Stationary Station

The trains leaving for Brodericktown always run on time. For everyone else. The famous lines, of which stories had been written about their reliability, are clogged with stalled cars on the platform. All the technicians stand around, unable to answer why they just won’t run. A raving man on the platform is claiming the trains have lost the will to live, like a bad plot device. The rest of us are all on these benches—slouched shoulders, hands on our bags, briefcases, backpacks, staring longingly at the engine. Well, the rest might be. I am fine with the prospect of not arriving at my destination. The limbo of a station doesn’t sound that bad.

Perhaps somebody will walk up and ask if I am skilled with a table saw. They might be working on a shed down the road, and would explain that they needed my help. I could walk down there, in the bright midday sun, and spend the day running their pencil lines through the blade. Afterward, someone would open a cooler of cheap beer, and we would discuss, in unison, how nobody knew how to run anything, how everyone in charge was an idiot, how all the answers are so simple, but everyone is just too stupid. Then we would forget these solutions to the world’s problems as the sun went down, and the frogs would begin to chirp as we said our goodbyes. I would get a motel room from a suspicious clerk, wary of strangers, and plan to meet them at the sight tomorrow. A new life suddenly in front of me, I might call myself Rudolpho to embrace the change.

There was a hoot from the engine that made us all jump. An official told us we should begin boarding. The train was fixed. Most of the others sighed in relief, picked up their things, and shuffled toward the cars. The raving man would not be satiated, however, repeating that it was not safe, that the train did not want to live. A few employees gathered around him, impassive to his impassioned pleas directed at their obstinate faces. I lagged behind, bag slung over my shoulder, hoping to make last minute eye contact with a day laborer who would call me Rudolpho, but in the end I walked into the car all the same, still the same person.

Muckraker

The mud seemed thin enough to cross. On the shore, it looked daunting. But we were told by everyone around that if we took it one step at a time, we would reach the other side. Now, in the muck, I can’t remember what was supposed to be on the other side. But I imagine it was great. Why else would I be crossing this bog?

I wore all of my clothes, which seemed like a stupid decision as soon as I’d taken the first steps, and the soggy, sticky, membranous liquid seeped through my shoes. These shoes were designed for land conditions, not amphibious excursions. My pants were of heartier stuff, and did not give way immediately. However, eventually my entire bottom half became consumed, and then I had trouble moving.

I stopped to survey the land. Aside from a few pieces of wooded flotsam in the bog, the grey sky and grey water seemed inseparable, as if I were trapped inside some giant grey room, uniform, without end. I lost faith in the direction I was facing. Had I strayed from the path? Was I still approaching the other shore? Had I turned around, unbeknownst, and begun to travel back? Had I passed that branch before? I thought I might have. But there were so many branches that I had been near and passed, maybe I was the one mistaken.

I decided that I was, in fact, moving in the right direction. As I continued, the mud continued to rise. As it took over my torso, I moved slower and slower. All of my joints seemed to be gearing down, like the muck had entered my very marrow. Still, it was an indication that I was headed in the right direction. Any moment now, I should be able to see the other side.

The mud rose up over my neck, then hit the underside of my chin. I cocked my head skyward, towards the uniform grey ceiling. Even at its deepest point, I knew of others that had made the journey. Maybe all I had to do was take a deep breath and make it through. A little bit of submersion, then the mud would begin to recede. I would be past the halfway mark.

Weighed down by these dirty, clinging clothes, I took a deep breath and lowered my head into the mud. Pressing forward toward the moment I knew was coming, even as I felt the mud close over the top of my head, I knew it would recede. It was just a matter of when. Until then, I would hold my breath.

Decorum

I want to ask you about the time you most felt like yourself. But we don’t do that. So instead, I just say “good morning.” You reply with the same. This whole giant building is built on this trade. Because if we really stopped to talk, the whole day would be gone. We can’t talk about how afraid we both are that we’ll die and leave nothing behind—we’re afraid that this equation of thoughts, words, physical matter, experiences, equals nothing but an urn or a tombstone. You hit the world like a drop of water, then you evaporate, like you were never there. But we can’t say these things. So instead we say “Mondays, right?” or “looks like it might rain tomorrow.”

The air crackles with static from the dryness of things that will always go unsaid. Because it’s expected we all remain polite strangers, and pull our own hair out in a bathroom, alone. Ask anyone: they’re all doing fine, great! Most often, though, we’re not great, or good, just liars.

There is a dread that I feel when I am behind the wheel. It is putting that mask on. Although it exists both in the tall offices, where we are all dressed the same, and at a party, where I still haven’t heard whatever password or permission granted I am waiting for in order to say anything that exists beneath the surface. Maybe that prevents our little ships of state from being swallowed by other’s oceans. Maybe there is a quick limit on the amount of other people’s souls we can bear. Maybe that’s all true. But still, you and I, we can probably do a little better than this.

Frank’s Stories

Frank was the funniest person I knew. So when he killed someone, it came as a surprise. Our friend group called each other, wondering how to sort this into our organization of the universe. He had called Travis from jail after his arrest. Frank began the call saying “you are not going to believe what just happened.” And we didn’t.

He told us he was standing at the pier, having a drink with someone we didn’t know. According to his story, he slapped the man on the back after a good joke, and the man fell into the water. Since they were both drunk, Frank laughed at him being in the water, and the man couldn’t swim to shore. Frank didn’t notice the second part until it was too late. According to police, who wouldn’t release him on bail, Frank followed this person away from the bar, berating them the whole way until a fight broke out. They claimed the man was beaten enough to have been knocked out, then tossed into the ocean by Frank. It was the Subaru all over again.

Travis had a Subaru that Frank borrowed. After, Frank said it hit a pothole and the wheel just came off. The mechanic suggested the car would have had to go 90 miles per hour, over a jump, to sustain the particular kind of damage it did. Frank just said it was funny. But he said everything was funny. Normally, when he said it, we agreed with him. Especially if he said it, in fact. Him being funny and all.

Frank told us his part of the story then, and now, and each time it was funny. But there was still somebody dead. And regardless of the story, Frank had pushed him in one way or the other. So somebody, luckily not us, was going to have to decide which version of the story was correct. We knew which one we hoped for, but not which one we believed.

Skins

Roger wakes up in his worst skin. The mass of flesh, mucus, urine, all stored up from a night of fitful sleep, serenaded by a television screen that plays on in the darkness after he has evacuated his consciousness. Rote motion brings him out of bed, toward the shower, and turns on the water. He might as well be still asleep. The first thoughts come before the hot water runs out. Remembering some erotic-leaning dream, all hands, makes him wish for an abyss to jump into, another reality to be chosen.

Eventually, these impulses are shoved aside in deference to cold, bland cereal in the half-light of a morning that hasn’t yet risen. The commuter is a devil wanting to destroy all things in his path. A ball of fury and malignance, he has descended, desiring to rip those beside him to pieces. Everything aches, and when the sun does rise, it is too bright. All thoughts appear to be in slow motion, time delay. It’d be easy to get into an accident.

The Professional is a mix of prerecorded messages: “good morning,” “Monday, right?” “How are you?” “I’m good, great!” “Yeah, it’s great!” “Oh, that’s great!” “They’re great, thanks for asking.” “Thanks.” “Thank you.” “Thank you so much.” “Have a good night.” “Have a good weekend.” “In case I don’t see you, have a good weekend.”

The evening can be taken by The Infinite, by the impulse created by long dusk light beams that everything is far away and near, and the distances between are insubstantial. This is a skin that wants wings and tries to forget the crushing reality of being just human. Everything is potential, in reach, if only the reach is made.

As night closes in, electric light in purples, reds, blues, greens, invite you to contained, artificial worlds—places where stories are the size of evenings, and can be seen in person or on screen. These stories can invade the dreamer’s sleep, being turned into different stories, all hands, before the process begins, more or less, again.

Underbelly

It started with some water in the basement. It happens in a temperate climate. But, unable to figure out exactly where the leak was coming from, I was forced to delve more in depth into the nooks and crannies of the basement. The dull gray walls provided little information, just multiple spider webs, both old and new.

Finally, down toward an end of the basement I rarely go, behind the boiler, there was a little puddle around what looked like a trap door. Hidden under old molding sawdust, it was difficult to see. I searched through the muck and found a little finger hole and opened the door. An explosion of drain flies erupted like some old plague of myth. After being momentarily overtaken by the demonic swarm, I saw a passageway under the trap door that was completely dark. After retrieving a flashlight from upstairs, I approached the passageway. Old, decaying webs hung from the sides and ceiling of the passageway. I walked down the rickety wooded stairs, and noticed the small break in the foundation as I headed under. There was the leak.

The floor seemed to be damp dirt with a simple track of 2x4s laid down across it. I made my way carefully across the uneven path. There was a deeper kind of rot smell, far more than just mold. I began to get the impression I was heading slightly downhill. Eventually, the pathway opened up into a large room. At first, there just seemed to be lumpy mounds of earth surrounding the same wooden pathway as before.

As I scanned the flashlight over the mounds, I began to notice harder angles just underneath the mounds of dirt. Some white flashes were visible underneath the brown. In the corner were also a trio of stereotypical treasure chests. Or perhaps they were just living room décor hope chests. Either way, I stumbled over the dirt mounds toward the chests. Unlocked, they opened easily, revealing mounds of cloth. Disappointed, I began to pick through the cloth, until I unwrapped a pile of what looked like old dollars. No expert, I took a pile of them to look up later.

However, as I was about to leave, the flashlight shone on one of those white glimmers in the dirt again. Kneeling down for a closer look, I pulled at it, and the skeletal remains of a human hand came out of the dirt. Once removed, it fell apart into various bones as I dropped it back onto the Earth. Also dropping the old money, I ran as quickly as I could over the wooden path, back up the stairs, and slammed the old trap door shut. On the walls were dozens of the drain flies that had escaped.

Well, at least I know where the leak is, I thought, determined to try to think of nothing else that I’d found down there ever again.

Herds

This bastard keeps breathing on my neck. We’re all packed shoulder to shoulder, front to back, waiting for the elevator to start moving again. The enclosed space is getting warmer and warmer as our crushed bodies continue to raise the room temperature. I try very hard not to move my hands in any direction for fear of brushing up against some stranger’s legs. But this person standing behind me is hitting the same spot where my neck meets my back with their breath over and over again. These humid particles of unwanted warmth keep spreading out, then dissipating just in time for the next volley to land. It’s coming straight from a mouth breather…hehh…hehh…hehh…at least, I imagine that nose air would feel different. Drier, perhaps.

Someone farts, because this purgatory is just gearing up. Everyone shifts restlessly as the stench reaches us in waves. Some even try to tuck their noses into their shirt. That’s tougher to do for the ones wearing button-downs. Someone in a distant corner mutters “come on, really?” but the rest of us are not brave enough to speak. Or we just recognize the uselessness in doing so.

There’s something about being too close to strangers. Packed in like this, it is easy to imagine we are a herd of livestock, just mounds of flesh to be consumed. By whom? I can’t answer that. Or I don’t want to. The implications would be too much. I shouldn’t let my mind wander in such ways.

The man to my right is beginning to fidget. I can hear his clothes rustling, can hear his knuckles crack as he moves them back and forth. He probably isn’t the only one who is getting claustrophobic. I feel a wave of heat emanate all over my body, and I am suddenly concerned about the amount of carbon dioxide I am breathing. Then that same breath hits my back again…hehh…hehh. I clench my fists. I want to go ballistic, to turn around, pushing everyone in my vicinity, and tell whoever this is to back the hell up. But instead, I squeeze my fists tight, telling myself that impulse, and the growing feeling of fever spreading over my body, is just my own nerves talking.

There is a lurch from the elevator, and we all gasp, some people actually clutching each other, expecting the whole thing to free fall. But it does not. Instead, it begins to head upward. We all give sighs of relief, and the air-conditioned air of the office that hits my face when I step out onto my floor has never felt fresher.