Years later the gentleman found one of the restaurant’s menus, folded and stained and stuck in the back of the junk drawer of his kitchen.
Odd. He would have sworn the restaurant had been called Happy Wok.
The mind sure played some odd tricks.
Rise with the new sun. Sit at edge of bed, inhale and exhale seven times in slow succession. Lift arms, extend fingers until tendons are piano-wire tight. Rotate hands ninety degrees. Clench hands, listen to the soft cracking of ten aging knuckles.
Stand. Face wall. The painting by the bed shows a pleasing beach and ocean waves that extend into infinity. Who composed this scene? The painting is unsigned. The painting is old. The frame is coated with dust. Close eyes and imagine the muffled hush of the sea. Another seven inhalations, another seven exhalations. Rotate hands again. Open eyes, turn from wall, exit bedroom. At the doorway pause and blink rapidly. Shake away any lingering remnants of sleep.
To the right. The bathroom.
There are your teeth. Brush them.
At a large office building in the city center there works a young woman who would very much like to become intimate with a man she often sees while riding the elevator. Nice suit. Not overly expensive, but tasteful. Kind face. She can tell the man frequently smiles, and not in the way that so many people have --- a false way --- but genuinely. With sincerity.
With her heart she desires. With her mind she manufactures labyrinthine fantasies. What if he and I. What if.
Only once will she summon the courage to speak with the man of her passions and that is to ask the correct time.
She called him Bugboy, a pet name with personal significance, so mind your own business. Her name, now? That was Plethora and don’t ask why, that personal aspect again, some information remains forever veiled, deal with it already. It was the two of them, here and there, up and down, a roller coaster ride doomed to end because that’s the nature of rides. Bugboy, his end arrived one afternoon in a field where black roses grow. He went up in ball of pale blue fire that scorched the low-hanging scud and released a shower of molten rain. Boom. Mightier than Fourth of July fireworks. Those skyrockets were nothing in comparison. Hell, they were less than the dust under nothing’s shoes. Plethora watched from her roost in an oak older than time and sighed a dusty sigh. So this is how it unfolds she whispered to the expanding plasma cloud that marked Bugboy’s swansong. Her bones shuddered. Her internal organs gave a skip. The thinset scud hissed and melted into memory.
Something indescribable happened to the sun. Plethora blinked and sank back into her roost. The leaves wrapped around her. They were home away from home, swaying and comfortable, an admirable refuge. Why bother coming down to earth. What was the point? Did the journey make any sort of sense?
Nineteen years later she was living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Salinas, Kansas. So hot in the summer. Air more easily drunk than breathed. The damned humidity. And the tornadoes. There was her job in a ceramics factory, forty hours a week at six dollars per hour, spraying glaze on unfired dinnerware. Stare off into space, work like a robot, no thoughts, no ruminations, nothing but softly nattering voices in her head. The voices wanted to know the best color for teacups. Cobalt blue? Hunter green? Cadmium yellow?
Eventually it was just her and the trailer and eleven cats. Somewhere along the line the voices took an unexpected turn and got lost.
So many millions swept into the void.
What is it about large numbers that so confounds us? What quirk of human nature spawns this fascination with quantity? Tick Tick Tick, the digitals mount up in our thoughts. They build themselves into neat piles Tick Tick Tick and reach for Heaven.
Aren’t we the oddest creatures?
In a future age there is the need to manage literal mountains of cadavers. What’s the plan? How to proceed? It is a puzzle that baffles the greatest of human minds. Something has to be done, yes. Not simply to forestall disease. What about the unappealing sight of bloated flesh? The arms and legs sticking out at ridiculous angles? The ghastly inhuman rictus? Fire is considered an effective method of disposal. There is beauty in the dancing of flame. Throughout history how often the hungry pyres have wiped clean a slate. It reminds us of the sun reappearing each morning. The sun forever reborn, giving hope. In immolation lies the hint of resurrection. Something better will come.
The problem with cremation: a lingering bacony odor to simultaneously inspire repulsion and hunger.
Burial? For the myriad deteriorating carcasses?
Not with the current cost of real estate.
After thorough calculation a committee is formed and decides the best solution to be a series of warehouses. Remove the deceased to a place of permanent cold storage. Out of sight, out of mind. The warehouses will have cavernous interiors. Row upon row upon row of multi-tired shelving units. Automated cooling systems and precisely controlled humidity. Ultraviolet light sources to halt bacterial decay. Electronic traps designed to prevent rodent infestation.
That’s the way to stockpile the dead.
stock • pile \ 'stäk-ֽpī l \ n (1920) : a storage pile of: as a : a reserve supply of something essential accumulated within a country for use during a shortage b : a gradually accumulated reserve of something.
A corpse belongs to the second meaning. In no way essential, but necessary to accumulate.
A new governmental department is formed to oversee the management of the warehouses.
Not to be confused with PBJ.
Peanut butter and jelly.
The PLB is not a spiritual organization. The public must understand. Clarification is in order. Pay attention. The PLB is not about what happens after the cessation of the life process. Post-life, in this case, has no connection with the next stage of existence, if any. The government has no opinions along those lines, public or private. Don’t bother asking. Just forget about it. The Post-Life Bureau is concerned with the corpus, not the spiritus. Why is this? Should the body be considered more valuable than the soul? Who’s to say? But a choice must be made. The government must determine how best to expend finite resources. Limits must be set in place. Check your history. This is how it has always been.
The warehouses cost a pretty penny. Maintaining them isn’t cheap.
Warehouse guards. They like to be paid.
Speaking of guards, there is one who works at a facility deep within the northernmost province. He suffers from anxiety and takes medication before each work shift. Night after night, alone with the dead. The quiet really gets to him. He swallows pills and hopes for the best. He crosses himself and mouths a soft prayer. The pills dissolve on his tongue and are absorbed by the bloodstream. The guard feels himself go lightheaded. His feet seem far away and attached to someone else’s body. It could be worse the guard thinks. The stories you hear about drug dependency. Wow. The stories.
Speaking of stories, this guard is an amateur writer and during his breaks (ten minutes every three hours plus a thirty minute meal period) scribbles on a small pad bound in blue leather.
He has a great novel in mind.
“The Archipelago of Shame”
Officially the archipelago has no name. Officially it does not exist. One cannot find it on any map or globe. Nobody on the mainland dares speak of it; the State has many ears and even more eyes. Prisoners, or relocated persons as the State designates them, arrive on special transport ships crewed by machines. These machines possess a human shape, but are nothing like human. Their flesh is steel, their brains composed of diamond and cobalt. They man the State’s black-hulled vessels with an inescapable efficiency. These crewmembers have the souls of demons or so the rumors go. . .
The first paragraph of what the guard plans as his magnum opus.
It takes years to write.
In addition to prose the guard transcribes conversations conducted with the silent population of his warehouse. The conversations are sometimes long and sometimes short. The guard doesn’t use what most people would consider as normal language. The guard often employs words found in no known dictionary. The conversations emanate from the dead and thread their way into his thoughts. They wander from the brain and travel down the nerves, spilling from his fingertips and onto blank paper. This strange process causes the guard to worry that madness has taken hold. What if. What if he. What is he is losing. It.
Then again, maybe the pills are to blame. Lord knows, the guard is no doctor.
Why do we fear madness? Isn’t existence inherently insane? Are there not entire philosophies that make that idea their central axiom? There is elegance to such a postulation. Viewed in such a light, what’s the harm in being a lunatic? How is it even an issue? And who is to decide what’s crazy? Can that person be trusted? Might his own sensitivities not be clouded? Is relevant discussion of the matter even possible? How is the subject worth a minute’s lost sleep?
The guard waits for the shelves of pale blue flesh to respond to his questions.
He is a patient man. It is a ridiculously long wait.
The wind set the empty bottles to ringing. If that wasn’t a sad song to hear. Made a man gloomy. Made him thirsty when the other six-pack was in the apartment five flights up. Fifteen stair per flight, seventy-five opportunities to lift a man’s bulk with tired legs and bad knees. The ungodly ascent wasn’t getting any easier, someone had to be messing with the gravity. Better just to lean back into the cement steps and remember how good that last bottle had tasted. Sure and why not. Memory had more value than experience. The entirety of life eventually fell into memory. You did something once, then played it over in your head. You smoothed out the rough spots and added a few pleasing flourishes. You turned memory into something worth feeling good about for a change.
The wind caught in his throat. Stretching the kink from his leg he inadvertently kicked the empty beer bottles and sent them crashing into the lowermost step. The explosive sound startled the crap out of him. Made him bite his tongue. Always something. The brown shards caught stray bits of sunlight that slipped through the clouds. The fragmented glass glittered like bits of alien treasure. Like radioactive smoke. Like a dream from another planet. His eyes refused to move, they were ensorcelled by a magic vision.
Frozen in place his eyes failed to note the Grim Reaper as It manifested across the street and waved a lazy Hello with one bony hand. . .
You only cut lawns to earn money for a decent car, not have to walk everywhere like a chump. Or rely on thumbing rides. Feet are for losers. Hitchhiking is for losers. There’s that old mower gathering dust in the garage. Why the hell not. Tune the engine, put gas in a can, talk to some of the people living along the street. What’s a fair price. Not too high. Avoid scaring away customers. But not too low. Don’t give away your time. That old lady on the corner. She’ll pay thirty for the yard. Thirty for a little pushing, a little sweat. Thirty sounds fine. Crank up the mower. Let the blue smoke fly. Hey there, Mrs. A, I figure an hour to do the job. You want the driveway edged, that’s another ten minutes. I usually charge extra for trimming, but not this time. You get a good deal from me, ok. Remember me next time your grass needs tending.
So what’s a good looking lad need with a shirt in this heat? Can’t doff the shirt and show off some of those hard muscles? I could run my fingers across that belly, I could play that belly like a drum. What would it hurt. So an old lady gets a taste of what she hasn’t had in years. So she imagines herself in a situation that never existed in reality, all right. But an old lady can imagine. Nobody says different. An old lady can do anything she wants within the confines of her own thoughts and not have it counted as a sin.
Cutting lawns is fine for now, but no way a permanent arrangement. There are plenty of guys who make that mistake. Start off with dreams of magnificence, then find themselves hooked to the back of a mower for life. Fools. The walking dead. Backs bent. Hands stained chlorophyll-green. Ears deafened by the two-stroke roar. Glare up at the cloudless sky. The pitiless blue stares right back.
ice cream sandwich newspaper cigarettes
gas beef jerky bottle of aspirin candy bar
6 pack of beer magazine chewing gum
The customers came, the customers went.
One of the neighborhood regulars stomped in from the rain, shaking long hair and coughing, wiping eyes on sleeve, wiping nose on other sleeve.
You’re out late said the kid behind the counter.
Me and the missus had a fight, I decided to take a walk.
No joke, that.
There’s coffee fresh made.
And a lottery ticket, pick me out a winner.
The regular pulled a couple of singles from the pocket of his jeans jacket. The regular looked like needing to sneeze, but caught midway in the action. He stared up into the store’s buzzing fluorescent lights, but nothing happened.
I think it only works with sunlight said the kid behind the counter.
Someone neither of them had seen before staggered into the store. An old guy, the sort that made you tired just looking at him. Worn out, probably should have died a long time ago, kept hanging on. How did some people manage the perpetuation. Worse than pocket lint, lingering without end, the world couldn’t clean itself of them.
You win anything the kid asked the regular.
Gimme another one the regular said, throwing the scratched-off lottery ticket into the trash and digging another dollar bill from the jeans jacket.
Let me tell you about the greatest love of my life the old guy said to nobody in particular. Back at the beginning of time. I cannot speak her name because the mere sound of it makes me weep. Her hair was captured sunlight, her face sculpted by angels. She was the definition of heavenly beauty, her only flaw a set of weak lungs. It brought an ache to my soul to hear her breathe. Those shallow gasps, reminiscent of autumn breeze rattling bare-branched trees. Was it tuberculosis? Back in those days you didn’t ask too many questions. The sickness left her thin and trembling, she didn’t weigh more than eighty pounds, a butterfly could have knocked her over. She lived with her mother and father in a shack by a swamp. Her mother blind, her father deaf. They had a dog with two legs in the front and one in the back, at night I’d stop by for a visit and the dog would run in lopsided circles. The dog would head into the swamp and bay at the moon. Memories of those visits still haunt my dreams, it’s been fifty-nine years and feels like yesterday.
The old guy purchased a box of Swisher Sweets and walked silently back into the rain.
The kid behind the counter shook his head. The neighborhood regular scratched off the second lottery ticket and made a disgusted sound.
Another loser asked the kid.
That’s hard luck.
Only kind I ever seem to have said the regular.
For a moment the store lights dimmed.
What do you bet we lose power said the kid.
The regular said something unintelligible and checked his pockets in the hopes of scouring up another single.