(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.
I’m not sure who recognized a demand for a hipster coffee shop in a town full of geriatric
tourists, but somewhere along the way, someone in Cape Coral, Florida did just that.
The Brew-Haha was established to fill a perceived need to service a demographic that barely existed in “The Cape”. It was located in a retail plaza, sandwiched between Sensei Travis’ High Flying Kicks of Fury Dojo and Sonny’s, a corporate-owned, outlaw biker-themed bar and grill. The resulting communal parking lot hoarded a mix of mini-vans, Harleys, electric cars, and fixed-gear bicycles. With diverse groups of white people living and socializing in harmony, it truly was a marvelous display of the melting pot that is Cape Coral.
One Wednesday evening, I journeyed to The Brew-Haha for their open mic night. I would be performing a spoken word piece I’d written about warlocks and breakfast cereal while my friend, Stella, accompanied me on the bongos. Due to the fact that I was over-caffeinated and Stella had shown up high, we had a hard time syncing up our rhythms. Eventually, about halfway through, we managed to find something resembling a mutual tempo.
Our performance ended, garnering confused and courteous applause from scattered sections of the audience. The rest of the crowd let us know, in no uncertain terms, that they thought we sucked. At best, I considered this a mixed reaction, but Stella convinced me to focus on the positive. We agreed to call it a win and headed outside for a victory smoke.
Stella and I leaned on a police cruiser we found parked in the lot, passing a joint back and forth. She told me my piece was fantastic and I told her that she’d kept perfect time on the drums. We were both lying, and we both knew it, but it was well-intentioned bullshit between friends. We took it for what it was worth.
Stella got a call and told me she’d have to go run down a story lead. Journalists are like that. They’ll happily show up to have a drink, smoke your weed, and play bongos for you, but as soon as they’re done with that, they’re out the door and chasing stories again. She took one last toke and offered it back to me but I told her to keep it for the road. She thanked me, hugged me, and wandered off to find her car.
I went back inside to watch the rest of the evening’s performers. The evening included a hypnotist who couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t put coffee drinkers into a sleepy trance, a mime with Tourette ’s syndrome, and a comedian who failed to recognize that “edgy” was not necessarily the same thing as “funny”.
The roster of performers built to a crescendo that immediately came crashing down with the performance of a haggard-looking Elvis impersonator whose act resembled more of an LSD-inspired nightmare than the ’68 Comeback Special. His jumpsuit was a couple sizes too small and his karate kicks were executed in a way that made one think he was trying to keep from shitting his pants. He waddled across the stage for three songs before leaving the stage due to lack of demand for an encore.
He walked his awkward walk through the maze of tables. When he got next to mine, I told him that I’d seen classier tributes to the King on black velvet.
“What did you say, man?” he said, stopping short. His voice was still trying to channel Presley, but sounded more like Nicolas Cage trying to talk while eating s’mores.
“I said your performance was terrible enough to make the earth open itself and swallow Graceland into the depths of hell to spare it from being on the same plane of existence as you.”
“Elvis” flew into something resembling a fit of rage and struck a karate pose. I couldn’t tell if he was staying in character or if he was an actual disciple of Sensei Travis. Almost immediately, a hand from behind him gently grabbed hold of his shoulder. Elvis was coaxed aside by someone standing behind him who referred to him as “E”. As the false King (kind of a usurper, if you ask me) waddled aside, the man behind him was revealed to be dressed as Colonel Tom, instantly changing my opinion of the entire act. Clearly, this was the most ingenious Elvis impersonation of all time.
I had to tell them. I needed to erase the insult I’d thrown out that still hung heavy in the air, but before I could even open my mouth to deliver the apologetic compliment, Colonel Parker’s right fist crashed into it. I fell to the floor as everything faded to black and the sound of cappuccino machines and shouting baristas drifted away. The last thing to cut through the blackness was the scattered glints of light reflecting off the King’s rhinestone jumpsuit.
I found myself on the sidewalk in front of the coffee house some time later. No one seemed bothered by the fact that I was lying on the pavement, which means I’d been there long enough to become a fixture. I was like a town square statue of a local hero no one remembers. I was a monument to bad judgment.
I rose to my feet, assessing the damage as I went. Everything was sore, but that wasn’t really out of the ordinary. My left eye was swollen shut and the eyeglass lens that had been in front of it was gone, presumably smashed into dust by Colonel Parker.
I looked across the street from the plaza I stood in and saw a structure full of fluorescent lights. I squinted through my remaining lens and realized it was a laundromat, a sad little building full of people whose only common ground is that they wished they’d leased an apartment with washer and dryer hookups. I knew this because it was my laundromat back when I had an apartment without washer and dryer hookups. I thought about what I knew about the laundromat as I reached into my pocket to make sure the Colonel hadn’t cleaned me out of my pocket change. It was still there, so I sighed and started across the street like a moth to a depressing flame. On my way across the street, I popped the remaining lens of my glasses out of its warped and mangled wire frame and placed it over my relatively good eye.
I walked into the laundromat, struggling to count all the loose change in my pocket through the fingerprint-smudged lens of my white trash monocle. I made my way through a maze of washers, dryers, and industrial fans whose monotonous hum drowned out whatever blather came from the wall-mounted TV nobody was watching. Under a flickering fluorescent light in the back of the room, next to a pay phone whose receiver had long since been removed in a presumed fit of anger, I found the most storied vending machine in the state of Florida. I couldn’t believe it was still there, but I was glad it was. I started feeding it coins until a 32-ounce can of malt liquor dropped into the receptacle at the bottom of the machine.
I walked out to the sidewalk and sat on the curb, as is customary when drinking malt liquor on the street. I took a big swig of the lukewarm beer, set the generic-looking can down, and took a look at the plaza. Who would’ve thought there’d be an ass-kicking at a coffee shop? This was a hipster paradise flanked by two places whose very images were built on the premise of violence: A dojo pretending to teach Eastern philosophy through the practice of what Sensei Travis labeled “The Nine Principles of Ass-Whoopery”, and a bar catering to bankers, lawyers, and salesmen who wanted to demonstrate that they had a rugged outlaw individuality by dressing exactly like other bankers, lawyers, and salesmen who wanted to demonstrate that they had a rugged outlaw individuality.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have my ass kicked at a coffee shop,” I said to myself.
I guess that settles it: You can provoke violence anywhere.
I looked around and saw no one… until I reached for my beer and saw that it was looking at me. In an abstract kind of way, the oversized aluminum can had a sort of face on it that was formed out of tiny dents, crinkles, and imperfections in the aluminum that mixed with my swollen and damaged brain.
I asked if it had said anything. It answered me:
I said that violence can come from anywhere, especially if it’s provoked.
“I didn’t provoke anything,” I replied, “I simply expressed an opinion.”
You didn’t express an opinion, you bludgeoned him over the head with it… metaphorically, or course. Literal violence was handled by the Colonel. Opinions have consequences… especially when presented without tact.
“Are you saying I don’t have tact?”
Do I really need to tell you that?
“You weren’t even there, man. Colonel Parker hit me without saying a word. Was that tactful? Not even close. At different times in my life, and by different people, I have been called everything from a monosyllabic simpleton to an elitist douchebag. Taking into account context, tone, and source, it’s tough to say which one I am ultimately more offended by.”
What’s your point?
“My point is that a variety of people find me disagreeable for a variety of reasons. Still, in all of those disagreements, with all of those different kinds of people, being beaten up without a word is an extreme response.”
I’m not saying that Colonel Tom Parker’s response was right. It wasn’t. It was a reaction to negativity. Maybe all the negative reactions, from being beaten up at a coffee house open mic, to being called a monosyllabic douchebag—
“Simpleton… douchebag gets attached to elitist.”
Fine. My point is that your chances of these reactions lessen if you lessen the amount of negativity you put out in the world. Be nicer and maybe you won’t get your ass brutally kicked next time.
“I think the word ‘brutally’ is a bit… brutal.”
Why don’t you tell me that when your eye isn’t swollen shut and you aren’t experiencing concussion-induced visions of talking beer cans?
“Wait… You know you’re a hallucination?”
Of course I do. The fact that you asked that question means that you know it too.
“That means your advice is fake too,” I said, relieved. “Looks like I don’t have to be positive after all.”
Wait, that’s not the point. This conversation means you already know these things. Think about it, I exist in your brain. You know everything I’m telling you!
Please don’t call me fake, I find it offensive. I’m real, I just don’t exist in the phys–
I picked up the sentient container and shot-gunned the rest of the rapidly warming, certainly past the “best by” date, malt liquor before tossing the can into a nearby trashcan as I rose to my feet. I walked away, but could hear the can’s weakening voice echoing off the interior walls of the trash receptacle as it begged me to reconsider its advice. The voice of hallucinatory reason faded as I walked down the street, trying to remember in which direction I needed to travel to get to the hospital.
Certain places are just made for day-drinking. Typically, they’re seedy little holes in ancient, weather-beaten structures whose insides reek of cigarette smoke, stale beer, and defeat. Windows are minimal, or altogether non-existent, architectural features which allows for the time of day in the outside world to remain ambiguous. Hints of it streak through a glass door in desperate beams of sunlight, only to be swallowed by clouds of blue-gray smoke and absorbed into the atmosphere of said hole. In Cape Coral, Florida, that hole is Rooster’s Lounge.
Rooster’s is a single story building whose cinder block structure has taken beatings from hurricanes, tropical depressions, occasional bullets, and intoxicated drivers slamming their high-mileage, DUI-prone monstrosities into their home away from home as they fail to make the distinction between “Reverse” and “Drive” upon leaving their parking spaces.
It was a Monday afternoon. I was a little more than a couple hours and a few beers into a lunch break in an establishment that did not serve food. My feet were planted in front of the jukebox I leaned on while I searched for the perfect soundtrack to an afternoon buzz.
The song couldn’t be too sad, for there was just too much of the day left to set the tone for full-fledged depression. It also couldn’t be too upbeat; the floor of Rooster’s, littered with dozens of shattered dreams in the form of discarded scratch-off tickets, indicated this was no place for happiness. My browsing slowed when I saw albums filled with the blue-collar righteousness of Springsteen and the optimistic social consciousness of Dylan. These were closer to my taste, but still didn’t speak perfectly to me. I needed music for the lazy, apathetic thirty-something. Sing me the song of my people, jukebox.
“You got any Prine on this thing?” I shouted over my shoulder to the girl behind the bar.
She was the perfect age for day drinking, a tough activity to do with any sort of grace after age 24. She had opted instead to take on the responsibility of having a job enabling those of us with less impulse control despite the fact we had passed that benchmark age of acceptable irresponsibility more than a decade ago.
“What’s a Prine?” she asked, answering my question with a question, never looking up from her phone.
I sighed heavily and shed a tear for the millennials. Fuck it, Allman Brothers it is.
I spent the next few minutes selecting songs, punching numbers on the keypad, and draining my mug of beer. As the sound of a Hammond organ and bottleneck slide guitar filled the room I took a few uneven steps toward the bar, set my mug upon the warped wood surface, and slid it toward the rail.
For a brief moment, sunlight flooded the room. It drowned out any existing light, which up to that point, had consisted only of neon beer signs, a flickering fluorescent above the pool table, and a couple strands of white Christmas lights strung lazily around the bar. The bombardment of Vitamin-D signaled that someone had entered the bar from the outside world we were all desperately trying to forget existed.
As the sunspots began to vanish, I realized that whoever had just come in had sat down beside me despite a dozen other empty stools populating the bar. A familiar voice ordered a beer and my slow-to-focus eyes saw that the person with the least regard to my personal space was the one who understood my need for it more than anyone. The newcomer was me.
He was aged, slightly leaner, and free of the goatee I wore on my chin, opting for a stand-alone silver mustache instead. He wore dark glasses and had a smooth bald head, free of gray stubble. A stranger might have likened him to an emaciated D.B. Cooper, but despite these few slight shifts in features, there was no mistaking my own face.
My refilled mug returned to me at the same time a beer was set down in front of him. We reached for them simultaneously, which is when I noticed the biggest difference between him and I. Instead of arms, my doppelganger had scrawny tentacles coming out of his shirtsleeves. They were bluish-green with an off-white underside, filled with dozens of tiny suction disks. The familiar stranger sipped his beer, unafraid of anyone noticing and remarking on his strange limbs. He seemed to understand that the few sad patrons scattered around the barroom were so wrapped up in their own drinking, slot machine gambling, and bullshit story telling that they would likely never even notice anyone else’s deformities or freak show tendencies.“Hello, Phil,” he said, turning to me. “Yes, I am.”
“Yes you are what?” I asked.
“You,” he said.
“I wasn’t asking.”
“But you were thinking it.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
For some reason, I felt compelled to play it cool and pretend that seeing a copy of myself with tentacles was not blowing my mind blown. Play it cool, Phil. Act like, you know, this kind of thing happens to you all the time.
“You were. I know you were, and I know because I distinctly remember having the thought. I am you,” said the stranger who apparently wasn’t a stranger. “I’m you from the future.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but stopped myself. I turned my attention to my beer and he did the same. We drank in tense silence for a few minutes, letting our brief exchange hang in the air like a fart in an elevator.
“You’re me,” I said, once I’d downed my beer.
The flood of alcohol was working to kill enough brain cells to slow my mind’s spinning to a manageable rate.
“Yes,” he responded.
“From the future.”
“And you remember this?”
“Yes. I remember this conversation, how it affects you, and what happens next… and no, I can’t tell you.”
I took a moment to digest this, causing an awkward pause in the conversation that coincided with an awkward pause in the music as the jukebox switched to the next song I’d paid for. The seconds void of music felt awkward and I struggled for a joke to fill the silence.
“Can I call you Phuture Phil?”
I laughed at the joke far more than it deserved before realizing that it only made sense on paper and in my brain.
“That’s very clever,” he said.
I asked him if he remembered making that joke now that I’d said it out loud. He told me that he did and that he remembered regretting it almost immediately. I stared at the bar vacantly. Yeah…
Future Me drained his mug and set it on the bar. I pushed mine forward and motioned to the millennial barkeep for a refill.
“Does your dad want one too?” she asked. I stifled a laugh and told her yes, but Future Me quickly amended his order to a boilermaker before crossing his tentacles and pouting. Only after drinks were set in front of us and she had walked away did he speak again.
“I’m not that old,” he said.
“Let it go, man,” I told him. “She’s young as hell. Anyone over thirty looks old as dirt to her.”
“Let it go? You are telling me to let it go? When’s the last time you let anything go?”
“I’m gonna guess it’s the last time you let something go too,” I responded. Clearly my propensity for holding grudges would get no less powerful as I aged.
“Five years,” he said after a minute.
“Five years, what?”
“I’m only five years older than you. I’m from five years in the future,” he said, clearly irritated.
“Are you serious? You look so much older!”
He turned to me angrily and raised his voice: “Well it’s your fault! It’s the middle of a Monday and you’re in a bar! Did you expect to do that and age gracefully?”
“You know,” I said, “you’re in a bar in the middle of the day too.” He did look older than five years my senior, and yes, it was likely my fault, but it was his fault too… right?
Future Me sat and sulked for a few minutes before picking up his shot of whiskey with a tiny sucker at the end of his right tentacle. It was almost as though it had been grown specifically for the purpose of lifting a shot glass off a bar. He held it over his mug of beer and the glass dropped into the mug, sloshing beer and foam over the rim. He picked up the concoction and poured it into his head with one giant gulp before slamming the empty mug on the bar, rattling the empty shot glass still inside it. Yes. It was definitely also his fault.
“Funny you should mention my tentacles,” he said, shifting the conversation by responding to a question I hadn’t yet asked.
“You know,” I said, “if you’re going to carry on an entire conversation by yourself based on memories, you’re going to end up with a memory of how much we believe ourselves to be an insufferable asshole.”
“Those wheels were set in motion long ago,” he said, laughing.
Future Me pulled a pipe from his pocket and bit down on the stem. Somehow, he manipulated a wooden match with the end of his right tentacle enough to strike a flame, which he touched to the open bowl. He puffed out strong, sweet smelling smoke as the flame danced and cast an eerie glow on his wrinkled face.
“You know,” he said, “I brought this tobacco with me from the future.”
“Is that right?”
“It is,” he continued. He leaned back against the bar and looked at his pipe with his head cocked slightly to the left. I immediately recognized the posture as my “holding court”
pose, but it seemed strange and portentous seeing it from another angle. I am such an asshole.
Future Me continued: “I’m smoking tobacco that hasn’t even been planted yet. I’m burning it and smoke is filling this room and when the door to this abysmal place opens, it will escape into the atmosphere and add to the overall makeup of air throughout the world, which will ultimately play into the conditions of the soil that this very tobacco is planted and grown in. Those conditions will change the final makeup of the tobacco plant ever so slightly. It will then be harvested, processed, packaged, sold, sent back in time, and smoked, thus continuing an endless cycle of modified tobacco meeting and affecting its future self.”
“So,” I began, deciphering the metaphor after a long moment of letting his bizarre statement sink into my head, “I’m the tobacco plant, and you’re the smoke, and we’re endlessly cycling and affecting each other in a weird paradox, which causes the smoke to… grow… octopus arms?”
Future Me stared for a long second before saying, “Good Lord, I’m an idiot. I was just commenting on something cool that I realized. There’s no metaphor here, man. It’s just something cool, that’s all. I’m not here for the purpose of growing squid arms via paradox.”
“I said ‘octopus arms’,” I corrected.
“I came back,” he continued, the pitch and volume of his voice rising, “to tell my past self to stop making deals with that guy who lives in his car behind the Bingo Hall.”
“But that guy has the best weed,” I defended.
“Not that guy, and not that Bingo Hall,” he shot back. “I’m talking about the wizard who lives in his car behind the condemned Bingo Hall. That guy who makes Faustian bargains with everyone. The reason you are missing fingers.”
“Oh that guy,” I said. I’m just missing the one finger. “Why?”
“Are you serious?” he asked. “Look at me. I’ve got tentacles; for the sake of the gods, Phil, tentacles. Quit dealing with that crazy old man or else he’s gonna put a curse on you that will make us calamari hybrids for life. Get it?”
A ray of sun shone through the haze of beer and jukebox standards that clouded my head.
“Yeah, I got it,” I nodded slowly, connecting the dots between the warnings and tentacles and the strange dudes who lived in their cars behind Bingo Halls. “So I can still buy weed from that other guy who lives in his car?”
“Yes,” he said, “though I think you should do it less frequently. While I’m at it, I guess I should advise you to stop spending your days in this bar too. Seriously, look at what it does to us.”
I will if you will.
“I heard that,” he said. A tentacle went into his pocket and came out rolled around a wad of bills. He began counting them out and told me he’d leave enough for a couple more beers if I wanted, which he knew I did. I insisted that I had it covered and he told me that it didn’t matter because my money was his money.
“It’s like having a joint checking account with myself,” he said.
“No,” he said, without looking up from his money counting, “I don’t have any weed from the future.”
Future Me dropped a stack of bills on the bar, told me he’d see me later, and walked out the door, once again flooding the room, and my brain, with an intense reminder of the outside world and the realization that I would continue to be a condescending asshole in the future.
The last of my prepaid jukebox songs finished playing and the machine fell silent. The remaining patrons of the bar filled the auditory void with bullshit stories and pick-up lines delivered by, and to, the tragically sad and lonely. I drank the remainder of my beer in one swift chug and left the empty mug on top of the bills on the bar. I stood and addressed the young lady behind the bar.
“This more than covers the tab. Take the remainder and buy yourself a John Prine album. I recommend Sweet Revenge, Bruised Orange, or possibly The Singing Mailman Delivers if you dig live stuff.”
I turned on my sneaker’s heel and strolled out into the sunny outside world, confident that, on occasion, even condescending assholes could change someone’s future for the better.
Florida is a strange place. The native people and wildlife form a bizarre ecosystem that makes this state like no other place in the world. A love child of a carnival sideshow and an earthen belch of swamp gas, Florida is a place whose reality is incomprehensible to many, but just accepted as business as usual to those who live here.
This applies to the weather here as much as anything. Rainy winter afternoons may sound like a miserable day where you’re from, but in Florida, it’s the exact opposite. A rainy January day in Florida is the perfect day for opening your home up to let in the dry, cool air of winter and clear out the stuffy air, germs, and whatever that smell is that comes from your son’s bedroom.
It was one such day that I found myself lazily leaning back in my recliner, half awake and flipping through my four TV channels, not quite sure if I wanted to be entertained by drivel, or fully embrace the opportunity for a nap that sang to me like a Siren. After several minutes and several dozen flips around the channels, I grew very annoyed that local station programming didn’t seem very interested in entertaining anyone, opting instead to find the loudest, stupidest, most obnoxious shows in existence to shove into the faces of their audience. I was not entertained, I was visibly upset… and also sleepy.
I shut the TV off and adjusted myself in the chair to sit back and drift off to sleep. About a half hour earlier, I had drunk a glass of absinthe, and was hoping for some hallucinatory dreams to fill the entertainment void left by local television. As I turned my head to get comfortable, the corner of my eye caught some movement on the floor of the dining room, right inside my sliding door. A pair of rats was scurrying around the tile around my garbage can, obviously trying to figure out how to get inside of it to eat coffee grounds so they could get pumped up on caffeine and amass super strength and maximum consciousness so they could be the beginning of a race of highly evolved super rats. You know, stuff rats normally do.
This is the bad part of rainy winter days in Florida: You open up your home to let the bad air outside, but in Florida, literally the entire outside is alive, and much of it tries to come into your home. Snakes, mice, squirrels, aquatic birds, possum, banshees, monitor lizards, and yes, rats, had all strolled into my home over the winters as though it was a structure not specifically built to keep them out. With my wife at work and my kids at school, I was left to deal with this. I forced the footrest to my chair down and rose to my feet. I clapped my hands twice, loudly and rapidly, commanding the attention of all living things in the house. The rats looked surprised as they turned toward me and stared.
“To those rodents about to die,” I proclaimed, “I salute you!”
The rats looked confused; they could tell something was about to happen, but they were not sure what. It’s entirely possible that they were starting to question their decision to enter the house, but it’s far more likely that they wondered what the lunatic in the recliner was ranting about.
“Attack!” I shouted, my voice booming and bouncing off the sheetrock of the walls and the tile on the floors. Immediately, the door to our laundry room flew open, and a blurry streak of fur and wheels raced out of it. The streak took a corner quicker than a physical object should be able to and rocketed through the living room, past my chair, and made its way toward the dining room sliding door where our intruders stood tensed and waiting to see what was coming for them.
Upon hitting the dining room, a combination of the streak slowing down and my liquor-impaired eyes focusing on it allowed me to see that it was, in fact, what I had unleashed. My cat, Meowcus Aurelius, wore a Roman battle helmet and drove a tiny chariot pulled by a pair of ferrets directly toward the rats who, upon seeing him, ran madly around the dining room in a blind panic.
Meowcus held reins in his right paw and a whip, which he cracked at the ferrets’ hind quarters, in his left. He urged the vermin to pick up speed as they rounded the table after one of the rats. Meowcus’s whiskers blew back and his eyes took on a look that was wild with bloodlust as the chariot got faster and faster, gaining on the trespassing beast as it attempted to turn and duck under the table. Meowcus swung the tiny whip around his head before extending it out from his chariot and wrapping it expertly around the beast’s ankle. He wound the handle of the whip around a cleat on the chariot and then shook the reins wildly. The ferrets sprinted and the chariot dragged the rat behind it. I stood from my recliner and cheered wildly.
The second rat had turned around and attempted to scurry back toward the open sliding door. Its tiny clawed feet slid and skated on the smooth tile surface as it struggled to gain speed and control. Meowcus’s chariot skidded around the corner of the table and straightened out, bearing down on the terrified rodent. Meowcus released the whip and sent the rat in tow skidding across the tile to slam into a dining room baseboard, where it remained. Aurelius ran his ferrets faster and faster, to the point where I almost expected them to drop from exhaustion. We had housed this warrior cat for three years at this point, and I’d never seen him run his chariot at the rate he now did. It was a spectacle to behold and one I’ll not soon forget.
Instead of running over the rat with his vermin-driven death wagon, Meowcus drove alongside it. They were fast approaching the open sliding door as they sped along the tile, but the warrior cat didn’t seem to notice. Meowcus Aurelius reached out with his left paw, extended his lethal claws, and took an almost casual, yet painful looking, swipe at the rat, dropping it to the floor almost immediately, where it slid to a stop right in front of the open sliding door.
Meowcus turned his chariot, slowed it considerably and made a casual trip around the dining room table, surveying his arena. He rode past the first rat he chased, noting that it did not move, and was not likely to again, seeing as its head was twisted and sitting at an angle not intended by nature. He then drove his chariot to the second rat, slowing down as he approached, and came to a stop just short of it. He climbed off of the chariot and walked a wide circle around the bleeding rodent, taking note of its labored breathing and its pitiful eyes. Meowcus stood over the rat and hissed at it. His claws were out and he bared his teeth at the beast that had invaded his home and made it his battleground. The cat paused, looked up at me, and waited.
I surveyed the scene and reflected on what I had just witnessed. I leaned back in my c
hair and extended my right arm in front of me, making a fist that left only my thumb extended and parallel to the ground. The fresh air from the outside that had
circulated throughout the house
suddenly took on a feeling of tension and apprehension as Meowcus, the remaining rat, and the two ferrets stared at me and waited for my verdict. Slowly, I turned my thumb toward the floor.
Meowcus Aurelius smiled.