Songs for the Road

It was a cold grey morning, and I looked out the window and saw a blue car parked in our driveway. It was my daughter’s car. She had come for a visit, and I could see her out there with my wife, already packing the car to go and tying some of her luggage to the rack on the roof. I slipped on my shoes and ran out to tell her something, but she had already pulled out of the driveway, and she was halfway down the road. As she drove off, several loose pieces of paper fell from one of her bags and scattered in the air and dropped in the road behind her. I picked up my pace, and I yelled and waved my arms, trying to get her attention, but she was already turning the corner, and then she was gone.

I stopped to pick up the papers that she had lost in the road. They all had lyrics written on them for songs that she had written. The pavement was a little wet, and I was trying to gather up the papers before they got soaked through and ruined, before the ink ran and the words were lost. The papers had fallen in front of this orange house down the road from mine, and the old man who lived there had seen what had happened, and he came out the door still slipping on his coat and he labored down his steps and he met me out on the road and started to help me pick up the papers.

I was grateful for the man’s help, but he kept stopping from time to time to read the lyrics off of random pages as he picked them up. He read in a slow drawl, squinting sourly at the words, and he always began by saying, “Well, it says here.” It was starting to get on my nerves. As he read, I would reach out and snatch one of the papers he was holding, so that I could add it to the stack that I had gathered in my hand. But the old man would just snatch it right back, still reading all the while, still keeping his eyes on the paper, still taking all the time in the world.

This snatching back and forth of the papers went on until suddenly I looked down and realized that my hands were empty. The old man was holding all the papers in a meaty stack in his hands. He had all of my daughter’s songs. He started away towards his house, still reading the lyrics, mostly mumbling them to himself now. He went along the side of the house and around towards the back, and I followed after him calling for him to wait up. But as I came around the back corner of the house, he had suddenly vanished. There was just an empty little yard there, bordered by thistles and the tangled branches of bushes that were leafless and barren in the cold.

I couldn’t find the old man anywhere. I peered in at the little window of the garage out back. I circled the house a few times, calling out for him. I knocked at the front door. I knocked at the side door. He was gone, and he had all of my daughter’s song lyrics. I stood there staring at this quiet orange house. I felt eyes on me, and I looked back and saw the woman next door watching me from her window. She just rolled her eyes and shrugged, as if to say, “What are you going to do?” And then she dropped her blinds back over her window and then she was gone too.

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Two Fish

I was wandering around a busy office building, and I came across a phone room where people sat around a large conference table in rolled up shirt sleeves, answering call after call and yelling urgent things across the table to one another. I slipped into the room unnoticed and slid along the wall behind them. In the far corner of the room there was a little kitchenette that they used for a break area. There was a stove there, and on the stove top there were two skillets both filled with about two inches of water. There was a fish in either skillet, and they were both happily exploring the circumference of their little pools of water.

But then I peered down under the skillets and saw a low blue flame simmering under each of them. As the water was getting warmer, I could see that the fish were darting desperately back and forth from edge to edge of either skillet, as though they were trying to escape. I turned to the room of people on the phones, and I tried to call out to get someone’s attention. But there never seemed to be a break in the noise. I couldn’t find the right moment to say something. I tried to catch a random glance in my direction or an ear perked to hear something beyond the constant hum of business in the room. But nothing. I struggled to even make a sound.

I looked back at the skillets. There was steam rising off the water, and both fish were floating upside down, dead. It made me so sad, the whole accidental tragedy of it. I tried to tell myself that I was in no position to judge any of them for carelessly letting the fish die, since I myself ate meat every day. But this felt different. No had meant for this to happen. The fish weren’t being prepared for lunch; they were just dead because no one had been paying attention and someone had left the burners on. I turned off the burners and placed a metal lid over each skillet and left them to go cold.

A Regular Listener

Every morning we woke up and headed out to work sorting through the piles of wreckage. The city had been destroyed, and all the buildings had been leveled. There was nothing taller than the piles, and the piles went on and on, farther than anyone had the strength to walk to find out where they ended. We came out of our holes wearing whatever clothes we had salvaged from the wreckage, the soles of our shoes reinforced with folded pages of newspaper, the holes in our shirts and pants stitched with mismatched scraps from other shirts and pants of different colors, all of it bleached from the sun and blended together under the same chalky white dust that covered everything else.

My work area was set up next to the pile I was currently sorting through. It consisted of an old wooden desk and a collection of rickety shelves and bins clustered haphazardly around it on the uneven, rocky ground. The faces of the desk drawers and the edges of the shelves and the front of the bins were all inscribed with labels that I had scratched into them with the dull point of a dusty nail. There was a drawer for “bottle caps”, a shelf for “water pipes” another for “curtain rods”, a trio of rusted coffee cans for “nuts” and “bolts” and “screws”, a deep plastic bin filled with various broken “eyeglasses”, and so forth.

I worked out in the open, under the clear blue sky. The noonday sun beat down on the little bits and pieces of debris as I sifted through them in my hand, using the dried out cracks in my palm as lines to separate them. Now and then, I would stop to tilt my hand back and forth, trying to get the harsh light to catch on the occasional spots where the metal was still shiny. And everyone around me passed the day in same manner, contemplating these pitiful handfuls, and it was quiet again on the Earth. We were ants toiling in a catastrophe that was of a magnitude we could no longer even conceive of creating. So, in a sense, there was peace.

I had a radio on one the shelves next to where I worked. It still picked up a signal from somewhere. Some days, when it got to be too quiet, I would switch it on and listen to it while I worked. They were all old broadcasts from the world that was gone, somehow still bouncing around in the atmosphere. There was a wire running from the radio and it was coiled around a metal post that I had planted into the ground to try to boost the reception. Sometimes I would have to twist the pole to get something to tune in, and the static and the dry dust and grit seemed to grind together into a single noise.

One day I turned on the radio, and it came on in the middle of an interview from a morning show of some sort. There were a bunch of voices talking back and forth, talking over each other and getting excited like people used to do back before they had these vast reserves of silence and time on their hands. Suddenly one of the voices let out a string of curses and epithets, just saying every awful hateful ugly thing that was possible to say. I dropped the handful of debris that I was sorting through and I lunged for the radio, quickly jerking the dial away from the station.

I looked around, hoping maybe no one else had heard. But people from the other work stations around me were already looking over at me. One man at the pile across from me poked his head out from the tarp that covered his area. He was saying something to the woman he was working with and pointing a finger in my direction. He shook his head and looked at me with absolute contempt. I thought I heard him say something like, “I guess that’s the kind of people we have to work with. Some things never do change.” He glared at me and went back to his work, still shaking his head.

I kept working the knob up and down the dial, trying to find something else, anything else, trying to give the impression that I had just stumbled across the broadcast as I was scanning through the frequencies, trying to distance myself from the ugliness that had come out of the radio. I didn’t want to be held responsible. I didn’t want to seem like I endorsed what everyone had heard the voice saying. I didn’t want them to think that I was a regular listener of the show or a fan of the person who had said it. But it was my radio. It was on my shelf. I was the one who had turned it on.

Open Casket

I was walking down a city street one night, and I came across a sign on a pedestal in front of a small storefront funeral home. The sign explained that services for a woman were going to be held there that evening, and it gave her name and the dates of her birth and death, as well as a short paragraph about her life. From some of the details, I started to wonder if this was an old girlfriend of mine. I knew that she had gotten married and she’d had a few kids, and I knew that she had served in the army for a while overseas when she was younger, and all of this was mentioned on the sign. The first name was the same, but it was a common enough name. The last name was different, but I assumed that she had changed it when she had gotten married. I couldn’t remember what her husband’s last name was. I couldn’t be sure if it was really her, but I felt like I needed to know. I needed to know if this had been her life, if she had been happy, if it had all ended here, like this, when she was still fairly young.

There was a large bay window in the front of the funeral home that looked out onto the street. The window was close to the ground, and the curtains were drawn back, leaving the view open to anyone passing by. I crouched down and peered in, and I could see a small, cramped, candlelit room that was recessed into the ground a few feet below street level. The casket was against the far wall and there was a pulpit and three short rows of wooden chairs arranged in front of it. The chairs were all empty. The service hadn’t started yet. But there was a large man with a dark beard standing alone in the shadows in the corner of the room with his hands folded at his waist. I figured that this was the husband. I looked at the casket, where most of the soft glow of the room was concentrated. I could only make out the woman’s blonde curly hair where her head lay under the open lid.

I looked again over at the husband, and I thought about going in. I wasn’t sure what I’d say to him, or how I’d explain who I was. I considered again the possibility that I was wrong, that this was just a complete stranger. But I needed to know. I went down the stone steps to the door of the funeral home. A somber chime played as I opened the door, and inside it was warm and there was a smell of incense and flowers in the air. But when I went over to where I had seen the casket through the window, I found nothing but a table with candles on it. Among the candles there were cards displayed on small stands that had prayers of grief and condolences written on them. What I had taken for blonde hair through the window was apparently only the guttering and flickering flames of the candles. My eyes searched through all the points of lights scattered around the table. I looked over at the husband where he stood watching me from the corner. I shook my head, perplexed. I tried to think of what to ask him, how to ask him. But I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I just told him that I was sorry, very sorry, and then I shook his hand and hurried out of the room, back out into the street, back out into the night.

Effigy

It was around twilight, and I was watching from the front window of a dark house, and I saw a sea of flickering lights making its way down the street to the town’s square. As they got closer, I saw that it was a mob bearing torches. In the middle of the mob, I could see that they were carrying the faceless figure of a woman made entirely out of paper mache’. The figure was at least twice the size of a real person. They were carrying it over their heads, and they had it lying flat across their hands. The figure bobbed and rolled with their steps, tossing this way and that, with the thick loose locks of red paper hair knocking all about and straying dangerously close to the flame of a few of the torches, and the smooth blank face showing expressionless and undisturbed in the light.

They brought the figure to a place that they had prepared for it at the center of the town’s square. There was a wooden beam that stood tall and straight, and it had logs and kindling arranged around its base. They bound the hands and the feet of the figure to this post. They cinched the bonds extra tight with a particularly malicious vigor, and they glanced up at the figure, smirking with their burning eyes dancing, as if they expected to see pain registering on the empty face. The logs and kindling were doused with gasoline, and the mob edged forward in a frenzy, eager to set the blaze going with their torches.

But a man with a megaphone mounted a platform beside the bound figure, and he managed to push the mob back a ways through the sheer volume of his words blasting into their faces. It was too far away for me to make out what he was saying. It was just a general rumbling of thunderous hostility with bursts of angry shouting carrying across the otherwise clear and deserted evening, and it was answered now and then by a roar from the mob and a wild waving of torches in the air and a steady thumping against the ground that I could feel even in the floorboards beneath my feet.

Unable to be restrained any longer, the mob surged forward, everyone pushing everyone else aside and struggling to the front of the crowd, so that it could be their torches that lit the logs and kindling. Instantly the figure was engulfed in flames. I could hear the loud whoosh as the whole thing caught fire. I could see the sudden flare of the light. I could already smell the burning paper. I could almost feel the heat coming off of it. The mob surged back a little from the flames, the light flickering in their eyes. They grew somber and still and they all stood watching the figure burn.

One of the arms of the figure looked like it was about to fall loose at the shoulder as the flames were consuming it. But just as it was about to drop, there was a sudden unfolding of wings, and then a hawk soared up out of the fire. Its wingspan was dark and terrible, and there were flames all around its body. Its eyes smoldered a bright, sinister red, and its talons glowed like hot coals. It swooped up, leaving a trail of smoke and fire behind it, and it circled over the mob, and they all twisted their heads around to follow the path of its flight.

Two more hawks emerged from the figure, just as its other arm and the head were about to come loose. They joined the other hawk in its circling path over the mob. Together the three birds let out a piercing call that ripped through the air. The mob stirred, and I saw them all begin to slowly move in a mass away from the burning figure. One of the hawks seemed to hone in on someone specific in the mob, and it dove straight at him, the other two hawks following closely at its tail. The man tried to push through the crowd and run, but the hawk got a hold of him. Its talons sank into his shoulders with a pop and a hiss of burning flesh.

The hawk dragged the man back to the burning figure, and it dragged him straight into the hottest part of the fire. The dying man cried out in agony, but the hawk’s screams were even louder, stranger. It threw itself into the flames right along with the man for the sake of its vengeance. The two were consumed together, but as they burned, three more hawks emerged, just as they had from the paper figure, tearing up into the air and shedding sparks and burning bits of bone and debris over the terrified mob.

The other hawks began grabbing random people from the crowd and dragging them back into the fire, and the hawks multiplied threefold with every victim that they consigned to the flames. The mob had dispersed now, and everyone was running from the scene as fast as they could. Some, when they saw one of the hawks honing in on them, tried to throw the person beside them to the glowing talons. But the hawks stayed on their target, and each person seemed to have a hawk specifically assigned to their fate. A few people almost made it to the edge of the town’s square, but the hawks got them all in the end, dragging them one at a time into the fire.

This went on all night with the sky as black as I’d ever seen it beyond the roaring light of the fire and the burning embers carried up and away on the air. The bodies had gathered in a pile in the fire, and I could see people still alive in the there, climbing, struggling, flailing, and finally collapsing and crumbling into ash and cinders indistinguishable from the rest. When the morning came, there was nothing left but smoke and soot and the charred remains of the tall post to which they had bound the paper figure.

Setting the Scene

This friend of mine was working on a novel, but he was having some trouble with it. Someone had looked at one of his earlier drafts and told him that the finished book would come in at about one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pages, which would be ideal for optioning movie rights and adapting into a screenplay. Since then, my friend had gotten it into his head that he was writing a movie rather than a book, and this had come to color and corrupt every scene and line of dialogue. He just couldn’t seem to get the project back on track.

So he turned to me for help. We took a look at one of his scenes. We actually saw it play out in front of us like a scene from a movie. The story involved a kidnapping plot, and the scene took place in a parking garage where there was a handoff between the kidnappers and the kidnapped person’s family, an exchange of ransom money for the victim. There was a bombastic score thumping against the background of the scene, stinging every dramatic moment. The characters in the scene behaved as though their movements were choreographed to go along with the score. The kidnappers piled out of their sleek black car, wearing sleek black suits, and whipping off their sleek black sunglasses in ice cold slow motion. The kidnapped victim was tucked in the backseat, hair matted, eyes bulging, mumbling and struggling against the duct tape over her mouth. The kidnapped victim’s mother met them dressed in a smart pants suit, with her arms folded, staring them down smugly and complacently.

When the scene was done, I had the set laid out before me like a miniature model of the parking garage. I could approach it and study it. I could reposition and rearrange the players. In a small storage closet in the corner of the parking garage, I saw that there was a tiny reel to reel tape recorder set up on a stool and hooked into the garage’s speaker system. This was where the score was coming from. I reached down and clicked it off with the edge of my fingernail. I scratched my chin and peered in close at the tiny figures gathered on the second level of the model. With the music gone, I told my friend that he needed to slow the scene down, pace it out. He needed to think about how something like this would play out in actual life. I told him that that was always a good place to start from. Not because it would make the scene more real, but because it would enable him to find something fresh and visceral in the scene, to locate those four crucial pinpricks that would hold the scene to the wall and keep people looking at it.

My friend crouched down at looked in on the second level. He nodded and twisted his chin as he stood up again, and I reached over and clicked off the switch that worked all of the tiny florescent light fixtures in the model. The shadows deepened around the pedestals of all the little figures. I placed the cardboard cover back over the model, taking care not to bump against the corners of the parking garage and knock any of the figures over or nudge them out of place, and then we left the room and turned out the lights and closed the door behind us.

Part of the Family

I was watching a gangster movie on TV. It opened on a residential street lined with matching bungalows painted in a variety of bright pastels, their yards enclosed with picket fences and landscaped with flower bushes blossoming in colors that complimented the houses. A paper boy flung a paper into one of the yards, and then rode out of frame ringing his bell. All the telltale signs of a nice suburban neighborhood. The movie then cut to an interior shot of a man sleeping in his upstairs bedroom beside his wife, the sounds of birds and the occasional passing car drifting in through the open window.

The man woke up groggy eyed and smacking his lips, and then he jolted awake when he noticed the mob boss standing at the foot of his bed. He went to reach for his glasses on the bedside table, but two of the mob boss’s goons grabbed him by the ankles. The wife woke up then and started screaming, and the man was shouting and reaching for her as he got dragged past the foot of the bed. The mob boss and his goons got the man on the floor, and they were kicking at him and spitting at him and yelling. And all the quiet of the morning was shattered in the commotion.

More goons appeared at the window, staring into the room and grinning. The goons in the bedroom hoisted the man up and fed him through the window to the goons outside on the balcony, and they took him out over the railing of the balcony and down into the front yard. All the while, the man and his wife were urgently yelling things at each other, final goodbyes, last minute details of their lives that they needed to relay to one another, since they both knew he wouldn’t be coming back. The goons just kept kicking at the man, telling them both to shut their mouths as they carried the man away.

The goons got the man out onto the front walk and even as they carried him off down the street, he was still shouting things back up to his wife where she had poked her head out from the upstairs window. The mob boss came strolling out of the house behind his men with a big satisfied grin on his face. He stopped under a tree in the front yard to light the stub of a cigar that he pulled from his pocket. He looked up and down the street and nodded, as though he were contemplating buying a house in the neighborhood.

A few houses down he noticed an old lady standing on her front walk, clutching her white robe closed at her chest and staring off down the street in the direction that the goons had taken her neighbor. She turned to the mob boss as he strolled over to her, and she lifted a shaking finger at him to ask what was going on. But before she could say anything, he pulled a wad of money from the pocket of his shirt. He laid the money in her bewildered hands, telling her, “Get yourself a new pair of slippers. Alright, sweetheart?” The woman just looked at the money and then down at her bare feet, and then she turned and went back into her house, shaking her head.

The mob boss’s son was actually there on the couch next to me, watching the movie along with me. I jolted when I looked over and noticed him there. I told him that he was in the movie too, and I pointed out a scene that he was in. He was just a boy then, and there was a shot of him sitting at a table by himself at a garden party outdoors. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the boy was dressed in his suit that he had worn to church. People were slow dancing on the stone patio and mingling among the rose bushes, and the boy just looked around from person to person, blinking his eyes.

Now that he saw himself in the movie, the mob boss’s son perked up and took a renewed interest in it. He even moved closer to the edge of his seat. This was like lost footage of his family’s life that had been edited out of his childhood. He never knew about any of this. He saw his father brutally torturing and disfiguring a man, and then he saw him literally come walking into the next room with the kindest smile in the world on his face. And in the son’s memory there was only his father walking into that room smiling as the boy had looked up with his birthday hat on just as he was about to blow out the candles on his cake. These missing pieces were an unsettling revelation.

I saw that the movie had piqued the son’s interest, and I started to enthusiastically tell him how and why I liked the movie so much. I talked about how it engendered this constant, unnerving feeling that something bad was just about to happen. But I was still just thinking of it all as a movie and evaluating its merits on those grounds alone. He was looking at it differently. He just responded to what I was telling him with a few distracted nods. His whole mind, his ego and his identity, were recalibrating around this new information. The rapid shifting of his eyes and a few sharp twitches of his jaws betrayed all the cogs and wheels that were cranking away inside.

Fan Contract

The first day of class, the teacher had us all sign a paper saying that we waived our right to complain about the fan. The contract was one page, with the terms of the agreement printed in a few brief lines at the top and more than enough lines for all of us to sign underneath. None of us knew exactly what “the fan” was, but we all signed nevertheless. We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to take the class otherwise. Once he had all of our signatures, the teacher taped this paper to the side of a portable box fan, reminding us of our agreement.

He kept the fan on his desk, facing out towards the class. He would turn it at various angles from time to time, so that at one time or another, everyone had the experience of having this fan blowing at them. Needless to say, it was irritating. It would dry out our eyes and blow dust into our faces, and it would blow our pencils and papers off our desks. Sometimes the teacher would carry the fan by the handle, and he would walk around the class with it as he gave his lecture. He would stop to make some point or another, and he would stand there with the fan propped up on the top of someone’s desk, blowing directly at them, and he would look around at the class and go on talking, not acknowledging the fan at all, pretending like he didn’t notice that he was holding it right in someone’s face.

There were two girls who sat right in front of his desk that really got the worst of it. Nearly every class, one of them would finally break and throw her pencil down and ask, “Do you have to have that fan blowing on us all the time? Can you please just turn it off!?” And he would reply, “No, you signed the contract. Anyone else have any questions?” He always said it that way, the sentence already half crumpled up and thrown in the waste basket before immediately moving on to other things. Maybe this was supposed to be a lesson to us to be careful what we signed. Maybe he liked getting on our nerves. Maybe he just really liked his fan. He never did say.