Synergy

It was Lyle’s first day at his new job. He had just moved into the city from about an hour out west and had spent some time before looking for a new job but had found nothing of interest. He had worked for years in the restaurant industry but wanted to find something a bit more lucrative. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy waiting tables or sleeping with waitresses, he just hated people. He had hoped to settle into something smaller but less intimate. He didn’t want to have to build false bonds of friendship with dozens of people every day. But sadly for Lyle, the staffing firm that he submitted his resume to had found him a job at a call center. The job would see Lyle making copious cold calls and he would continue to build false bonds of friendship every day.

On his first morning he wanted to make a good impression and was determined to show up early. He had heard that this was the proper thing to do when starting an office job. In that regard, it didn’t seem all that different from his restaurant gig, but, it did pay a lot better. After getting off the train and made his way through the tunnel and towards the stairs. As he climbed up the concrete steps the stench of urine grew permeated through his flaring nostrils. There was something odd about it. It wasn’t fresh in the sense that he may be standing in a puddle, but, more like someone had taken a spray bottle and freshly scented the area with secreted potpourri. Lyle loudly exhaled the minute he exited and gasped a few breaths. He took a left and continued on his way. The city was a bustle of activity: cars zooming past, laborers noshing their way through their mid-morning break and the homeless just starting to stir and stumble their way to the nearest milk crate.  His office was in the building across the street and to his right. As he stood across from it and attempted to take it in he was overwhelmed. By Lyle’s estimate, the building could only have been five-or-so stories high, but, it loomed as if it had wings ready to engulf the entire block. The building looked like a gargoyle carved from a single piece of obsidian. It reminded Lyle of that movie he watched the first time he had eaten mushrooms; the one with the monkeys and the waltz.

He went awkwardly passed through the revolving door, almost missing his exit, and approached the old man sitting behind the front the desk. The guard looked like he had not moved for an eternity. His face was craggy and his eyes were sunken in. Lyle told the guard he was starting a new job on the third floor and the guard took one of the plastic white cards in front of him and as the guard moved is arm forward, lurching for the scanner, Lyle swore he heard the churning and grinding of tree roots. Lyle slowly walked towards the three elevators. The middle one beckoned to him and he made his way through the doors.

The walls of the elevator were covered with mirrors. Lyle, taking advantage of the solo trip up, used this time to straighten his tie, adjust his shirt, and shake off the remaining toaster strudel crumbs from his pants. He stepped out and peered over to see the entrance to the office on his right. The door was an opaque glass with a black frame and in large, solid white letters said, SMD CONSULTING. There was also a set of minute letters underneath it that read, tw research. Lyle opened the door and was greeted by a smiling middle-aged woman sitting behind a desk. She was pretty and carried a wild look in her eye that alluded to the hellraiser that she once was. She told him to wait in the large conference room with the others and that the Pool Manager would meet them inside. She walked him over to the conference room and the further they walked into the building the more it seemed to expand. The ceiling grew high and the hallways extended spiraled outwards. For a while, Lyle thought that he had somehow ended up in a warehouse as there were no offices within sight. Finally, they reached the conference room. As the woman made her way to the door Lyle noticed that not only was it glass, but, the walls surrounding the room itself were also glass.

Inside were three other people: a young man, who Lyle figured must have been fresh from business school, basing this only on the slick and black watch on his left wrist arm and the black and pink pocket square that garnished his jacket. A young woman stared down into the notebook in front of her. As she waited, she drew doodles in the margins of the lined paper. Finally, there was an older gentleman, somewhere around forty of fifty Lyle imagined, who was very calm and sat, stone-faced and motionless. For a second Lyle thought the he may have been the guard from downstairs, but after a quick double-take, realized otherwise.  Lyle took a seat across from the doodling girl. He tried to get a glimpse of what exactly it was she drawing, but just as he was about to strain his neck, the glass door opened and in walked a middle-aged woman with pale blue eyes that sang a sad story. The woman with the sad eyes pushed out a smile and welcomed Lyle and his confederates.

We’re all very excited to add you to the research pool, she began. Here at SMD Consulting, we make sure to bring in the brightest and best minds available. We work with some of the largest private equity firms in the country and strive for nothing but excellence. As I mentioned during the interviews, we have a very collaborative process in our office. You will be working with teams researching into various markets for our clients. I just want to cover a few basic things once more before I send you off. Firstly, when speaking with your respondents do not mention SMD Consulting. Instead, you inform them that you work for tw research. There is a chance, no matter how small, that if you tell the respondent you are with SMD Consulting, they will be able to link you to the project and if they can link you to the project, then they might be able to deduce who our client is. That would not create the synergies that we need to succeed with our research. So again, you do not work for SMD Consulting; you work for tw research. Secondly, your paycheck shall arrive once every two weeks. You will receive them via mail. Do not be alarmed if you do not see anything from either SMD Consulting, or, tw research. You will be receiving paychecks from our third-party affiliate, GROTTO Outsourcing Services. Finally, please make sure to update your tracker on the hour, every hour. That will inform us how your progress is going throughout the day. It is imperative that we track all calls, incoming and outgoing, to make sure that everyone is up to their potential. It is the metrics that we keep track of that allows for an iterative process and allows you to perform in the industrious manner that we know you are all capable of. Now, I will inform you as to which project you are working on and who your Associate will be.

Lyle was left a by the speech. He worked for tw research, but, he actually worked for SMD Consulting? Or was it the other way around? And who exactly would be paying him? He had already told some people he knew that he was working at SMD Consulting because that was the name that the recruiter had mentioned on the phone. Was he in violation of whatever those papers were that he had signed a few days ago? He took note to bring this up with his Associate later. When Lyle looked up, the three others were walking out of the conference room and the blonde woman with sad eyes was looking at him with a broken-branch smile. Lyle, you will be working with Harrison Pinkgoose on project code LSTAT_Dragoon. I’ll show you the over.

The woman waited at the door while Lyle got out of his seat and walked out into the hallway. She followed and took a left, walking at a mild pace. They went in silence as she took him through the winding hallways. Lyle couldn’t decide if the long groupings of desks reminded him of the shelves of a library or the stalls of a stable. A new row started every three or four feet. Lyle couldn’t tell how many people sat in each row but thought it must have been around a dozen. The rows were endless in each direction and at every desk someone sat hunched over, either staring into the pages in front of them or furiously dialing at their phones. Lyle noticed that they didn’t have computers in front of them and found this odd. He looked up and saw that the ceilings were high and there was a gloom about them. Lyle pictured the ceilings being cleaned by small units of adolescent chimney sweeps, dressed in rags with horse hair brooms, and soot covering their faces. They took another few turns before coming to a row that read, LSTAT_Dragoon. So, the woman with sad eyes began, this will be your area today. You’re going to need this, she said handing him a time card. You come over to this area, she said pointing to the card punch, to update your tracker. Once you do that just grab an open desk and Mr. Pinkgoose will be over to kick you off in the next couple of minutes.

Lyle walked over to the time punch. It was something that would have been more appropriate a boardwalk in New Jersey. He punched in and tried to find an open desk. He was amazed as he walked down. Even though he thought he had arrived early, a time should have been totally reasonable for the first day. There were others that looked like they had been sitting at their desks for hours or days. He found an empty desk towards the end of the row. He looked at his desk and found only a telephone, a medium sized legal pad, and a pen holder without any pens, pencils, or writing tools of any kind. To his right, pinned against the wall, there was a small map of the United States and the southern half of Canada. The map was split into time zones: Eastern Standard, Central Standard, Mountain Standard, and Pacific Standard. Lyle was tracing up through the Canadian Rockies when he heard a knock to his left. He looked over there was an older man standing beside him. The deep wrinkles in the man’s face reminded Lyle of the guard downstairs. The man that he hoped to be an Ent.

You must be Lyle. I’m Harrison Pinkgoose, your Associate on LSTAT_Dragoon. Today, you’ll be working with the team to learn more about the nursing certification market. You’ll be calling into hospitals to try to speak with nurses about how they go about reapplying for certification every year. And also who they usually take those classes with. Here’s the list of numbers you’ll be calling. There should be enough in there to get you through the day. If you do your job right, you might not even get through them all. Now, we need to bear down on how much they have to spend for each credit, how much they’re spending year over year, and who they are spending their money with. Any questions?

Lyle had barely kept up and paused to think. So, I’m calling hospitals and trying to get nurses to talk to me? Yes. For how long? Usually these calls take fifteen to twenty minutes, I’d say. So… call these nurses, while they’re at work and try to get them to talk for twenty minutes. Yes. And remember, if we’re going to create these true synergies, you’re going to have to get three to four conversation per day and they’ll need to be written up by EOD. The computers, where do I find one to write up the interview? At the end of each row there should be a computer mounted to the wall. That is where you’ll write up your interviews. To the left you will find a scanner that you place your timecard. That scanner will print out a small sheet of paper with your number on it. If you listen you will hear the overhead announcing numbers. When your number is announced, you will be able to go and write up your interviews. It is imperative that you finish these reports by the end of the day. The synergies created between your work and ours is what allows us to achieve the excellence that is associated with the SMD Consulting name. Now, like I said, here is your list of numbers, and this is the interview guide. Just dial in, find a nurse, and run through the questions one by one. It’s that simple.

After giving Lyle the paperwork, Pinkgoose turned around and started to walk away. Remember, I need four reports from you, he started over his shoulder, and you don’t work for SMD Consulting. Lyle looked down at the paperwork. The list of numbers was two pages long and there were thirty contacts between the two pages. Each hospital had three pieces of information: the name of the hospital, the phone number, and the state within which it was located. Lyle decided to take a look through the interview guide. It was exponentially longer than the contact list. The guide was fifteen pages long and topped out at forty-six questions. After a second and third tour Lyle realized that even though the last question written in the guide was labeled as forty-six, there were probably three times as many questions. Every question had a sub-question, and every sub-question had a sub-sub-question. There were also a few charts and matrices thrown in as well. Lyle had no idea how he was going to ask the questions, let alone get someone to answer all of them in fifteen minutes.

Lyle practiced his spiel and ran through the guide for around two hours. When he wasn’t looking at the guide he was staring at the phone. There was a small, digital clock located at the top of the mount, right next to the receiver. Lyle made his first call at eleven-thirty and only did it because he told himself he would make at least one call before lunch. It was a number in Montana. Lyle figured that it was around ten o’clock there and maybe the hospital wouldn’t be that busy. An elderly woman answered the phone.

Hello, who is this? Hi, I was hoping to speak with a nurse? A what? I was hoping to speak with a nurse? A nurse? There are no nurses here. Who is this? My name is Lyle. Is this St. Clement’s Hospital? No, no, you called my home young man. Oh, ma’am, I’m so sorry about that, I obviously have the wrong number. That’s quite alright, what did you say your name was, Blyle? Lyle, ma’am. Well, Kyle, it’s no problem that you called. In fact, I’m glad you did. Your voice reminds me of my son. I haven’t heard from him since we moved up this way. You know, moving here from Northern California was been a real nightmare. We moved up here after I retired, hoping to live the simple life. I was a real estate agent back in California, the best around. We moved up here once the cabin was finished. After a month or so, I tried to get some part-time work, but they do not take kindly to strangers around here. I’ll tell ya, you can feel it when you walk around town or go to those damn rodeos. That’s right, I said rodeos. That’s all you see around here, cowboys with their damn pick-up trucks and rodeos. Nope, they do not like outsiders around here. Hell, I don’t even think I’ve ever seen a black person up here. Can’t imagine what would happen if one ever did show up. The elderly women went on like this for quite some time. After the first ten minutes, Lyle stopped trying to interrupt to end the call, and just embraced it. He thought it would be good for his tracker. The elderly woman continued complaining about the snow, I haven’t been able to leave my house in almost a week. She again went on about the general lack of culture in the area. She had taken a breath to explain the term goat-roping, it’s like dealing with a used car salesman except when its over you’re tied up and about to be milked, when Lyle interrupted and said, Thank you ma’am, I really do appreciate you taking my call and promptly hung up. The call had gone on for forty-five minutes and it was now twelve fifteen.

Lyle had little-to-no money so instead of going out for lunch he decided to take a walk around his new work space. He walked up to the top of his row and took a right. The rows and hallways around him were boundless. There also weren’t many people walking around. He decided that he would just stay on the path until he hit the end of the hallway, turn around, and make his way back to his seat. The further he walked the more everything looked the same. The hallway still didn’t seem to have an end in sight and each desk was a facsimile of the one before it. Every row he looked down had people hunched over, speaking in low, dull tones, and scribbling away on their notepads. The project names also got much stranger as Lyle made his way down the hall. First there was CBAP_Luxury, which seemed straightforward enough. A few rows later he came upon a sign that read XML_Snakes. He thought of what that project could have been researching and settled on what he thought was the obvious answer, the online market for snakes. Lyle stopped when he came upon the third sign. He stared at it, incredulous, and even wiped his eyes to make sure he was reading it right. The piece of paper read, RDRM_HumanCapital. The phrase ‘human capital’ made Lyle very nervous. Maybe it was because he had seen too many movies. What didn’t help was the phrase being preceded by the term, redrum. With visions of ghoulish twin sisters and an elevator filled with blood, Lyle turned around and went swiftly back to his desk.

Upon sitting at his desk, Lyle felt a slight pinch on his left shoulder. He immediately thought of the Vulcan death grip and quickly spun around brandishing only his pen. Pinkgoose stared down at him, looking just as somber as when Lyle had last seen him. I noticed you haven’t check in on the tracker yet. Is there any reason for that? I, uh, only had one call and it didn’t have anything to do with the project so I didn’t think it would be necessary. Well it is necessary. We need to know how you are all faring every hour, on the hour, to understand whether or not we have the right people in place to make this a truly collaborative process. Remember, it is the synergy created between our teams that allow us to achieve the excellence associated with the SMD Consulting name. Now, I need you to go update your tracker and then hit the phones. We need a big push from the team today, a solid second half effort. Pinkgoose turned around and walked away. When Lyle got up, he was astonished to see that Pinkgoose was completely out of sight. He went over to the tracker and scanned his card. A little light on top of it turned green and Lyle made his way back to his desk.

Looking back down at the contact list on his desk, Lyle grabbed his pen and crossed out the number he had called before lunch. He was now down to twenty-nine numbers. He called the next hospital on his list: St. Bartholomew’s in Bakersfield, Indiana. After the seventh ring an administrator answered. Thank you for calling St. Bart’s, how can I direct your call? Hi, I was hoping to speak with a nurse? Which nurse sir, we have a lot of them here. Just someone who might be familiar with nursing classes? I’m working in this project and- I’ll connect you to head nurse. Thank you. And just like that, Lyle was on hold. Ask for the head nurse, he wrote on his notepad. After the fifth ring the call went to the machine. Lyle left a stuttering voicemail requesting to speak with the head nurse about the process of acquiring continuing education credits for nurses. I was only hoping to take up, maybe, fifteen or so minutes of your time, he sputtered. Lyle left his phone number and attempted to add some cheerfulness by ending his message, I look forward to speaking with you soon! He set the phone down on the mount and let out a sigh of relief. That wasn’t too bad, he thought to himself. Now that he had an idea of the particular person he needed to talk to, he felt a bit more confident. He dialed in the number for a hospital in Texas, St. Alexander’s Hospital in Broken Bell. After the second ring a quiet voice said, Hold please, and the call went silent. Lyle eagerly waited for the next person to answered, ready as ever with his pitch. When the phone went live he was met with a voice that was sharp as glass and sounded like it was booming from under a bridge.

Thanks for callin’ in fellow true believer! You are live on the Ted Drohl show here on KCUF! Can I get your name friend? Uh, Lyle. You see Lyle, we are all workin’ towards our own end here, aren’t we? No matter what you find yourself doin’, you are just feedin’ into the machine that will take everything from you. It’s only a matter of time! This Zionist, Fascist, mongrel of a commander-in-chief is lookin’ to take every single freedom we have away from us. It’s only a matter of time! He’s already got his cronies stationed at FEMA camps all across the country. When the time is right, martial law will be set in place and their armies will come crashin’ down upon us, forcibly relocatin’ every single one of you and your own into those chicken-wire pens. People, I have been sayin’ it for years and I’ll say it again: we’re livin’ in Stalinist Russia! Wake up sheeple!  Now, why is it that you dialed into this tremendous show, Lyle? Well, actually I was trying to – Oh, let me guess! You’re calling about the Nibiru sightin’. That’s right true believers, it is just like I predicted. The famous Planet X will be high in the sky for all of you to see tonight! All you gotta do is get yourself outside, tilt that head of yours up towards Heaven and find Orion’s Belt. Once you find that, you’ll notice somethin’ odd. You’ll say to yourself, Hey Ted, I thought Orion’s belt only had three notches? You’re not wrong! The fourth one up there’ll be Nibiru. For those of you who might be scratchin’ your heads right now, let me give you a little history lesson. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, before humanity thought about building their first mud-huts, Earth was visited by aliens. The Sumerians called them the Annunaki, or, the Elder Gods. They presented themselves as saviors and offered to give many gifts to mankind. However, they enslaved the Sumerians and had them harvest the gold that was needed to power their ships. And before they left Earth, they impregnated as many women as they could. These reptilian hybrids would go on to monitor the human race and continue to infiltrate our leadership. That’s right folks, they’re still watchin’ us today. They keep tabs on us from their subterranean bases deep within the Earth. Well, thank you for your call Lyle, I do hope that I helped you out. Thank you and keep your eyes peeled!

The sound of the phone going silent was the most welcome sound of Lyle’s short life. The call had gone on for what felt like hours, but according to the timer on the phone’s mount, it had only been ten minutes. Lyle tried to shake off the nonsense and made a few more phone calls. He was happy that no one answered because he could not get the sound of Ted Drohl’s broken glassed voice out of his head and was afraid that if he did have to speak with someone, he would end up spitting out the babble that he had heard. He could smell cigarette smoke like he had been in the studio with the talking head. On his third call after the unscheduled radio appearance, a young woman answered the phone: St. John’s. Hi, my name is Lyle and I was hoping to speak with a nurse? What about? I’m working on a project and I’m trying to do some research into continuing education for nurses. Is there anyone around that I could talk to? Look kid, you called an ER. Do you know what an ER is? We have people dying around us. We can’t help. She hung up the phone. Lyle’s stomach sank. He was glad that he didn’t hold anyone up because he didn’t want to be responsible for a few extra corpses, but now, he was nervous about accidentally calling into more emergency rooms. He made another call and got another voicemail. He made a note next to that number, because judging by the voicemail, he thought that the number was actually someone’s cell phone.

Lyle spent the next few hours making calls, leaving voicemails, and being told to call back later. He made sure to scan his card on the hour, every hour, to make sure that his tracker would be up to date. He was nervous about his lack of progress, but, had not seen Pinkgoose since his lunch break. He had also yet to speak with any of the people around him. He wasn’t sure but he couldn’t recall seeing anyone get up from their desks. Whenever he looked to the person to either his right or left, their heads were down. Periodically the overhead went off, announcing the line-up change for the computers.

It was at five o’clock when Pinkgoose finally appeared. I see you have been making calls and updating your tracker every hour. That’s good. But by looking at your average call time I can tell you haven’t exactly had a meaningful conversation. Any reason for that? Well, Mr. Pinkgoose, I called all of the contacts on my list, but, a bunch of them weren’t even hospitals. I mean, one of them sold anointing oil, like for churches or sanctuaries. And the ones that were told me that it wasn’t a good time to talk. The rest of the numbers went straight to voicemail and I wasn’t able to get ahold of anyone. Well, it is your first day I guess. We can try to get you more numbers tomorrow. We need a big push though. Our n is looking rough right now, but, if we have a collective push and really hit our marks I think we’ll be in good shape. Just finish up with a few more calls, get an interview in, and you can leave at 5:30. Before Lyle could say anything, Pinkgoose was gone.

Lyle let out a sigh of relief. He was glad no one came down on him for a rough day. He decided to make one more call before heading out. The number was strange, started with 545, and didn’t have a state attached to it. Lyle shrugged his shoulders and dialed the number anyway. There were two quick rings and then the tone to something that brought Lyle to the first time he booted up the dial-up modem in eighth grade. The loud screeching and whirring wailed through the receiver and right before Lyle hung up, a voice came through the din that was like grinding teeth. Yes? Hi, uh, my name is – Yes? My name is Lyle, is this St. Elmo’s Hospital? We are not a hospital, but, we have certainly saved lives. Okay… so this isn’t St. Elmo’s? Not quite. I’m sorry I must have the wrong number. But I can help. I don’t think you can. I need to speak with someone at a hospital. Why is that? I’m trying to learn about continuing education credits for nurses. Can anyone there help me? No, we cannot help you with this. I didn’t think so. But we can help you with something else. Can you? The voice didn’t respond. The grinding got louder and louder and the screeching and whirring returned. The noise grew harsher and heavier until it was gnawing its way into Lyle’s brain. He closed his eyes, backed the phone away from his ear, and moved his right hand to his head to fight off the noise. When Lyle opened his eyes he was in the elevator. His ears were still ringing and there was the feeling of a vice grip between his shoulder blades and his neck. The bell in the elevator rang and Lyle walked into the lobby. He was shaking and covered in cold sweat He looked over to see the guard was still there from the morning. What the hell had just happened, he asked himself. He walked towards the guard and saw him there completely still, like a corpse carved into a mountainside. Lyle made his way through the revolving door and out of the obsidian building as fast as he could.

Lyle never went back to SMD Consulting or tw research. No one seemed to notice as he never received a call inquiring about his absence. Lyle instead found work at a restaurant that one of his old co-workers had recommended. He is hoping to be working at the bar in the next couple of weeks.

 

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The Belle Witch

I met her at a dive bar, well what passed for a dive bar, on Boylston Street. I had gone out with some former co-workers and had found myself on the other side of half-a-dozen or so pint cans. While my compatriots were engaged in their conversation about their hellacious workplace, a place I had the benefit of being released from, I sat back, arms extended, and took in what like my drunken sovereignty. Confidently, with crooked grin from ear-to-ear, I took in the majestic sights: young professionals shedding themselves of their cubicle dust in a sticky countered catharsis; townies who had been drinking here since the early nineties; and the few of us, the passionate young people whose ideals were equally met with apathy and disenchantment. There was one thing that all of us could agree on: it was high-time for a drink. She was sitting two tables to the left, somewhere around ten-thirty on my staggered inner-clock.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that the first thing I had noticed was her chest. She was wearing a bright turquoise sweater with the density of a shag carpet that went three quarters of the way down her long, elegant arms. Her wrists were adorned with some small charms and wired bracelets, a large pearl ring on her left index finger. The ring finger of her right hand tapped lightly on the spine of the book she held in-front of her face, communicating a message that I knew was just for me. I stared at the book and finally realized that the cover was the front grille was that of a 1975 Chevy Impala. Without a word to those at my table I bounced over to her. I knocked on the table and asked if she was indeed reading The Savage Detective. She lowered the book and gave me an impish smile. That was in-fact that book in her hands and she informed me that she had just recently finished what is considered Bolano’s magnum opus, 2666. She said that after she that book she had become completely enthralled with the Chilean’s verse and needed to devour more. My jaw hit the table. While I had only been familiar with Bolano’s work for a few years now, I had yet to meet many other people who were familiar with that bastard son of Baudelaire and Borges and I sure as shit never thought I’d see a chick reading him at a bar. I pulled up a chair and informed her that she was now stuck with me. She laughed and offered a space. I bought us a round and we talked about our appreciation for the man. I had been introduced to him through a friend who had read Bolano’s Distant Star for class. After my reading of the novella I needed more and found myself buying every copy of his books I could find. I had even gotten my hands on his manifesto and various other essays. Where she had me beat though, was with 2666. That was sitting on my shelf waiting to be cracked open. She had, of course, finished that tome and had now begun the Mexican odyssey that brought Bolano for the forefront. I ranted and raved about his greatness, the all-too-real, hallucinatory quality of his prose. She laughed at mostly at me but grew endeared. She asked for some recommendations for other South American writers to which I swiftly responded with Borges and Cortazar, though Cortazar was becoming increasingly difficult to locate. She smiled and asked my name. Freddie. And she was Betsy

. I then learned that she was a classically trained flautist. She had come to Berklee for a Master’s Degree in performance, having received her Bachelor’s from a small school in her home state of Tennessee. Like most of those destined for greatness at Berklee, she had become disillusioned with the school. Her thoughts were that continued class-work and cash-flow wouldn’t necessarily increase her skills as a musician. I could not help but agree with her, as a fledgling writer myself I had had the internal debate about whether or not an MFA would really increase my writing abilities, and she told me that she had opted to drop-out, get a job, and maintain a strong presence in local studios and groups. Before I knew it, our cans were empty and she was informing me that she had to leave. I asked if I could walk her out and she lit a cigarette when we got outside. She then gave me a smile, a hug, and her phone number. I informed her that there was a party going on in a few days that she should come out. She smiled, said maybe, and began her way up Boylston towards Mass Ave. I returned to the table my former co-workers were absolutely mesmerized. I don’t think I actually spoke to anyone the rest of the night and no one had addressed me either. It was as if no one noticed that I had left the table.

When I woke up the next morning, I still had that crooked grin stitched from ear to ear. For the next few days I had told everyone I could about my experience on that night. About how she radiated in that dimly lit bar, pulling me in like a lonely satellite seeking the reassurance of a gas giant. By the second day, my roommates had stopped paying attention to me. I bugged my co-workers with her beauty and the intelligence which flowed so gracefully from her, going on and on about her musicianship as well. And while I had never she nor heard her play, I was pitching her abilities like some hopeless, coked-out A&R rep trying to get his client signed. There were two things in-particular about her: her blue eyes that sat quietly on her pale face, look as soft as the sweatshirt she was wearing that night and her laugh. There was something with the frequency and pitch of her laugh that attacked my inner animal. When I had heard it first my ears perked and I found myself drawn to her even more so. For those couple of days before I saw her again, I would hear that laugh in the air and my head would shoot up, eyes darting across every which way and I would frantically scan around me searching for the missing siren.

On the third day, as per the advice of my friends and some awful things I read on the internet (some horseshit about negging and wearing wild and crazy accessories,) I reached out to her. I again mentioned the party that was happening that night and asked her to come along. It was in celebration for three different people’s birthdays which was aptly titled, Choose Your Own Party! She told me that she would be nearby and to let her know when I arrived. I got to the party and immediately texted her. I was thrilled and terrified and spent the majority of my time on the porch smoking cigarettes and waiting for Betsy’s arrival. When I was not on the porch I was in the living room imbibing on whatever was in the pipe being passed around, which certainly didn’t help my increasing anxiety. I half knew the people there, really only knowing my one friend and his girlfriend. He was a guitarist and again talked the ears off of anyone that would listen about Betsy. I went outside after finishing the lackluster IPA I had brought with me. While out there I thought I could smell the smoke from another cigarette but looked around to see only empty streets. I turned my back and was getting ready to toss my butt when I heard that laugh. I looked down from the porch and there was Betsy, staring up at me and smiling. I burst back inside, calling out she’s here! And shoved my way down to the front entrance. She was wearing a large white hat that flopped to one side, like something out of the Kentucky Derby in the twenties, and had on a fur coat that covered her from shoulder to thigh. When we got upstairs she slipped on her coat and told me she brought gift. It’s a bag of fireworks and some pot. When you said choose your own party, it was all I could think of. I went to grab her a beer from the fridge and she took the time to introduce herself to the group. When I had returned, there was already a small following around her. She had packed the pipe and was enjoying her time with the hosts, them both imbibing on the weed and on her. I stopped in my tracks at first and felt my face go red. My anxiety had picked back up as my illustrious guest was now being courted by the others. I came over and gave her the bottle I had chosen for her and asked if she wanted to smoke a cigarette. I just wanted to get her away from the others. With a laugh we were outside. She was so casual and calm that it made me wired. At first I didn’t know what to say. I looked open and commented on the lack of visibility of Orion and how the light pollution really kills constellation gazing. She told me about where she was from, a small farm town in Tennessee. And that the stars were always on display there. She then told me about the solitude of the town. The place was tucked away and wasn’t very open to outsides. It meant that she had a lot of time to practice and was now experiencing a kind of turnaround from being in the city. She told me it took her sometime to get used to all the noise and the constant flow of traffic. I could only smile and stare. With each word I fell deeper in those steely blue eyes. I must have not said anything for some time and she laughed and asked me if I was alright. I wanted to apologize for falling into the rabbit hole but again found myself complaining about Orion. Before I knew it she had grabbed my shirt and we were locked at the lips. I grabbed her ribs and gave them a tight squeeze. She ran one of her hands across my face, implying we should leave.

We grabbed a cab and headed to her Brookline apartment. The cab had arrived there in no time and I was surprised with how quickly it all went. The few times I looked out the window there was only darkness. She seemed to have a rapport with the driver and didn’t even tell him the address. She grabbed my leg and we embraced again. All of a sudden we were standing outside of her home. To my amazement it was a restored Victorian, complete with gables designed by Hawthorne. I took a few steps to the path and found myself in stasis. To my right was a small glyph that vaguely resembled a thorn. I thought it had a glow to it but when Betsy came by and placed her hand on it, it grew as the stone it was etched into. She grabbed my hand and we were in her room. She produced a fifth of whisky and asked if I wanted some. I took a meaningful pull and when I lowered my arms she approached me and placed her hands upon my cheek. The world went quiet. I was on my back and with each additional drink from the bottle an article of clothing was seemingly removed from the both of us until we were a tangle of limbs and a collision of flesh and spit. We spent the next three weekends together, engaging in the common tropes of Spring lovers: walks in the park, lunchtime liaisons, and midday lounging. I was again at her apartment on a Saturday, the day being spent in the aforementioned park, enjoying the sites of the afternoon with an overpriced six pack and tightly rolled joints. We ended up falling asleep in full embrace back her place.

When I awoke the next morning, something felt completely off. We went to the porch for a cigarette and sat in unnatural silence. She barely looked at me and when she did, her eyes were no longer that bright blue that had engulfed me that night at the bar. She sat and smoked. More importantly, I hadn’t heard that laugh that had intrigued me so. I informed her that I had to leave to go check out a new apartment. While it was more than evident that something was on her mind, I was too unsure to ask, fearing it would mean the end of me. She walked me out and I could feel the growing distance in her kiss goodbye. As I slowly descended the stairs every instinct in me told me to turnaround. When I got to the sidewalk I realized that I had left my pair of sunglasses and bag of grass. I turned around and meekly attempted to get back to her apartment. I stopped dead in my tracks at the walkway and once again froze next to the unlit glyph. In an act of cowardice, I turned around and made my way back home.

I am telling you this story from that fabled, not-so-divey-dive bar on Boylston Street, at the same table where I met. I haven’t seen her since I fled her apartment. I have spent weeks in agony and flooded with anxiety and despair, riddled with shame and anger. I was a despot deposed. My calls have gone unanswered and texts ignored. I even returned to her apartment but found no one home. The one time I had encountered one of the others living there they informed me that no one by the name of Betsy had lived there. I spent a few days just wandering around, every once in a while hearing that siren song and hoping to see the beautiful girl the laugh was coming from.  I thought I saw her few times but was never able to catch up with the fleeting specter. Now, I have pledged to sit and wait. In one hand, I have a barely sipped Pabst Blue Ribbon and in the other, a sweat stained copy of The Savage Detectives. I will stay here each and every night until I am able to once again conjure the image of Betsy one last time.

 

The Emperor and the Swamp

Years had passed since the Emperor’s first day on the island. If his son had lived he would have been sprouting a beard by now. But as history has proven time and again, revolution leads only to death. The Emperor had fought for his ideals, and ruled, however short a time it was. It was his willingness to give back that had won gave the people. It was his swift hand that took the throne. The Emperor’s reign lasted a matter of years and when his coup came that spring morning, it lasted only a matter of minutes. After imprisonment, there was no trial. The generals knew their punishment. Exile. It was humiliation that they wanted. The Emperor had been ripped from his land and he would die before setting eyes on it again. While he once walked the wide plains of his homeland, now he wandered a dense swamp. Before he was joined by brothers and followers; now there were only guards and servants.

The swamp was some fifty steps from the encampment. He would spend his afternoons out there. The mists that emerged from the waters were projectors of war. Spectral tendrils climbed from the surface. He saw in them the men who had bled for him fleeing from cannon-fire. The smell of blood and sweat exhumed from the haze. The sound of charging cavalry stampeded through the air. His memories swirled together in an apocalyptic fit. One night he had found himself there before sunset. The Emperor sat there beside a vernal pool and watched the young vestiges of life frantically stream about. There was dancing, twirling and dashing, a beautiful courting ceremony. Their dance brought back his wife and the happiness they had experienced long ago. She would dance with every opportunity. Her hair would swim back and forth in roundabout curls and her dress would whirl about her. The Emperor looked up to the sky and saw deep red clouds emerging from the horizon. The clouds grew larger and darker like the blood of a wounded dress. They continued to flood the empty sky, gushed down in scarlet waves and swallowed everything in their wake. They took the Emperor with them.

When the Emperor washed back to shore he was in bed. The guards saw him collapse and rushed him back to the encampment. By his side was the doctor, whose black eyes and glasses he never trusted. He informed the Emperor that he had been unconscious for a few days. His fever had waned not too long before he woke. The doctor handed him a glass of water and maintained that the Emperor stay in bed. He was worried that the fever may return. The Emperor had no choice and lay there quietly. Before sunset a storm came about on the edge of the sea. Within hours it had arrived at the encampment and brought with it a thrashing of waves that throttled the island. The swamps were at its mercy and piece by piece the huge faunae that sat carefully above the water were purged. Branches snapped and roots tore. Lightning hewed trees in two. There was a great crash from above and everything went quiet. The Emperor thought the roof was collapsing and used all of his available strength to get himself out of bed. His elbows creaked as he lifted himself up and his knees and hips popped with atrophy. He fell over to the window and landed against a small armchair. When the smoke cleared outside there was no encampment. There was no swamp. There was only glass and steel. Men walked around in dark jackets and dark pants carrying with them small leather chests. They spoke loudly and violently into small devices held to their face. The Emperor was stunned and fell back from the window. He regained himself and looked back out. There was something about the brightness of it all that called to him. He went over to the large dresser and took a look at himself in the great glass mirror. A life of battle had left him with cracks around his eyes and wrinkles carved deep into his face. His once bright mustache had paled in years and weakly sat atop his lip. His hair had receded but still maintained a particular thickness. His eyes had not changed though. They were still bright and green, piercing through the mirror. He took his coat from atop the dresser and his hat from the bed post. Clad in his battle garb, the Emperor made his way out the window.

The Emperor was immediately taken aback by the strength of the ground beneath him. It was as rigid as the marble in his palace but appeared to be same dirt of the common roads. He was surrounded by buildings greater than anything he had ever seen. Words and faces leered down at him, some of them moving to his astonishment. He vaguely recognized some of the phrases, some kind of bastardization of the language of his enemies. He was surrounded by people: men, women, and children. Some walked by as if they were being chased by a silent predator while others took their time, gazing into the sights around them. The Emperor pulled his coat close to his chest. He was amazed that these people had no reaction to the ghastly things about them. Most of them didn’t even seem to notice. The Emperor continued his way down the road, moving with the droving hordes. There was a foul smell in the air like burning stone and oil. He came to a stop in front of a wide glass façade. Inside people stood in queue, staring at small machines in their hands and tapping their feet impatiently. It appeared as if the young people behind the table were giving them rations. In an instant one of the youth had emerged and was flailing their arms at the Emperor attempting to shoo him like some household pest. The Emperor brushed it off and continued on his way. He came to another establishment but this one was filled with statues. They were similar to the ones he had seen abroad in his youth, pale and limbless. Here though, they had no faces and were adorned in the wildest of dress. Feathered hats covered their heads, enormous furs dangled across their torsos. As he continued passed the gruesome displays he found himself at a crossroads. In front of him were massive wheeled machines, moving faster than the finest of horses. They came in all different sizes and colors and howled and screeched when they tore past. The ones that were yellow appeared the most ferocious and were marked with a white fin on their topside.  The Emperor was appalled as people went running towards them and attempted to jump at them. At a moments notice the group he had fallen in with had begun marching towards the company opposite them. The Emperor had seen something similar like this on the battlefield. Here they were no drums but there were some screams. The two sides merged and then continued past each other. The Emperor struggled to keep up and eventually found himself on the other side of the street. He continued walking along the wide, pale path. When he next came upon the crossroads again he waited until he saw another from across the way to begin their walk and hurried to follow. He continued straight for some time. He encountered gypsies peddling goods and he was approached by beggars who grabbed out at him. The people he encountered made him uneasy and on edge. The Emperor found himself in front of an old building adorned with flags. There was something familiar in it. The building spiraled up and came together in elegant arches. It reminded him of both the barracks and the cathedral of his capitol. He circled around the building and quietly prayed he would see the one true flag. The flags he came upon were not the ones the embodied his nation but were the flags used both by the tyrant he had destroyed and the sycophants that usurped him. The Emperor made his way back around and found the front doors.

What the Emperor found appeared to be an enormous glass furnace inside of the great stone building. He watched as people came and went and when the opportunity presented itself he entered. The back door came and clipped his heels and all but shoved him inside. The floors were luminescent and paralyzing. As the Emperor made his way down the corridor he noticed the people around him were sneering and tossing him sideways glances. The Emperor adjusted his hat, shook his coat and continued. He looked eagerly around for someone to speak with. He came upon a man and a woman dressed in deep black. Upon their chests were two medallions that emulated the flag that he abhorred. He approached the two, removed his hat, and gave a ceremonial bow. He felt that above else, he must keep his nobility about him, even with the enemy present. He inquired as to who was in charge and requested a moment of their time. The woman snickered and man peered over his glasses at him. The Emperor grew angry and again requested to speak with whoever was in charge. The woman again laughed and the Emperor exploded. He gnashed at the woman that she was nothing but a gnat to be crushed under his fist. The Emperor swung his arms, grabbed the man by the lapels and demanded one last time to speak with his superior officer.  The woman grabbed for the small black device at her waste and yelled into it. The Emperor then let the man go and darted his eyes back and forth hoping to find the person that could finally give him answers he sought. Within a moment, two large men came upon either side of him, grabbed him by the elbows and dragged him outside of the building. They tossed him out onto the steps and warned him never to return. The Emperor had once again been exiled. Overwhelmed with shame and bursting with spite the Emperor collected himself and attempted to find a place of solace. He returned to the stone walkways but moved with the same amount of vigor as those who were around him. Across the way, the Emperor noticed a grassy area with a small bench. He crossed the road quickly, dodged some of the four wheeled monstrosities and spat on those that flew past him. He walked up to the bench and took a seat. He removed his hat and placed it to his side, and rubbing his temples, tried to take in what had happened to him in the last few hours. Things were quieter where he now was. He was able to drift and he heard birds in the surrounding park. He looked upon those that were walking around him and noticed a happier disposition. He was amazed at the difference these few steps had made. Just a few yards away were chaos and anger but here there was temperance and peace. It was in that moment that he yearned for the swamp. To take in the smoke surrounding the pools and peer into his past. His robes were tattered and his sleeve had a large hole in it thanks to the workings of those brutes from the opposition’s stronghold. This place was nothing he could have ever imagined. Even the one thing that had struck a chord with him turned out to be a lie. These people were nothing like the people that he had known in his land and had loved so much. A few of them passed in front of him and one tossed a few coins into the Emperor’s hat. Several others passed and they repeated the action. The Emperor would not stand for this and cursed them for their arrogance. He took the coins from his hat and flung them at those passing by.  Who were they to assume he required their charity. The Emperor was now riddled with disgust. It was then that he saw them for what they really were: a populace of ants. They scurried back and forth and meagerly sought out the perfect dirt clod. The Emperor got up and dashed away from his seat. In the distance he saw a man standing alone on a large box. The man was preaching and did so with great animation. There was however no flock before him. The Emperor watched the man a bit longer and quietly crept towards him.

He alone stood in front of the man and watched him with great care. The man was preaching about the end of time, or that was how the Emperor imagined it. He had seen a few men like this before, in the capitol repeating the prophecy of Revelation. In his time as too the fear of such events sweltered in the air. Here though no one was taken in. People walked past in silence and didn’t even look at the man. The man upon the box grew frustrated and stepped down. As he parted he spoke a few words to the Emperor but they came out only in garbles. Realizing his opportunity he walked over to the box. Slowly he stepped onto the wooden parapet. There was something too familiar about this position. The Emperor felt alive, just as he did when he looked into the mirror before embarking on this bizarre pilgrimage. This was the reason he had walked through that window, the reason that storm had come to give respite. The Emperor could see the companies his of men lined up before him. His soldiers awaited their orders. He felt the battles again raging through his body. His blood pumped furiously as he buttoned his coat, balanced his hat, and raised his right arm. With his renewed fervor the Emperor cleared his throat and began his call to arms.

Working the Line

7:33. Punch in.

As I made my way towards the web press the smell of grease became overwhelming. The tiny Asian women in the binding area were already hard at work and, honestly, it didn’t look like they had moved from those spots in several years. Their backs were permanently crooked and their safety glasses fused to their translucent skin. A fork lift zipped past me with a pallet of fresh bundles, probably reorganizing and getting ready for tonight’s run. The truck stopped at the designated area and lifted the pallet some twenty feet into the air and dropped it industriously, with little clamor, on the third level.

I had been working at Mercury Press for a couple of months now. My blue jeans now looked to be covered in shreds of blank ink. My shoes went on to match. Most days I was able to get all of the ink off my skin, spare some splotches on my elbows. I walked into the web room and was immediately engulfed by the cacophony of gears, rollers, and motors. Three of the six lines are currently running, producing millions and millions of pages for the likes of W.W. Norton and Hachette. Text books, cook books, satire, mythology. You name it, we printed it. I approached my spot at the binding table to see if everything was alright. Nothing seemed to be out of place and more importantly, the roll of thick plastic binding was fully stocked. My job is to bind together three foot bundles that are stacked on a pallet: twelve bundles per row, five rows high. I went to grab my gloves from behind my bench when I was approached by Craig, the foreman of the line. He was one of the first guys I had met at Mercury, alongside a wonderful woman from HR whom I never once saw nor spoke to again. When you start third shift you rarely see people in general, outside of the mixed bag of characters you spent your twelve hour overnight shift with.

Very quickly Craig had asserted that he was both a drunk and an asshole. And by that I mean, his protruding gut the hung precariously over his belt screamed twelve Budweiser’s a day and his mouth spewed shit. He had the social graces of a walrus and seemingly went out of his way to remind people of such. On that first day he told me that what was do was, and I quote, nigger work and that I should indeed get the fuck out of there as soon as possible. Today however, he wasn’t as poetic. Listen kid, I’m gonna have this piece of shit running in about five minutes. Now you better have them fucking glasses and gloves on and be ready to fucking go. I told him I would do what I could and he gave me a hearty slap on the shoulder and walked away. Fucking asshole. I made a few small adjustments to the feeders at the end of the belt and the beginning of the binder, making sure the track was wide enough for the flow of pages to come through, and waited for the madness to begin. Within seconds the entire web press was whirring and spitting out bunches of pages.    All the way in the back was where the paper was loaded in. What looked like the receipt roll for the largest cash register known to mankind and beyond, was lifted up by the fork truck and suspended by chains, allowing the loose end to be fed into the press itself. The feed, or the web, would then be pulled through various rollers that would press the paper against the plates below. The web would zigzag up and down printing anywhere from eight to twelve pages over and over and over and over again. The web was then pulled through the ovens for a quick dry before heading over to the blades and folders. The pages would run through the blades and be sliced appropriately and then folded into the correct sequence of pages. Chapter 2, Pages 8-20, or, Chapter 42, Pages 133-141. Whatever. Those folded bunches would eventually make their way over to me. I would collect the pages between two large rectangular pieces of room, push two buttons simultaneously, and SNAP. The bundle would be taken off the rollers and placed on the pallet. After sixty bunches I would wrap the pallet with an ogre’s sized roll of saran wrap, place the appropriate marker in the wrapping and move it off to the side. Repeat that cycle what seemed like a thousand times, and there you have it. Twelve hours in heaven.

Our first project was a science textbook and the particular pages were that of insects. I grabbed a couple of pages to make sure I had something to do later. After twelve pages of exoskeletons and thoraxes, we had finished. I moved all of the pallets into the warehouse where there would eventually be taken back to the small Asian women to be stitched together. The trash pages were only about a quarter of the bucket so I did not have to send those to the dumpster quite yet. I returned to my station and grabbed those pages that I had set aside. Not even one letter in and I had been beckoned. Craig had returned. What the fuck are you doing? Instead of reading that trash how about you get over to the fucking shredder and clean that shit up. I got loose pages everywhere and I sure as shit ain’t gonna clean it up. As I walked over to the back end of the shredder where all of the clippings ended up, I watched Craig climb into the folders hoping to make adjustments. For a warbling, toad of a man, he was surprisingly agile. The other presses around us were still running. The noise was something fierce, like mechanical animals thrashing in a zoo for the entertainment of the other robots. I carried the clippings and made my way back over to the trash bin. Leandro and Paolo, who were responsible for feeding the paper into the press, had come across and down the line. Paolo had this interesting habit of leaving enormous tails of the packaging tape and paper on people’s asses like a tail. I still have no idea what was so raucously funny about it but after a while it caught on and others were doing it to. To make an obtuse cultural reference, I guess it was their penis game. Today he had gotten Craig, square on the spot where his ass crack was trying to escape his jeans. He proceeded to stamp his feet about and mutter some kind of motherfuckingasscuntfuckingpiecofshit concoctions, with a few faggots for good measure, and went back to his folders. They laughed, said something to each other in Portuguese, and made their way towards the warehouse. As they passed me they nodded, as was their customary Hello, and disappeared. I let out a laugh as I threw away the remained ink-stained, shit pages. Then I was called over by the second in command.

Marty was an older gentleman, a Vietnam vet, and a birthday party magician. He was also second in command on the line and the main mechanic, usually doing the jobs that Craig could perfectly do but was far too lazy and off kissing the ass of floor manager. Hey kid, ya wanna gimme a hand with these plates? I need you to scrape the rest of the ink off the roller. My back ain’t handling it tonight. Ya know you take two tours for a fucking country and this is what you get back. He muttered off as I made my way over to the rollers. Marty was good for a few war stories a night. The man could go from ranting about the conditions of Vietnam to his ex-wife, to calling Criss Angel a pussy: He’s a fucking illusionist he doesn’t do any real fucking magic. This time, as I began scraping the black sludge away from the metal and rubber, it was a combination of the ex-wife with a splash of Vietnam. Ya know, my daughter just turned eighteen. I’m real happy and excited. But that bitch has gotta go and ruin it. She called me up and she says, you know what she said? She says, I know you still get check from the government every month and I was wonderin’, ya know even though Kayla is eighteen, could you still maybe help me out and send some money every month? And you know what I said to her, I said, look bitch, were your tits floatin’ with me in the goddamn rice paddies!? I didn’t think so. He crackled off his broken smoker’s cough and gave himself the ol’ knee slapper. By the story’s end, I was pretty much covered from wrist to elbow in black ink. It was around midnight now and Craig was still struggling with the folders and thankfully I wasn’t close enough to hear him talking to himself. I looked back and saw Paolo and Leandro with a skillet behind me. I had no idea when they had walked past and returned to their area but now they were grilling up some number of sausages. After thoroughly cleaning my hands with the pumice soap, tiny grits that tear whatever stains your flesh with every rub and I made my way back to my area to take a look at the pages I had set to the side. Paolo had followed me and gave me one of the sausages on a roll. Eat. He smiled and walked away. I had always enjoyed hanging out with Paolo and Leandro, granted all we talked of was soccer and mostly me saying players and them nodding or scoffing. Paolo would tell me how all he did was play when he wasn’t working. In fact, on the Sundays that we would be working, he would start playing, and drinking, at noon and go straight through until we had to be in. It blew me away with how he could operate like that. Granted, once you start working the night shift, after a few weeks you are used to running with no sleep.

While I was eating I noticed that rain had started falling. The drops trembled on the steel roof and reverberated throughout the factory. The sound grew as the other lines began to slow down. I hear we’re supposed to get some nasty fuckin’ thunderstorms tonight. Marty was talking to no one in particular between bites of grilled chorizo. My money says we lose power. Happens every goddamn time. Craig had finally finished with the folders and walked over looking up at the ceiling. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Just look at this place. Kid lemme fucking tell ya, it’s like we’re working in a shoe shop in the fuckin’ fifties. I’m surprised this place hasn’t burned to the ground. Alright you useless fucks, it’s time to get this bitch goin’! Back to it! Craig waived us all off and I hurried to scoff down the rest of the chorizo. As he walked away Marty flipped him off and let out a snicker. Marty loaded up the new plates and within minutes we had the web press fired up. When the pages came down to me I was relieved to see that it was finally something of interest. It was Colbert’s new book, I Am America (And So Can You!) I went out of my way to grab several pages from the line. About a half hour into the job the lights in the building began to flicker. Well here we fucking go huh. Craig was ready to burst and was screaming over the roaring press. Within a few minutes the place went black and silent. You gotta be fucking kidding me! Every fucking time it rains this happens. It’s like goddamned clockwork. Craig seemed to be the only person upset as from wall to wall you heard some slight cheering and laughing. Marty, Paolo and Leandro had walked over to the partially assembled pallet and leaned against it. I dunno Craig, to me this seems like the best part of the job. Paolo and Leandro let out a good laugh and Craig stormed off into the dark. The emergency lights had come on and the factory took on the appearance of a forgotten dungeon. We were joined by Mickey, the foreman of one of the other lines. Mickey had the appearance of an eight year whose feet you had stepped on and arms and legs stretched out about a foot. He had come in complaining his guy running the binder. I mean look at him, he’s gotta be a fag right? He looks like Harry Potter’s queer brother. The guys all laughed and I tried to take a look at the kid off in the dark. He was a college kid just like me and, while he did have a very Harry Potter looking face, nothing about him suggested he was gay. He was scrawny, wore glasses, and had a nervous gait and in this environment, very much like middle school, that mean that you might like to suck dicks. They continued their decimation of the kid, even screaming shit at him to attempt to antagonize him. The fact that everyone in this place was obsessed with pointing out who may or may not be gay I think spoke leagues of how comfortable they were. I don’t think there was a single gay person in the place but they were constantly on the witch hunt, crying FAG and making some kind of joke. It was at the point that I opted to go out for a cigarette. I stayed right by the door to avoid the rain. When I had come back inside the power was back on and the lines were being fired up once more. We got things going once again and had powered through the Colbert run. As soon as that was finished we quickly cleaned everything and I dropped off the trash in down to Randall at the dumpster and we began our final run. It was to be a twenty five pallet run and would carry us through the night.

Before I knew it, the delivery guy had come in to replenish the vending machine which meant it was 5:30. The run finally finished up a little after 6:15 and we began our final clean up. I brought the remaining of the pallets into the warehouse and brought the trash down to the dumpster. This time, Randall was around and had waived me over. When I first started, I introduced myself to Randall and when I told him I was going to school he asked me what I studied. I told him I was an English major and he told me he’d give me any of the books I wanted. Well shit, all you gotta do is look around throughout the night. You see anything you might need or want just lemme know and I’ll stash ‘em for ya. Today he had a couple leftover and I took a look. He had a hard copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes and I told him I’d be back with my backpack. It was great, there was never really anything wrong with the books themselves. Maybe some ink had gotten on the edge of the page or the pages got cut just a little off-kilter. It was never anything major and I had plenty of room in my library. The guys from the morning shift arrived right around 7:15.  That was my cue and made me way back to the locker room to change and finally attempt to get all of the ink off of my face and arms. Afterwards, I grabbed my backpack and returned to Randall to collect my loot. You had to be extra careful with scavenging books as the company no longer allowed people to take extras. Apparently they had caught someone out back with a pick-up truck trying to load a couple of pallets of books into the back. I went back and walked over to the time clock which was just to the left of the locker room. We all stood waiting patiently for that last tick.

7:30. Punch Out.

American Spleen

I awoke one night with an erupting of my bile duct. The acidic discharge caused a firestorm of coughing and I enacted the cataclysm between a large blue-green comforter and age old bed sheets. I hadn’t realized in my tumbling the rumbling of my mobile device and the mechanical melody that maintained it was Miles Davis. I grabbed the slim black piece of steel, slid away the screen lock, dialed one, and my four digit password. I was met with a symphony of screams and shouts but seven soft words arose with the altos: Yo! Show at the Pit, come now! I lay back down and stared at the ceiling, still reeling from my indigestion. Up in the corners was a deep purple hue, as if Night itself had crept in through an open window and painted the interior, etching in it scribbled notes on existence. The bookcase was high but left enough space for small creatures to build huts in. The drapes bled down the window, recently flayed from the deceased day. I slowly got up from my eternal oak bedpost and grabbed my jeans and shirt. On my way out the door, I took my coat off the table and prayed the walk would be worth it.

The light in the hallway was dull and the timber above the stairway was rife with cobwebs. I walked out the door and off the porch, leery of the spider that had made himself gatekeeper over the last few weeks. The night air was breezy as spring had just arrived, still shaking off the last flakes winter’s chill. At the bottom of the driveway I hit Marginal Street, which was exactly how it sounded: Marginal. Just yards and houses on either side. A particular tenement appeared to have been built around the large lobster boat in the yard: a silent guardian that protected the neighborhood from choppy seas. I took a left onto Wilder Street and continued forward. The collection of triple-deckers was highlighted by the empty grocery carts parked in front and a rusted propane grill whose utensils swung silently in the air. On my left was an empty parking lot that carried with it a distant sound of rolling tin. At the far end of the slick black asphalt was an ominous brick hut with two grandiose smokestacks. Next to it a flag lay dead at the top of its pole. The brick house stood silent. It had been there before the Industrial Revolution and would remain there longer digital one. Next, I took a right onto a street whose green name card had been long since removed, leaving only a towering aluminum obelisk. A quick left and another right led to the arboreal gateway of the Pit. The only thing that accompanied me these last few streets was the sound of my soles against the pavement. There was however, a lurid smell that was coming either from the dumpster located at the very end of the street or whatever may have been growing in the four foot by four foot yard next to me that was surrounded by a scratchy, white picket fence. I crossed the threshold towards the Pit and a mist surrounded me.

I had to push my though black sweatshirts and skinny jeans to the side entrance. The bulkhead I would normally enter through was surrounded by legions of young folks all attempting to prove themselves higher in the ever evolving music and arts scene. I could hear the foundation humming and after a few empty hellos and some acknowledging nods I made my way up the stairs. I was greeted by the owners of the Pit: Dizzy, a kind, portly gentleman always adorned in a crisp white tee and patchy beard, and Edd, a troglodyte with a mustache. I was told to put my coat in the upstairs closet. I walked through the living room and side stepped some shifty looking squatters sitting on small spherical pillows whose eyes and lips were wrapped smoothly around the three-hosed hookah that was perched in the center of their off-kilter sphere. The walls were painted an odd array of powder blue and maroon and the planks were shaking from the band below. A haze filled the air as I made my way upstairs. Walking with me to the second floor was an unnatural silence and soon the sickly scent of sweat crept up through my nostrils. The closet was on my right and there were two bedrooms to the left, some thirty or forty feet apart. As I slid the closet door open there was a sudden halt and I was met by a Cheshire smile that spelled out one word: OCCUPIED. I could see a golden hue from behind the square-edged teeth as the door was pushed back in my direction. I put my coat back on and began back down the hallway. The sound of thighs colliding became more apparent and echoed as I went back down the stairs.

I returned back to the kitchen, making my way past the caterpillars that haven’t moved from their smoky pupas. I met Lloyd behind a makeshift bar to the left of the dry-brown refrigerator that was covered in magnetic letters. Lloyd was someone I had seen at these events before but had never truly met. I asked him how my credit was and he smiled saying, As good as ever. Then in his left hand appeared a glass bottle, seven hundred and fifty milliliters I’d say, and in his right hand a tarnished tumbler. He popped the cork from the bottle and I could see the last of the carbonation escape its glass prison. The liquid, sanguineous in color, crawled slowly out and floated downwards and into the glass. At about three quarters full he lifted the bottle and told me he called it Mind Eraser and warned, No chaser at all. I placed the glass to my lips and before I could taste it he faded from sight. Slightly confused I took a quick sip and was surprised by the mixture of sour fruit and smoked oak. It was thin but left a film in my mouth coupled with the sour of flame-roasted communion wine. I cruised past a few bob cuts, a couple of weaves, and some pairs of non-prescription eyeglasses. I finally made my way down the back stairs and to the basement.

My feet landed on the concrete floor at the foot of the rickety grey steps I looked up to see a squalid labyrinth above of PVC and iron. Pipes leaked here and there and I watched as rusty water dripped onto a crash cymbal. The Caliguloves were mid-set and the crowd circled them with illicit elegance. The winged dancers started as two but slowly became one fleshy being. Behind them were those either afraid to or not caring to dance. They swayed in cosmic disarray; through it all though the band remained stoic. The three of them, keyboardist, bassist, drummer, the harlequin, the druid and the luchador, respectively, bobbed their heads channeling their music from the guts of the Earth like savages chanting around the campfire.

I was approached by a young lady who called herself Grace and like the other votaries we blended into one. It must have been that bloody brew because our steps were synchronized and our hips connected in ways that were completely foreign to me. I could feel her breath as she laid her head against my neck. Goosebumps rose from all over and things were a hazy, my vision flooded by her chestnut mane. Our whirling went on at an eternal pace and soon those patricians of plainsong had come to a halt and the hybrid beings that had amalgamated on the dance floor split like atoms erupting into applause. They raced for the bulkhead in hopes to get fresh air or nicotine. Grace was fleeting as well and soon I had lost sight of her luminous sundress and limber legs in the pack of bipedal pachyderms. I followed the herd up and made my way back to the trees, hoping to relieve myself with no interruptions. With a quick zip and flip I set forth writing my name with a fresh urea-ink. Of course, I was interrupted once again by the mechanical melody that maintained it was Miles Davis. It was that familiar voice that had drawn me to the Pit. This time it urged me to go down to the Ninth District, the Fightin’ Ninth! It cried before clicking off. I concealed myself after a quick shake and realized that my eyes were flittering a bit. Without bidding any adieus, I fled the grounds and came out onto Broadway Street.

About halfway down Broadway I noticed that the street itself had begun lunging at me on every other step. I slowly waltzed with the shadows that grew and shrunk around me in the passing fluorescent lights. The streets were adorned with broad multi-family homes and run down Hondas. I continued for a while, the silent sounds of the cityscape providing my proverbial soundtrack until I came to the foot of a balcony. An old woman sat atop it in a wicker rocking chair. I could not see her eyes but could hear the tears hitting the ground like the sound of a drunken cannonball in a hotel pool at midnight. She held in her arms a young man’s head and wailed:

Eran las cinco en punta de la tarde

Un niño trajo la blanca sábana

Una espuerra de cal y prevenida

Lo demás era muerte y solo muerte[i]

I had no idea what she meant but the words shook my bones. They made my blood boil in ways and the roots of my hair tried to tear themselves from my scalp. I quickened my pace and almost tripped over a curb. Her mania sliced through the air and came at me like flying guillotines as I tried to escape.

Si muero, dejad el balcón abierto

El segador siega el trigo

Desde mi balcon lo siento

Si muero, dejad el balcón abierto[ii]

These last words drilled into the enamel of my teeth and I took to a sprint until the wails were inaudible though my muscles still convulsed. My panic subdued and was replaced by loss of breath and burning lungs. To my left was The Hellenic School and there was something about the place that put me at ease. I imagined young children reciting the Histories of Herodotus and the tragic tales of Aeschylus and Euripides all while being served ambrosia and nectar by a fleet footed servant. My heart was soon put at rest and as I straightened up I realized that I had found myself at the façade of the Ninth District.

I crossed the street and stepped onto the brick lattice. The patio was loaded with shadowy faces while dreadlocks and neon straws jutted out from underneath umbrellas. The brick inlet guided me to the front door and I entered with a cautious push. As I walked up the middle aisle I glanced from table to table, stool to stool, looking for a familiar face. My head turned from side to side like an over-zealous tennis spectator. It was then that I was stopped dead in my tracks. Petrified. Proselytized. Lobotomized. I was exposed to the stare of a daughter of Medusa: a woman so lovely I only heard tales of her gaze penetrating the anti-UV aegis and eulogizing men in their tracks. Her eyes were pale emeralds and her hair a fiery purple like the sanctified embers of a funeral pyre. She danced in ways that defied nature, an outpouring of angles and elbows and rigid footsteps. With each wretched swing of her neck she would conjure up a thyrsus that converted the nearest soul to a fledgling Maenad, doomed to dance the night away. Like Perseus before me, I too needed a gift from the gods in order to engage her. I went over to the wood top altar and attempted to acquire my libations.

The barkeep that approached was at most five feet tall and it seemed that the majority of his height came from his slicked up hair. The little troll had a smile from ear to ear but what filled his mouth was grey and yellow Chiclets. I garbled a request for a Budweiser and a shot of well whisky and he returned with a skip in his step and two shot glasses in his hand. He grinned and thanked me for the continued patronage and poured us both shots. I was slightly perplexed as I had only been to the place twice before but never deterred by free alcohol I smiled and raised my glass to the man. He introduced himself as Mike, said the shots were on the house, and clamored back to the other side of the bar. I looked back to see if the daughter of Medusa was still in the midst of her rites but before I could find her I was surprised by a tap on the elbow. The salt and peppered troll had returned. This time his smile was even wider and he had two more shot glasses in his hands. He looked into the blackness of my pupils and thanked me for years of patronage and poured two more shots. He took his shot and introduced himself as Paul and said he would see me around. I nearly spit my drink out and saw him laughing as he walked away. It was then I had noticed the whip-like tail cracking between his legs. Its forked tip which picked up a rag and proceeded to wipe down the bar as the troll poured two draughts. I attempted to stabilize myself and search out the pale eyed beauty. Two sideways laps later and my feet brought me towards the wall in hopes to level off. I cranked myself backwards and saw a young blonde sitting in the corner of the room. She tugged on her lip in anxious fashion and her uneasiness slowly crept into the cockles of my gut. Before my eyes the blonde became a brunette wildly gnashing at the air, who then became a bespectacled fiend checking for a pulse, which turned into the mother of a face long forgotten and weeping, who churned into a mustachioed fourth year poetess, who became a seven foot ginger administrator that loomed over my childhood, who became a portly gentlemen who never believed in experimentation, who became the flint-stoned reverend that questioned my belief in God and scripture, who became the wild-eyed poet and critic that never was, who became an ogre and a gremlin that sat side by side on flaming couches, which became a scaly redhead that swooped in one morning, who became the sweaty toothed meth head that had broken in the through the kitchen, which then reverted to its original form of shadow and memory. I was a specter lost in time. I quickly left the bar in hopes that the fresh air would be my apotheosis.

I tumbled onto the street with full force. I needed to escape. As I scuttled down the cobblestone curfews I saw what appeared to be two men engaging in auto-fellatio, steam emanating from their bodies. Was that woman having sex with a polar bear? What? Wild cries came from all directions and I took a jagged left down an alley. On my right in great white graffiti read ¡ANDALOU! I stopped to check my breath and my back, still worried about the besotted shapes that chased me from the Ninth. A voice then called out to me. It sounded like a thousand menthols. It called me: Little priest, little priest let me come in. It was my right to join the midnight Sabbath. To partake in the dirty, urban host that lay waiting for me. Come closer it cried, closer. The brick walls around me dissolved into an abysmal darkness. The voice grew saltier. I looked down to see my toes on the edge. The view was all too lovely. As I went to step out and into the nightly nave, a black-eyed bouncer told me it was time to go home.

I awoke to that mechanical melody that maintained it was Miles Davis.

[i] Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, Lorca, Federico Garcia, In Search of Duende, New Directions Books 1998

[ii] Farewell, Lorca, Federico Garcia, In Search of Duende, New Directions Books 1998