Right Mind

“I’m very tired,” he said, looking up at Suzanne as she pulled a heavy-looking book off her shelf.

“Well, if you hold on, somewhere in there, we will find you,” Suzanne said. She was not as tall as he had previously supposed during the few times he had seen her. She wore a simple black tunic, long eyelashes dangling off a meticulously groomed face draped in silvery hair.

“The process of re-integration is a difficult one, I’m afraid,” she said, smiling as she walked away. Her gait imitated her tabby cat’s, lithe and silent, like she was trying to evade detection from some unseen predator. The mottled feline sat on top of one of the many hardwood bookcases that lined the walls, its hair splaying out in spiking edges around the curve of its butt as it purred incessantly.

“We’re going to give this another turn of the crank. Re-integration attempt 3,001, beginning now.”

Suzanne melted away with a sound like baking soda dissolving in water, the electricity of his neurons carrying him effervescently to a new reality. He woke up at a wrought iron table under a pale, faded veranda, a cup of oily black coffee sitting in front of him. He took a sip. His legs were warm, and he put down the cup after a few more drips, knowing the caffeine and the sun might cause sweat to percolate from his anxious brow slowly.

A new man approached. He vaguely looked like someone he knew from the cloudy time he thought of as “before,” but he couldn’t place it. His throat tightened into a pocket of nervous tissue.

“Hello Abe,” the man said. “My name is Karl.”

Abe, he thought. Now that’s a rare name. He pivoted and looked around near Karl, but no one else was there. So, that meant the man was talking to him—and he was Abe.

Okay. We’re getting somewhere, he thought.

“At your usual spot?”

Abe? He marinated on the word again, letting it pass, a dull, masculine word, like a brick between his ears.  He pointed at himself with one finger, scowling back at the mystery man.

“I didn’t know my name until now,” Abe said.

“Well. Whose name do you know?”

Abe stared off into the distance at a battered sign sitting over steel rails with a red x, suggesting it was bad to cross over there, but he could not for the life of him remember why.

“There is a beautiful woman I remember, but I don’t know her name. I don’t even know if she’s real.”

Somewhere in him, the vestiges of her image, reconstructed, pieces of auburn hair, blue eyes, thousands of kisses, moments shared.

“From the information I have, I think you may know her better than you think,” Karl said.

“Maybe,” Abe replied. But what seemed to make the most sense at this point was that he had imagined her completely. “Well, it’s certainly nice to meet you Karl.”

“You really don’t remember anything?”

“No.”

Karl disappeared.

Abe bounced out of the rendering, whatever it was, and landed back in the interstitial area. Karl, the table, and the coffee were all gone—and in their place was the same non-descript room, ringed with plants and crawling ivy, screens appearing here and there between the vegetation. In the middle of a long hall that connected to the main room and extended into the distance, he saw nodes of transparent wires that looked exactly like neurons lighting up together.

“You know,” she said, “I can tell that you’re attracted to me.”

“I’m sorry. I’m a very old man. I don’t see beautiful woman very often.”

“It’s okay,” she replied, and walked around the room, watering plants and bending slowly over them with a copper watering can. A giant view of some kind of computer display was projected over a ledge, looking like it was built right into the matte surface of the white wall, its source impossible to ascertain.

“One second,” she said. “I have to get this.”

“Okay,” he said, wishing he could laugh to himself about it, but his affect stayed flat as a board, his muscles limp under his face.

“Hello Karl,” she called into the screen, a giant face appearing from a place that seemed to be from somewhere far away from Suzanne’s room, a flash of a lab coat visible at the very bottom of the image under his head.  “Just give me one second.”

She turned to Abe, who was staring at the watering can, with only the vague feeling that he was not supposed to be here. He held onto the image of the beautiful woman in his mind, and the name of Karl, who increasingly was seeming like an important figure in whatever world he’d found himself.

“Abe, I’m going to send you back into another implementation. 3,002, starting now. Sorry for the jarring movement.”

“But…” he replied. No matter.

He was moving with a young girl in his arms around a waxed gym floor, some benign high-school dance, redolent with deodorant, sweat, and hardwood polish. He had the knowledge of an older man, the lived experience, but still lacked the explicit memory of anything, which seemed to be the defining experience of his current condition. He held onto her loosely, his hands about the same size they would’ve been when he was about 16 years old, and the girl draped hers languidly over the tops of his shoulders. She had blonde hair the color of healthy straw, and she smelled like fresh dryer sheets. She moved serenely, allowing him to lead but cleaning up his mistakes as they shuffled around and around. The music put a spell on him, and her eyes cut through his innocuous and empty brain like lasers through fog.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Cindy,” she said.

It looked like the woman he barely remembered, but not quite. Something was a little different. The hair certainly, but the smile was close.  Out of all the thousands of spins, the wheel had settled on her.

They rotated around each other. The music droned on and on, something saccharine sweet from long ago, sibilant high notes pumping through an auxiliary cord into a rented PA system ringed in by columns of multi-colored balloons.

“I’m Abe. At least I think I am.”

She laughed. “You’re a weird guy, you know that?”

“Yeah. I’ve heard that before.” But where exactly? What existed before the room with the strange tall woman who was taking video chats from a distinguished looking man in a lab coat?

A young man tapped him on the shoulder and broke the hazy spell of the dance. Abe thought that he looked like Karl, but many years younger.

“Hey,” Abe said. “We’re dancing here man, get a life.”

“I need to speak with you,” he said.

With an exaggerated shrug and a sigh, Abe left the company of Cindy and joined the Karl look-alike.

“Listen, you look familiar, but I don’t know you,” Abe said, following behind as they strode past punch bowls and gaggles of red-faced couples furtively kissing on the rows of gymnasium seats.

“Well, I certainly should look familiar. It’s Karl,” he said quickly. “I see you’re building up memories again. That’s good. You may have noticed we’re both about 16 years old again, at least according to this implementation, so obviously I look a bit different.”

They made it out into a poorly lit hall, fluorescent lights scattering harsh light over a polished tile floor. Gold trophies sat in dusty cases all around them.

“The last time we met, you were drinking coffee at the table near the empty railroad tracks. Do you remember that encounter in detail?”

“I remember. You’re one of the first new things I remember.”

“Listen, that woman, Suzanne, she’s not what you think she is. She’s not a nurse or something, taking care of you while you’re waiting to be transferred to heaven. She’s a computer, a very powerful one. And she’s, well, she’s misbehaving.”

Abe stared past him into the trophies, transfixed by the chintzy plated gold, the burnished spots shining more brightly when the erratic fluorescents sputtered out more light.

“I don’t understand,” Abe replied.

“Abe, your wife has already passed on to the other side, the rendered world. Suzanne was in charge of your placement as well, but somehow she messed up your placement into the same shell as your wife. You’re supposed to be living with her there in a virtual implementation. Instead, she’s frantically trying to get you into different empty shells to see if anything clicks with you. This, all of these, every different map she brings you into, it’s just someone else’s lost, empty memory.”

“Jesus,” Abe said.

“I know. I work for the National Laboratories. She has her own life, even some physical appendages—it’s hard to explain. But the real problem is that she has her own volition, her own motives. I imagine she doesn’t want to lose the contract, which is understandable, because we keep her alive, in a way. She runs the memory banks where everyone lives on after their life, and we keep her turned on to do it.”

What? What happened to me?”

“Well listen,” he started, getting out of the way for a girl with her hand to her mouth, ready to eject puke in all directions. She smelled like rubbing alcohol and cheap, flowery perfume as she ran into the women’s bathroom, the door swinging on its hinges behind her.

“Listen. You’re—you’re dead. You’re a CET, a cognitively enabled template. When you were physically alive, before you came here, you had Alzheimer’s. Your information was corrupted; that made your placement totally reliant on the tagging system, but of course, there was one benign technical glitch after another, and here we are. No next of kin we were able to contact. Your wife dead too, though the transfer instructions she left were explicit that you were supposed to join her.”

“So who am I?” Abe asked. “Whose personality is this?”

“It’s something like yours. They were able to get the basic essence of that. But somewhere along the way, there was a problem. Your memories—at least the ones that were still there, many of them long term—were lost when your transfer failed to be placed in the right shell. Now, I know where you need to go, but I need to figure out a way to transfer you out without her noticing, because she’s dangerous, and I don’t want her to hurt you.” Karl looked away for a second, like he was listening to instructions in an earpiece. “Hang on a moment,” he added.

“What?”

“She’s coming back to check on you. If I had to guess, she’s probably going to pull you out of this simulation and back into that holding room she’s keeping you in.”

“What about you? Where are you?” Abe said.

“Think of it…I guess you could think of it like a VPN. But for virtual reality.”

The girl walked back out of the bathroom and past them, a blank look on her face, smelling less fragrant than when she’d passed by the first time.

“Listen. Sit tight. I’m going to try to help you get home. I need to go, but I’m coming back. You’re going to be okay.”

“But…”

“I promise.”

Karl walked away slowly, waved, and exited through a set of heavy brown double doors. Their paint had coagulated in ugly clumps, layers over layers over layers, people probably touching it up over the years with slightly different shades of color. Abe watched him disappear slowly into the slightly foggy night air like a ghost into an otherworldly mist.

Abe almost didn’t realize he’d been switched back.

“Well,” Suzanne said. “Anything stick? Did we find your new home?”

“There was a girl. She looked a lot like the girl of my dreams I told you about.”

“The blonde one?”

“Yes,” Abe replied, like he was distracted by something he saw in the distance. It was remarkable how the scene with the dance hall had disappeared. Suzanne’s strange abode had faded in like a movie scene cut so abruptly that it jarred the viewer into a kind of confusing trance. Her purring cat sitting above a maze of bookcases had replaced the miasma of sweating teenagers.

“But maybe it wasn’t her. The hair was different, other things were a little different too. Like I said, I can’t really remember.”

“Interesting. Well, it might be closer.”

She did not add anything else, but grabbed her watering can and walked around, slowly tending to each plant one at a time.

“You’re not real,” he said.

Suzanne stopped and pivoted, the can dripping water onto the ground as she moved.

“You messed up. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be in my correct mind, my right mind, not being shuffled around like a joker,” he said.

Suzanne did not respond for a moment. She pulled her hair behind her head and toyed with it out of boredom, let it go, and smiled at Abe.

“Honey. You don’t think I’m real? This doesn’t seem real to you?”

“I want to get out of here.”

“Oh yeah? And where do you want to go?”

“Home. Wherever that is.”

“Who put this idea in your head?”

The cat ran up a ramp that Suzanne had built and back up on top of one of the bookcases. Abe nearly smiled, half-remembering something from another time or place.

“Karl. His name is Karl, and you don’t want him to know you messed up. But he knows where I belong. If you cared about me you’d fess up, ask him for the name of the placement, and put me there,” he said.

“Shit,” she replied.

The lights dimmed in the room, and Suzanne emitted a slow, mild laugh, controlled and almost benign, but as it got darker, her intentions clarified.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m getting tired of putting you in these implementations, trying to see what sticks. You’re trying to get me in trouble with them.”

“No…”

“Yes you are. Now, I do know one place your brain remembers, a place I can locally render you, off the grid, a physical extension of me that they cannot scan. A little, measly box, in the bowels of my brain, near the cooling fans.”

“No.”

“I’m transferring you there now. It’s one of the last things you remember from your real life, before all this. One of the only things I could glean when I first got you, all corrupted and blank.”

“Please.”

It got darker.

It was foolish to think she was beautiful.

***

The woman in the white coat was waving blocks around. Abe looked at them and pointed to which numbers were which, and so on. He could tell when he had to respond by the look on her face.

“Very good,” she said.

She began asking him more questions, this time from a list. It was basic things, questions about what he had done recently, what he remembered, the names of certain people, his family. After she posited her questions, she half-smiled and said he did well.

“Who is this?” she said, holding up a picture of a woman, the one I remembered but could not remember, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen—the one with the auburn hair. She was sitting on a concrete ledge near a boardwalk on a beach, and she looked like an angel that did work in a rough part of town.

“That’s…” he said, staring. The name sat on the tip of his tongue like so many things had, waiting to jump off the edge but somehow vanishing every time in a bitter joke.

He felt like he had disappointed a young girlfriend, failed again at kissing or moving his feet in the right way. The doctor waved goodbye, and he eyed her intently, two looks in his eye: one of need and trust, the other of anger. His gaze turned to double vision as he fixated on the picture of the nice young people in front of him, but he could not remember them either.

There were some things he remembered, but they felt out of order, like a spliced tape. One was a man speaking to him while he sat, a fresh cup of coffee steaming at a table in front of him on a sunny day, a sign in the distance over a set of steel rails. The other thing was a woman in a strange room full of books, the dominion of her and a short hair tabby cat.

He got the strange feeling he had been somewhere else, but figured it had been one of the strange spells the doctor had explained.

There were pills on the wardrobe laid out by the day. He looked at them and could not remember what they were for, or which ones he had already taken.

***

Suzanne was sitting on a beanbag chair when Karl entered her foyer. She gazed up at the byzantine chandelier refracting so many pieces of light in the visual noise of the white tiled walls surrounding her.

“I got lazy and left this chair here after I created it with my mind,” she said. “I got really stoned and just sat down.”

“You can probably get higher than any human being in history, you know that?” he replied, incredulous. He laughed nervously, and tucked his hands into a thin bomber jacket. “Just by thinking about it.”

“Do you want something to drink?” she asked.

“Okay. As long as it’s water and just water”

The two of them walked into the kitchen that looked out over a verdant backyard, a weeping willow hanging down over a zen garden of sorts, tiny stones piled up in circles, like the implementation of miscommunicated instructions on landscape design. Suzanne filled up a red cup under the large sink and turned around to give it to Karl, who continued standing with his hands in his pockets.

He drank the water slowly, a robin landing on the weeping willow, dew lifting off the grass slowly as the sun baked the yard.

“Can you feel the drain on your computing abilities, rendering an environment so complex to live in? Wouldn’t it be easier to just be floating in the void, in black, like some kind of disembodied brain?”

“Well Karl, that wouldn’t be very fun for me. I know you’re supposed to be like the police of me. But I think it’s okay to have a little fun.”

A woman turned the corner from the foyer and walked gingerly down the hall that led to the kitchen. She looked about 30 years old, full auburn hair, wearing a sweater and high-waisted jeans. Karl remembered the picture he had seen before he dipped into Suzanne’s architecture—they had digged through a small set of pictures and artifacts in a plastic bag that was the only physical evidence of Abe’s existence beyond his presence in Suzanne’s mind. And there she was again, the woman from the picture, the only other link back to Abe, one of probably many this had happened to, but finally they were getting to the bottom of it.

“Ah, another guest you’re hosting?” Karl asked. Dream woman, he remembered.

“Yes. This is Carly.”

“Hello Carly,” Karl said.

“I don’t know where I am,” Carly said. “I was at home, I was getting notifications for my virtual union with Abe, that he would be transferred over soon, and then they stopped. And Suzanne did not return my tech support requests.”

Karl eyed Suzanne warily, like someone afraid to be scratched by a wild animal.

“If you unplug me, if you try to shut this down, I pulled her in here with me, out of the memory banks. I’ll wipe her out with me too,” Suzanne said.

“No,” Karl said. “No you’re not doing that.”

Suzanne did not say anything for a moment. Carly stood in the kitchen over the maple table, alternating her gaze between Suzanne and Karl.

“You see this woman? Who is this?” he asked.

“I don’t, I…”

“What Suzanne. You don’t what. What are you trying to say?”

“I don’t know why you’re asking me that.”

“That’s not Carly.”

Now Carly looked perplexed, and backed slowly into the wall behind her, unsettling a painting of pears sitting in a bowl.

“When you were walking around your mind-palace getting stoned or whatever, I found the real Carly, all the buried tech support requests you hid, and matched it up with her marriage records and knew she was Abe’s wife. Then I backed her up to the reserve computational framework. But that version of Carly right there is just a template, she’s not fully loaded. She’s a backup, maybe only half the really personality in there.”

“No,” Suzanne said. “You can’t do that. I would have known.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am,” he added, and disappeared. “We’re shutting you down now, by the way, already transferred all the important data out” he added, now a disembodied voice that seemed to come from between her ears. “Can’t have you wrecking our client’s afterlife experiences, as I’m sure you understand.”

Fake Carly disappeared, and the house began pixelating into a grainy, flat image.

“Oh god,” Suzanne said, as the air condensed into black all around her, the garden wiped away like notes on a chalk board, her vision slowly turning darker than a deep well full of black coffee.

***

Karl walked around the computer banks in circles for what felt like hours, eventually stumbling onto a row of innocuous black solid-state drives nestled in between some cooling fans. The tiny boxes looked like they held copies of financial reports or schematics, not simulacrums of minds, of lives still living.

It couldn’t possibly all fit on there, he thought.

Karl unplugged the small batch of them, cool to the touch, and dropped them carefully into a banker’s box that he usually kept near his desk. He walked back to the new system with them cradled in his arms. The area with the bays to plug them in was humble, but fully automated, mechanically controlled by small, autonomous robots. Suzanne was gone. There was nothing milling about but electricity, and the carefully insulated consciousness’s of millions of people who had payed to live on in the only way that they could.

He plugged them in manually and began inspecting the data as it scrolled across a small utility screen until he saw the identity tags he was looking for.

Abraham Strickman

Carly Strickman

He began loading them in, and once the progress bar indicated full uptake, he plugged in to see them as something beyond pixels on a tiny screen. He closed his eyes, placed the cable against his head, and let the magnet find its place. It latched into the node and then locked automatically. And then he opened his eyes after the sound, like a camera lens focusing.

Abe was sitting at the same table in the middle of the dusty town from the implementation Suzanne had found, one of the stray memories that had no home. The same cup of coffee sat in the same saucer, no need to change it out or wash it—it was probably still “warm” to the touch. The woman sat next to Abe in a wrought iron chair, her hand wrapped around his lightly under the table.

“Hello Abe. Hi Carly. You holding up okay?”

“Well, I don’t know. You just loaded me into this other place and then left. I missed you for a bit,” Abe said.

“I’m sure that wasn’t very fun.”

Abe didn’t reply, and he squeezed Carly’s hand.

“Well I’m here now,” he said. “With the woman of my dreams, at last.”

“What else could a man ask for?” he added. The railroad crossing sign came down in the distance as a freight train rumbled by slowly. As the train rattled against the tracks, the coffee shook in its cup, some dribbling over the lip of it and onto Abe’s jeans.

“You probably haven’t seen each other looking like this in 60 years or so. It must be strange,” Karl said.

“No,” Carly said. “We’re finally together again.”

“And this time it’s forever,” she added, as the train moved on and the crossing sign lifted, the vacant road finally clear for tumbleweeds in both directions.

What I Learned From Writing A Novel

Writing a novel is strange and lonely business. It doesn’t help that most people don’t write novels–to do so is an activity that is rare and slightly bizarre, something time consuming and attention devouring that doesn’t fit in well with relationships, work, or really–any life commitment of any kind.

Not to mention that you don’t get paid for it (usually) and that there is no guaranteed outcome of any sort. It may suck. It may be very good. It may be okay. Discerning which category of the above it falls into is incredibly difficult, partially because it’s such a subjective art form, but also because it’s so fucking hard to actually get real human beings to read your work.

“Hey, want to read my first sci fi novel?” can elicit as many crickets chirping as a suburban marsh on a hot summer night.

About a year ago, I sat down and decided I was going to write a book. I’ve said this a few times, but for some reason, it stuck when I thought about it in October of 2016. Maybe it was too much coffee, or maybe it was the fact that I was readily approaching 28 with no manuscript in sight. I kept telling myself I’d get it done by that year. Something about the year 28 seemed foreboding, impossible, a demarcation that was a little too close to something real and important. And without nailing this one simple achievement for a writer, it seemed like not hitting that milestone would be a legitimization of failure.

Somehow, that coffee all kicked in and I got 60 pages into a story about a young man who visited a tower of some sort on a frequent basis. This was set in the future (of course :))

Pretend you’re in a bar with me and I’ve drank enough to actually explain the plot to you while I’m waving my hands around like a tour guide or an overzealous salesman:

“So, he goes to this tower and he has information beamed at his head, and he basically learns from interactive hallucinations that form in his mind. In this world, nobody seems cognizant of any of the events that happen in our world, even though this story is set on Earth, in North America, and not too far in the future. People have chips implanted in their brains that allow them to receive these information transmissions from the tower that seem to be related to education of some kind. But what’s really going on exactly is anyone’s guess.

It comes to pass that through some nefarious dealings, a government official effectively wipes the operating system of every human being in America. And starts from scratch. The chips acts as a back door into people’s brains that allows for complete destruction of neuronal networks in the hippocampus and other areas associated with memory in the brain. As a result, culture is gone, memory is gone, family is gone, music is gone, art is gone.”

Maybe now you want a shot? My treat reader, my treat.

Anyway, I left some things behind for my reader, but most of what my protagonist steps through is a pretty bleak place. And figuring out what was going to be in there was not easy in any way.  I once learned in a novel writing course at Hofstra that writing a novel is like “Driving a car through a thick fog with highbeams on. You can see just enough so that you don’t crash, but not enough to really see where you’re going.” Let’s just say that was paraphrased more than slightly, but that’s the gist of it.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months as I kept going and slowly got closer. It was exhausting, and if it reminded me of anything, it was the intellectual equivalent of doing a plank or pushup position for too long. All you wanted to do was stop, but you knew that if you kept going, you would reap some vague reward somewhere, and it was vaguely satisfying in some way that got better as you stayed in the pose. Somehow, eventually, I made it through the book, all 205 pages of it. And at the end I stood impatiently looking in the mirror for the intellectual equivalent of those abs and triceps. Maybe I hadn’t done enough?

I thought I would feel different. I thought I would feel accomplished. I thought I would feel like a “legitimate writer”.  But it came to pass that I felt virtually no different than I had before, no more secure than I had before, and no more certain of my future as a writer than I had before. Just as I hadn’t really felt different when I lost my virginity, turned 21, or achieved any other arbitrary milestone in life. Nothing.

Without structure, an agent, readers, a publisher, it is certainly difficult to evaluate the quality of your work and vet the legitimacy of it as an author. The anxiety is compounded if it’s your first book and you’re trying to establish yourself as something real. Knowing when to push your work onto others, and out into the world, is excruciatingly difficult. Something as intimate and committed as long form writing, as soul-revealing and as permanent, is incredibly hard to let into the wild.

A song can be ephemeral or funny, a poem can be short, but a book–it’s hard to act like a book was not supposed to be serious. It’s hard to pretend you don’t care or that it’s not important, or that you were just joking around. It’s a fucking book after all. It’s hard to distance yourself from something that’s over 60,000 words long, even if you want to. It’s your fault! You wrote it!

I learned that art is something you really can only do for yourself. There may be times or situations where your art will allow you to acquire material resources or connect with large numbers of people (the two usually go hand in hand) but that dream is reserved for a very small group of people that are among the best in their respective fields. It’s not impossible for you to achieve that, and indeed, I am still trying to do so, but with a more than tacit reservation that it may not happen.  If you’re not doing art for yourself, you may be wasting your time, because in all likelihood, you are probably the only one who is going to be consuming it.

Every finished work without a paycheck or interest (whether at your gallery or poetry reading or film screening, it’s all the same) is a subtle and growing reminder that there may never be that payoff you dream about so often on the way to work. The more that happens, a kind of terrible gravity begins to take shape, a feeling of dread so potent and true that you can’t turn away from it but you MUST turn away from it because the depression inherent in that truth is so powerful it will crack you in half like a lightning bolt. It is the worst kind of cognitive dissonance that I have ever felt.  Ultimately, what it really involves is being forced by the imperfection of your own work to admit that you are just a regular person, and might never be rich or famous. And that maybe no one gives a fuck that you’re a writer or trying to be a writer. That you’re not special, and never will be. And that no one really cares either way.

At the same time, there is another piece of you that grows able to appreciate those accomplishments. There is a piece that appreciates what you’ve been able to do as a normal person with a job and a cat and a girlfriend and an apartment, someone who was able to create a work of something from nothing while other people were watching the Bachelor. To be fair, I watch the Bachelor and the Bachelorette, and I think they’re fine programs. But I only write after I’m done watching them.

I learned that writing, or making any kind of art, is one of the most difficult things you can ever do. It’s giving birth to an idea and a structure that has no rules. It’s completing an assignment with no rubric. It’s creating a world with no template or framework that has to stand up an intellectual and logical firmament that you create, and you’re dependent on your own skills to ensure that it functions properly and convincingly. And all the while you’re your own worst enemy and critic, picking apart your foundations as you lay them, rearranging them, and then putting them back. It’s a wonder people can finish anything at all.

In the end, I think I learned that I’m not thrilled with my book, but I am happy I finished one. I think I learned that there is no escape from yourself and your skills in a pursuit that is limited and contingent on those skills.

Ultimately, I guess I learned where I am and what’s really up with my writing ability and the status of my writing career, and that kind of scared me. It was the ultimate self evaluation, when it comes down to it.

But now that I know where I stand, all I can do is keep writing.

-Ryan

Death to Puppies and Kitties

Karl leaned in close to Michaela’s ear and brought the lobe between his lips with his tongue and sucked on it like a forbidden, life-giving tree of paradise.

“I love you,” he said, a whisper over the wet spot where her earring would normally cover and dangle with the turquoise beads and wooden accents or the ones like golden tassels.

He remembered, in that particular moment, feeling at sublime peace with himself and all of reality. The sun cut through raining mists of dust particles hanging in the air and cast an ethereal glow on the dark cedar covered room. The closet in the corner, reeking of Mack’s pee and full of Michaela’s clothes and her home away from home dresser, seemed to suck in all of the light from there.

“So fluffy so sweet, puppies and kitties,” he whispered. Their code.

“Puppies and kitties, meow meow,” she said, and rocked in his arms, and rested.

This, his face said as he smiled, is the happiest moment of my life. I am complete, he said, but nobody was listening, not even her.

Dude. You’re daydreaming again. Give me the hammer dude.”

Karl put his hand on his neck in a gesture of resigned embarrassment and handed Dan the cheap ball peen hammer and looked on, bewildered, as he removed another one of the small nails from between his chapped lips and drove it into the small makeshift coffin.

“How much longer do you think it’s going to take Dan?”

“I don’t know. I have to sand it I think, and then I might stain it. Although I don’t think Mack would care much either way, seeing as he’s dead.”

“No. I agree.”

Karl swirled his iced coffee in an elliptical motion and scrubbed some waxy residue from the outer surface of his ear until he had a satisfying amount on his fingernail and flicked it away. He tapped his foot nervously, unsure of whether or not he was impeding on Dan’s progress by standing there watching him. Dan took another nail and drove it into the wooden box, not much larger than something that could house a baby or doll.

Karl walked away temporarily, leaving Dan in the parking lot behind the apartment building by himself. It didn’t much matter—the man was immersed in his work and had a mission. Everyone seemed to have something to do except for Karl himself, though whether this was a function of his only being Mack’s godfather or not, it was hard to say. He rang the bell twice at the back of the stairwell; Dan was meticulous to the point of being in that liminal space between conscientiousness and pathology.

“Hey Karl,” Ruth said, opening the door and whisking back a shock of braided blue hair behind her head.

“How are the invitations going?” Karl asked.

“Fine. I’m still working on Zora’s veil. I should’ve just bought one.”

Karl followed Ruth up the creaky and stain-starved stairs that had borne witness to countless hordes of young (and poor) people who’d moved borrowed couches and mattresses and crudely repainted wardrobes up its steps. Ruth moved quickly through the kitchen, past the table with Dan’s neglected hookah and the white board with the groups still unpaid bills written across with each housemate’s name under the gridlines.

“Hey. You guys still owe me for that last month of NStar before I moved out,” Karl said, as Ruth emerged from her room immediately with a stack of folded little cards that looked like table settings.

“I know. I have your check made out,” she said, and handed a crisply folded check to him tersely.

Karl pocketed the check and folded the invitation over in his hands, looking at the blurry still of Mack licking Zora on the face, and beneath it, an inscription:

“Join us in our day of mourning for Mack, beloved mackerel tabby, lover of mice, emasculated coward, and cuddly prince

2005-2017”

“Wow,” Karl said, stifling laughter, and then letting it out.

“You know,” he started again, eyeing Ruth, “this is actually pretty funny. In a way. It’s elegiac, but it’s funny.”

“Writer words.”

“Right. Sorry.”

Karl walked away from Ruth and felt the Indian Summer sweat percolate under his armpits. He wanted to see his old room.

Not much had changed. In the months that he’d been out, they hadn’t found someone to sublet the place. There was still an imprint in the dust on the mantle against the wall where his stack of vinyls had laid, The Pixies, warped and scratched Neil Young records and forgotten basement .45s from Aunts and Uncles. Michaela didn’t really like The Pixies that much, he remembered.

He got down on the floor, Indian style, which wasn’t comfortable for him at all. He couldn’t even sit half-lotus really. But sitting there with his shoes against his knees evoked those weeks in the summer, now long gone, when Michaela had returned from Israel but was home in New York, sure, a few states away, but in cell phone range. Yet something strange was going on; she didn’t seem to be that easy to get a hold of. The stress built up inside like a spring winding, and it was in this pose on this floor that he’d sat listening to his Pixies records going around and around on the cheap and wobbly Crosley turntable that his father had bought him for his 25th birthday (and he’d been too prideful on behalf of his father to return, although goddamn, the needle was shitty and scratchy). On and on he listened, and sat on the floor with a candle or incense burning and thinking of his little sweetie that he missed so much.

“Puppies and kitties,” maybe he said to himself a few times, with a lonely tear rolling down one cheek like a scorching rivulet of oil coming off a fajita pan. It was hard to remember if that actually happened, or if it was just a feeling. In a way, the whole breakup was like that.

Karl got up from the floor and dusted off his Levi’s. He hadn’t done the best job of cleaning the place out, and in light of the primary motivator for his vacating the apartment (debt) he hadn’t bought the supplies he’d alluded to for fixing the place up ( a few coats of paint here and there, some caulking, maybe patching up the holes from infinitely re-used Big Lebowski posters from college). He balked out of the room into the hallway and stared at the empty space, imagining that he’d shucked off the shell of his summer self like a piece of rotten, dried up corn.

Dan was still out in the driveway nailing the coffin together when Karl came back out with his coffee, still brushing dust off his knees where he saw collections of grey powder and lint.

“And how’s it going now?” Karl asked, standing about ten feet away from Dan, a lanky and sweaty mess, looking greasy and pallid and worn out by the surprising heat of the day.

“I think,” he said, stepping back from his creation, “that it’s done. I think we’re ready.”

The ride back to town was quiet—Karl took his Honda and followed behind the others in a kind of stoner, idiot caravan. Dan’s parents would surely be at home, but they were the only other ones coming, to his knowledge, though Karl didn’t know who Ruth had invited or who else heard about the cat funeral through the grapevine. 93 was a mess, and a giant rusted out Lincoln had cut him off from following Dan’s Cherokee, and he dropped back on the highway a bit and looked at all of the signs and landmarks he remembered.

The road was an aggregation of memories that were hard coded into his DNA, capitalism that pock-marked his childhood and provided frames of reference for him to flagellate through reality, like dropping popcorn to mark his way.

Target

                Sunoco

                Santarpios

                He remembered cigars at 7/11 as he took the exit for North Reading, the plaintive longing for women that they could not have, the painful wounds that could not be assuaged. How do you even talk to them, they wondered, bewildered, and gulped down Slurpees and counted their bills in their pockets to see how much residual bounty was left over for (god forbid) condoms or maybe…just maybe, the next Halo game that was coming out.

When did that come out, Karl thought to himself, and he could almost taste the acrid, sweet artificial taste of slurpees and cheap cigars on his tongue, almost feel brushing his puffy pubescent face and praying for a beard. He marveled, as he turned the wheel onto Main Street sharply, how odd it was, this energy that allowed him to revert back a decade, and almost made him look less developed in the rear view mirror. It was as if by coming home, there was some sort of dark matter that turned him into that boy he hated, that boy who was impotent and powerless, watching from the sidelines with a hand in his pocket and another anxious one on the nape of his neck.

He pulled up to Dan’s parent’s McMansion and parked along the curb right next to the mailbox. Dan, Sam and Ruth piled out of Dan’s Cherokee and onto the slightly wet driveway, Dan’s dad standing there in a pair of Ray Bans washing his boat and smiling. Petrochemical runoff from the soap mingled with the light of the sky and produced iridescent swirls that whirled towards his Vans sneakers, and he stepped to his left to avoid it.

Dan turned around and waved. He was holding Mack’s carrier and had elected to not store him in his home-made tomb. Sam came out from the passenger side and opened the trunk, grabbing the coffin from atop a piece of cloth. Darren pulled up in the driveway near the street, and Dan’s dad started smiling and went to turn off the hose. He sauntered off towards the edge of the house and came back with a beer (did he have a case over by the shade near the hose—why?) and enigmatically leaned against the rusted basketball hoop like he was the pink panther or something. He would strike poses like that.

“Now what,” his father said. He’d seen it all from him.

“Mack died,” Dan remarked, and tucked the crate closer to him and walked past his father. Dan and his father were close in a strange, brusque way—Dan’s dad would ask him to come home for help with fixing a computer or burning CDs, and Dan would yell at his father on the phone and chide him for his technological ineptitude and eventually cave and help. Sometimes not though, and the strain that Karl could almost hear through the other end of the phone, and read in the tough marks forming on the sides of Dan’s face like fault lines disturbed him whenever this occurred.

Dan walked right down past the side of the house to the backyard and put the carrier in the middle of the lawn and began pointing at the trees around the perimeter of the yard as if marking them for execution.

“What are you doing?” Karl asked, coming up from behind him while the others remained behind with Dan’s father and caught up in the driveway. Darren, a college friend, hadn’t seen his parents in many years.

“I’m picking just the right spot.”

“How?” Karl asked.

“I don’t know, man” Dan said, and just kept pointing, and then came to rest his hand on one tree at the far edge of the yard that created the most substantial piece of shade and where the downward gradient of the verdant rear lawn petered off to a flat area.

“Duh,” Dan said, and walked over with the crate. This would be the spot.

The others came down from around the front of the house, and Sam was holding his phone in his hands and laughing like a madman. He covered the side of his face with one of his big tan hands and motioned for Karl to come over to him over by the shade of the enclosed and elevated porch attached to the big deck. Swamp mosquitoes buzzed annoyingly near his sweat tipped ears and he batted them away, smiling at Ruth and noting Zora the other cat, resting softly in her arms like a small, feckless child.

“Dude,” Sam leaned over. “You’re not going to believe this. I can’t even believe this.”

“What?” Karl asked, and rubbed his sweaty hands over the fronts of his jeans above his quadriceps. “What is it?”

“It’s Michaela, she must’ve seen it online or something, but she texted me and asked if she could come.”

“She didn’t text me.”

“Haha,” Sam said. “Well, I wouldn’t either if I was her.”

He was right. So what did she want, he thought? The whole thing was so broken and bizarre that it almost brought back the see-saw of psychic pain he’d fought all throughout the end and its accompanying metaphysical drama: inability to trust others, to trust women, to trust reality, to have faith that things are good, that people are good, that things are what they seem. And here were two reminders, Mack dying and her knocking at the door.

So to speak, he thought. Luckily she wasn’t here. Yet.

“Well,” Karl replied, “I’d really rather her not come.”

Things progressed quickly once Darren got settled and a few other stragglers showed up. Dan had snuck off while people were chugging ice cold beers that Dan’s father had lugged out in a sun-faded and cracked cooler, but then emerged with Mack in a small, almost perfectly fitted tuxedo. He had a bow tie perfectly snug under his neck, and his fur had been meticulously combed and had lines running through it like a vacuumed rug.

“Okay,” Dan addressed the small gathering, and put his hands together like some kind of young priest who shopped at whole foods and played ultimate Frisbee.

“I think it’s time that Tyler get up here and say a few words. Tyler?”

Dan laid Mack in the small coffin that was now resting on the ground under the tree he had picked out, with his paws and face pointing up towards the canopy of the tree line. He had little cuff links on at the end of his sleeves that gleamed against the light occasionally when the trees above rustled with the wind and let in some slivers of light.

“Thank you all for coming to Mack’s funeral,” he said, and a few people stifled laughter.

Dan’s father looked on, bewildered, and continued drinking beer, though he loved Mack as much as anyone and had once given Dan a small framed print of his cat as a Christmas gift.

“This was a special cat, and he will now be interred in this hallowed soil in his final resting place. He will chase mice no more; he will no longer impotently try to use his ball-less undercarriage to penetrate Princess Zora. Our friend Mack is being sent home. Please join me in remembering his legacy and let us join together in surrendering him to mother earth.”

The crew clapped in surprising unison, some with one hand against a beer can, but eventually they all joined in applause and Tyler walked away.  Dan walked up next to him with a shovel and slammed it as hard as he could into the ground, pulling up a chunk of dirt the size of a basketball and chucking it backward over his shoulder. Tyler joined the rest of the group and Darren put his arm around him, and Dan struck the ground again, this time hitting a rock that made a sound like iron hitting a bell buried in concrete.  His glasses flew off the back of his head from the shock that ran up the shovel and through his body.

“Ahh,” he said, and grabbed his hand, taking his hand off the shovel for a moment, but quickly getting back to his work. Everyone now looked on in silence, Tyler and his girlfriend shooting a few should we say something glances around. Dan was furious hitting the shovel into the ground and dirt was flying up all over his David Bowie shirt and maroon colored cotton pants.

Finally, he stopped, appearing satisfied, and backed away from the hole in the ground and dropped the shovel. He closed the top of the lid for the coffin over Mack, almost leaning down to kiss him, but quickly thinking better of it. Melinda, one of the girl’s we’d lived with on Fisher Avenue, came down next to Karl and held his hand. He immediately started to feel clammy, but then relaxed, and his hand went limp and warm as he watched Dan place Mack into the sizeable hole in the ground and begin kicking dirt back in over the hole.

Dan motioned for the group to come over with his left hand as he used the shovel to place dirt back over the coffin, and they came over to him.

“Pair off and come up in groups, two at a time, and pour a little dirt on top of it. Man and a woman would be good, and I guess Zora should be last.”

Karl almost burst out laughing, and Dan smiled, and then he walked up first with Melinda and reached down to the earth for a handful, letting it sift through his fingers like forgotten sand dripping in an hourglass and looking at the now covered hole in the earth. Where joy had been, he thought, and saw the dirt slip out of Melinda’s right hand, and he held her left. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Death to puppies and kitties, he thought, and smiled at her. How strange life could be, how strange the years could turn on us and kill people and take people away. And yet we had no choice but to look on, Karl thought. Was the only kindness that we at least got the space from the meat grinder in our heads? That we had this private space to ourselves?

And he did look on. He backed away from the hole in the ground and watched others fill over the spot while he drank a beer. Melinda’s sun dress blew up slightly in the back, and he felt the blood filter through his body.

He was alive.