The Other Lane

I was up along the lake front of Lake Erie, driving around a sleepy small town there with its shady yards and closely packed colonial houses and its patchwork streets of brick and asphalt and stone. I was cutting down a particularly narrow side street, and there was a garbage truck sitting along the curb on the other side of the street, and the garbage men had jumped down and they were collecting the bags and cans that had been left out on the curb for them. As I approached the spot where the garbage truck was sitting, an old red pickup truck came growling out from behind the garbage truck, and it was running straight at me in my lane. I had to swerve off the road and run aground on someone’s front lawn to avoid the collision.

I started pounding on the horn with my fist and flipping the man off, waving my hand out the window and high in the air like a declaration of war. The truck slammed to an abrupt stop as it came alongside where I had wiped out in the yard. A man with a grizzly white beard shoved his face out the window and started screaming at me. He told me that he was a house painter for something and sons company or whatever, as if that excused his actions, as if to say that he was someone important in this town and he could drive in whatever lane he wanted and whichever direction he wanted. I yelled back that he had almost hit me, that he had made me wreck my car. I pointed to the double yellow line that ran down the center of the street, clearly indicating that passing wasn’t allowed. None of this made the slightest difference to the man. He just huffed and gripped his steering wheel like he was going to tear it off the dashboard and hurl it at me.

People all around began to appear, in doorways, up on balconies, from around the back of their garages. They all stared at me with the same hostility as the old painter in the truck, and I saw that they were all with him. I guess he actually was considered someone important in the town. They all began to gather on the scene. But I wasn’t worried. I could just put the car back into drive, hit the gas, and be clear of the situation in a matter of seconds, spraying mud and grass from the turfed up yard in my wake.

But just as I went to do exactly that, I found that my hand reaching for the gear shift was grabbing at nothing but air. The car had disappeared out from under me. Now I was on foot. Now I was in trouble. All the angry town’s people were closing on me. Even the garbage men had left their cans laying all over the yard and were coming down the street towards me. I faked this way and then that, and then I sprinted towards an opening where I saw sunlight down at the end of a shady boulevard of trees. Everyone fell in behind me, chasing me as a group, sweeping more people into their mob as they went along by the sheer gravity of their anger and their energy.

I came to a busier section of town and I ducked into a cramped little town store that sold cigarettes and lottery tickets and beer. The man behind the counter was alarmed at the way that I rushed in, and he started yelling something, but I was already out another door on the other side of the store before he managed to get out much more than an couple of loud grunts and angry noises. The other door let out onto a park of some sort where there was a sloping field with a grove of trees, and past that, running for it with all my strength, I could see the beach and the waves and the boats riding the thin blue line where the lake met the sky.

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Clock Workers

I woke up and there was a crew of workers in my bedroom, cleaning and fixing and dismantling everything. One of them had taken the light bulb out of the bedside lamp. He was wearing black gloves, and he held the light bulb by the base in one hand while he used a feather duster to lightly dust it with the other. He held it up, contemplating its inner filament as though the bulb contained a miniature world of industry waiting to be illuminated. Another man had taken the back off of the alarm clock, and he was studying the gears inside with an eyepiece and poking at its inner mechanisms with a set of picks and tweezers designed for small, delicate work.

Across the room, by the window, there were two other men. One of them sat on the edge of the bed in front of a cart with a carousel slide projector on it, holding the trigger that advanced the slides, and the other stared out the window at the view, scratching his chin and thinking. Every time the man working the slide projector clicked the trigger, the scene outside the window would change. Summer, spring, fall. Mountains and pastures and rainy city streets. And the man at the window took his time considering each one. The thing he seemed to find the most important was how thoughtful the light cast back through the window from each scene made him look. He would draw himself up in various poses and attitudes, and when these failed to satisfy him, he would gesture to the man at the projector to advance to the next slide.

None of them had noticed yet that I had woken up, and when I yelled, “Hey!” they all stopped and looked at me. “You don’t need to do any of this. It’s fine,” I told them. They all looked at one another, knowing smirks spreading across their faces. They kept nodding to each other and repeating what I had said, “You don’t need to do any of this. It’s fine,” as though this were a source of sly amusement that I couldn’t comprehend. Finally another worker came forward, one that I hadn’t noticed before in the room. He swapped out the pillows that lay behind me against the headboard and replaced them with fresh ones. Then he placed his hand on my shoulder and eased me back down onto the bed, shushing me as I drifted back. This had the intended effect, and I got very tired, and I faded back off to sleep before I even felt my head come to rest against the pillows.

Bringing the Wolves

I came across a wedding taking place in a clearing deep in the woods under the open grey sky. The white chairs for the guests were set up in a semi-circle. It was late in the year and the ground was covered in crunching snow and dead leaves, and there were colored lights strung up in the bare branches of the trees around the clearing. About a third of the chairs were filled with guests, and the guests were all sitting in groups and clusters, talking amongst themselves and paying no real attention to the bride and the groom and the preacher, who were all standing under a tree at one corner of the clearing. Most of the guests weren’t even looking in that direction.

And all the while, the bride, the groom, and the preacher stood in their places saying nothing. The couple just gazed at one another, beaming with sublime joy, and the preacher stared down at the Bible open in his hands, occasionally smoothing his fingers over a passage on the page that he seemed eager to read aloud. They were either waiting for someone or something to arrive so that they could begin the ceremony, or they were simply going to stand there all day as a decorative centerpiece to the general celebration of their matrimony. In fact, some of the guests had already wandered over to the table with the punch bowl and refreshments that was set up in the back behind the chairs, and a band was already playing light, festive music over by the tree line at the other end of the clearing. There was no sense that the guests were waiting for anything. It just looked like this was how they planned to spend the day.

As I wandered through the rows of chairs, I noticed that many of the children of the guests were sniffling and coughing, and some of them even looked pale and feverish. One boy glanced up at me as I passed by, and he pouted as he wiped his nose across his sleeve. I started thinking that it was inconsiderate for the bride and the groom to make everyone bring their sick kids deep out into the cold woods for their wedding. I took a wool cap that the boy was holding in his hands and popped it up onto his head and patted him on the back. The brim of the cap just dropped forward as the boy stared down at his cold empty fingers, balling them into little red fists to keep them warm.

I thought that maybe the thing to do would be to start a fire. I figured that I could get a small group of the guests together, and we could gather sticks and fallen branches from the woods and get a nice size fire going in a back corner of the clearing that wasn’t being used. I looked around at the scattered guests. The largest group was in the middle section of the chairs. They all seemed to be clustered closely around a woman at the middle of the group who was cradling a bundle in her arms. Some strained to lean forward over the backs of the chairs in front of them, while others were turned around with their knees on their seats. They were all smiling and pointing at the bundle.

As I came closer, I saw that it was something wrapped in a coat, and as I leaned in, I saw the furry nose of a small wolf cub peek up from behind a fold of the coat’s hood. I was immediately as enchanted as everyone else was. I brought a finger up and tickled the air a little in front of the cub’s nose. He nipped at it with his sharp teeth, and I snatched my finger back, and everyone laughed. I did it again and snatched it back just in time. He stared up at me from his warm bundle, the sky and the shadows of some of the taller-reaching trees showing in the darker portions of his eye.

Ever so softly, I began to let out a low howl, fainter than the winter wind, trying to entice something in the wolf cub’s newborn spirit. I let the sound of it trail off and fade on the air, and I smiled to see the cub perk up and lift itself up off the woman’s lap. I pursed my lips, preparing to howl again, but the woman gave me a pointed but quiet hiss and told me to stop. “You can’t be doing that. You’ll bring the other wolves.” And I looked around and saw that everyone else was staring at me, stern and serious. Someone at the back of the group slowly shook their head.

But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to stop, or maybe I just didn’t care to heed these admonitions. I threw my head back and let out a loud, piercing howl that rang across the clearing. I caught my breath, and then did it again. And then again. And then yet again. I scanned the faces of the crowd with a grin on my face, but no one else was laughing. Everyone was looking away from me in all directions, towards the edge of the clearing on all sides. The bride and the groom were clinging to to each other, and the preacher was turning to look over his shoulder. The band had stopped playing abruptly. The accordian let out a long whine as it slowly collapsed in the accordian player’s hands. The fiddle player stopped with his bow in mid-stroke. I turned around to see what they were all staring at, and the grin died on my face. There on the edge of the woods all around us stood the wolves, evenly spaced, their eyes narrow and hot and hungry in the raw air.

The Laundromat

I was walking through the vacant parking lot of a dark office building. Dry powdered snow blew in swirls across the pavement, and little pellets of ice spit in the air. The clouds hung low and black, and the only light was from a thin break far off along the edge of the horizon behind me. I walked over to my car parked in the first row along the curb, the only car parked in the lot, and I saw that there was something piled in a loose heap on the top of the trunk. As I got closer, I saw that it was a thick cotton blanket. I knew this blanket. It kept showing up in my life. Someone kept leaving it behind for me in different places, wanting me to take it. They left it on tables and chairs with a note bearing my name attached to it. They left it on my desk at work. I found it at the bottom of gift boxes. I found it on beds next to my coat as I was leaving parties.

And now here it was, left on the trunk of my car. By leaving it here, they were insisting that I take it. This was a final gesture of exasperation. They had dumped it there on the trunk as if to say that they were done with it, that it was my blanket now and I could do what I wanted with it as long as it was out of their sight. I grabbed a handful of it and pulled an end of it up to look at it. It was heavy and damp and growing stiff from the cold. It was colored in patterns of orange and red and blue, but it had grown ratty and old and all the colors had faded and blended into a dull pink.

I was standing there still holding the edge of this blanket, wrinkling my nose at it, when a married couple came jogging across the parking lot. As they passed by, I called out to them, “I guess someone really wants me to have this blanket.” As I said this, the woman broke off from her husband and she came jogging over to me. She grabbed two corners of the blanket and she held it up to look at it. She said that it looked like a fine blanket. But I complained that it was wet and cold and it had been left outside picking up who knows what sorts of germs. I couldn’t imagine using it on my bed at home.

The woman assured me that that wouldn’t be a problem. She rolled the blanket up and tucked it under her arm, and I followed her as she rounded the corner of the office building. When we came around, the light flicked on in one of the windows on the first floor. I saw that it was the light of a storefront window. It was the only window that was lit in the whole dark building. There were letters on the glass that said “Laundromat”, and the shadows of the letters were elongated and written across the frozen ground. There was a neon sign saying that they were open 24 hours. The place seemed to have just appeared there for our benefit.

We went inside, and I dug in my pockets for some loose change, and we washed the blanket in one of the washing machines and dried it one of the dryers. There was a coffee pot brewing with free coffee for the customers. I drank a few cups while I waited, and I thumbed through some of the old magazines that were left scattered on the tables beside the chairs in the waiting area. When the blanket was done drying, the woman folded it neatly on the counter and she presented it to me with a bright smile. “See, it’s just fine,” she told me. The blanket was warm and clean and it smelled like fabric softener. I held it close and nodded. Outside, beyond the storefront window, the snow was beginning to fall in thicker, wetter flakes.

Waiting for an Elevator

I saw an old professor of mine across a crowded train station. He was standing by a bank of elevators, waiting for one to take him to a higher floor. I called out to him, waving my hand high in the air, and I started to hobble over to him with my injured left leg. The light glared off the lenses of his glasses for a moment as he glanced over, and then he quickly looked away, lurching slightly at the elevator doors, as though he could will them to open and make his escape. I could tell that he didn’t want to see me, but I still made my way over to him, propelled by the momentum of my efforts to get across the floor. It was the holiday season, and everyone had on heavy coats. Everyone was headed home. I pushed my way through the crowd, still waving my hand in the air.

When I got over to him, he glanced down at my injured leg. He seemed to be disgusted by it, or else he was just revolted by me in general and the leg was just a larger part of it. I held out my hand to him, and I launched right into a conversation about something he had discussed in class. But I hardly got two words out before he cut me off, saying, “I’ve been waiting forever for this stupid elevator.” He pointed up at the arrow moving across the semi-circle dial that indicated the floor that the elevator was on. “I can’t keep wasting my time standing here. I think I’m going to take the stairs, and you can wait here for the elevator, and I’ll meet you up on the third level.”

I knew that this was a ruse to get away from me. He could see that I couldn’t take the stairs with my injured leg, and he was using that to his advantage. But he tried to make it look convincing; he tried to make it look like he was really going to wait for me. As a show of good faith, he even handed me his brown briefcase and his plum colored umbrella, both wet from the melted snow. He would get these things back from me when we met above. But I could feel that the briefcase was empty, and I could see that there was no actual mechanism to open the umbrella. They were just props, cleverly employed for these exact sorts of situations.

He pressed these items into my hands, and then he backed away towards the stairs, almost stumbling against the bottom step in his hurry to get away. He kept reminding me that he would meet me on the third floor, maintaining the pretense that this actually mattered. I nodded and played along, the fake umbrella and the empty briefcase cradled in my arms. And then he was up the stairs and gone. As soon as he had slipped out of sight, the elevator bell dinged and the doors slid open. The elevator was empty. A florescent light in the ceiling flickered for a moment and then burned out and then the elevator was dark inside. There was no one aboard, and I knew there was no one waiting for me on the floors above.

Pieces of a Horse

I went to visit a farmer that I knew. When I got there, I found him out in his garage, all excited about a wooden crate that had come in the mail. He was prying the lid off the crate with a crowbar when I walked up. I heard the crack of wood and the creak of the nails wrenching free. The crate was packed with straw, and the farmer dug around a bit and pulled out the leg of a horse. He brushed the leg clean of a few loose pieces of straw, and he held it gripped with both hands, satisfied with the length and the weight and the feel of it. It was a rich brown with small patches of white. “Look at that shoe!” he told me, flipping the leg around so that the hoof faced me. The smoothest, shiniest silver horseshoe was fixed to the hoof, looking like it had never taken the slightest step on dirty ground.

He explained to me that this was the last piece he needed to make a horse. He’d ordered it all through the mail, one piece at a time, and crate after crate had been delivered to the farm over the last three months. I was baffled by what he was telling me. I pointed out that a horse was a living creature, born of its mother, and growing bigger and stronger with time. It wasn’t something that you could order in pieces through the mail and assemble together. But the farmer, he just laughed at my ignorance and gave me a little wink.

I followed him out to the barn. There was a large open area in the front, and he told me to wait there while he went in the back where the stalls were. I sat down on a bale of hay and gazed up at a large gap in the boards of the roof where the faded light of the cloudy day shone through. I rolled my eyes at the thought that the farmer was somewhere in the back, putting together a horse. But twenty minutes later, I heard that unmistakable snort and I looked up to see a brown and white horse come trotting through the doorway that led to the back of the barn. It looked over at me with its large dark eyes, and then it swung its head low and trotted past me out of the barn, out into the open field. As it passed into the light, I caught the gleam of silver off its hoof. It had on that same, perfectly clean shoe.

But all the same, I figured the farmer was pulling some kind of prank on me. Maybe this was a common joke among farmers. The old assembled horse routine. I figured I’d find him in the back, standing in the empty stall where the whole horse had been all along, still holding the horse leg that had come in the mail, laughing until there were tears in his eyes. But when I went in the back, there was no one there. I called out the farmer’s name, but no one answered. It was cool and quiet and dark, and all the stalls were empty.

The door to the last stall was open, and I found all of the farmer’s clothes in a heap on the floor inside the stall. I looked at the clothes and I looked back down at the doorway that the horse had went through, and I started to put it all together. The pieces of the horse were like a suit that the farmer had put on. He had put the torso of the horse around his midsection, slid the hind legs on like boots and the fore legs on like gloves, slipped the horse head over his own head, and fixed the tail to his own hind end. Doing so, he had actually become the horse. Not just wearing the horse, he was changed somewhere in the heart of the horse’s being. I realized that this was how all horses came to be, born out of some unique sense of freedom that only a horse could offer someone willing to order one piece by piece through the mail.

There was a soft rumble of thunder and the rain began to pour outside. I went back out to stand in the open doorway of the barn, just enough inside to still be clear of the rain, and I saw the horse out there in the field. It was getting agitated by the rain and a little spooked by the thunder. It trotted around in an uncertain circle, not sure of what to do or where to go. Finally, it sought shelter under a tree that stood alone on a small hill, and I watched as it reached up and picked apples from the tree with its teeth and stood eating them, perfectly content.

By the Jailhouse

As I was strolling down a boulevard, enjoying the spring air and admiring the small trees that had been planted every few feet along the sidewalk, I came upon the stone building that served as the county jail. I happened to glance over as I was passing the front steps of the building, and I noticed a woman with curly, bleached blonde hair across the street, crouched down and hiding behind a hedge. Her eyes were just over the top of the hedge, and she was staring intently at the front doors of the jailhouse. This struck me as strange, almost comical, and I was curious about why the woman was there. So, when I got to the corner, I spent a few moments pretending to contemplate the bronze statue of the town’s founder that looked out over the five point intersection, and then I casually turned around and went back the way that I had come, so that I could cross by the woman once more.

As I passed by the jailhouse again, there was a young man wearing sunglasses and a grey jacket, hustling down the steps. His shoulder bumped into mine, nearly knocking me to the ground, but he didn’t stop to acknowledge me there. He didn’t even seem to notice that he had ran into me. He just stopped at the curb, glanced quickly up the street, and then hurried across to the blonde woman hiding behind the hedge. She came out to meet him with her arms wide to embrace him, her black heels clicking against the pavement as she shuffled her feet, and a shopping bag dangling from her left hand. I shook my head, thinking that it had been silly for her to hide like that, as though this had been a carefully orchestrated jailbreak rather than a legitimately scheduled release, as though all dealings of any kind with the county jail required skulking about and hiding behind bushes.

The young man was clearly the blonde woman’s boyfriend, and even he asked her what she was doing over there in the bushes. But he didn’t really bother waiting for an answer; he just shook his head. He snatched the shopping bag from her hand and peered down into it. “What the hell is this?” he asked her, his raised voice carrying across the street. He drew a blue sequinned dress up out of the bag, holding the price tag for her to see. She fidgited in place and fumbled in her pockets for a cigarette, and they both immediately launched into what seemed like an old, old argument about money.

I started to move on, feeling too conspicuous standing there and watching this couple argue. I could hear the blonde woman behind me in tears, her high-pitched voice carrying over her boyfriend’s low grumbles. She told him about all the places that she wanted them to go, fancy restaurants and nice stores, maybe even plays and art galleries. Somehow the sequinned dress was some necessary component of these fantasies, the key to the whole thing. She wanted them to have a new life, glossy and brightly colored, smooth and elegant. “And now you’ve ruined it, ruined everything!” she told him, stamping her heel on the sidewalk. Things were supposed to go a certain way when he got out of jail, when he came out and saw the dress, and already, from the very first scene, he had deviated from that long reel of celluloid images that she had hoped to see unwinding far into their future.

I heard the paper crinkle of the dress going back into the bag, and I glanced back to see the boyfriend put his hand on her arm to calm her, to comfort her, to tell her that he was sorry. But she had her head down, stubbornly refusing to be consoled. Their new life would be just like their old life, that picture perfect moment in the candlelight with the waiter holding the bottle of wine would always be just beyond their reach, always belonging to someone else, somewhere else. But they started away together down the boulevard, her sullenness subsiding as she rested her head on his shoulder. I just shrugged and turned the corner onto another sunny street.

Mirror Image

There was an important job interview that I had to go to. I went in the bathroom to get ready, and as I flipped on the light, I was shocked by the face that confronted me in the mirror. I saw myself, looking frayed and frazzled and malnourished. There was a large purple bruise across my right eye, and the bones of my jaw stood out sharply, and the corners of my mouth kept twitching, seeming to form various cackles of mania and pale expressions of distress and extreme anxiety of their own accord. Strangest of all, there were several large, festering black sores protruding from my face and forehead.

As I leaned forward, I saw that the sores were actually the blossoms of some unknown variety of black flower that had somehow taken root in my skin. The petals looked like something burnt, like they would turn to ashes at the touch. But I tugged at one of the petals and it held firm. I started to panic a little, thinking about the job interview, trying to figure out how to clean myself up. But my panic only drove the face in the mirror to cackle and twist and twitch even more, making it all that much more grotesque. I grabbed at the black flower on my forehead, and as I tried to tear it off, I saw my left eye pull shut as I winced from the pain.