretch. I was naked and confused, but happy to be intact… basically the same state of affairs I find myself in most Sunday mornings.
The owl had perched himself on a mound of dirt and hopped down to the ground and past me, motioning with his wing that I should follow him down a winding tunnel. It smelled a bit musty, but it was cool and free of humidity. It was much like a classic basement in that way, complete with infinite stacks of books, records, comics, and random papers that rose up from the floor. Torches lined the walls of the tunnel in place of fake wood paneling, but otherwise, the subterranean rec room feel was spot-on.
“How long have you been down here?” I asked.
“40 years,” he responded.
“Hey, I know this one,” I said as I picked up a John Prine Common Sense album off one of the piles. “You got a turntable? We should play this.”
“Please put it back,” Owl commanded, “you’ll muck up my filing system.”
We pressed on into the tunnel. I didn’t have much sense of direction, but it was obvious the tunnels were taking us deep underground. The further down we went, the further the torches on the wall were spaced, casting long shadows on the walls around us.
“Is someone burning incense?” I asked, sniffing the air.
“Who would that be? It’s just us down here.”
“I smell it. Maybe it’s in one of these side caves.” I motioned to the openings in the side of the tunnel that surely led to other parts of this underground network.
“Pay no mind to those,” Owl said, “they go nowhere. They’re merely echo chambers and nightmare factories.”
I turned to ask him what he meant, but as soon as my eyes focused on him, the torch behind him went out, snuffed like a birthday candle by a cold wind that cut through the tunnel.
“If you want to learn to navigate this place on your own, you’ve got to simplify things.” I looked up ahead in the tunnel and saw him on the ground in a circle of candles. “Less clutter. Less side tunnels. Less danger.”
“More clothes?” I asked. “May I have more clothes?”
I felt a pinch on my shoulder, claws digging into it. The candles surrounding Owl all went out simultaneously. I turned my head to see him perched on my shoulder.
“This path you need,” it was Owl, digging his talons into my shoulder, “is the simple one. It’s straightforward. It’s uncomplicated.”
“I don’t even need a lot of clothes,” I said. “You got a pair of pants? Maybe a kilt?”
Owl turned to liquid and was absorbed smoothly into my shoulder.
Stay on the main path, Owl’s voice echoed in my head as my beard morphed from hair to feathers and spread out from my face. The rest of him shot out of my chest and neck and he took off like a bullet down the tunnel.
“See you at the end,” he screamed as he disappeared into the shadows cast by dying torches.
And then he was gone. I stood in a dark tunnel alone, naked, disoriented, and, for the first
time in over a decade, clean-shaven. I looked in the direction the Owl had flown and realized that was probably the direction to go in. So I did.
I took a torch from the wall and continued on the winding path, going further and further underground. Side tunnels came along every so often and I would occasionally peek into them and hear the echoes as I called into them. Cavernous and vacant, they did nothing but fill themselves with my voice until it bounced back into the darkness.
I walked on and crossed land bridges that stretched over underground rivers. I climbed through root systems of trees which rained down from the cavern ceilings above. I fell down steep embankments and pissed off of cliffs. I was exploring depths that I never knew existed. I felt alive. I felt adventurous. I felt… lost.
Where the fuck is the path?
I couldn’t find the path. The trail, the way out, was lost to me. I’d gotten turned around somewhere. I didn’t even know where I’d stumbled off of it.
Was it when I fell off that ledge and got road-rash on my ass? Or was it where I tripped and hit my balls on that rock? And why do I always get injured around my crotch area? Okay, stay calm. Call for your guide. That’s what he’s here for.
“Owl!” I shouted into the darkness. “Owl, where are you?!”
I got no response except my own voice in echo form.
Great spirit guide… He leads me deep underground and then abandons me. At least the bearded lady had cards and probably would have gotten me high.
I shouted for Owl, but my voice was all that answered. It wasn’t, however, the echo of me shouting for Owl, it was the voices I had shouted into the side tunnels and caverns on my way down. All of the previous noises and random profanities I had screamed into the caves had made their way through the depths of those tunnels and ended up bouncing around the stone and dirt walls that surrounded me, creating an infinite loop of my own voice.
Loose gravel started rolling down hills and walls started crumbling as the sound of my voice pummeled them. Boulders, rocks, and clumps of dirt and mud tumbled down and crashed all around me. My stupid, echoing voice droned on above the sound of the avalanche it was creating. My own voice drove me mad and was actively trying to kill me.
Turn into liquid. Turn into liquid like you did before. Your skull can’t be crushed if it’s liquid, it can only be splashed. Turn into liquid. How the fuck did I turn into liquid? Fuck me, I can’t be liquid! I’m solid! I’m fucking solid!
The ground beneath me cracked, broke up completely, and gave way to a huge empty space below it. I fell, letting go of my dying torch and reaching out for a stray tree root that was revealed when stone crumbled away. I grabbed it and hung there as my echoing voice drained from the chamber into the huge void around me.
I looked down and saw stars. Millions of stars dotted the sky… below me?
Why is the sky below me?
It was space. Space was below me because I’d reached the end. I had traveled to the bottom of the world and fallen through. I’d wandered too far and was now being cast out into space by my own shouted profanities and need to make noise.
“You talk too much,” said Nearly Everyone I’d Known In My Entire Life. They spoke it all at once in my head, a pile of specially selected memories stacked neatly on top of one another for the sake of my limited time.
“Stay on the simple path. Stay on the simple path. It’ll be good for you.” Owl, you douchebag. You left me alone on the simple path and it killed me. Thanks a lot. Worst. Spirit guide. Ever.
Something flew toward me from the tunnel, picking up speed as it came toward me, and hurtling toward the vacuum of space behind me. I caught a glimpse of the flat surface of the square as it flew past my head at the speed of the Concorde. It was an LP. It was John Prine’s Common Sense.
I looked up just in time to see a tidal wave of stuff bearing down on me. It was made up of books, papers, comics, drawings, records, CDs, images of past arguments, beer cans, 3D glasses, photographs, liquor bottles, lawnmower parts, and an insane amount of canvas tennis shoes. Everything that had been an immovable obstacle on the way here was now an unstoppable force about to launch me into the void.
The wave hit me with the force of a dynamite blast, knocking me from the root that was my safety line. I flew backward, surrounded by all the things that defined me. As we flew further and further from the globe, the mass of stuff started to break up, leaving me floating through space with nothing… not even noise.
The breath I held was being exhausted and I felt my lungs starting to strain. I looked up and saw Owl flying swiftly and silently directly for my face. I waited for him to pull up and land gently near me. He did not. Owl flew straight into my face with the force I hadn’t felt since I caught a snap kick to the face at Sensei Travis’ High Flying Kicks of Fury Dojo during my first and final karate lesson. Owl formed himself back into my beard, and I heard his voice in my head.
My head stopped spinning after a second and I was able to focus on the big blue marble that was Earth. It floated in the void just as I did. At that moment, we were just two bodies flying around a space fireball together. We were separated and connected by the space between us. I saw it all as it was. I smiled and my vision faded to black…
I woke up on the bong-water stained shag carpeting of the medium’s double-wide trailer. I was surrounded by Tarot cards, bird bones, and trinkets and knick-knacky bullshit. The bearded lady saw me sitting up and looked noticeably relieved.
“Thank God you’re alive,” she said, “I was afraid I’d have to ask my brother for another favor.”
I found my feet and rose to meet full consciousness. It seemed like I should have asked what had happened, why I’d passed out, and what exactly her brother was going to do if I wasn’t alive, but I didn’t. I didn’t care. I still don’t care. Nothing that happened was anywhere near as interesting as what I had experienced while unconscious. I simply reached into my pocket, pulled out a ten-dollar bill, threw it on her table, and walked out.
Where the hell are my pants?
That is a question asked under very specific circumstances in life. You may pose it to a dry cleaner that has misplaced your clothes or ask it rhetorically as you search through piles of unfolded laundry on your couch while running late for work. When the circumstances for that question involve awaking from a drunken blackout in a holding cell, however, it becomes a question you’re not sure you want the answer to. Hangovers and jail cells were well-trodden territory for me, so my lack of pants trumped the standard “how did I get here” question that would be asked by those more pedestrian to this situation.
I sat upright on the bench I had slept on, attempting to ignore the symphony of cracks, pops, and shooting pains sounding off from my joints as I rose. A sliver of consciousness became clear enough to improvise an agnostic prayer for my mind to get right soon: We all know I’m going to do this again, so I won’t insult anyone with that empty promise. I just need a little help if you can manage it.
“Oh, you’re alive.”
A voice from my right side surprised me and cut off my selfish prayer the way a fart in church would cut off an actual prayer.
“I guess,” I replied. I looked at the floor and waited for the cell to stop spinning before trying to focus on identifying my roommate.
“I honestly wondered. You hadn’t moved since they brought you in here. I was worried that you’d start to smell soon.”
I turned to face the voice of concern and immediately wondered if I was still drunk, still dreaming, or in some kind of odd purgatory. He stood in the corner of the cell, leaning against the bars that cut us off from the outside world. He wore a green suit that was immaculately tailored to his small frame, yet worn casually; his jacket open, his tie loosened, his feet bare. It was the look of a gentleman whose night on the town had provided him with a story to tell… except that he wasn’t a man. He was a monkey.
“Darwin,” he stated, walking toward me with a furry paw extended. I shook it.
“I’m Phil,” I put on my best hangover manners, “nice to meet you.”
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a soft pack of unfiltered cigarettes, shaking it until a couple loose smokes peeked out of the opening in the top. He took one in his mouth and offered one to me, which I accepted and he lit with a wooden match.
“What are you in for?” I asked.
“Apparently,” he replied, “I’m not evolved enough to drink in certain establishments in this town. How about yourself?”
He nodded and smiled as he climbed up and sat on the bench next to me. We smoked in silence for several minutes until I took a drag on my cigarette, turned to him and opened my mouth to speak, but didn’t know where to start.
“Yes,” he started for me, “I can talk.”
“And you’re a monkey.”
“Agreed,” he said. “I am, indeed, a monkey.”
“Right,” I said. “So are you an evolved monkey, or a devolved human?” I asked.
“You and I are in the same place right now: jail. I’m wearing a suit, and you have no idea where your pants are, yet your assumption is that you’re more advanced than I.”
“So based on clothes, you assume you’re more highly evolved than me?” I countered.
At that moment, the cigarette I held burned down to where my fingers held it and singed my skin. I yelled a half dozen curse words and threw it across the cell, watching as it exploded against the wall in a shower of orange sparks.
“No, not based on clothes,” Darwin’s reply was as dry as the martinis that had landed him in our cell.
He took a final drag off his cigarette and flicked it without looking, sending it sailing across the cell after mine. It left an arc of curling smoke trailing off the cherry burning at the end of the butt and landed perfectly in the stainless steel toilet that was bolted to the wall.
He asked me if I’d gotten my phone call yet and I told him that they usually called my wife to come get me whenever they brought me in to dry out. He raised an eyebrow at the thought of me being in the tank so often that my wife was on speed dial.
“Hey, I don’t judge you for publicly masturbating,” I said.
“Nor should you. I’m a monkey.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
A cop entered the holding area carrying a cup of coffee that he set on the food tray opening of the gate. From across the cell, the name “PHIL” could clearly be read on the mug.
“Oh good, you’re awake,” the cop said to me. “Patsy’s on her way. We told her to bring pants again.”
“Thanks, Frank,” I replied, getting up to fetch my coffee. Darwin sidled up next to me and eyed the cop through the bars. “Can you bring a cup in for my friend here too?”
“Fuck that guy,” Frank replied. “He bit me when we fingerprinted him.”
I looked at Darwin, who looked up from lighting another cigarette with a gleam of mischief in his eye. Frank the Cop turned to walk away and told me he’d come get me as soon as Patsy got there. I watched him leave the holding area and turned back to my roommate, who grinned from ear to ear. I asked him why so smug and from behind his back, his curly tail revealed itself. Dangling from the end of it was a ring of comically oversized jailor’s keys, lifted directly off of Frank’s belt.
His tail shot between the bars and jammed the key into the lock as though he did it a hundred times a day. With a flick of his tail the lock sprung open with a metallic pop and the gate swung wide on squeaking hinges.
“Ready to get the hell out of here?” Darwin asked me, motioning to the open door as if to say “after you”.
“My wife is on her way,” I said.
“Perfect. She can give us a ride.”
“But I don’t need to escape,” I argued, “I’m not charged with anything.”
“If you want to be known as the guy who stayed in an open jail cell, effectively holding himself on the merits of the Honor System, you go right ahead,” he called out as he exited the cell.
Well when you put it like that, I’d be stupid not to leave.
We wandered out of the cellblock and through a couple odd hallways and cubicle farms, the kind of bureaucratic labyrinth you only find in government buildings and the erotic dreams of corporate middle management. We found an unmarked exit, went through it and found ourselves in an alley, free as a couple of birds. No alarms. No searchlights. No barking German Shepherds. It would go down in history as the most anti-climactic jailbreak of all time.
As soon as we were on the sidewalk, Patsy’s roadster careened around a corner and came into view on her way to pick me up. Darwin and I stopped under the block’s lone street light and watched the car approach. As Patsy drove by, our eyes met and she watched as
Darwin and I both waved at her. Patsy’s brake lights lit up and she pulled a tire-squealing U-turn as she swung her car around and pulled up to the curb in front of us. Darwin and I leapt into the car as Patsy hit the gas and took off from the curb without ever really having stopped, a reflex to the insistent howling of “go, go, go!” by Darwin and me.
“Did you bring pants?” I asked.
“You’re welcome,” Patsy answered dryly, reminding me of the existence of manners.
I thanked her for being an accessory to a jailbreak (even though it wasn’t super-meaningful since I had not been formally charged with anything) and introduced her to Darwin, who offered his paw to her.
“Salutations,” he said.
“Charmed,” Patsy replied.
We sped through the near-abandoned streets of pre-dawn Cape Coral. As I explained the events that had just happened, leaving out a large portion of the night that I just plain didn’t remember, she drove even faster, eager to get as far away from the drama as possible. Patsy drove to a nature preserve, as directed by Darwin, and we got there just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. As soon as we came to a stop, Darwin jumped over the windshield and scurried over the hood.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said as he leapt to the ground, “tell them I kidnapped you.”
He ran for the tree line, reaching into his jacket for his cigarettes as he ran. There was a visible spark in the subtle morning light, a puff of smoke, and then Darwin was gone.
“Nice guy, huh?” I said.
“I’m just glad you’re making friends,” she responded. “Want to go to breakfast?”
“I’d love to,” I said, “but I left my wallet in my pants.”
Steam from the pot filled my flaring nostrils and delivered the odor of burnt coffee straight to my brain. Even by the low culinary standards of the convenience store industry, this java was long overdue to be changed. Perhaps the only things older than the coffee were the ancient hot dogs, infinitely spinning on that weird roller thing and waiting for the End of Days in hopes that they may be reborn as a higher form of sausage, like a bratwurst. It was food far past its prime, to be sure, but if one paid attention to the smells that permeated the atmosphere of the store, one could adjust their expectations accordingly.
I poured the burnt coffee into my cup, which was actually a small vase I had grabbed on my way out of my house that morning. An empty vessel I brought in with me meant it was a refill and would keep me from getting charged for a new cup. It was the most thought out thing I’d managed to do in what felt like an eternity.
The haze and fog that occupied my head were cut by the burnt coffee smell and a glimpse of the coherent world was let in. Wheels started turning as I began to try to get a handle on everything when I turned around and almost ran into an old woman standing directly behind me.
She was a haggard-looking homeless woman I had seen around town, mostly in alleys behind businesses, rummaging through dumpsters and trashcans. Under a wrap that was
somewhere between a blanket and a shawl, she wore a ragged dress and mismatched shoes: an engineer boot on the left foot and a cowboy boot whose ostrich skin hide looked almost as tough as her own on the right. Her hair was silver and wiry and hung over large sections of her face, obscuring the left side almost completely. An unfiltered cigarette in a long holder stuck out the right side of her mouth, clenched in the few teeth she possessed. A trail of smoke rolling off the end of the cigarette kept her head enveloped in a halo of toxic haze.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” I apologized, still jarred and fighting to make sense of things. “Where did you come from?”
“I’ve always been here,” she replied calmly. She exhaled smoke forcefully through her nostrils, reminiscent of a bull keeping a matador at bay.
“Always?” I asked.
“Not literally always,” she replied.
“Since I’ve had to be.”
I pondered her answer for a time. My head already cloudy, her cryptic answers were not helping matters…at first. Then the clouds parted. It was as though the two confusing elements worked in concert to achieve clarity, like two negative numbers multiplying to become a positive.
“What day is it?” I blurted out.
“It’s yesterday,” she replied, still calm.
“Oh, shit!” I said. “Shit, I’m so late!”
“Late for what?” the woman asked.
“I was supposed to have a doctor’s appointment three days ago…which, I guess, is just two days ago now…right? Anyway, I missed it! I missed it, and I needed to go!”
“Calm yourself, Phil,” she said, taking a step toward me. “You made it.”
“I made what?”
“You made it to your appointment.”
“You did,” she replied. “You made it to your appointment, answered all the doctor’s questions, and she prescribed some anti-everything drugs for you, which you promptly started taking.”
“I’m on drugs?” I asked.
“You’re on medication,” she said. “It’s still settling in.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“I have a gift,” she said, reaching up to the hair that hung in her face. “I know what has already happened.”
She pulled her hair back and revealed her left eye to me. It was completely white with a jagged scar that ran down the length of her face. It stared at me with no emotion, yet it wasn’t lifeless.
“I can see,” she continued in a raspy, overly dramatic whisper. “The past!”
“The prophecies were right,” I said, referring to the calendar full of appointments on my phone. “But what do I do now? I’m stuck in yesterday. I don’t even know how I got here! I want to go back. I need to get back. I need to get back to today.”
“Let the medicine help you, but don’t let it take your present away,” she said. “Leave the bean alone and sleep today. Sleep the sleep of a thousand lazy hound dogs and when you wake, you will find tomorrow and know it as Today.”
I stared at her.
“Sleep!” she shouted.
My hand opened and the vase full of coffee dropped to the chipped tile of the floor, landing in an explosion of black coffee and microscopic shards of glass. I followed the vase to the floor, dropping out of conscious instantaneously and sleeping as a thousand hound dogs would.
I woke up in my bed. I had no idea how I got there, and I really didn’t care. The events of my trip to the store were crystal clear in my head. I had done the thing prescribed by the chain-smoking homeless woman and gotten sleep. I sat up and found my phone on the nightstand to check the date.
Thank the gods, I thought, it’s today. It won’t be yesterday until tomorrow. The Natural Order has been restored.
I took my medicine and walked out of the bedroom. Patsy was in the kitchen and had just brewed a pot coffee. Perfect. It wasn’t burned or anything. It was good to be back in today.
Patsy filled me in on the rest of the events that occurred after my witchcraft-induced narcolepsy had taken hold. Apparently, she had picked me up at the store after they had called her to tell her I collapsed and had been babbling in my sleep about “homeless tomorrow hounds”. She had spoken to my doctor, who had set her mind at ease about side effects and the fact that they would pass.
Patsy told me all this as she searched cupboards and ended her story by asking me if I knew where a certain vase was. I told her “no” and then proceeded to tell her of the events (sans vase) that preceded the ones she had just told me of. She listened patiently and nodded, punctuating her reactions from time to time with “uh-huh” and “really” to let me know she was on board with the story. Truth be told, I could tell she was skeptical about everything, up to (and including) the vase I was lying about.
She doesn’t believe me, I thought, but that’s okay. She hasn’t really been herself lately. Maybe I’ll talk to her about this again someday, when she doesn’t have the head and arms of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.