Hello Spider

Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill

The Serpent

I was having dinner late one evening in my chambers when I felt a most disagreeable sensation in my abdomen. My first thought was of food poisoning, but then I sensed motion, which alarmed me greatly. I leapt to my feet, knocking over my wine, and hastily unzipped my trousers. Horrified I saw a snake making its way out from my urethra, its dull red tongue flickering back and forth like fleshy jolts of electricity. I let out a choked gasp. The sensation of its scales moving against my vulnerable inner skin made me unbearably queasy on top of an indescribable pain.

I grabbed the creature just behind its head so it couldn’t retreat back inside or bite me, then I hurried out to the garden terrace to get rid of it. I didn’t want it loose in my house. I don’t know why that was my first concern. The moon was dimmed by clouds and the walls of my garden tall enough that my neighbors were unlikely to peer in on my strange activities. Still grasping the serpent by the throat, I pulled it out a little at a time, worried that if I yanked too fast I might somehow cause damage to myself. I suppressed the urge to vomit. Finally it came clear, its wriggling tail coated in a thick mucus, and I flung it to the ground where it slithered away into the shadow of a flowerbed. I crouched there on the terrace, wincing, fighting not to let my imagination have free rein. I was not ready to envision the eggs it may have left inside me.

A tremendous crumbling sound interrupted the silence. From my crouched position I glanced up and saw that my building was improbably tilting forward, and began to collapse in slow motion. More puzzled than frightened, I watched as the bricks slowly slid apart, almost gracefully, like a ballet of destruction. As if the mortar had turned to slush. It was happening so languidly that I was easily able to walk out from its path, circling my way around to the street out front where I would be safe. There I noticed the neighboring buildings too were collapsing, like time lapse footage of a flower blooming. Alarmed people evacuated their homes, some carrying children, some struggling into their clothing, others still dressed in their nightclothes, and flooded the streets as the structures around us slowly dismantled.

There were no casualties we later learned. Everyone had plenty of time to escape before the buildings collapsed into rubble. We wandered wordlessly through the destruction, hunting for valuables we could recover. Our homes were gone. It was as if the city itself had committed suicide.

The Balloonseller

The balloonseller lay at the foot of the craggy steps, unmoving, smoke issuing up through a fist-sized hole in his chest. A well-to-do couple out for an evening stroll rounded a corner and hurried past, visibly annoyed at having to circle around the supine figure. His chalky beard was filed to a sharp point, his mummy brown overcoat swaddled him like a candywrapper. A ruddyfaced policeman came by on a pennyfarthing, dismounted and inspected the body for signs of life. None found. The hole in the body, he noted curiously, appeared to be an exit wound, as though the body had been attacked from the inside out. Perhaps the heart had burst, he speculated. Parked at the top of the steps was the unattended balloon cart. The balloons themselves by now had all been stolen by neighborhood children. A single dull yellow balloon was caught in the branches of a nearby tree, as if intercepted while making a getaway. The policeman knew the balloonseller vaguely from his rounds in the park and we aware he had no family. It had been a long tiring day of grifters and cheats, and the policeman was in no mood for more paperwork. He took the balloonseller by the heels and, huffing, dragged him through the grass down to the water. There he dumped the body in, cursing when he splashed water on his trouserleg. Using the spine of a broken umbrella he found discarded nearby he prodded the body away from shore and watched it float downstream towards someone else’s jurisdiction. Then he returned to the balloon cart and wheeled it along the path, abandoning it in the shadows under a stone bridge where it wouldn’t be easily noticed. On returning to the steps he discovered someone had stolen the pennyfarthing in his absence. Scowling, he stormed off in the direction of the park entrance, looking for something to kick that was soft and incapable of kicking back.

Lost Glove

Griff often hung around the slimeways of the Combat Zone on weekends, selling narcotic chewing gum to minors and undercover cops. The cops didn’t bother to arrest him anymore, they just dished him out a ticket and moved along. Sometimes they even robbed him of his wares if it was a slow night, which always crushed his spirits. This time was no different. They stole his stash of gum and stuffed him in a nearby trash can. It took him fifteen minutes to wriggle free. He went home reeking of dead salad.

He shared a lopsided apartment with a girl named Martyr in the Bay Village, above a transvestite motorcycle bar. They used to be fairly intimate until the decay set in. Now they didn’t do much together except for the occasional night out for bowling.

Thursday she showed him the lumps in her neck. He thought they felt like eggs forming under the skin. She was unhappy about this and poked at her bowl of Rice Krispies until they grew soggy. Griff lay on the futon with his head hanging upside down off the edge and imagined what it would be like if gravity reversed and he was able to walk on the ceiling. They listened to the radiator gorging on metal birds.

“It’s cold,” Griff mentioned without much commitment.

Martyr ran her hand over the eggs in her neck. “I’m sorry I sold your jacket.”

“It’s okay. I’ll find another one.”

“I was hungry.”

“I know.”

There was a rheumatic candle on the coffeetable. Griff trained his thoughts on it, trying to move it telekinetically. Nothing happened. He couldn’t figure out which muscle to flex.

“I’m going out,” he said.

“You can borrow my jacket if you’d like.”

“Thanks.”

He went down to the bridge and stared at the pondwater, wondering what it would be like to abandon a capsizing ship on a cold Baltic night. The straggly accordion boy wasn’t at his post on the far side of the bridge, like some wheezing minstrel troll. Leaning over the stone rail he spotted something small and dark near the water’s edge. He left the bridge and scuffled down to the object. It was a single glove. The left hand, begrimed with dirt. He felt sorry for it. He took it down the street to a laundromat and fed it gently to a washing machine. There was a girl watching her laundry going round and round in a noisy dryer. She looked like she was gleaning her future from it. She wore a funny round hat with a bow on it. She had a lavender aura. He watched her for a little bit, then went over.

“You look like Daisy Buchanan,” he said.

She looked up at him with a rosy smile. “I don’t know who that is.”

He regarded her with wonder. “Are you sure you belong in this decade?”

They talked of sparrows and matchboxes. When his washer died, he transferred his left hand glove to the dryer next to hers. He loved the smell of laundry. It was his third favorite smell in the whole world.

They sat watching her underwear go round. All the dryer barrels rotated clockwise. When the buzzer announced her clothes were dry, she scooped them into a crayon red dufflebag and told him she had to go practice her cello. He asked if he might come along and listen. She thought about it for a moment—finger to lips and eyes heavenward—then decided it would be alright. He took the glove from the dryer, interrupting its cycle. Even though it was still a little moist, he slid it over his left hand. Then he helped carry her laundry to a tiny practice room above a discount jukebox retailer. The room was strewn with sheet music and peacock feathers. She lit a red candle and placed it in the center of the floor, then began rosining her bow. Griff slouched on a beanbag in the corner and listened to her run through a repertoire of Schubert.

Cello was his favorite symphonic instrument. The musky wooden sound made him imagine a dancing golem. It had a very sensible tonality—as though it was not prone to vanity or foolhardiness. He felt he could depend on the cello. He listened until his eyelids grew heavy and he nodded off.

She tapped him on the shoulder gently to wake him. “I finished my practice,” she told him. He rubbed his eyes, reoriented himself.

“I need to be getting home,” he said. “Martyr will wonder what happened to me.”

“You shouldn’t go back there,” she told him sadly. “Something bad will happen.”

“I know, but it’s where I live.”

He started the long walk home. It was much colder than before. He shivered, hands buried deep in pockets. The glove felt good on his left hand. He was glad he had found it. He turned up the narrow road that led home. Inside Martyr lay inert on the floor. The eggs in her neck had hatched and the newborns were nowhere to be seen.

The Interloper

She skittered across the stream of music on half-submerged rocks only she could see, a blur of swirling gypsy skirts and tossed cinnamon hair. As long as I’d known her, I still found it impossible not to admire her as she danced, a burst of color across a monochrome tableau. The room was packed nose to armpit, well over capacity, and yet her path was kept clear as though some kind of sorcery was at work.

Inevitably the music ceased and the listeners drained out of the bricklined antechamber in search of beer or cigarettes or both. The band began packing up their gear. I held her drink while she slipped into her white coat. Everyone else in the place wore black. A man with elaborately braided hair approached. I had noticed him earlier, eyeing her as she danced. He put his hand on her shoulder and steered her away from me. “I’m going to speak with her a few minutes,” he informed me. I disliked his condescension but couldn’t help but be impressed by his confidence. “That’s up to her,” I shrugged.

I found myself in a conversation with the wildhaired drummer about European folk music. I only half-listened, keeping one eye on the man who had maneuvered her towards a corner and was leaning forward, an arm at her side. She was sipping from a new glass of something greenish which he had handed her. I finished my own drink and was considering a replacement when she returned with the man trailing behind her. “He’s going to take me home,” she told me. His cavalier expression indicated that he intended to add her to his collection. “Of course he is.” I leaned in, lowering my voice. “I think he slipped something into your drink.” “I know,” she said.

She kissed me on the cheek and said she’d see me later, then turned and followed the man out. I felt a headache creeping up the stem of my brain and the drummer’s impassioned raving was of no help. I excused myself and went outside into the wintery midnight. I walked down the block past a sleepy row of brownstones to an empty playground. I sat on a swing that was too small for me and swung in a gentle but wobbling arc. The night air was frigid but I didn’t mind. It felt peaceful. I was amazed at how quiet a city of this size was capable of being. The only sounds were the creak of the swing’s chain and the electric buzz of a lone streetlamp at the edge of the playground.

A thin silhouette emerged from the darkness and headed towards me. It was her. “How’d it go?” I asked. “Wonderful,” she said, licking the blood from her canine teeth.

The Vigilante

Pockmark Pete came into the cafe looking haggard but satisfied, like he’d just spent a weekend in a cheap motel room with a spry nymphet. He collapsed onto a stool at the end of the counter and the stool protested under his formidable weight. He pushed his red flannel cap back on his head and ordered a coffee and a slice of key lime pie. Behind the counter, Ferris poured a steaming cup of coffee and slid it in his direction. Pete gripped the cup for warmth with dirt-encrusted hands that looked incapable of coming clean.

Ferris was a lanky figure with a long scrawny neck and a bulging adam’s apple that looked like a golf ball had lodged halfway down his throat. “Whatcha know, Pete?”

“I’ll tell you what I know! No one around here has to worry about that animal killer anymore. The boys and me just caught him hiding behind some bushes at the edge of the ballfield, just waiting for some stray pet to come along. We pounced on him before he could get a word out. ‘This is what we do with animal killers around here!’ we told him. Then we took turns going to work on him. Gave him something to think about, that’s for sure. We carved up his face real good, broke all his fingers one by one, and then cut out his tongue. That one was Jarby’s idea. He wanted to string him up too but I said killing him would be too good for the rat ass bastard. So we left him unconscious there in the dirt next to third base and called in an anonymous tip to the cops. Jarby took the tongue home as a keepsake.”

“Wow,” said Ferris, visibly stunned. “I guess a lot of pet owners will sleep soundly tonight.”

“That’s a fact.”

“So who was it? Did you recognize him?”

“Don’t know.” Pete finished the last bite of pie and licked a smear of whipped cream from his upper lip. “Some drifter most likely. Lean fella. Buzz haircut. Creepy eyes like they’d seen into Hell. Weird birthmark on his cheek.”

“Birthmark, you say? Like a half moon under his eye?”

“Yeah, that’s the bastard. You seen him around?”

“I know him. That’s Greg Kipple. He used to come in here fairly regular. Hate to tell you this, Pete, but he ain’t no animal killer. He’s been overseas in the service and just got back two days ago. Them killings have been going on for well over a month now so it couldn’t of been him.”

Pete wrinkled his nose as if in annoyance. “Well what was he doing lurking in the bushes all suspicious-like?”

“Dunno.” Ferris reached over and refilled the cup of coffee. “Maybe he was looking for a lost baseball or something.”

Pockmark Pete added a liberal dose of sugar to his cup and sat stirring it absently, watching the swirls go round. “Say Ferris,” he said, “be a pal and don’t mention to anyone what I told you, yeah?”

Dead Man’s Shoe

A dead man lay across the entrance to an alley on Camouflage Boulevard. The stiff fingers of the hand curled upward like the teeth of a rake. He wore a dark blazer that was stained with something sickstomach green. His left shoe was untied. His right shoe was missing. His face was blotched with purple bruises, which may have given some indication as to a possible cause of death. He lay on a bed of sandwich wrappers and mildewed cardboard.

Horace and Cornelia Fassbinder walked along the sidewalk, having just purchased a chamois lampshade from Pendergrast’s All-Nite Lamp Emporium. Horace carried it tucked under one arm.

“Careful,” Horace warned his wife. “You nearly stepped on that gentleman’s hand.”

“Oh, I didn’t see him. I might have fallen.”

She gingerly stepped over the hand and the couple made their way to their automobile, a two door 1966 Bentley with a moose-colored finish. A policeman with nonregulation sideburns was preoccupied with fastening a ticket to the windshield wiper. The wiper’s grip was weak and the ticket kept slipping down.

“Officer, we were only away from the car for a moment,” Horace spoke up, perturbed. “Surely you can find it in your heart to tear up that little ticket of yours and scatter it to the wind.”

“Besides,” added his wife, “there’s a drunk lying in that alley. Ought you rather be arresting him for vagrancy instead of harassing law-abiding citizens like my husband?”

“I don’t think he’s drunk,” said Horace thoughtfully. “I’m inclined to believe he is deceased.”

“Then this policeman should be arranging to have him properly disposed of. The idea of letting him lie there for decent people to stumble over. I could have broken a heel.”

“My wife has a point, officer. After all, our tax dollars contribute to cleaning up this town, not for bodies to be left strewn about the streets like some kind of stockyard.”

After Horace placed the lampshade in the trunk, he and his wife indignantly climbed into their automobile and drove away, the deep baritone of Tennessee Ernie Ford bellowing from the radio. Shrugging, the policeman tore the ticket in fourths and dropped the scraps in a nearby wastebin. He strode over to the corpse and gave it a lazy kick in the leg.

“Hey buddy, let’s move it along, eh?”

The corpse refused to move. The policeman crouched low, careful not to scuff the knees of his uniform, and felt the man’s wrist for a pulse. Finding none, he took hold of the corpse’s legs and dragged him deeper into the alley where the body would longer be a hazard to the feet of pedestrians. Satisfied with his work, the policeman dusted off his sleeves and headed up the boulevard, keeping an eager eye out for troublemakers in need of reprimand.

~~~~~

Not three blocks away, in a dingy pawnshop whose considerable contents were in clear violation of fire codes, a squintyeyed character in a mustard-smeared trenchcoat was doing his best to persuade the moleish pawnbroker to accept a single ragged shoe.

“This is only the right shoe,” said the pawnbroker, tilting his glasses to better appraise the object in question. “Where’s its left counterpart?”

“This was the only one I had time to get,” Squinteye admitted.

“Well, this one’s no good to me without the other.” He sniffed. “Besides, it smells queer. Where did you find it?”

“Never mind that. Just give me five bucks for it. You could always sell it as a flower pot or a tool for hammering.”

“No can do. It’s against store policy.”

Squinteye pinched his stubbly chin and mulled. He was reluctant to give up without something to show for his efforts. “How much will you give me for just the lace?”

“Just the lace without the shoe?”

“That’s right.”

“Fifty cents.”

“Aw, come now, that’s an awful nice shoelace. Feel how durable it is. Surely it’s worth at least a buck.”

“Not to me it ain’t.”

“A skinflint is what you are,” Squinteye grumbled. Nevertheless, he agreed to trade the shoelace for the fifty cents. He was hungry and knew where he could find a bag of salted peanuts for that much. It paid to have connections.

~~~~~

The pawnbroker locked up his shop and went home to his modest third-floor walkup which overlooked a sprawling trainyard. In the vestibule he leaned against a wobbly console table and shoehorned off his shoes, letting them drop with a thud, one after the other. Socks aflop, he went into the kitchen, which reeked of oregano.

His wife sat at the kitchen table watching “The Dating Game” on a staticky portable television with a crooked antenna and putting together a jigsaw puzzle of a New England barn. Having put this particular puzzle together at least six times before, she had become quite efficient at it. Only the sky area gave her trouble since all the blue pieces looked identical.

“You look tired,” she said.

“I feel like a burnt out match.”

He spiked a glass of lemonade with rum and stood on the balcony watching disgruntled yard workers below scrubbing graffiti off a train. He nursed an impulse to flee to coastal Maine and eat lobsters with plastic forks as the wind blew napkins into the bay. He felt a sneeze rising but was unable to coax it out. The sneeze felt wedged somewhere in the back of his throat. He was very tired.

Having fit the last of the puzzle pieces into place, his wife got up and put a plate of leftover lasagna in the microwave. Then she went onto the balcony to ask her husband if he wanted any. She found him slumped over the balcony railing, his face grimly red. His glass of spiked lemonade had slipped out of his grip and fallen to the pavement below and shattered, forming a stain in the shape of a moth.

~~~~~

The pawnbroker’s wife sat in the lobby of the hospital, flipping absently through an issue of Psychology Today. She thought the plant on the center table needed watering until she realized it was a fake and wondered why it had been designed to look so thirsty. She fidgeted and shifted in her chair. The only other occupant of the waiting room was an old man in a tweed suit who appeared to be asleep. Behind the bulletproof reception window a nurse tapped her pencil and hummed off-key. Finally the doctor came in, bleary-eyed and anemic. He carried a clipboard with nothing clipped to it.

“Will he be okay?” she asked him.

“Not exactly,” said the doctor. “He’s dead.”

The pawnbroker’s wife was distressed to hear this.

~~~~~

On the second floor of the hospital parking garage the anemic doctor sat behind the wheel of his dinosaur egg-blue Bentley Continental, a lit cigarette between his trembling fingers. His smoky exhalations grimed up the windshield. He couldn’t remember what prompted him to start smoking, since as a doctor he knew better. Some kind of late stage rebellion perhaps. His youthful straightlaced days at medical school were now hazy, like a movie he had seen a long time ago and forgotten about because the plot wasn’t very good and the characters not well-drawn.

He stubbed his cigarette out on the leather seat cushion. Was this even his car? He had the keys to it, so most likely it belonged to him. A pointless status symbol which he had probably been pressured into buying. He turned on the radio. The dial was set to a talk radio station. He turned it back off again. There were no cassettes in the glove compartment. He didn’t remember what kind of music he liked. Or if he even liked music at all. He started the engine and drove out of the parking garage. At the gate the attendant shortchanged him.

On the boulevard he found himself embedded in stubborn traffic that refused to budge. A policeman with nonregulation sideburns was having no luck detouring the traffic stream at the next intersection. Instead of leaning on the horn like the other drivers around him, the doctor spent his moments watching the pedestrians on the sidewalk with envy. They were all in too much of a hurry for the deadly mire of introspection. Up ahead two laughing hoodlums beat up a pretzel vendor and stole his pushcart. He changed the temperature control from air condition to vent. The smell of fried dough and urine seeped into the car interior.

Soon traffic picked up and he followed the path of least resistance, which brought him to the east side of the city. Somehow he wound up on the Great Bridge where he pulled over to one side and put on his hazard lights. He got out of the car and leaned against the railing, looking out at the grey sprawl of city stretching into the distance. He removed his white coat with his name stitched above the left pocket and flung it over the side of the bridge. He watched it fall like a wounded seagull into the river.

 

Artist’s Model

I got off the train in Bushwick as I had been instructed in the email. The hefty umbrella I had brought along turned out to be unnecessary, since the sun was now out and showed no indication of going away anytime soon. My profession often brought me out to this part of Brooklyn, but the directions led me into an area that looked unfamiliar. I walked past 99-cent stores and all-night laundromats and restaurants with menus in Spanish hanging in the windows. Somewhere along the way I crossed the border into Queens without anyone stopping me and asking to see my papers.

I passed squat buildings with rounded facades, car services, tax preparers, tiny travel agencies that looked like a front for something illicit, old men with huge bellies sitting on folding chairs and staring off into space, excited little hulahooping girls, and withered old gypsies scavenging for refundable bottles in the unlikeliest of places. The menus in the restaurant windows changed from Spanish to Polish. I found the sandstone row house bearing the address which I had hastily scribbled on the back of an eviction notice. In the enclosed concrete yard out front was a row of black trash barrels that looked like they could easily store an unconscious body. A broken pink tricycle was chained to the iron fence, its decapitated handlebars lying nearby.

I rang the doorbell to what I assumed was apartment six and waited. There was no visible intercom so I figured it might take a while for the tenant to put on his shoes and whatever else required putting on and come down the stairs to let me in. But more time passed than I thought necessary. I rang again. If he wasn’t home after setting up this appointment with me and making me come all this way out here I was afraid I might behave unreasonably. A short man with a false leg approached from behind me and hobbled up the stoop. I stood aside to let him brush past and unlock the door with the key that was chained to his beltloop.

“You come in?” he asked me in secondhand English.

“I’m visiting apartment six.”

He nodded and held the door for me. I stepped out of the sunshine and into the bleak hallway that smelled overwhelmingly of chalkdust. I thanked the man and started up the narrow stairs. He watched me from below, a strange mask of a smile on his face which I didn’t know how to interpret. As I climbed the steps made grunting noises like I was hurting them. My foot nearly came down on the carcass of a something that wasn’t quite a cockroach lying bellyup on the second floor landing before I spotted it in time.

I reached the third floor and knocked on the door to apartment six. There was a rustling from within and I saw a shadow momentarily obstruct the light behind the peephole. The door opened to reveal a disheveled man in his mid-thirties. He wore a wrinkled t-shirt depicting an anime squirrel in a fedora. His eyeballs looked like they had been hastily shoved into their sockets.

“Ambrose?” I asked. He blinked at me a few times. “I’m Daphne. We were supposed to meet for a session today.”

He snapped out of his trance. “Oh. My doorbell doesn’t work. I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“Do you want me to come back another time?” I asked this politely but as far as I was concerned only one answer was acceptable.

“Yeah. I mean, no. Come in. I was just working.”

A short hallway opened up to a larger space which looked like it would have been ideal for an artist’s studio, but strangely I saw no trace of an easel or art supplies. The apartment smelled of rotting wood and overcooked potatoes. He removed a stack of hardbound books from a frayed wicker chair and offered me a seat.

“Is this to be a nude?” I asked.

“Yes.” Then, hurriedly, “You don’t mind, right?”

“No, I’m used to it.”

As I started to disrobe he sat down before a wobbly table and opened a laptop adorned with a sticker of Aquaman that appeared upside down when the lid was open. “Now for this first scene I need you draped back and looking forlorn, maybe a little pensive.”

“No problem,” I mumbled through my sweater, pulled comically half over my head. I watched him stare wordlessly at his laptop, as if he had forgotten how to operate it. “So you paint straight onto the computer, huh? That’s pretty cool. Keeping up with technology and all.”

He looked startled. “What? No. I’m not a painter. I’m a novelist.”

I continued posing for him steadily for the next few months. He paid well and never got weird on me, at least not any weirder than the usual artists I worked for. Along with a few other modeling jobs I made enough to avoid being evicted, which was pretty much all I could wish for. A year later when his book was published everyone agreed he had captured my likeness remarkably well.

The Adventures of Dust Devil and Lightning Boy

Entries from Lightning Boy’s diary:

Oct 3. Foggy tonight. My favorite weather for crimebusting! Ideal for dramatic silhouettes on rooftops. Dust Devil and I noticed some suspicious activity along the waterfront just after midnight and closed in to investigate. We hid behind some crates and waited with bated breath as several fedoraed shadows slipped out of a warehouse. Escargot smugglers, it later turned out. As they came around the corner, we pounced. DD took on four of them at once! He whirled around so swiftly they could barely see him. He’s a real force of nature! I managed to tackle two of them myself. Another stepped out from behind a crate and aimed a nickel-plated pistol at DD but I was able to zap him with a lightning bolt just in time. “Thanks, Lightning Boy!” DD exclaimed, as his fist crashed into the lantern jaw of a hoodlum. Once all the bad guys were KO’ed, we tied them up and left them for the police. Then we celebrated our triumph with a large pizza with extra sauce from Minnie’s. A job well done! We returned to the Weather Shack feeling good about events. My new iron-on lightning symbol on my bicep is giving me a rash. I wonder if I’m allergic to the fabric.

Oct 4. Slow night. Spotted a jaywalker on Sardine Street, but decided he wasn’t worth the effort of apprehending. Patrolled Thai-town on the lookout for secret opium factories with little result. Stopped in for a chat with Captain Blighter at police headquarters. His daughter Angela is engaged to an air traffic controller. Blighter thinks he’s a decent enough fellow, but not very motivated, career-wise. He assured us we’re invited to the wedding (as our alter egos of course). I’ll admit to being a tad jealous. That Angela is a real looker. I sure wouldn’t mind rescuing her from a villain’s evil clutches.

Oct 5. Light drizzle. We interrupted a hardware store robbery on the east side of town. Just one holdup man with a ski mask and an unloaded gun. Routine stuff. Later we met up with Ratso, our trusty informant, in an all-night cafe. He tells us there’s an ugly rumor going around the underworld that there’s something unsavory between DD and me. “That’s absurd,” I said. DD says it’s just a psychological trick used to bolster their confidence. I suppose he’s right. On the drive home I suggested altering our costumes to something a little more loose-fitting, but DD says tights are a superhero tradition which must be upheld. Gosh, sometimes he can be so maddeningly conservative.

Oct 6. Slow night. An alarm went off at the Museum of Yogurt but it turned out to have been triggered by the night watchman. Accidentally, he says, although I have a hunch he did it on purpose as an excuse to meet DD and me. But I have no real evidence, just a suspicion. Before we left he asked us to sign his logbook. Sketched up some designs of a new, more hiphop-flavored Lightning Boy costume. Haven’t the nerve to show them to DD.

Oct 7. Clear skies. Constellations prominent. I think I spotted Pegasus, though I’d left my astronomy guidebook at home so I couldn’t be positive. We busted up a gambling racket in the Tenderloin district. Went well at first. The ringleader tried to escape but DD cornered him in an elevator and dealt him a crippling blow! But then one of the crooks taunted us using a derogatory slur which insinuated an inappropriate relationship between DD and me. I got really mad and socked him right in the nose, breaking it. Blood everywhere. Boy, I can really pack a wallop! DD later said I overreacted, which was very unlike me. “It’s just cheap innuendo,” he said. “Don’t take it personally.” He never gets his tailfeathers ruffled over things like that. He was right, I suppose. We cut short our patrol so I could take it easy. We swung through the drive-thru of Tasty Burger and DD ordered me a strawberry shake. He knows I love shakes. He can be very conscientious sometimes.

Oct 8. Stopped a truck hijacking down in the warehouse district. I blinded the driver with a lightning bolt and he crashed into a telephone pole. Then DD dispatched the hijackers without much fuss. DD has taken to calling me “Lighty.” I hate that. Especially when he does it in front of the bad guys and then they snicker at me. Boy, does that make me feel stupid. Next time he does it I think I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear him. I’ll look away as if lost in thought while he keeps repeating it until he finally says “Lightning Boy” properly. Then I’ll turn my head and go “yes?” That should get the hint across, I think.

Oct 9. Slashed my goshdarn finger on a goshdarn barbed fence while we were chasing after a pursesnatcher. DD asked if I wanted him to kiss it and make it better. I thought he was joking at first. He sounded disappointed when I laughed it off. Sometimes I don’t get him.

Oct 10. Uneventful patrol. Ended up at the arcade playing pinball. I know we should be pleased when crime is low, but sometimes I get awfully restless.

Oct 11. Took a bit of a spill over a parapet this evening while chasing a cat burglar. Luckily a fire escape broke my fall, but I bruised my shoulder something fierce. Boy, am I getting clumsy lately. While I sat there trying to get my bearings, DD came up and started rubbing the sore spot. I’m not very comfortable with personal contact and asked him to stop. He sulked the rest of the evening. What’s that all about?

Oct 12. Wow. I’m still not sure how to process what happened. Still shaken up. Captain Blighter woke me by coming to the door of the Weather Shack early this morning before sunrise. Instead of coming home after our patrol last night, it turns out DD headed down to the docks where he was picked up by an undercover cop. Blighter was vague about the charges but apparently it involved something inappropriate with a minor. I insisted it couldn’t be true. Nobody was more wholesome and law-abiding than DD. He must have been framed by a conniving evildoer. But Captain Blighter said, “Trust me, there wasn’t any room for misinterpretation.” Sure, DD had been behaving a little strange the last week or so, but I can’t believe he’d do anything with such flagrant disregard for the law. My mind is still reeling. I just can’t find it in my heart to go out on patrol alone while DD is locked up in jail.

Oct 13. Captain Blighter says the police intend to make it appear that DD was killed while foiling a bomb threat to the city. They don’t want word to get around about his arrest. Blighter says if DD’s integrity is tarnished it’ll be a big win for the bad guys, which will boost their confidence and might lead to a rampant city-wide crime spree. I can see his point. Gosh, so I guess this spells the end of the heroic duo of Dust Devil and Lightning Boy. I suppose I’ll need to look for a new line of work. Or maybe I can find a new mentor. Perhaps Cougar Woman could use a sidekick. I’ll ask her when I see her next. I would need a new identity of course. I wonder if Puma Boy is registered.

Operation: Bandersnatch

Crux showed his identification papers to the guard and gave the password: “Dervish.” The guard nodded curtly and pressed a button that opened the gate. Crux went through. He entered the drab brick building that served as headquarters. A poorly-lit hallway brought him to a low-ceilinged briefing room where he found several surly soldiers clustered around a tactical table. He felt them size him up as he entered and he returned the favor. He wasn’t going to have any trouble from them, he surmised with confidence. And even if he did it would be short-lived. Coolly, he pushed back a folding chair and settled onto the seat, resting one of his heavy combat boots on the rim of the chair in front of him. He began to pick his teeth with a wooden splinter.

The General came into the room, reeking of authority. His eyes were piercing, like a bird of prey. A scar ran along the crown of his bald head. The amount of shit he gave was little to none. “Alright men,” he began, and all spines in the room instantly straightened. “Here’s the situation. The Nazis have captured Professor Logworm, the imminent nuclear physicist. Their interrogation methods are, let us say, notoriously infallible. It is imperative we get him back before he spills the proverbial beans. We know he’s being held in a fortified castle in Bavaria.” He indicated a spot on a map of Germany which hung on the wall behind him. “So here’s what’s going to happen. Tonight the lot of you will be flown into enemy territory where you will parachute down behind enemy lines. You will have to make your way through the Black Forest without detection. The castle is built atop a cliff with its back facing a sheer drop. You will have to scale this back wall where it is minimally guarded. Hanson here is an expert mountain climber and will lead this stage of the assault.”

A wiry man with a pencil mustache acknowledged this with a slight nod.

“Now two of you, Rickard and Drubber, speak fluent German. You two will be given forged papers and will make your way through the front gate by impersonating inspectors. Your task is to cause enough of a distraction to let the rest of the team slip into the castle unnoticed.”

Drubber, a preposterously muscled American, spat on the floor. “I work alone.”

“Not this time,” said the General. “And spit on my floor once more and you’ll be mopping it up with your face.”

Drubber turned crimson but said nothing.

“Now,” the General continued, “we’re almost certain the professor is being kept in a cell down in the catacombs.” He unrolled a scroll of paper and laid it across the table. “Fortunately we managed to get our hands on this blueprint of the castle. The most likely spot you’ll find him is marked here. We expect the professor will be in no condition to climb down the castle wall so once you find him you’ll have to burst your way out. We’re counting on the element of surprise for this. Crux here is a mechanic and hotwiring expert. It’ll be his job to locate a vehicle on the premises to use for your escape. Once you cross the Gotterdammerung River you can blow up the bridge behind you to slow down your pursuers. Garbo here is a demolitions technician and he will handle that. We’ll have a plane awaiting here,” pointing on the map, “at the abandoned airfield near the village of Löffelstadt to fly you the hell out of there. We are calling this mission Operation: Bandersnatch. Now then, any questions?”

“Yeah,” said Crux, leaning back in his chair. “I have one.”

The General’s eyes narrowed. “Well?”

“Can we warn the Nazi pigfuckers ahead of time that we’re coming, to make it a challenge?”

Crux sat on the edge of his cot cleaning the blade of his V-42 stiletto. He was ordered to get a few hours of sleep before the flight was to leave, but he was too pumped with adrenaline for that. He held up the knife and imagined it slicing through the jugular of a Nazi. He knew how to cut to ensure a maximum amount of pain. When it came to Nazis he despised a quick death.

He took out a photo of a voluptuous blonde in a sweater. This was Vera, his girl back home. Or at least she had been. She didn’t understand why he hadn’t taken a safe desk job back in the States when he had the chance. She didn’t understand that the Nazis needed exterminating. And he couldn’t do that from behind a desk. Before he left the States she angrily told him she didn’t want to see him again. But he knew she would change her mind when he returned. She was nuts about him, he knew, and she couldn’t just walk away that easily. Besides, who in their right mind would turn away a war hero? He tucked the photo in the breast pocket of his uniform for good luck.

There was a knock on the door. Crux grabbed his pack and went out to an idling jeep. He climbed in and was driven across the base to the runway where the others were assembled beside an awaiting B-17.

“Good luck, men,” said the General, giving a stiff salute. “Don’t let me down.”

They climbed aboard the plane and moments later were airborne. They rode in silence. Crux lit a cigarette to pass the time. His nerves were rock steady. His years of dedicated training culminated in this moment. He was ready to spill some Nazi blood.

“We’re over Germany,” the pilot called back to them over the roar of the engines.

The team triplechecked their parachutes and got ready for the jump. The pilot opened the drop hatch. A burst of bonechilling air rushed into the fuselage. The forest below scrolled by like the perforated roll of a player piano. The pilot gave the signal. One after the other the soldiers leapt out of the plane into empty space. Their parachutes could barely be seen against the inky night sky, like shadows of jellyfish. Crux glanced down to see the dark earth rushing up at him. He saw what looked like a small clearing and aimed for it. A gust of wind dragged him in another direction, directly towards a cluster of trees. That was all he needed, he thought, to get tangled up in the branches of a tree and have to cut himself down.

He crashed full-force into the upper reaches of a Norway spruce. His head caught in the V of a protruding branch and he heard a sharp jarring snap, which turned out to be the sound of his neck breaking.

FIN

Existential Dentistry

And that reminds me of the time I nearly cracked the secret of the universe while hallucinating in a dentist’s chair. I wasn’t there for a serious operation, just a filling that needed to be replaced. After strapping the mask over my nose that would pipe in the nitrous oxide, the dentist courteously explained in some detail what he intended to do, but all I heard was the song playing behind him. The last fairly lucid thought I had was “I didn’t know Hendrix did a cover of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’…” then I climbed into my bathysphere and descended into the roiling wet clouds, where oddly-shaped bubble creatures floated past, peering curiously at me through a porthole in the hull of my craft.

As the procedure commenced it occurred to me that this particular dentist’s voice sounded exactly like that of every other dentist I’ve had occasion to lean back for. Sure, one might expect the terminology to be similar, but these were even the same mumbled asides, even the same random off-key hummings. I’ve had several dentists over the years of varying ages in different parts of the country. Yet at this moment they were all one and the same. A dentist archetype. The conversation between him and his assistant was identical to every conversation between every dentist and assistant that has ever taken place. Fragments of dialogue wafted into my ear, each triggering bouts of deja vu. A tricky procedure described as “heroic.” A gruesome hatchet injury once encountered in dental school. I could even picture the setting, a cabin stocked with lumber somewhere up north. I’ve heard this dialogue all before.

I then understood that the Dental Experience is something recorded on a tape and replayed every time the patient reclines in the dentist’s chair. There is nothing to fear, the hypnotic tape loop reassures me, because everything is familiar. This is all routine and your well-being is in good hands. You’ve been here before and you will be here again.

And this led me to reflect on the nature of control. Clearly I was not the one in control of this situation. I willingly handed over the reins fifteen minutes ago (or was it three hours?) when I stepped into this office. The dentist could, on a whim, swing a sledgehammer at my jaw and there was little I could do about it. In this impaired state of mind I might not even recognize that as something I would wish to avoid happening. I pondered what a powerful worldly figure would do in my place. How would Charles Foster Kane react to placing his fate in another’s hands? Would he simply not let himself be put in this situation? Perhaps Charles Foster Kane would sooner have a mouthful of rotting teeth than entrust his safety to another.

Then, like a camera filming itself, I thought of myself sitting there trying to make sense of everything. Consciousness is a detective, I realized, eternally puzzling over what is occurring, attempting to make sense of its environment, to piece together meaning out of the disparate clues it finds. But a detective is also a nuisance, a monkeywrench in the machinery. In order to pull off any sort of repair work or self-maintenance such as this, a greater mechanism would have to decoy the detective long enough to work unobstructed, to prevent it from meddling. And that’s exactly what the purpose of the nitrous oxide is, a wild goose chase to distract my thoughts from what is really going on. I’ve voluntarily come in and placed myself completely at the mercy of the dentist. Or did I? Certainly he is functioning under the same principle. Perhaps he is merely an instrument of the maintenance department. This whole thing could be taking place under the influence of some kind of metaphysical nitrous oxide.

A distraction, that’s all this is. A distraction in the system. Then suddenly I understood everything. With an almost audible click the whole nature of the universe made sense. As if stormclouds were lifted and I could see into the distance in all directions and knew precisely where I was. The face of the clock was fallen away, exposing the tiny mechanical parts underneath. Everything was so simple and so obvious. I nearly motioned for the procedure to be halted. To hell with my teeth, I had seen the truth. I needed to scribble down this vision of clarity before it was obfuscated. I needed to ask for a pen and paper. If only I could remember how to speak.

And then I noticed the music playing was no longer Hendrix. It sounded familiar though. The melody resembled the song “Such Great Heights.” Not the original, but it could have been the delicate Iron and Wine version. And then I knew something was wrong. This was not part of the script. That song hadn’t even existed the first time I visited the dentist. It would have been impossible to encode into the tape loop. Something must have short-circuited. An interference of signal. The song was a tip-off that the pattern had been broken. The detective in my head bolted upright.

I opened my eyes and realized I was in the same room I had originally entered. I had been sitting there the entire time. I hadn’t gone anywhere. Certainly not for a subterranean ride in a bathysphere. The office around me looked unbearably ordinary. The mask was removed. I was handed a complimentary toothbrush and ushered on my way.

Groggily I stumbled outside into the daylight. I crossed the street to the park where some jazz musicians were gathered, hammering away at an obscure Thelonious Monk tune. I sat on a bench while my head slowly cleared and the feeling seeped back into my jaw, trying to make sense of all this, to reconstruct the state of mind that had led to my recent epiphany. I had a notepad in my lap, ready to jot down the faintest hint of the secret, but my mind was a blank. I felt the despair that for a fleeting moment everything made sense and then was spirited away, like a dream whose wispy tendrils eluded my grasp. Like a pearl disappearing into the murky depths of my soup. A tune whose melody I’d forgotten. Hopelessly I put away my empty notepad, the victim of a cruel joke. Why would the universe reveal its secret to me only to snatch it away again? What was the purpose in that?

And then a bird shat on my bag.

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