(Previously: THE GREAT DUCK MURDER)
At noon I emerged from my nest of rags with a football of dog feces lodged in my throat . . . nothing but static in my head, bones twisted and wrong, tar under my fingernails. Breathing in that stale midday air I knew it was going to be another miserable eighteen hours of wakefulness—of chaos and scattered sadness and barely perceptible tragedies that I alone would witness. Some I would even render myself.
Walking down the hallway I made known to absolutely no one at all my opinion on waking up, and on being alive in general: “This again, huh.”
I needed fluids, so I stomped into the bathroom and drank a half gallon of water from the faucet, hoping to kill the taste and push it—whatever it was—into a bath of stomach acid deep below.
In the mirror I saw a bloated armadillo carcass and decided it was probably my face. I hadn’t shaved in days. There was cigarette ash in my hair. The spiderweb cracks under my eyes whispered, Sooner than later you’ll be dead.
Soaked in cold water I lurched down the hallway toward the stove, slumping against the wall to keep from falling down, and once in the mouth of the kitchen I grabbed a marker and managed to scribble on the dry-erase board above the trash can the only English words I could find in my brain:
“THERE WAS A LITTLE TOOL SHED WHERE HE MADE US SUFFER, SAD SATAN”
Against the adjacent wall was a mile-high stack of tin cans and beer bottles and crushed cereal boxes. On the floor I saw tumbleweeds of cat hair. I put the kettle on the burner and flicked the dial left till fire appeared from some hidden place. It was high time for tea. Hell, it was high time for hate.
Sitting naked on the couch, eyes dumb and drooping, I examined my arms, skeletal and poorly assembled, a thin layer of skin saran-wrapped around the mangled structure of some damn thing that once worked the way it should. The sunlight was all bad and the air was hot and heavy. I took in a chunky lungful and nearly threw up in my mouth but stopped short. Really ought to have just gone ahead and let it out of me, I thought . . . probably would have been more honest that way. But I was barely anything at all just then, and to lose more of myself seemed irresponsible.
I glanced down at my dick and frowned. There was nothing new to report on that front.
Sunset and Dawn were out on the porch sucking down cigarettes like Coca-Cola and I could tell I wanted nothing to do with their conversation. I heard “Well, it’s simply a perversion of the Oedipus complex. . . .” and knew I had to get the hell out of there before I screamed myself stupid.
Stood up and arched my back and listened to the bubbly chemicals between my vertebrae snap, crackle, and pop. For a moment I considered sitting down at the pathetic little desk in my bedroom to sort through case files. We had a whole stack of them that Sunset and I hadn’t bothered with for months . . . we’d been content to jerk off after midnight and dream of nicer weather . . . but the thought rotted away and instead I shook my head and closed my eyes and held my breath and tried to picture someone, anyone, who would drop to their knees when they heard I was cold and empty-eyed for-ever—and finding no one in my mind’s rolodex, I placed one death-white foot forward, not sure why, the wood under my feet disagreeable, then another, still bad, eyes slammed shut and sparkling with violent broken sparks, and walked straight into a wall, feeling nothing. My eyes and brain weren’t making moving pictures of the world any longer, at least not then, and so I bathed in the sad dark soup in my head, hearing the faint mumbling of the assholes outside who were still going on about this and that and sounding a whole lot like a couple of cavemen who had taken a few community college courses one summer a long fucking time ago.
Somewhere in the house, I think near the washing machine, I thought about the impulses of animals: to eat, to sleep, to fuck, to shit somewhere safe.
What were mine? Certainly nothing of consequence. To be destroyed? To cackle wildly in the face of great evil? To be comforted by the warmth of another human body? All window-dressing.
But Jesus, that Roth girl really had combed my hair with her fingers the night before in the dark wastes of ruby-lighted bar over by Lake Merritt. Hadn’t she?
Yes, she had connected her body to mine and quickly disconnected it once I had uttered the wrong thing—or had she simply heard the wrong thing? I couldn’t remember. Probably never knew what I had been saying in the first place. Just rambling for the sake of hearing the sound of my voice, crisp and dumb.
I shivered when I recalled her punching me in the chest and telling me I was a worthless creep before storming out of the place. And I had chased her outside where she threw her bicycle light at me, saying, “God damn these cheap batteries!” and me saying, “Baby, don’t go.”
A trio of homeless guys hanging out nearby chuckled when she angrily sped away from me. I must have looked like a dope, standing there holding that dead light and not knowing why.
But for those few minutes back in the bar her touch had gone right in me, and then through me, and working its way along the tar pits deep below, gave me the faintest hope for myself and every living creature out there who is insane and foolish enough to say ‘yes’ to tomorrow. . . .
In the present, in the Real and Now, I snapped my fingers in front of my own face. I stood there wondering if I had actually just snapped my fingers in front of my own face. I decided I could never know for sure; I thought of chemicals instead.
Chemicals. Man. I loved the damn things when they were on my side. And often they weren’t. But boy, when they were—
A moment later I changed my mind: I really have ruined myself with chemicals, I thought. The foreign ones, anyway, and in Real Life, not in the dream . . . but maybe in the dream as well.
I got nervous when I couldn’t remember the difference between the two. Maybe I never would again. A breeze swept through the house. It was the temperature of a womb.
Opening my mouth, I moved my lips and no sound came out: I don’t like it here. I’m sure of it.
Then, in my head, I heard my own voice cut through the sound of ten thousand pigs squealing in unison, all of them begging for one more second of life . . . me saying: I’m sick of this god damn cafeteria food.
I thought about what old Kate from Halifax had said days before in a fit of madness . . . that for those of us poor bastards who are sensitive to the ephemera of things, and who dread the intake of oxygen and the sound of other human voices, life is simply a countdown to the next shitty thing we have to suffer through. We would suffer, the two of us and however many else like us, till the day men in gas masks tossed us into a mass grave a half mile from the forced-labor camps. And then someone else, or a lot of someone elses even, would have to suffer in place of us. Eventually the sun would set on human civilization, skeletal fists reaching up toward the blood-red sky—and the world would become a cold dead beach occupied with unfeeling mutant crabs, this message alone left scrawled in the sand:
“WE NEVER HAD ANY GOD DAMN CLUE WHAT WAS GOING ON! FAREWELL!”
Maybe then the suffering would end. But only maybe. Life on Earth was perhaps one stop along that infinite road of suffering . . . and even if nothing awaited us after we became unmoving things, I was certain that the forces in charge would find a way to make that miserable as well.
Did they know I was thinking just then? In those top-floor offices? In that concrete superstructure in the Oakland Hills, far from civilian eyes? I hadn’t been there in months, but I knew they were monitoring everything. Jesus, they had devices hidden in every streetlight in the city—devices that could triangulate gunfire. Of course they could read my thoughts just the same.
I had seen the machines, knew the technology existed. I just didn’t think the fuckers would actually use it. It seemed so gross. Even submerged in intense cynicism and paranoia I had given them a pass. And for what? Jesus.
If the machines were operational, and if they did know what I was thinking—knew that I was completely out of my mind—then those turd sniffers in their riot gear would be outside in minutes. Sunset and I would be in shackles and handcuffs, drug out of Ghosttown while tired old men watched from the shade of their stoops, thinking about their dwindling pensions and failing health. What’s another cracked detective? We all crack in the end. We all become vapor before we become nothing at all.
They wouldn’t take Rick Dawn, though . . . that spindly motherfucker had one of those bogus molars fitted with a cyanide capsule. All he had to do was flip open the hinged tooth with his tongue and bite down hard. Then the darkness would come swiftly, and Rick would spend his last few seconds choking on bile and chemical foam. The Reaper would reach across the void and place Dawn’s twisted body in a carriage made of bones and off he would go, the lucky bastard.
A drop of blood at my feet. And then another—and another. I put a hand to my face and lead it into my line of vision. Good God, I thought, examining the violent smears on my fingers and knuckles—what was supposed to stay in was getting out. It starts with the nose and before you know it the damn stuff is coming out of your ears. After that it’s only a matter of time till you’re bones in a box.
I decided to tell Sunset and Dawn that we had to kick the coke habit that very day. We had to flush what we could and be done with it. If they really were coming for us—if they could see into the secret places in my mind—then we were doomed, and they would take the stuff from us anyway. But if it was swirling down all those terrible pipes deep below the world of men, then we would at least be safe from a drug charge. Hell, who I was kidding . . . there were drugs everywhere, stashed and forgotten . . . stashed and forgotten because we were always on fucking drugs.
Sunset and I were investigators; we were servants of the city of Oakland. We were part of a special unit . . . a drug charge would be huge. We’d lose our badges. Shit, they’d probably find a way to take the cat, too.
I dashed into my bedroom . . . it looked sunken and swollen and sad, no light of any kind, and grabbed my purple sweater from the back of my desk chair. I had bought it the previous autumn when I was somehow more impoverished than at any other point in my life. Back then there was a lot of staying up late and struggling to find comfort in women to whom I was philosophically opposed and, more often than not, bitter about knowing at all.
Jesus, maybe nothing had changed since then, but that wool sweater reminded me of something nice. What exactly was it about that material? Did it really matter? In this world even the reminder of something nice is a godsend, however illusory the feeling. But then maybe they were all illusory, all the feelings I’d ever had. I reckoned they hadn’t meant a damn thing to our ancestors . . . the ones with the wooden spears and the fur tunics and all that bullshit. Those cocksuckers just wanted to eat and get a little action before battling the next monstrous creature that would likely send them to their doom.
Feelings. What a joke.
Night is cold.
Jerking off feels good.
Those were the only feelings I was ever going to concern myself with again.
I flung the sweater around my shoulders and was all right for a moment. It was a rare moment—one where I was all right. I let it happen until it stopped happening. When it did I wandered over to the front door wearing only that sweater . . . naked everywhere else, stuff swinging this way and that, feeling like a smoke-screaming ghoul in search of friendly lights.
The only friendly lights I found were the dim ones inside Sunset and Dawn. They were still playing chess and smoking filterless cigarettes.
“You fools,” I said, kicking the door open and buttoning my sweater, “with your games and your nonsense.”
Outside the sky was the color of paper. The street was littered with drug dealers and homeless cats and dogs and old women begging for beer money.
“My dear Midnight,” said Rick Dawn, taking a long drag and eyeing the defunct equipment between my legs. “My poor, dear Midnight. Chess isn’t a game so much as it is a war of strategy. And my strategy, you see, is to win.” The fucker inhaled a little more poison and smiled in a way that made me want to stomp his nuts out . . . one of those crooked lip curls that one vaguely detects. It was an ugly phantom of a smile; behind it I saw only cruel judgment. Had this dope been hanging out in Berkeley too much?
They loved to smile like over there in Berkeley. More like Jerkeley, I thought. Why didn’t they just call it that? Buncha jerks. You couldn’t walk five feet in that place without overhearing a group of empty-scrotumed cheese-eaters argue over whether to get iced coffee or frozen yogurt.
Darkly I thought, someone really ought to get around to poisoning the city’s supply of iced coffee and frozen yogurt.
“You sound like someone from Berkeley,” I said. “And you smile like one too. God damn it.” I slammed my bare foot on the porch and stared down hard, stared till my eyeballs were solid red. The pressure was so intense I nearly threw up all over the chessboard. Woulda served him right, too, talking and smiling like that.
But then Sunset was mostly innocent, and I saw no reason to punish him for Dawn’s arrogance. God knew he’d suffered enough of my chaos. Talk about a detective ready to crack—this motherfucker was primed to supernova. Maybe all he was waiting for was a liter of someone else’s vomit to waterfall down onto his afternoon chess game.
It would have splashed everywhere; it would have made him real sad.
“Did you need something?” said Sunset. It was the politest way anyone had ever communicated to me that they wished I was dead.
“The tower—they’re listening to us. Aren’t they? That’s why I came out here. I was thinking about that tower.”
Sunset closed his eyes for a long while. The sun beat down on his face and exposed every flaw. Oakland had really aged the poor son of a bitch.
Finally he spoke: “Are you talking about the surveillance tower?”
“Yeah. That one.”
“You think they’re listening to us?”
“Not just listening.” My eyes darted around wildly. Holy God, I felt insane. “I think they can . . . read our thoughts.”
“Think about what you’re saying—” said Rick Dawn. “I mean, really think about it.”
“Have you been listening to me, Dawn? If I think about anything at all, then they’ll know. Right now my mind is fucking blank. You should empty yours, too.”
Not that it isn’t empty enough already, you stupid motherfucker, I thought.
“Chill, partner. I meant no harm. Shit, I’m just drunk.” He held up a shitty beer to prove it. “What about you? You look on edge.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I feel like a million bucks, I’ll have you know. A million sweaty dollar bills ready for the taking. Ready to be spent.”
But Dawn was correct in his assessment: I was already spent. I was a god damn flaming catastrophe on wheels. The excrement had hit the fan. The fan had fallen out the window. I existed only as a thing that had refused to die off completely. Only time could kill me now—and time sure was taking its God damn time.
I was on the front porch of my office in West Oakland with my partners and my dick was flapping in the wind. I felt no shame. In fact I didn’t feel much of anything. But then I thought, what if a client came by? Or, hell, some lady who knew my name?
There were a few of them who wouldn’t leave me the hell alone—women, that is. They had misread my toxic personality for freewheeling eccentricity, had thought of me as funny when really what I had been saying to them was intensely pathetic. Well, I thought, maybe it’d do some good for them to see me out here like this. Surely it would drive the worst of them away.
Of course it could always backfire . . . for some of them anyway it would add a couple gallons of gasoline to the blaze of masochism raging inside. They wanted it to hurt, and I may as well have been the Pied Piper of dysfunction. This way to the cave—this way to a slow extinction.
I cringed. What did these women want from me? I couldn’t give them comfort or love. Hell, I couldn’t even give that to myself. If they wanted a weird, dark ride, it would be a whole let easier for everyone involved if they just went to a God damn county fair.
I got paranoid, being as naked as I was. Had the drugs worn off? I could sense the tattered remains of my ego creeping back into my brain. Yes, all at once I realized how unusual I looked. One of the dopers on the street surely had a gun pointed at me from the shade of some unkind alleyway. A single blow from a drug fiend’s .45 would take it all off in an instant. Not that I needed any of that stuff. I would never be a father after all. And anyway I treated my equipment like a fire extinguisher: useless until the flames start licking at the walls, then break the glass, aim, and shoot. . . .
If all went according to plan (in my mind I laughed at the word “plan”), I would never have to use that thing again. Soon I would be dead. And so too would the millions of little swimmers living inside my testicles. That’s where they were made, yes? I couldn’t recall. I am always acutely aware of my own profound ignorance, but even then I could surprise myself. All I knew was that semen was flowing, ever flowing, through that strange plumbing housed within my scrotum. And the only thing that semen wanted to do was go someplace fine and warm. My genetic makeup would smile, being in that new place where copies of humans go to be spliced together, and the machine which had delivered the goods would retreat to its cave feeling hollow, saying, Never again, never again. . . .
But darkness and seclusion would draw the machine out again. The semen would flow. Under pathetic pretenses it would push the machine once more into harm’s way—all for the sake of making more little machines. To live bad lives. To die alone. To fertilize the fields so that better things could grow in its wake.
“I must retire,” I said to my partners, still picturing that awful ocean of semen churning like white taffy under layers of skin that had scarcely seen the sun. “I’ve got to work tonight. And I haven’t got enough sleep in me to do it.”
“You never do,” said Sunset, not looking up. I could hear the disdain in his voice. I was probably the only person in the world who could perceive the delicate nature in which he delivered it.
It seemed useless to say anything further and so I remained silent. Silence, I knew, was one of the few friends I had left. I adored it. I let Silence speak for me instead.
Inside I chugged half a French press of tepid black coffee someone had left on the kitchen counter. Once satiated I returned to my office in the back of the house. I pulled the curtains shut and sat down behind my desk. It was covered in Chinese newspapers and faded case files and little pink pills split into quarters. I shoved everything onto the floor and stared at the Tarot cards hung up on the wall—stared at my future laid out chronologically there: The Star, The Hermit, Death.
Next to that was a single pentagram earring and a picture of my father pumping gas in the 1980s.
Earth would continue its one-thousand-mile-per-hour rotation around the sun till my sad corner of it was dark and cold. And then I would go out into it and see what there was to see, and do what it was I had to do. The thought of having to do anything ever again made my entire body ache.
When I remembered I would be on the streets by myself that night the pain intensified. I couldn’t take Sunset. I just couldn’t. He’d had enough of me. Into the muck I would go. He’d get there himself eventually. No sense dragging him down with me.
And so I alone would have to take out the surveillance towers. And I alone would have to destroy the invisible structures that were in place. I would do all of this while hate clawed at my insides. With Sunset gone I wouldn’t hate for one—I would hate for two. And God knows no mortal can shoulder the burden of another’s man hate on top of his own.
My eyelids welled with tears. I felt an unknown organ fail inside my chest. Before I could reach for my pistol I slumped over in the chair and succumbed to the perennial exhaustion which lives inside my bones.
END OF PART ONE