We stood in the shuttered Ortlieb’s Brewery in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties: the stranger (ill-tempered), his friend (indifferent), and me (Albert). The ceiling hung high above us with admirable patience, the light grime-filtered for minimal clarity.
My blood could not contain itself. A drip: gone. A splash: vanished (consumed).
I crumpled to the moldy, hop-strewn concrete, but the falling was irrelevant: I had felt. For just a moment, from between the rivets and tooth-whitening strips, the miracle of perception. Lucky number umpteen!
It was a soaring motion picture, that moment. Feeling. Imagine.
Frame 1: initial contact to face (mine) by knuckles of pointing and middle fingers (stranger’s)
Frame 2: iron-flavored flowering begins in earnest
Frame 3: ring finger impact and pinky friction
Frame 4: searing cheek skin rip-skidding across muscle (all mine)
The stranger, yanking me up by the shirt, inquired: “The fuck you smiling about?” (I was grinning, in truth).
His friend: “Forget him.”
Me: spitting teeth.
He punched me again. I felt nothing (my awakening would be glacial).
Understand: I had not felt in many years, an inadvertent experiment in four senses. It’s not the carnival you might imagine. I had the trappings—arms, legs, and cheeks, pewter portraits and memory foam pillows—but all circuits busy, no connection (to me, him, her, this, or that). A temporary condition (I had hoped) with but one comfort: horses were always racing (count on it), and men, always placing their bets (lousy odds).
Nothing had pointed to this. My parents were fine, and by fine, I mean exemplary. They did their best in their way. Did I have lovers? I did. Relationships? Friends? Naturally. Drinks on the coast, fuzzy breath, hushed tones, Fiesta Mix in foil packets.
But always askew. Always hokey pokey. The foot, but not the knee. The front, but not the back.
We live in a quantum universe. The uncertainty is killing me.
Still, I convinced myself most days of better days, that feeling was available, if not discounted and cherry-flavored. Yes, ducks had gotten out of their rows, but surely they could be made to cover bases. They’re only ducks! We have systems, processes, location-based advertising on our side.
Plus: I visited a haberdasher. I had shoes made, then unmade (the compliments genuine but fleeting). I invested in a lead suit, future futures, other things I couldn’t understand but seemed essential.
He, the stranger asking the fuck?, chewed his stale hops, ruminated on ways to inflict pain on the painless.
“But look,” I explained, “If not feelings, I have ideas (great for shelter): romances, self-branding, silver trays of holiday hams arrived from Virginia and dressed in pineapples, dancing on occasion (the hams, not me), unaware that they’re center stage for Easter dinner while the lamb-shaped butter lounges idly by, ambivalent and in no mood. I am a lion!”
My stranger was not following.
“The human race, I can’t keep up.”
I was either friend making or grave digging (a fine line).
“The asphalt-slapping cacophony of garish foam footwear by the billions. Entire cities inside the heels of sneakers, networked, powered by movement (who can sit still?), lights flashing (siren songs), but where to register? Are there toasters? Theories of entanglement?”
The stranger dropped me, backed slowly away, eyes wide and hands peacekeeping (his palms lovely and in need of lotion). They exited by the thick, steel door, but it did not shut—an opening was opening.
And so, in the brewery’s bosom, city of my (re-)birth, feeling: elusive, but still within the quantum realm.
What a day!
The quiet left in their wake was dizzying. I slept for days on the brewery floor, gestating, bleeding, sweating from pores that bloomed with fungus. I had horse dreams (cowboys and sugar cubes, featherweight men in colorful caps pressing me onward).
When I awoke (physically), I recalled knuckles and cheeks, tulips and eyelids, the distinct feeling of having felt.
Beneath the high and filthy factory windows, ordered like ones and zeros below the ceiling’s perimeter, a buxom brunette reclined on a ghostly billboard. We had invigorating conversation as I lay on the ground, as my body sealed and my mind fermented. (She used to condition with lemon juice, now trusts only jojoba.)
I inquired of Jim Morrison’s poetry.
She suppressed mouth vomit.
“His hair,” I countered.
“Divine,” she conceded. “But I still don’t feel connected. I did. I might later.”
“Is this the quantum condition?”
Her, up there, shilling for dead beer. Me, down here, fermenting in a quantum well. A problem of distance (short, but loaded with gravity).
We raised our right eyebrows. With perfect synchronicity (worthy of Olympic gold), we unstrapped our watches and threw them at the handless clock keeping spotless time on the brewery wall.
She stretched her arms. A panel came undone.
I watched, entranced, as the sky and her shoulder peeled, flapped, rolled under themselves.
I climbed to my feet with slow determination, brushed the mushrooms off my arms, pointed to where her flap had flapped. “That’s it.”
“Glue. Don’t you see?”
“It connects. Holds together the form and the function, the inter and the stitial.
Her: “Look at us!”
Her (detecting a faint trace of body odor): eyes rolled up into her armpit.
Me: legs swelling (restless syndrome).
Me: “I don’t get it.”
Me: “But glue comes from horses! They have patents, formulas, predictive analytics. It has to work.”
She crinkled her nose. “Work for what?”
“Feeling. Or connection?”
Her: “Which do you want?”
I checked my notes, my pockets, my portfolio. Useless.
Me: “Anything but the carnival.”
Her foot dangled, an indicator of sympathy.
Her: “So glue.” She nodded. “Ok.”
Me: I clacked my number 2 pencil on an empty clipboard. “We need a plan.”
Her: “No. Bigger, Albert.” She squinted with great seriousness. “A mission.”
So grand, even if the arm wave to they sky had to be imagined.
Me: “Yes…yes! Go directly to the source, nothing less. Learn the secrets of connection, of feeling connected, and so, feeling. Circuitous?”
“Sure, but who reads the fine print!”
“Who’s the guy with the happy cow?”
“Where’s he live?”
“The guy who got lost?”
“Watch your hands.”
I bolted from the distillery. Then back. “Ohio?”
And from, again. “I’ll be in touch!”
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I shot for Columbus, but was waylaid in Altoona (Columbus is craftier than you’d expect [his quilts exquisite]).
The plan: a rest stop, a quick stretch.
Steeped in the intoxicating glow of the stripped mall’s giant and radiant K (hyperthyroidism in its youthful, lowercase days), I exited the car.
K, an insatiable magnet, and me (Albert), iron filings. I grasped at plastic bags, errant customers, stray shopping carts as K dragged me toward the entrance.
“But the mission!”
K turned a deaf ear.
“Are there horses at least?”
Just as you remember. Durable and mini, drivers of hard bargains (quarters only), insistent on left turns (bank on it!).
Doors swept open at my mere approach.
Standing before a food counter, a small boy held a dad hand. They awaited pretzels and red Icees in blue and red striped cups served by white polar bears in red sweaters under flashing blue lights.
My body shuddered, froze.
A previous mission: Dad needed horseshoes and a plunger. I was six or seven. Earlier that day, crouched in a corner beside the sofa, fingers damp and parted, face wet and breaths short, the Jerry Lewis telethon absorbed me (or I, it), the children on display insinuating themselves into my hips, wrists, and shoulder blades.
Then, Dad, me, and Kmart, the scent of sought comfort in aisles long and unvisited, tiled and fluorescent.
When I could no longer walk, I sat to the floor with all I had accumulated, constructing a fort of shower curtains (and their vinyl scent), sneakers, toilet seats, camping tents (still in boxes). I ascended my mole hill, layered bath mats across my lap. I held a hammer in my hand. A catcher’s mask pressed my face.
My dad turns the corner, falters, his sense-making face overrun with tender confusion. His pace alone, so uncertain, sinks me. He stand-kneels on my pile, feet crumpling cardboard corners that refuse to give as tent poles jab the sides of his knees. His hands grope for balance. His eyes never leave me. He smiles a tentative, cheer-me-up smile, pokes his head into my mask. And again, to make me laugh. Or try to.
Bump. What’s wrong, Champ?
His breath Pep-O-Mint, but I can’t reach him.
Bump. What is it, Honey?
Picking at the seam of a catcher’s mitt.
Bump. What’s wrong?
This is boys: batteries included, wildly articulating limbs, sealed mouths—tiny hands in massive factories cannot lift leaded words into boy torsos. Tiny hands tie small knots around and around and call this Chest, Inspected by.
They force us from the store at midnight. We walk as though lugging packages from all twelve days of Christmas, the parking lot stretching beyond the highway and somewhere near the night horizon, a sulfured, drizzly probability that might be our car. And me, with a hammer and a bath mat.
Here, now, hands trembling, wrists and kneecaps, and not even a soap dish or a tissue box cozy. My legs paralyzed as my body flickers with the pricking static of lost connection. I attempt the brewery’s switchboard, but my frantic stabs dial a fungo bat distributor in Wichita. I reach for K’s Customer Service bell, but lose my balance, claw at the shelves as I go down, entomb myself in mustards, ketchups, fifty-seven varieties of future heartburn and permanent stains.
I breathe, barely, try to recall if this was part of the plan. I ratchet my head back and forth, clear enough condiment for my mouth to gasp.
When I open my eyes, I see signs from above, fluttering overhead in perfect, Family-Feud-listed order, a miracle of navigation! I clamber to my feet, don ski goggles (tinted green), a sun visor (golf might arise), lip balm (oils deemed essential), all as instructed. I eat cherry licorice and receive admiring looks (the flavor well-chosen and untraceable [thanks, New Jersey]). I feel nothing, but look great!
Then, through sheer science (accidental discoveries), I find Elmer’s cow. She’s convincing: perfect teeth, broad smile, breath of grassy notes. I inhale deeply and fall under her spell. Is she heritage or vintage? Retro or hipster? Who cares! Look at those gums!
I rip the top off the largest glue bottle with the smilingest cow face. I scramble to the brush aisle (tooth, hair, toilet), work the glue onto my teeth and tongue (an excellent paste despite the lack of disco-flavored tingling), style my hair (an extravagant mousse), scrub it into my clothes (the surprising applications of boar’s hair). I collapse in a chair from Sporting Goods, thumb through a magazine about fields and streams both, wait for Elmer’s elixir to make it happen. I drift to sleep (it was the streams that put me over).
I wake up dizzy, which I mistake for ecstatic joy (food poisoning). I try to put the magazine down, it’s stuck to my hand. Stupid maga…wait a minute. I shake it again. It flaps wildly, but we’re still bound. And again. I couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted to!
I immediately make a date in Ohio, explaining of our glue bonanza, it’s potent possibilities (if not probabilities).
“That was fast, Albert! What does it say about feeling?”
“Let me see, the print is tiny…but this bottle is…what’s bigger than big?”
Me: “Yes, very sophisticated.”
Her: “Will it work on us, Albert?”
The bulk of the magazine rips off, drops to the floor, sticks me with a page detailing onerous side effects.
Me: “Practically guaranteed.”
I consider the magazine on the ground, its heft and solitude, the lone page in my hand. Ohio: Elmer’s home state. A fitting tribute. Sure. But more: a hedge against uncertain glue futures.
Outside, a fake blue horse jostles a small real boy. His father pats his head. I doff my visor, take out my shoelaces, tie the magazine to a mini horse, just in case.
Now…where’s my car?
What Happened to My Spleen
My future as a missionary was in doubt: a windowless hotel room in Muncie (IN) was not the plan.
I don’t remember much of my arrival: a tap, a swipe, tiny envelopes aglow with deepening potential. Just a moment, then right back to it.
I was surprised too, when that moment ended, to wake in a bathtub full of ice with a note that my spleen would fetch a smashing price and would feed (via cash, not spleen meats) an entire family in Chechnya for several years. It was left by my Ukranian acquaintance (made digitally—he had contacted me), who, though having money woes in this free country, was possessed of substantial wealth in his homeland (my Nigerian associates could empathize). We spoke of better days, leisure wear trends, optimal stain removers for liquid adhesives (nail polish remover with acetone, but test for colorfastness first).
How could I not trust a man who spoke of colorfastness? (And his teeth, his spearminty breath!)
Plus, he loved, “This America. Love love love it,” he said, beaming from his teeth to his pointed shoes of alligator skin. He complimented my goggles, asked me to sit in his tub and drink this, which would help with the stains of my soul.
“From the source.”
“Ah, the source.”
I gulped down his purifying brew and woke without a spleen.
His note was not without comfort. It said the spleen was a filthy organ that would play only Bach fugues and I’d be less haunted without it. He left a page from a book that commended self-sacrifice. A revelatory idea! Connection through charity, feeling through pain (if not guilt). Could I count the teeth as well? (You’re welcome, brewery floor.)
But I was shellshocked, dazed. My mission clouded (self-sacrifice vs. bovine adhesives). My body drifting in a frigid bath of blood, lymph, and necrotic fat.
He took my spleen. I couldn’t see the connection.
I breathe deep, close my eyes.
I turn inside despite myself. My reluctant hand spiders its way through the spleen-shaped hole in my mackintosh, my hazmat suit, my long johns, all the way to the spleen-voided cavity in my abdomen. This feels dangerous (not in the way you’d think.)
But I find nothing. Not throbbing, not stinging, not the source of blood, conviction, or sadness. Nor can my hand escape, lodged at an impossible angle. I twist, wrench, fail. I’m stuck inside my own body (memo to brain).
I lurch forward, bang my nose against the faucet. “I have glue!” I’m submerged and flailing, trying to push my arm free with my foot. I surface. “A date!” I jump to my feet, slip, crash land at the base of the toilet. I’m wrapped in moldy a shower curtain. But my hand is free!
I find my legs and charge the exit, but misjudge the door, finding only its frame with my shoulder. I stumble into the bedroom, grab an iron and press it to me ear. “Listen to me!” I shout into it. “Secrets of a full life ripe with feeling: follow the horses but hedge with self-sacrifice, industrial adhesives, proper oral hygiene. But in what order?!”
I charge the exit iron-first and slam into a cart stacked with rolls of sandpaper and undersized soaps. The smell of bacon saturates my lungs.
I avoid the elevator (emergencies) and crash through a door marked Stairs. I’m instantly disoriented: the carpet vanishes, the textured wall coverings and not-art art gone. I race down the stairs and kick my way back into hotel reality, but the buffet delivers a punishing blow. Bacon only in candle form (damn yankees). Cartons of breakfast grains, but as if for a miniature world. Does the spleen provide for a sense of proportion? The tiny boxes already chewed into, oats littering the coffee-stained white linen, trailing onto the floor, nearly impossible to see in the nauseating pattern of the trodden carpet.
I drop to my knees, breathe into a plastic bag, wonder if I’ve missed my date.
Upon closer inspection of the strewn oats—yellow stars and green clover, naturally, but: purple horseshoes! (Very fashion forward.)
The horses have spoken.
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Please continue to bear with us while we have cell service restored. It’s very touch and go at the moment, what with the nucleuses, the mitochondrias, and such. Very delicate, one cell not knowing what the next is doing. (We’re told this is very on brand, but we’re no longer sure we understand the nature of desire.) Better to drop in. We’re conveniently located in Four Seasons Alley, north of S. Syphillis and Pine.
My Kingdom for a Horse
Louisville, KY (Churchill Downs)
I was not ready for Ohio, the toll of involuntary self-sacrifice having been greater than anticipated.
I needed first the calculus of connection in a character-limited world (sorry, vowels), data sheets, animated shorts from Ohio’s Department of Edutainment. (Columbus was a dangerous man if given the upper hand.)
But mostly this: the horses (always racing), a solid ground on which to regroup, recalibrate, remember (or forget).
My dad loved the races. Each week, one bet (so disciplined).
Every Saturday, without fail: Daddy, I want to see the horses!
I gave him my best eyes. I glowed, I’m sure of it. On occasion, a hitch in his step, but always the shaking of the back of his head: Not today, Champ.
Still, he was tall enough to love.
But then, dog days of summer. August, the tenth anniversary of my birth: This week, Kiddo, you bet.
I am beside myself, pulling my dad’s arm, walking into his legs. Dad, the horses! Look at them! They’re so big, Dad. They’re so big!
I studied their horse legs and horse heads, inhaled the horse-scent saturated air, consumed their horse nature.
So enchanted, I placed my bet—the trifecta—just as he showed. He eyed my selections and snorted, but in good spirit. I had bet the longest shots, long long long.
My dad chomps the stub of an unlit cigar.
“I want one too.”
“Watch the race, Albert.”
On the final quarter length, the two lead horses collide.
Frame 1: So many go down. They can’t help it.
Frame 2: (sob)
Frame 3: A jockey is tossed.
Frame 4: His own horse (his own horse, Dad) crushes his hoof into the little man’s sternum.
I point with one hand as the other covers my mouth. I run in place and recount their steps. Eyes closed, my finger traces the way out, teases them apart, guides them to safety, frame by frame. Then: a hero’s welcome, a glowing father, a ceremonial ride. Part and not just parcel.
Instead: a frenzy of limbs and earth, clomping hooves and sherbet-checkered shirts. The harder I try to close my eyes, the wider they open, refusing even to blink upon the crushing blows.
The cigar falls from my dad’s mouth—three horses lag the tumult, pacing the outside lane: Win, Place, Show. I am pale and green, my dad giddy and flush. He picks me up, tosses me above his head, thinks: the boy cries tears of joy. I puke. He fails to notice, says, “It’s steak dinner tonight!”
On the ride home, from deep deep within the passenger’s pleather bucket, a whisper: “…Dad?…What’ll they do with those horses?”
“Off to the glue factory,” he says. “What a day!” He slaps the steering wheel. “What a day!”
But here in Churchill Downs, when the starting gun fires squarely in my ear (a pop, in truth), I am shot through, my dad renting a timeshare in the gunpowder residue of my heart.
I watch the horses finish, their rumps dutifully patted, watch them disappear and the next ones take their places. Horses always racing, yes, but always in ellipses, always back to the start. And always put down when wounded.
I offer my bets to the man next to me drinking Scope and Nyquil.
I inquire if bad breath often follows colds. He grabs my wagers and spits on my shoes. I am not lifted.
And my dad: no less complicated, a lot less here.
When I exit the grandstand (days, or moments, later), I happen upon a large man on a small box, punching the air with his words: “You must give of yourself.” He stomps his feet and wags his head, jabbing again: “Pain is power.”
Self-sacrifice makes an encore appearance.
“What can I give?” One by one, I retrieve items from my backpack and drop them into a trash barrel.
“Until it hurts.”
He talk talk talks: the dangers of whale fishing (pack an extra lunch), the history of the lamb and its sacrifices (destined for symbolic butter), the fraught connection between needles and the rich man’s eye (the stitch lost in time). He asks if it’s wine and fishes or piety and righteousness I seek.
“Ok,” I say. “Blessed are the fish.”
“They shall inherit the earth.”
I give him every last fingernail. His look might be ecstasy, but could be horror.
I pluck my left eye and drop it into his right hand. I do not glance back (goodbye, depth perception).
I drift into the vast and empty parking lot, no horses, no eye, no feel for the next step, only a familiar spin spinning, a top left to chance near a counter’s edge and the risk I can never understand: it’s staying or plunging?
My phone rings in the distance. The man on the box, third eye glaring from between his thumb and forefinger, hollers, “You forget something, son?”
Possibly. I race back to the barrel, dive in head-first, legs (mine) scissoring out the top. Searching. Hypotheses? No. Hypotheticals, hypotenuses? No. Numbers (real, imaginary, complex). Unh unh. I thrash in the dark. Fog lights? No, but handy. I switch one on. In the misty glow, I come eye to eye with the head of Elmer’s smiling cow. I’m like Columbus (a discoverer of things already discovered. (Can my own holiday be far behind?).
And my phone! “Hello?”
“Albert? You ok?”
I search for reasons, guarantees, customer testimonials.
“No. But I’m the best I can do.”
“Perfect. Remember our date?”
“I do. The glue!”
I shimmy and squeeze my way out of the barrel, but it tips and rolls, my legs the handle of a formidable lint brush. A collision with a jersey barrier knocks me loose and prone beneath the man on the box, now silent, engaged in a furious staring contest with his palm.
I jump to my feet. “Wish me luck, Rev, I got a date.”
“Sure you do, son.”
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Burdened by past traumas, shame, self-doubt? Ready to drop your psychic (and not-so-psychic) pounds? We’re here whenever you’re ready, and even when you’re not.
Liber8: Hold on to your pancreas. We mean that sincerely. Now, back to our “story”.
In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing
Dateline: Dayton, OH
I have time to kill, which lands me in the mall’s food court. I attempt to order an appetizer, but the teriyaki-infused bailiff doesn’t like the look of me. He steamrolls me through the revolving door to the foot of a driverless bus, corn stalks protruding from its grille, sign posted on its entrance: If you’re on the bottom stair, duck.
She waves from the middle rows. She’s recovered admirably since our brewery rendezvous, hair washed and conditioned. She’s missing a filling, a pinky toe, a quarter eyebrow.
I hold the glue aloft and charge the narrow aisle. I trip over an abandoned backpack, catch myself on the seat in front of her just as she, in the midst of an intricate Swedish fish dissection, stands to greet me, bumping her head on the luggage rack, but dodging the cascade of lawn darts and reel-to-reels.
I offer my hand to shake. She opens her arms to hug.
I lean to kiss her. She answers her phone.
“I brought you these.”
“Chocolate covered dates!”
“Wow. That was foreplay.” She applies lip balm. “Ok. Now.”
Our knees and hips knock as we arrange ourselves, half in the aisle, half against the seats, my head rubbing the ceiling. I slather glue on our hands and faces, her windbreaker, my puffy coat. We press firmly together, stand nose (hers) to clavicle (mine).
Her: “You smell nice.”
Me: “I’ve been working out.”
We pass hours wrapped in arms and elbows, calves and thighs, our breaths lit by the drenching sun. We talk of market variables and paper towel absorbency.
I eye her half-eaten lunch in its styrofoam tray. Beef, I think. I say into her ear, “Teriyaki?”
“Don’t tell the Lone Ranger,” she whispers with a grin. “Silver’s gone.”
I adjust my goggles as she opens a packet of soy sauce. She explain the complexities of dishpan hands.
Before long, she’s recounting instructions for a water landing, arms stretched wide and three seats behind me. That’s when we realize: me here, her over there with no sticky strands, no strings or theories between us.
I paw at my jacket in disbelief. She practices semaphore with mail-order catalogs.
Me: “Did we miss something? Can you even read this?”
She takes the bottle in her flapping hands.
Her: “It says….huh, made in Nigeria.”
“Nigeria?” I leap to my feet. “Self-sacrifice?” I hadn’t gone far enough. “Are you cold? Take my coat!”
I jerk at my zipper, but the teeth mired in glue. I yank it up and over, but my head closeted in the neck as I pinball between luggage racks and trip backward onto the floor.
Her: “Do you have a sweater on under there? A soft-shell and a windbreaker? Thermal underwear? A wetsuit?”
“Fine, but listen: you need to account for wicking, off-gassing, reinsurance, the pollen index—”
I sit up. She crouches down.
Me: “How do you mean?”
Her: “Are you protected, connected, any better off?”
I balance myself upon my mountain of bath mats, surveying my empire of doubt, which is infinite, my face having been zippered shut.
Me: The reluctant swoosh-swooshing of a poly-encased head betraying all I’ve accumulated. “It’s possible I’ve misunderstood salvation.”
I await the plummeting acceleration, the uncontrolled tremors as my maladaptive theories slide reluctantly toward the exit. There is only collective breath (human, diesel).
Her (whispering): “Suck your cheeks in.” She cuts a flap through my puffy cloud. Her face flickers, like it wants to glow but can’t read the conditions. She is not alone in this.
Her: “Haven’t we been here before?”
We reach for our watches, but find only hurricane lamps (her), chia seeds (me).
Me: “It’s like I’m a tiny, mini operator buried in a thick lead suit inside an inflatable sumo Santa.”
Her: “Does your head ever stop?”
Me (taking careful notes): “That’s an option?”
The bus driver pokes his head in, then out: “Leaving for Columbus in 10 minutes.”
Me (eye widening): “Of course.”
Her (notebook in hand): nods, scribbles.
Me: “Salvation not through plastics or Christ or science and better living, but through…rendering.”
Her: “What? No.”
Me: “Yes. Free of the puff and the wick, essential parts only—to see what they’re made of, if I have them at all. Surrender to hooves and sinew, boiling vats, and connective tissue. To a future of bad art and construction paper, of carpentry and adhesives, of couch assembly in North Carolina. Of connector and connection.”
Her: “You lost me in the middle there.”
Me: “Burn off the claustrophobic carnival, the sumo and Santa, all the selves sacrificed. Do I even have a body? How would I know? Everything a best guess at a way out. Or a terrible one (sorry, spleen). But rendered—right to the center, the heart, the what do you call it?”
Me (cringing): “Damn, that’s right. Well. It’s only scary if I think about it.”
She begins running in place, then out of place and off the bus. I follow on her heels.
She claps her hands: “Ok, rendered. You ready, mister?” Eyes huge, hands handing. “Your clipboard, meat thermometer, drinks in a pouch. How’s your core? Stand on this pregnancy ball.”
She punches my stomach, screams in my face: “Your branding statement, Private?”
“Wrong!” She kicks the ball out from under me. “To Shed the Lead!”
“Perfect. Take a memo: place order for 50,000 silicone Shed the Lead wristbands in pink.”
“Pink’s for breasts.”
“Who’s against them?”
“I don’t take memos.”
She hands me a thermos, squeezes my fingers.
Her: “Columbus or bust. Good luck.” She pauses, considers a teasing grin, but just barely. “You sure?”
Me: “If I wind up in Indiana, I’m gonna be pissed.”
Her: “So you’re going on you own? Albert?”
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You Can Lead a Horse to Water
The path from Louisville to Elmer was not direct (never trust a crow in flight). There was much to sacrifice (the more you spend…): molars, cuticles and salt cod, credit applications, half an appendix (Saginaw, MI), kidney (left, in a helicopter cooler).
At last: immaculate groves of corporate architecture, beige, nondescript, and of the day, a miracle by all appearances (and appearances so important (the quelling of buyer’s remorse)).
At last, no layers upon stacks upon fishes. Only Elmer and the head of his smiling cow (essentials), the source (of connection, future Albert).
I study the giant cow above the grand entrance, suppress a craving for small cubes of cheese wrapped in foil.
I grunt my way through the sticky revolving door and stumble into the horseshoe-shaped lobby, the inside air thicker than arms and ankles. Glass walls with walkways wind behind me. Behind her: stolid double doors guarded by a small black pad and a tiny red glow.
Her: honing her living statue bit: Stock Photo of Formidable Admin Atop Imposing Desk in Lobby Center, phone between shoulder and ear (both hers), smiling but not overly so, tortoise shell glasses, long black skirt, black jacket, white blouse, peacock feather in bunned hair.
I discard my puffy coat, remove my sweater, the wool and the itch, and squish toward her with soggy shoes and hesitant teeth. She hops off the desk, spirals slowly toward me, wooden tulip, fish scaler, and clipboard all in hand (hers). She regards me with squinted eyes, runs numbers, checks boxes, zeroes in until our shoe tips touch, her breath steaming my chin. I have a hankering for a bathmat, cheez whiz, silent e’s.
I offer my raincoat. She applies sunscreen.
Me: “How’d you get here? Why?”
Her: “A feeling.” She shrugs. “Sorry.” I tug my sleeve. “You?”
“To see if underneath all of this, there is…,” I gesture grandly to my panting body, “…love?”
Her: “Don’t we know each other yet?” She adjusts my hands to point to my head.
Me: “Some days.” I know what I mean, but I’m unsure of the day.
We sit, face each other in two wooden chairs at a wooden desk against a brick wall. She traces the mortar with her last pinky. She’s misplaced a clavicle (right).
Her: “You look beat up. You didn’t follow the crow, did you?”
She drops her fork. I offer my spoon.
Me: “It’s ok. I’m learning.”
A crowd gathers and stares from a shy distance. An executive stops by my side.
I put my hand to my cheek (I am a lion).
“Is this man bothering you?” he asks.
I stand. “I want to be rendered,” I tell him. “Burn off the impurities, the shell, the detritus and details.”
Her: “What if love is the details?”
Me: “Then they won’t burn.” I finger his ears, marvelous and huge.
Him: “Spectacular idea,” flaunting his teeth like he’s just won vice president, “but no more horses.” His mouth mesmerizing. “Petrochemicals now, dinosaur carcasses.” I can’t hear a word he’s saying.
“Go on,” I urge him.
We walk in great ovals, feigning purpose and interest.
She gallops in the opposite direction astride a talking stick pony, round (“This is you,”) and round (“Albert. ’Dazzle me!’”)
Him: intricacies of adhesives, turmoil in foreign markets.
Her: and round (“‘Grand ideas! Glorious sense making!’”), loses footing, slams into glass wall.
Me (alarmed eye trained on her): “Wait. What?”
Him: “Don’t you doubt it. A good carpet shampoo can change your life.”
Me: “Before that. No horses?”
I reach for his ear. He bats my hand. Her pony clanks to the ground.
“Where’s Elmer? His cow?”
The crowd: canned laughter.
Him: “China, of course. Oh, that egg foo young!”
“But my spleen! The Nigerians!” I stumble backward, hands rubbing thighs (all mine). “How can you outsource the source?”
He pauses halfway through the double doors, back of his head shaking, turns, “I could ask you the same thing.” He exits, trailed by a mouthful of gleaming teeth and an echoing What they do to those eggs.
I sprint to the double doors and push, pull, kick, and cajole. I kneel before the tiny red glow, offer credit cards, business cards, customized playing cards. I scramble to her desk and ransack the drawers for an ID badge, but find only a rolling pin and a stapler.
This can’t be the end. Still so much West left. Please. I hop on the talking stick pony, scour the ceiling and floor for rates of return, tide schedules, flight paths of migratory birds.
I crash into the wall. And again.
“How do you steer this stupid thing?”
“You are steering it.”
She’s behind me, hand on my shoulder.
“You ok, Albert?”
Me: leaning hard on a crowbar, panting, staring, realizing, swallowing.
“Not for a long time.”
We stand and stand, our quiet an igloo tucked in a heartbeat.
She reaches inside her jacket, her blouse.
Her: “Maybe we could…” She holds out her heart, indicates a trade. “Just to see?”
We trade: I hold her heart, she my liver. I lean Jell-O legged against the wall. She stands opposite, one eye closed, leaning on a crowbar posing as a cane. I hold her heart in my hands, see her in a different light: three paces ahead and looking back from a different time zone.
Me: “How you feel out in the world, it’s like this? So light? No…sludge?”
Her (a slow, sideways nod): “I mean, not always. A lot.”
Her (knees straining, jaw tight, eyes watering): “This is you, all the time?”
We trade back. She gains six inches in height, gasps for air. I shiver from the cold. That should be encouraging (feeling).
We’re twelve, she in plaid and saddle shoes and pinching her earlobe, her family moving, he, fingering a clip-on tie, studying the play of yellow lines on black asphalt and this, the last lunch to stand outside and not talk to each other.
She shoots staples into a time-lapsed and improbable rainbow.
I try to rally, reset, but no plan, no mission or pretense.
I reach for her hand. She drafts her resignation. She wraps it around the rolling pin, staples it once, leaves it on her desk, and starts toward the exit. “We need to go before they kick us out.”
She stops. Lights from the parking lot shine through the windows, bathe her in a sulfered sadness.
“We learn in spirals,” she says, “hopefully.” She turns to me.
“I’ll catch up with you.” I offer my shoulder.
“I’m ok. I have,” she holds up the fish scaler, “one of these things.” She buttons her coat, reconsiders. “Something to lean my head on.”
Strands of gray shine in her shaking head. Creases bend around her mouth, like laughter saying on its way out, A little something to remember me.
She shrugs a three-shouldered shrug and exits, pony in her hand.
A Crash Course in Human MouthsSleep with your lips shut.
A new jawn from JLC. Coming in 2021.
Elmer’s blows had been swift and to the gut, decisive in their dismissal of hope re: quantum feeling, connection, salvation. Following my eviction, I collapsed in the parking lot. I don’t remember much, my phone-shaped headache like a walkie talkie, shrieking and incoherent, something of a plaid-shaped girl and a despondent pony.
I scratch my head. I’m short an ear.
A situational appraisal: laid out, eye closed, brain fogged, sun baking.
No atlas, no glue, no source, no service (intermittent at best, an analog bar in a digital world).
No billboards. No stores for conveniences or pinwheels.
Prone and listless beneath a multiplying stack of lead blankets. Just open your eye, Albert! I fail to find the will, a ship stagnated and even the sea lethargic. No wind or even its suggestion, as if wind and its history had vanished (blown away). A reasonable captain would jettison the horses. I saddle up, take aim for the horizon, charge in earnest and splash inches from the hull, convince myself, even as my lungs fill with salt and haddock, that my mudder was a swimmer all along.
Diesel fumes waft in my direction, tease my nostrils, tap on my eyelid, disorient my brain. It’s never been clear why diesel should stir such optimism. I drag myself halfway up, squint into the blazing sun. I sit amidst a crush of half-chewed tulips in the center of Elmer’s rotary, his installation art pay phone piece refusing to ring.
My ear perks up with the hum of an engine, the rumble of unbridled momentum.
My mind: the slow dawning of limited possibilities (combine mishap, thresher calamity).
Alarms blaring, I stagger to my feet. I refuse to die in a preventable farm accident!
The engine roars, but knees (mine?) attached backward and refusing to run. I grab the pay phone, but the hand piece is a beer bottle (local, craft) and the cord merely braided strands of dental floss. Collision inevitable, I down the home-brewed stout, press the bottle to my ear, scream the Pledge of Allegiance. When I hit indivisible, a coach bus crashes into view and grinds to a lurching halt.
The driver throws open the door: “Need a ride?”
Eye (mine) blinking. “West?”
Lips (his) protruding. “Played out. South?”
He helps me onto the bus, so gentle with his brown brown eyes, and places me opposite his position behind the giant spinning wheel.
“This morning…yesterday,” his lips unsure where to turn, “my friend, a bus driver, on the low stair taking in the day when pow!” He throws his whole upper body into the wheel, then back, like a crash test. “They shot him because.” He looks at me in his mirror. “Guess I lost my bearings. Been driving ever since.”
I place my visor on his head, wishing him to remember, or forget (whichever is essential).
I offer three fingers from my non-dominant hand.
“Thank you.” He looks at me, then the fingers, gracious, surprised. “Tell me about this.”
“That pinky. My dad, always questioning: what was I up to and with whom? Was I happy? Was there a girl? So full of love, trying to grab hold of something so small. The ring finger: we were best friends. Of all the men at his wedding, I was the best one. We drifted. No ill will. No sour words. A spiraling distance I would never understand. And the other one, well, you’re taking a lot on.”
His eyes shimmer above his silent sobs. He’s possessed of a softness, something I want. Or worse: need.
“He had two boys,” he says, “young.” He flickers, but glows. “A wife.”
My pinky aches in his hand.
We barrel through cornfields. Zero visibility and the arrhythmic thwack of stalk against glass. I examine the molecules of his air, to get at what he has and why it should seem imperative. I spy him from the luggage rack. I mimic his every movement and tic, turning when he turns, sobbing when he sobs, chewing the cuff of his sleeve.
At a rest stop in Tuscaloosa, he purchases roller skates, a hula hoop, an Orange Julius. Me too. He blinks, I blink. He sneezes, I sneeze twice.
In Crestview, we orders cheesy grits (but long for pork roll and Kandy Kakes).
I’m caked to his boots, stuck under his nails, riding the hitch in his cough. But his glow mystifying, the algebra impenetrable. I try every seat and approach. Think, Albert!
But it’s when, or how, he says Those boys again that knocks me backward down the aisle. It’s how he shakes his head between the lights of oncoming traffic when, for a moment, I feel him, those boys and their mother, the raw and tentacled absence of the (dead) father. My heart hiccups, clouds my lungs with a dust chalky and gray.
I work my way back to the front of the bus, kneel by his side. We weep beyond the mother and her boys, beyond the countless miles, for the slow swelling of something too present to ever touch or understand.
I wipe my nose on what’s left of my sleeve, clear my throat, ask, “How can you take all this on and still shimmer, still glow?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Love.”
“For what? Who? How?”
“Love’s…kind of its own thing.”
I know what he said, but could never stick the water landing.
I retreat to the bus’s center, try to think, then not think.
We drive until we’re mute. Until even the silence ferments and stinks.
But not the silence, something more—the melancholy stench of festering horses. From half-repose in seat number (I check) umpteen, I shout to him: “Stop!”
He acquiesces. I slam into the seat in front of me, gallop to the door holding my bloodied nose. “You smell that?”
He nods, wrinkles his face in disbelief. “Here?”
I crouch on the last step, turn to say goodbye.
“All this driving,” I look at him, “you know it’s a lie.”
He nods, focuses his gaze straight ahead. “And this factory?”
“It’s all I know to do.”
He starts the bus, takes in the road in front of him. “I hear that.”
And in the South
Meridian, MS (the last sign I remember)
I exit the bus in the swamp and swelter, where people are known to still believe, where, whether to Caesar (pizza pizza) or to the seated and bearded gentleman with the palsied right hand, they still render.
The facility: squat and square, an entrance that begs for a door.
She leans against the outside wall selling bath mats and souvenir keychains from a folding table. She wears a tattered sundress, a floppy hat with a paper fish. She’s missing all her fingernails, an elbow. Around her neck, a strapped tray offering a mitten, earmuffs, half a notebook.
Me: “We’re lost or found?”
Her: shrugging three shoulders as if, Right?
She fingers the earmuffs, straightens her dress.
I step inside. She follows.
The lighting poor, the floor a smoky shade of dusted blood. The odor: meat locker with spotty electricity.
I expect a man with thick arms and stiff jeans, undershirt with yellowed pits, planted beneath a solitary bulb and not greeting us. He would own the mouth of a man who knew few facts, but knew them well and indisputably. In his hands, a clipboard with notes: delicacies overseas, an ode to cast iron skillets, box scores from the pre-steroid era.
He would open the lone door, reveal the long, long hall.
“I’m not sure about this, Albert.” Her voice bounces off the concrete, strikes my chin.
I start down the hall. “That’s how it works now.”
She jogs to catch up. “Why rendered?”
“Hard to explain.”
I stub my toe on a stake stacked with horseshoes. The ache blooms in my cheekbones, shoves a thumb in my eyeball and holds till I see impossible shapes.
We keep moving.
“You grab a backpack, huge. You cram in a sleeping bag, a knife that doesn’t need sharpening, your best suit. Picture frames (nostalgia), old washing machines (loaded), Camaros (floor rusted), fondue forks (never buy off-registry). Never wear your warmest coat—tomorrow might be colder. You’re prepared, in control.”
The hall narrows the deeper we go.
“Exactly. Twenty years later and no idea where you put yourself, buried in your own pack between feigned indifference chic and expired coupons.”
I stumble, smash my ankle on a water main. A fire screams from navel to neck.
Her: “I don’t get it.”
Me: “I’m not done.”
I grit my teeth, an icy rock drops from throat to gut.
“You go home, visit family. Your love torches the back of your forehead, your sinuses, burning to get out. So you set your mind to it—next time will be different. You get to work. You read the highly regarded, meditate as directed, avoid nightshade vegetables. You’re ready, and here they are, warm hugs, soft words. Everything within reach, except: you fail to locate your arms. Worse: you’re held, loved deeply, know it, and still, the whole scene as though observing a holiday homecoming painting in a church basement craft fair in your damp socks and ill-fitting coat. Everything experienced at a remove, mediated by something you’ll never understand even though it’s all yours. But no ligaments, no fibers, none of the parts for connecting, holding together. Decades like this, so that your own cells don’t even know each other.”
“You know how many cells are in your body?”
“You know anyone who’s not overwhelmed?”
I bang my hip on a ticket counter. The lights flicker. We’re at the end of the hall, facing a metal door from a submarine.
I turn to face her. She touches my cheek. She’s glowing. I want to glow. I reach over my shoulder, yank out an awl (no), a grapefruit spoon (no), the Book of Love (goddamnit, no!).
Me (yelling): “All of this for what?”
I rip off my pack, dump the contents onto the tiled floor. Refrigerator magnets, Sudoku, blender parts and mismatched manuals. I empty my shoes: residues, moisturizers, wasted nights, skin toners.
“Am I in here somewhere?”
Her: head shaking.
“Or here: relationships (good, bad, indifferent), airport delays and lousy word choices, funerals for friends (we were nineteen, we (the living), four of us, pretend men (boys in suits in Pittsburgh), we walked with open overcoats and hanging ties, arms around each other’s shoulders, snowflakes wet our faces, his coffin lowered behind us, tended by two men we would never meet (nor would he). Lowered, he would be nineteen forever—some people dream of that, nineteen forever, not his parents. Not me).”
Her: rubbing the spot where her elbow used to be.
Me: shaking, spastic.
The ceiling presses heavy on my head. The long hall runs in the opposite direction.
Her (softly): “How’s rendered different than glue, self-sacrifice, evidence-based oral—“
Me: “How should this feel?” I shove a shower curtain in her face. “That?” A flexible flyer.
I punch my thigh over and over. “How do I get through to this?”
She presses her fingers against her arm, up and down, then the other, her chest and legs. Everything right there, present and accounted for, love, but still (and again), out of reach. My body tightens, clenches, the strain, frustration, and rage ready to burst out my eye.
But my head: Stick with me! You have a mission to finish! Go go go!
I jerk the wheel and shove through the leaden door, wipe my feet on a ratty bath mat, take the diamond-tread stairs two at a time. I stand breathless upon a platform poised over a boiling vat. In a steam clearing: stainless steel vats cover racetracks of distances. We watch horses, men with their maps and clipboards, jockeys and the punishing weight of well-worn tracks, round and round, the same mistakes over and over.
Glue is really made from horses? My phantom fingers swell in their imagined casings. I don’t see the connection, not to this, not to anything. A cold panic settles into my legs and liver.
“I have no moves left, Dot.”
She traces her hands around and between the holes of my torso. A grainy film collecting on her fingers as my dad gallops through my veins, clangs my sternum with his wrench, bruises my lungs, bangs his head on the roof of my heart, which I had hoped was infinite.
My chest swells, thumps, surrenders like a calving glacier.
The horses clack along their platforms, steaming, brown and gimpy, organs liberated (delicacies), patted on rumps by spent jockeys. Clack, pat, plunge. Starting guns fired over and again, the stagnating stink of Listerine and mentholated cough syrup.
She squeezes my head between her hands, says, “Stop trying so damn hard.” She jams her finger into my chest. “This. Get in here.”
This: smoking and breathless, riddled with craters and scabs, burns, blood, and mourning.
I shrug my shoulder, shake my head, edge my toes over the vat. “How do you do what you don’t know how to do?”
She turns me around, clutches my upper arms, puts her forehead to my neck. An ache throbs deep in my hips. Her hands circle and prod, urge, but she knows better by now (spirals). She sits on her heels, face into my knees, slides down and curls around my feet, tugs my toes to say, This is how you’ll know I’m here.
I close my eyes and raise my arms to the sides, imagine the slow fall back into the vat, the release at long last. But for Columbus scrawling recollections, intricate bloodied etchings on the inside of my eyelids. The stapler and rolling pin, the lobby frosted over, the windows, pleather, and veneer, Elmer’s de-canonization. I had gathered my belongings, chilled and stiffened, into my arms, entered the rotary before the building, the one where I’d later awaken dazed and lost. A little girl (not Dot, though the resemblance was unsettling) in a plaid skirt approached on her pony, wooden tulip poking from her backpack, teeth chattering. The sky clear, the stars bright, our breaths in clouds. We trotted lazy ovals, a silence with no destination, a contentment so complete it felt threatening. I handed her my coat, sweater, and synthetic down vests. My remaining scarves and wetsuit. I couldn’t explain the urge to give her everything she might ever need. I asked her name. She didn’t answer. I figured her for deaf and offered my ear. She wiped her mouth and drew in her spiral notebook. After some time, she pressed her foot gently against my head to say: Time to go. See you soon enough.
And now, choking on steam adhesive, I don’t jabber, fall, or flee. I don’t think. I don’t try. I wait for the ricochet, the rubber band stretched too long and too hard, barreling down the long hall, the sound of a tunneled freight train crushing my ear as my hips lock in place, bones, teeth, sinew, and skin merge, a density with no distinction, limbs and torso heavy and thick as iron. A silence, a stutter, a sparkling expanse. An astonishing collapse as syringes stab my thighs, then hamstrings, as plungers whack my gut. I shake and gasp, throb and shudder, flicker from head to toe. My sweat like acid, my bowels clenched and cleaving, I vomit black tar. Darkness laid over me like the lead apron of a tortured and loveless dentist, the spin spinning, the canned crowd laughing, the knives slicing into my chest, the crows long gone and only the squeezing of my toes for guidance, through the resurrection of shame and regret, joy and self-loathing, ambition, mercy, love, and the devastating sadness that’s part and parcel of being alive.
When it ends, I’m lying on the platform, puke, snot, and salt crusted to my face, eye open and itching, hands tingling, feet flexing. And this: feeling, possible in the quantum realm, and me (Albert), not shattered, not fetal, and here (mostly) to tell about it.
I look to Dot sleeping against me, hand (hers) on chest (mine). I feel a slight breeze and a deep longing. I weep when I see this old man. He’s calm, asleep or pretending, arms dangling and ear pressed to his horse’s neck. I weep again when I see the little girl on her despondent pony as she takes hold the tethers of her grandfather’s nag to lead him home.
Crossing the border on a blue highway that was black, the bus lurches while the engine dry heaves. For hours: driver leans against door. People graze from small plastic bags. Man, man, woman, boy, man, girl, man, baby, woman, man, man, man dotting the long shoulder on cheap suitcases with shirt sleeves pinched half-in half-out (uncertain).
I climb over a white fence onto the green grass under the blue sky.
I draw a deep breath. I do not mistake it for a work of art.
Some days: asymptotes and funhouse mirrors.
On the roof of the bus, she does a handstand atop a striped suitcase with a broken handle.
Others: you remember there’s mystery, why it matters.
She stands on one leg (hers), torso, hand, and arm extending far forward, one leg and arm reaching far back.
I place my left ventricle on the fence post. I consider termites, cosmic radiation, the fury of tropical storms and their whimsical names. Shoe shine boys and anaphylaxis.
She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, sweetly (in knowing).
I shrug my shoulder.
I’ll be needing several lifetimes.
You’ve scrolled a great distance across many (so many) words to be here. We hope you’ve arrived with much pleasure still intact. Maybe even more pleasure than you started with. What now? Roll the dice, friend. You only live once, as far as you know.