The Judas Goat

Lincoln copy

Blanketed with snow, the farmland was little more than a hazy white blur as I sped down the rural county road that cut through it.  I drove this forgotten corner of southern Indiana in silence as the radio was broken, my thoughts accompanied only by the hum of my tires on the blacktop.  The car I drove had been my grandfather’s and had become my ride home following his funeral in Illinois and a family dispute over who would be forced to inherit this machine that was only slightly smaller than the average aircraft carrier.  While it seemed odd to me that no one wanted a car that seemed to be in perfect working order, despite my grandpa’s claim that the left turn signal was faulty, so I took it.  Once I was on the road, I figured out why.  Not only was the in-dash cassette deck no longer en vogue, the gas bill for this behemoth was likely to have cleaned out my bank account by the time I got it to my driveway in Florida.  I’d dropped a small fortune filling the tank before I left my hometown and was alarmed to find that it wouldn’t even get me out of the state before it needed to be topped off again.  It was as if this car’s sole mission was to single-handedly annihilate the environment.  With this in mind, it was no surprise to me that, as I approached the Kentucky border, I was in need of gasoline.  I wasn’t in the red or anything, but I had always heard that Kentuckians fueled their vehicles with grain alcohol, so I thought I should probably get gas before entering a state where it might be tough to find.

I saw a small, run down gas station ahead of me and decided that was as good a place as any.  I pulled over and stopped beside an antique gas pump that sat in front of the run-down and rusty aluminum siding building.  The structure looked as if a good breeze would push it completely over, and the owners seemed to be trying to prevent that from happening by piling as much crap around it as possible.  At least a dozen cars in various states of disassembly littered the property, as did stacks of tires, an RV that may or may not have been a functioning meth lab, a pile of hubcaps, various 55-gallon drums riddled with bullet holes, and a car that was hooked up to a tow truck that was hooked up to larger tow truck.  It was a menagerie of automotive decay.

I stepped out of the car and saw two men in coveralls by the front door.  One of them was tall and fat and the other was tall and skinny.  Both had beady eyes, but while the skinny one’s darted around suspiciously with a hint of paranoia, the fat one’s stared straight ahead, glassy and vacant.

Attendants copy

“Do I just pre-pay inside, or-,” I started as I walked toward them.

“We’ll take care of ya,” the skinny one said, tapping fat guy on the shoulder and snapping him out of whatever glue-sniffing haze his head was in.  The fat guy walked directly to the pump as if it was what he’d been programmed for and someone had just hit his “on” switch.

As I approached the door of the building, I saw a goat staked to the ground behind aJudas Snow copy  stack of bullet-riddled tires, it had been invisible from the road.  It nosed through the muddy snow and slush in search of some grass to eat.  I looked at it for a long second and then one of its eyes slowly rotated in its socket to meet mine.

“Don’t pay that stubborn beast no mind,” said the skinny gas station guy as he opened the door to walk inside. “Same goes for the goat.  Eats are inside if yer hungry.”

“Thanks.”

I broke the hypnotic gaze of the goat and walked inside.  Despite being a sunny day, it was shadowy and gray inside the building.  The glass door was so filthy that it kept most of the sunlight out, leaving the illumination duties to the sole fluorescent light that flickered, hummed, and buzzed to the point of being nearly seizure-inducing.  There was a coffee pot and a couple sad looking racks of long-neglected snack foods inside. I grabbed a couple bags of expired potato chips, a candy bar, and filled a foam cup with coffee that was much thicker than anything classified as a liquid should be.  I put a lid on the cup, trying to ignore the faint scent of roofing tar that came from it, as my need for caffeine outweighed my normal dietary restrictions that stopped me from ingesting construction materials.

I got to the cash register and saw a jar full of slender cigars next to it.  I grabbed a half-dozen and put them on the pile with the rest of my junk, creating essentially the unhealthiest cornucopia in the history of anything.  The skinny attendant sat on a stool behind the counter smoking a cigarette.  I glanced at his coveralls and noticed a patch where his name should be, but instead there was simply a question mark stitched onto it.  I wanted to write it off as an artistic flair this guy was feeling; like he probably went by “The Gas Station Attendant Formally Known as Burt”, but he wasn’t sure enough about it, so he went with a question mark.

The fat, glue-sniffing guy entered the building and went directly to the cash register where he started ringing up everything as well as the gas he’d just pumped.  He pounded the cash register keys with all the finesse one could expect of a grizzly bear playing classical piano.  When he was finished totaling everything, he said nothing, just stared at me uncomfortably.  I looked at the cash register for my total, threw a few bills on the counter and gathered up my things.

“Adieu, gentlemen,” I said, walking toward the door.

“You do what?” the skinny one asked, lighting a fresh cigarette from the butt of his old one.

“I do need to get back on the road.” I walked through the door, back into the Midwestern winter.

Judas copyAs I walked back to my car, I looked over again at the goat, still nosing through the snow looking for green.  Again, its eye rolled over to look at me and we held a gaze for a moment.  I looked at the rope that held it to the ground and wondered if it would actually keep the goat in place if it decided to charge and head butt me.  With that in mind, I kept a cautious eye on the animal as I walked to my car and got in.

I drove in silence, sipping my coffee and eating stale potato chips until I came to a roadblock a couple miles later and a sign showing me a detour.  I put the car in park, opened the glove box and took out a map.

“What are you doing that for?” asked a voice from the passenger seat.  “Just follow the sign.  It tells you where to go.”

I looked over and saw the goat from the gas station sitting next to me.  His head was mostly forward, but his left eye was still turned in a way that fixed its gaze on me.“What…,” I began.  “What… what are you?  How?”

“Just follow the sign and you’ll be back on track soon,” the beast explained.  “I was born and raised here.  Trust the locals, my friend.”

“How did you,” I was still catching up to the reality of a goat riding shotgun.  “You weren’t here a minute ago.”

“Neither were you and this car,” he replied.  “You were back there.  Now you’re here.  Everyone arrives somewhere all the time.”

“You’re a goat.”

“You’re a man.”

“Why are you…”

“I needed to get out for a bit,” he said.  He motioned down the gravel road with his hoof.  “Just follow the detour sign and you’ll get where you’re going.”

I hesitated for a moment, wondering about how wise it was to take directions from a farm animal known for hitting things with its head.

“You’re not one of those dudes who are too insecure to take directions, are you?” the goat asked.

“No,” I said, immediately ashamed at my need to look cool in front of this goat.

“Then proceed when ready.”

He buried his head in the bag of potato chips.  Judging by his lack of success at finding grass this time of year, I didn’t blame him.  I made the left turn and tried to put the fact that I was taking directions from a goat out of my mind.

“So do you hitchhike a lot?” I asked.

“Nope,” he held up a hoof, “no thumbs.  Nice dashboard savior décor, by the way.”

“It was my grandparents’.”  I looked at the statue of Jesus that stood on the dashboard, silently observing, and likely judging, the conversation I was having with a farm animal.

“I’m a bit like Jesus,” the goat offered after a minute.

“Because of the beards?”

“No,” he said.

“Stakes?”

He looked at me quizzically, his bulbous eyes getting even more so.

“You know, stakes… big nails,” I explained.  “You were staked to the ground at the gas station.  He was staked-.”

“I got it,” the goat interrupted.  “I was just making a point that we were both born in barns.”

We drove in silence for a few minutes.  I contemplated whether or not a goat could rise from the dead and if, when it did, it would be able to roll the rock away from the entrance of the tomb by butting it with its head.  The goat ate the empty potato chip bag.Road Warriors copy“We need to stop,” the goat said suddenly.

“Why?,” I asked.  “You gotta piss?”

“Goats,” he said, “don’t ask to be let out to piss.  I want something to eat.”

“You just ate all my food and you’re hungry?”

“I just want like a salad or something,” he said.  “There’s no grass this time of year and those assholes expect that I can live off of dirty snow simply because that’s what took the place of the grass.”

“Watch your language,” I teased, “you’re a holy man.”

“Wrong on both counts,” he shot back.  “Please stop.  I need some greens, man!”

“I will stop and get you a salad in a little while,” I said, taking the car into a curvy stretch of road that snaked itself between patches of cornfield.

“I need one now,” he pleaded.

“How did you even get here anyway?” I asked.  The question had annoyed me since the discovery of this goat and now I needed an answer.  I would not be derailed by demands for salad.

“Can you-?”

“I didn’t let you in my car.  I didn’t even know you were in here.”

“Can you please- Can you-?” the goat was starting to motion forward with his hoof.

“I just looked up and you were here and eating all my food, and now you’re going to start making demands for more food and that I stop and burn all my gas looking for a restaurant that will serve me a take-out garden fresh salad in the middle of January inHeads Up copy southern Indiana?”

“Phil?”

What?!”

“Could you please not run me over?” the goat asked as he timidly pointed out the windshield.

I looked up and saw the goat–the same goat that sat next to me in the car–standing in the middle of the road as I came out of the curve.  He was staked to the ground and staring at me.  Screaming, I hit the brake pedal and tried to mash it through the floorboards.  I looked to my right and saw the goat next to me, screaming just as loud as I was.  I looked forward again, and he was there too.  He stared directly into my eyes with a blank expression on his goat face and waited for me to stop.

And I did.

The car came to a stop less than a foot from where the goat stood in the middle of the road.  I looked to my right again and saw that my passenger seat was empty.  Looking up I saw the goat was still standing in front of my car.  He lowered his head until his bulbous eyes peered at me from just above the faux-luxury hood ornament.  I looked at the passenger seat a third time and it was still vacant.  The back seat was vacant.  I was alone in the car and needed to sit still just to let that fact sink in.

The driver’s side window of the car imploded, showering me with tiny shards of glass, and snapping me out of my contemplation of solitude.  Something heavy flew past my face and landed on the passenger seat.  I looked over and saw that it was a rock the size of a housecat.  A pair of strong hands reached into the car, grabbed me by the coat and dragged me through the window.  I was thrown on the ground as soon as my legs had cleared the opening that had been the window.  I looked up to see that it was the fat, hazy gas station attendant who had dragged me from my car.  His eyes were still glassy and he stared blankly at me.

“What the fuck, man? Why didn’t you just open it?” I asked.  “It was open.  The handle, man, always try the handle first!”

He took a couple steps toward me and kicked me in the stomach, doubling me over and knocking the wind from me.

“Take it easy,” said the skinny attendant as he stepped around the back of the car puffing on a cigarette.

“Christ, you guys followed me out here to jack this car?  You know it gets terrible mileage, right?”

“Get in,” Question Mark said to his associate as he opened the driver’s side door.  “No, dumbass, we brought the dirt road through the field and got here ahead of you.”

The pair got in the car and the scrawny attendant yelled for at his partner for several minutes about the amount of glass in the upholstery.

“Hey,” I got to my feet and stumbled toward the car, “let me get my shit out of the trunk, will ya?  I’ve got my bag back there.  C’mon, man, don’t make me lose everything today.”

“About a quarter-mile down the road is a bridge over a creek.  I’ll leave your bag there,” he said as he put the car in gear.  “Also, you can keep the goat.”    There Goes My Lincoln copyThe engine roared and the wheels spun, spraying gravel in a giant rooster tail as the scrawny bastard stomped on the gas pedal and the steel behemoth took off like a bullet.  I looked at the goat, still staked to the road, and walked over to him. I pulled the stake that held him in place out of the ground, and started walking down the road in search of the bridge I hoped was actually there.  The goat followed.

The road was cold under my feet and I could feel it seeping through the worn soles of my combat boots.  I buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and thanked whatever powers control the weather that it was not windy, as the openness of the rural landscape would have enabled a cold breeze to cut me right in half.  I pulled one of the cigars from my pocket and lit it, puffing on smoke as I shuffled down the road, the goat directly behind me, dragging the metal spike by the rope still tied around his neck, a metallic ringing sounding with every rock the spike hit on the gravel road.  We were an odd attempt to be a literal realization of a train metaphor as we trudged forward.

Some time later, we came upon the bridge Question Mark had mentioned.  One of the famed covered bridges of Indiana postcard fame, it had once been painted red, but time and Midwestern winters had not been kind to it.  Grey and weathered wood was showing through the few rust-colored patches of paint that were left.  I found my pathetic looking and half-empty duffel bag sitting undisturbed on the side of the road next to where the bridge began.

“Looks like your owner is a thief of his word,” I said to the goat.  One of his eyes stayed fixed on me while the other rolled around in its socket.

Bag Claim copy

I went to pick up my bag and noticed a small object sitting on top of it.  I knelt down to inspect it closer and discovered it was the tiny Jesus statue from the dashboard of my grandparents’ car.  I looked to the goat, and he rotated his eyes to stare directly, back at me.  He calmly strolled over to me, opened his mouth and ate dashboard savior right out of my hand.  All he was missing now was thirty pieces of silver and a noose.

I sighed, heaved my duffel bag onto my shoulder, and looked through the structure that was the covered bridge.  It was snowing on the other side, despite the clear skies on the side where I stood and I could see the tracks my grandpa’s car had left in the freshly fallen white dust on the road.  I stepped onto the bridge and tried to ignore the creaking and cracking of the ancient wood as the full weight of my boots shifted onto it.  A few steps in, I heard hooves clopping against the boards as the goat followed me.  Maybe he needed a friend.  Maybe he thought I did.  Maybe he thought I would continue to feed him small statues of religious characters.  In any case, a long snowy road was ahead of me, and I was happy to have the company.

The Bridge copy

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Hey, That’s My Hat

(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.

Ghost Grandpa

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‘On the Road’ coming soon!

On the Road copy

I hadn’t exactly anticipated returning to this story blog again after last summer, but the recent completion of a very personal piece of writing I did made me realize that not only is this the perfect place for it to live, but that it has the potential to kick off a fun and interesting (to me, at least) new chapter of stories… so that’s what’s happening.  “Ink & Sunshine: On the Road” is kicking off this week and will follow my adventures as I travel from my hometown in Northern Illinois back to my current home in America’s Sideshow (Florida).

I’m very excited about this new collection of Ink & Sunshine stories, and I hope you’ll continue to read them, right here on the regular blog feed.  Thank you for bearing with my hiatus, and I hope to hear from you as stories start to populate this feed once again.

-Phil

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Plagued

Pink Flamingos

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.

Gonzo PhilI 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 Flamingo Laddermy 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.”

Wizard's Pipe“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. Trippy Wizard

“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! 

I paused. 

 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.”

Neck Knot“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.

Watching the Birds

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Candle

(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.

Cats and Weed

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.

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Double Wides & Spirit Guides

Crystal Hookah“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.”

“I am!”Owl Circle

“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.

MeltingI 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.

Owl BeardStay 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.Censored

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.

Tidal Wave

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.

Naked SpaceSimplify.

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.

Aftermath

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Darwin

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 at the Bar-300

“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?”

“Same.”

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.

Cellmates-300

“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.

Darwin laughed.

“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.

Keys-300

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.

Monkey on My Back-for webAs 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.

Speeding Down The Parkway-300

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.”

Mugshot-300

 

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