Monday, July 29, 2019


03 June 2026

Fuck my life, Jonah wheezed, his voice drowned and forgotten in the subarctic gusts cascading over the tightrope-thin ridge that, according to locals, was the easiest path to the mountains summit. Looking down at the serrated, viciously eroded slope of the ravine theyd just scaled still peppered with the dirty gray corpses of the last spring snows he couldnt imagine a more difficult route.
Crazy ass Icelanders,” he said to himself, adjusting the hood of the too-thin parka hed bought four days earlier in Reykjavík.
     Ragnar trotted a couple dozen meters ahead. Every minute or so, as the trail had gotten steeper, he’d stopped to make sure his client was keeping pace, to flash that same stupid gap-toothed grin at Jonah, his white-blond ponytail flailing like the tail of an annoyingly eager puppy thats worn out its welcome but still wants attention. How the seemingly late-middle-aged man wasn’t brutally hungover after the previous night’s idiocy was as much of a mystery to Jonah as the reason for their climb.
Now, as they approached what looked like the toughest incline they’d encountered so far, Ragnar swiveled, shouted something that sounded like summit (Jonah hoped), and scrambled spider-like the rest of the way up, quickly disappearing over the top of a massive, tabletop-shaped outcropping.
Ten minutes later, after a far less nimble ascent, choking on the fumes of Brennivín, synthetic bourbon, and god knew what else leaking from his pores, Jonah saw that they were, in fact, at the top of Spákonufell. A volcanically flattened, moss-covered plateau, where, a semi-lucid Ragnar had explained during their debauched marathon at the café, a sorceress called Þordis used to hike every day 1,000 years earlier. Apparently, she’d also buried a treasure somewhere on the mountain, one that could only be discovered by a non-baptized woman. The only thing Jonah could think about, as the burning sensation slowly dissipated from his legs, was how impressive Þordis’s calves must have been.
     Ragnar was perched on a nearby boulder, typing something on his phone. He looked up, the perma-grin already stretched across his too-smooth cheeks.
     “You look tired, Mr. Overhill,” he said, vaguely incredulous. “I hope this wasn’t too much for you to handle. Perhaps we should go through another round of diagnostics before Thursday?”
     “It’s fine,” Jonah said, reaching into his backpack for a water bottle.
     Ragnar motioned at the thick layer of pillowy vegetation suffocating most of the nearby rocks. “Normally we would tell people not to sit or lie down on the moss,” he said, “because once disturbed it won’t grow back for maybe 70 years. But if you need to take a, what is it, a breather, please be my guest. It’s really quite comfy. And by the time we plan on bringing you back, it’ll be –”
     He was cut off by his own obnoxious ringtone – “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw. Was that meant to be some kind of ironic joke between Ragnar and his coworkers at the lab? Did people in Iceland actually listen to Tim McGraw?
Ragnar looked at the screen, shook his head. “Sorry, I need to take this.”
Jonah grunted and shuffled past him, leaving a trail of semi-permanent footsteps in the moss. Looming toward the western edge of the tabletop was a large and clearly unnatural stone formation that had built to look like an altar, where a shoddily made treasure chest had been placed, clearly a nod to the sorceress whose odd influence was still so deeply felt in the town below. A sequence of images from the café suddenly flashed in Jonah’s mind: the woman who ran the prophetess museum, her unnerving, coal-black glare, the paper she’d slipped him. Taking a deep breath, he shook off the sudden chill that had begun to creep up his sweat-drenched spine.
The farther he walked, the more the view opened. He could see the upper slopes of the mountain and several neighboring peaks, the impenetrable basalt and rugged gravel cascading down to gentler hills rippling in the sunlight, bursting with purple lupine, alpine bistort, and reindeer lichen. And farther down, the hyper-green jigsaw of fields where horses grazed lazily and sheep with red and green markings on their backs nursed pairs of greedy newborns. Then the red and beige corrugated roofs of Skagaströnd’s tiny suburban sprawl, the smoky blue Arctic Ocean leading to nowhere.
Maybe that was why Ragnar had suggested they take the hike. To give Jonah one last glimpse at what he would be giving up. To feel the heat in his muscles, the wind against his flesh, the intoxicating briny aroma of the sea, while there was still time for him to change his mind.
     He couldn’t deny that it was beautiful, outrageously so. But as he squinted for a more detailed assessment of the town – the ghostly harbor and shuttered fish processing plant, the community center that had been rebuilt as a refuge for those smart (or lucky) enough to get visas before the quarantines in Brooklyn and Miami, the upside-down American flag flying outside it – he had never been more certain of anything in his life.
     In a little less than 24 hours, his body would die. His brain would be extracted and embalmed, kept in hyperbaric slumber in the sterile basement of the BioPol laboratory until… He didn’t really know. He hadn’t paid much attention to most of the emails Ragnar had been sending him for months, the dozens of forms he’d signed, the endless biometrics.
But whether he awoke from the cocoon into some wildly distant, unanticipated new reality or didn’t wake up at all, it didn’t matter. Anything – or nothing – would be an undeniable improvement over the last three years.  
“Mr. Overhill,” Ragnar said, suddenly inches away.
Jonah flinched, tripped on something and fell forward, his head careening toward the altar. Ragnar grabbed his shoulders from behind at the last moment, held on tightly until Jonah was sturdy.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Jonah stammered. “How did I not hear –”
“Mr. Overhill,” Ragnar repeated, ignoring the question, “are you still sure you want to do this?”
Jonah took a breath, instinctively slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and lightly fingered his phone, tracing the outline of the two faces that always appeared on his home screen.
“OK,” he finally managed to get out, scarcely more than a whisper, but audible in the first windless silence since he’d come to Iceland. 
He meant it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Long and Hairy of It: Part One


The first time I saw him was in the summer when I was thirteen years old, ninety miles north of Fresno in the Sierra National Forest.
We were on a family vacation to visit my father’s half-brother, Gregory, a successful San Francisco-based actuary. A week before we were scheduled to arrive, Uncle Greg decided that a lively – but mostly silent – hiking excursion in the middle of nowhere would be preferable to discussing the particulars of his latest divorce – Aunt Margo had left him for a t’ai-chi instructor named Lotus or something similarly floral – or subjecting us to his undecorated condo with eggshell-colored walls that reeked of the desolation inherent in unforeseen, late-middle-aged bachelordom. I was just happy to get away from Andrea, my first crush, who had recently dumped me over instant messenger in a savage proto-emoji assault.
Today I probably wouldn’t be able to pick Uncle Greg out of a police lineup of pale, foie-gras-livered insurance executives, but I’ll never forget the visual details of that trip: wandering through dense, pine and oak-covered foothills and wildflower-strewn meadows, watching Chinook salmon break water in the Merced River, climbing up to the sparse, chilly tundra. And arguing with my little brother, Gordon (who was still talking at this point), about whose turn it was to use one of the three single-use cameras we’d been allotted.
On the second-to-last day of hiking, we were descending the western slope of a smallish peak, heading back to civilization. Gordy, as usual, was being a ten-year-old shithead, wasting the last of our Kodaks to snap away aimlessly at the dense vegetation on either side of us, creating splatter-pieces that would, once they were developed, probably make Basquiat look like a Dutch master. Around a sharp bend in the trail, I noticed a cool multi-colored rock pile that someone had built to resemble a pyramid. Knowing that there probably only two or three exposures left on the camera, I snatched it from Gordy’s sausage-link fingers and aimed it at the rocks.
“You stupid dingleberry!” he screeched at me in that weird, wavy voice that never ended up dropping to the octave it should have. He scampered away to find my parents, muttering a few more PG-13 curses along the way.
The adults in our party were farther along the trail, out of sight, having what I imagined was a very somber discussion about the three empty bottles of navy-strength gin that had tumbled out of Uncle Greg’s sleeping bag when we’d been packing up camp the previous morning. I had at least a few seconds to myself before Gordy tattled. I squinted into the Kodak’s viewfinder, turned the flash on, and aimed at the rocks.
Before I was ready to snap the picture, I heard rustling in the woods, maybe thirty yards from where I was crouching. Whatever it was, it sounded big, way bigger than the bobcat my dad had spotted scaling a red fir a couple days earlier. I crept into the forest to get a closer shot, my free hand reaching into the pocket of my cargo shorts for the canister of bear mace that my mom had made me promise not to use on my brother.
I wasn’t quiet enough. A massive head and torso emerged from behind a moss-colored log. He was covered in reddish-brown fur, had a wide, simian nose and dark, brooding eyes that pierced me with a combination of curiosity and mild annoyance as he munched on some leaves with teeth the size of wheat crackers. He was standing upright, must have been at least eight feet tall. And even though I couldn’t be sure of his actual gender – “He” just seemed to have some really strong, stoic masculine vibes going on – his species was obvious.
I snapped the last three exposures on the camera’s roll as fast as I could. The Bigfoot stood motionless, silently chewing and pondering the situation, probing the depths of my early-teen soul with a gaze that felt decidedly empathetic. Time suddenly seemed to slow down. To my adrenaline-addled mind, I had found a hairy father figure, one who would understand the pain Andrea’s endless streams of digital frowny faces had caused, and wouldn’t just tell me to suck it up and to disconnect the modem because he needed to use the phone.
As weird as it sounds, we were having a moment.
Until the shrill sounds of Gordy’s increasingly louder whining broke the forest’s silence. I swiveled for a couple seconds to glare back in the direction of the trail. When I turned around, Bigfoot was gone.
Before we left California, my parents took the Kodak to a one-hour-photo place near the airport, just so I’d shut up about what I’d thought I’d seen. I tore open the envelope that contained the developed pictures while were waiting to check our bags. The first picture I’d taken looked like one of Gordy’s: a chaotic sludge of green and brown streaks. The second was only a little better, you could see a blurry but somewhat defined figure that was clearly mammalian, in that it might have resembled anything from a gorilla to a Rottweiler, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
The third picture was a keeper. It wasn’t the clearest shot, the creature seemed a little farther away than I remembered, but you could plainly see the details of his hair, nose, teeth, and, most importantly, his eyes.
“Bear,” my dad said, looking over my shoulder as he handed me my plane ticket.
“Definitely a bear, hon,” my mom said, giving me another half-hearted scolding for leaving the trail before returning to rummaging the confines of a carry-on bag for her in-flight vampire romance novel.
Gordy cupped his hand around my ear and craned his head in my direction. “I believe you, Vance,” he whispered defiantly, which almost made me stop hating him for breaking the bond Bigfoot and I had so briefly shared.
The lukewarm response to the photograph did little to quiet my manic enthusiasm. When we got back home to Connecticut, I sent photocopies of the picture to the zoology departments of all the local colleges and a handful of promising-sounding “research” organizations – the North American Bigfoot Alliance, the Sasquatch Exploration Society, et cetera. I got their addresses from a mulleted thirtysomething named Todd who played Magic: The Gathering at the local library (until a couple months later when a custodian found the cameras he’d been hiding in the bathrooms near the children’s section).
Though the colleges never got back to me, the non-academic response was more than anything I expected. Not only did the higher-ups at the organizations I’d contacted believe me, they wanted to know more. Was I able to collect any hair or stool samples? Had I heard any distinct vocalizations prior to making visual contact? Did I know the exact GPS coordinates of the sighting?
Unfortunately the picture was the only tangible thing I had to offer, but nevertheless, I was asked to be interviewed, invited to join online chat forums and to attend biannual gatherings, and offered the chance to go on an all-expenses-paid scientific expedition, retracing the hike I’d taken through the Sierra National Forest with a rogue primatologist who called himself Abominable Andy. For the first time I felt like I was part of something special, a community, albeit one that seemed to contain more than a few greasy basement-dwellers, the type of men who, like Todd, probably had pictures of a much different variety hidden on secret hard drives somewhere.
This was also right around the time that Gordy stopped talking. One day he came home from school and walked upstairs without his daily ritual of begging for a forbidden pre-dinner Pudding Pop, which was strange, but not an immediate cause for concern. For the next five hours he sat on his bed staring at nothing, totally emotionless, an activity that would become his preferred pastime for the better part of three decades.
Initially the consensus was that he was faking it, that the zombie routine was just another baby-of-the-family cry for attention, that it would run its course. The first few days followed a similar routine. Gordy would get sent home from school early for insubordination, he’d go up to his room and sit there while one or both of my parents would threaten, then plead, then beg for him to stop messing around, that the joke or the protest or whatever it was had gone on long enough.
I tried a more aggressive approach. About a week into his silence, I walked into Gordy’s room and jacked him between his stomach rolls, hard, a gut-shot that normally would have caused a five-alarm screeching session. He made a quiet whooshing noise and hunched over a little, but that was it. I opened his dresser and pulled out a handful of his sacred comics. I held Captain America #443 in front of his face and slowly tore the cover in half, followed by the rest of the pages in the book. No response. I crushed Venom #1, Gordy’s all-time favorite, into a ball and whipped it at his head, hitting him square between the eyes. He didn’t flinch.
He wasn’t faking anything.
It’s not like he became a full-on vegetable. He would sit at the dining room table and slowly shove food into his mouth, staring at his plate the entire time. He would turn on the TV and plop down in front of it, cross-legged, but you couldn’t tell if he was looking at the screen or something beyond it that the rest of us couldn’t see. It was quickly decided that going to school would be an impossibility for him, but Gordy didn’t seem to mind my parents dragging him to an ever increasing number of appointments with psychologists, neurologists, hypnotherapists, and any other –ist that might offer up something better than “I don’t know.”
Instead of deflating them, my brother’s condition seemed to energize my parents. They joined committees, attended symposiums, organized charity bicycle rides, and contemplated the merits of rubbing shoulders with the anti-vaxxer crowd. They cocooned themselves in a constant stream of questions – Where was he on the spectrum? Which spectrum? Would the medication help? Would the medication hurt? What about a third opinion? A fourth? – that were asked with the steadfastness of caregivers who had accepted their reality and were choosing to thrive in it.
My own reality was more complicated. What good was being a perfectly healthy son to parents who had suddenly transformed themselves into bleeding-heart champions of the disabled? What good was being an older brother if you couldn’t even protect your younger sibling from himself?
I didn’t want to look for answers. Instead, I retreated deeper into a world that was far beyond the scope of what stuffy science types and the doctors who probed my brother would consider possible, a world that the picture I’d taken in California proved was the real deal.
I expanded my Bigfoot research to include every unsubstantiated creature I could get information about, from the Loch Ness Monster and Jersey Devil to the Man-eating Tree of Madagascar and Iceland’s Lagarfljót Worm. I subscribed to every unconventional magazine I could afford, planned unfeasible multi-continental excursions, and spent countless hours scouring internet chat rooms and message boards with the focus of a monk pouring over scriptures. I understood how lucky I’d been on the hike; I don’t think that I ever really believed it would happen again, that I’d come face to face with a Nessie slowly emerging from the lake in all its scaly glory, or hear the notoriously chilling shrieks of the Honey Island Swamp Monster. But the idea of something like that being possible awoke a hopefulness in me that I couldn’t find anywhere else, a feeling that died a little whenever I saw Gordy strapped onto an examination chair with spider webs of nodes crisscrossing his skull and tubes coming out of his bruised arms that already looked like a junkie’s. A feeling that stayed with me once I stopped going to the doctors’ offices.
My budding career as a cryptozoologist was short-lived, however. High school (and puberty) came and I learned early on that lecturing about the alleged human menstrual blood involved in Chupacabra mating rituals or the impressive length of a recently discovered Yeti turd wouldn’t get you into Maggie Furman’s jeans or get you invited to your first raid of an unguarded liquor cabinet. There were plenty of discoveries to be made that didn’t involve trekking through malaria-ridden jungles or holding sonar equipment over the side of a flimsy canoe for hours at a time. You only had to have a decent excuse to borrow Mom’s Subaru, and a knowledge of whose parents were out of town for the weekend and/or who had the pot with the least amount of seeds in it. Information that was easy to come by for someone with as much well-honed online communication experience as myself.
By the time I finished my first semester at a well-known hipster haven in Upstate New York, the (mostly) legendary monsters of my pre-adolescence had almost disappeared from my memory, replaced by a steady, pseudo-spiritual diet of Beat poets, the Tao of Whoever, and abundant helpings of LSD and mushrooms. I found myself tapped into a mysterious, invisible world that existed everywhere, even among the growing piles of Taco Bell wrappers and bong-water stains of my dorm room. One that could be accessed easily if you knew the right combination of substances to introduce to your bloodstream. The real adventure is in your mind, bro! No, wait, the adventure IS your mind!
The only problem with college is that it ends. Your brain, even when it’s hopped up on enough acid to make Antiques Roadshow tolerable, doesn’t have the ability to instantly vaporize thousands of dollars of student loan debt. I graduated and moved to Manhattan, got a job doing PR and marketing for a swanky art gallery in the Financial District frequented by generations of moneyed douches and their trout-lipped better halves. I was paying my bills and helping to rip off the corrupt corporate overlords. Win-win situation!
 But this was early 2008, which meant that in a few months the economy would collapse, and every suit on Wall Street would be far more concerned about saving his own ass than about which Haring print would best complement his collection of coke mirrors. I would be laid-off, faced with the very real possibility of moving back into my parents’ house, of spending the foreseeable future sharing a bathroom with my conversationally challenged brother.
Luckily, it didn’t come to that.
The owner of Fat Frank’s, a crusty Upper West Side pub where I was rapidly spending my unemployment checks took pity on me, offering to make me his new apprentice bartender. What I thought would be a stop-gap gig was only the first in what would become a decade-long trudge through the recession-proof (but not pain-free) world of booze-slinging.
Many people who have spent any significant time working in a fast food restaurant will tell you that the aroma of deeply fried chemical-meats becomes intolerable after a while, that they’d rather swallow roach poison than eat a Big Mac. Bartending isn’t like that, at least it wasn’t for me. After-shift beers quickly turned into before-and-after-shift-beers, which turned into Jameson shots whenever I felt like it, or whenever Mr. Francis (the bar’s owner) and the neighborhood bar flies who congregated around him felt like it. Which was pretty much constantly.
Weeks became months and then years, and I became a dive bar all-star. I got to know most of the regulars and the semi-frequent drunks better than my own family. If I couldn’t remember your name, I’d still remember your drink of choice, and I’d have it ready for you before you took your seat. I could pour up to six beers at once while reciting the recipes for an entire pantheon of disgustingly sugary shooters, from Buttery Nipples and Redheaded Sluts to Kamikazes and Russian Woo Woos. My efficiency had nothing to do with trying to get better tips. The less time it took me to interact with people meant more time to sip my own Jack-and-gingers, to fiddle with the music playlist, or to sneak a glance at the Yankees or Knicks game beaming above my head. The customers I should have been so eager to please were little more than minor pests on the periphery of my vision, annoying but brief pauses in the whiskey-tinged party I was having mostly with myself.           
Fat Frank’s became such an extension of my being that I stopped noticing the casualties: the former classmates who were initially so pumped to be friends with someone who had the power to douse them in free drinks, the girl I’d been dating off and on since graduation, the girls I went home with after work who I’d never see again. They all became ghosts, abandoned by an attention span that lasted as long as it took me to pour another shitty domestic draft, or to slug another shot.
The lifestyle was antisocial and viciously unhealthy, but it was steady money if you had the stomach for it. Which I did, as long as I didn’t have to get up before two-thirty or work anything resembling a sober shift.
            During the afternoons, when the hangover demons were spitting shards of fire into the deepest parts of my dehydrated brain matter, when crawling from my bed to the toilet seemed like an impossible, Odyssean journey, I would occasionally curse my position in life. How had things gotten to this point? I’d come to New York with a promising career, a healthy social life, and something vaguely resembling hope for the future, only to have it all swept out from under me.
            The government and the banks were obvious scumbags, sure, but I couldn’t help but think that something bigger was going on, something that went beyond a few Washington, D.C. lobbyists, beyond the interest rates and subprime mortgages that the talking heads kept harping on. Starting the research was as easy as a few keystrokes on the crud-stained laptop that lived on the floor next to my bed. The internet had grown exponentially since my days as a monster junkie in the late nineties; there were countless alternative news and history sites dedicated to secret worlds that went far deeper than anything CNN or the BBC had ever reported, narratives that were far crazier than anything my alcohol-dulled mind could concoct on its own. I pored over alleged evidence of systematic fluoride poisoning, the Vatican’s knowledge of ancient aliens, libido-altering chemicals infused into meat products, mysterious experiments and underwater pyramids in the Bermuda Triangle, secret Nazi bases in Antarctica, staged moon landings, thousands of false flag operations, underground fake news factories in rural Virginia, centuries-old elitist cabals ruled by reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system who had orchestrated everything from the fall of Rome to 9/11. All that I’d taken for granted about history and my own daily life now seemed to ripple with sinister undertones, the feeling that I was a tiny, unwitting cog in a machine I could barely comprehend.
            I’d wanted something, anything, to break the monotony of my literally and figuratively wasted days and nights, and I’d found it in a big way. But what did it all mean? Where was the White Rabbit (my search engine) taking me?
            The longer I spent trying to untangle the Great Conspiracy Mindfuck Rubik Cube, the more I kept coming back to the same date: December 21, 2012. It marked the end of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, but its significance didn’t end with a few star-obsessed Mayan priests trying to make sense of the heavens. There were New Agers who thought that the winter solstice would bring a major physical and spiritual change to the Earth, that we would all be ushered into a new, ostensibly trippier age. Ancient astronaut theorists spoke enthusiastically about the Independence Day-style return of the Annunaki, an alien race worshipped as gods by the Sumerians, who now lived on a seldom-appearing planet called Nibiru. Proof of the End Times could be found just about everywhere, from the writings of Nostradamus to patterns of mass extinctions supposedly observed in the fossil record. A retired tour guide in Arizona announced that he would jump off a cliff near his house and into an intergalactically aligned portal that would open at exactly midnight on the twenty-first, saving him from whatever catastrophe might befall our doomed civilization.
Something was coming. I didn’t know what it was, but I would be ready for it.
I whittled my drinking down to a minimum, started taking Krav Maga lessons in Brooklyn and urban survival classes in Central Park, did pushups until my palms bled. I filled my apartment and a nearby storage unit with camping gear, fire starters, first-aid kits, gallons of bottled water, machetes I bought on eBay, throwing stars I found in Chinatown, and enough cans of Spam, tuna fish, and baked beans to feed me through at least three apocalypses. I spent the quieter hours at work glued to my phone, studying evacuation routes and off-grid living strategies. I took practice escape hikes through the Bronx and over the George Washington Bridge, cruising the wilds of northern New Jersey and Westchester County until my feet blistered and peeled.
The closer it got to The Big Day, the more prepared I felt. I barely recognized the confident, chiseled human who stared back at me through the bathroom mirror every morning, and neither did the patrons of Fat Frank’s. I was handed more napkins and credit card receipts with phone numbers scribbled on them in the first four months of 2012 than in the previous four years combined.
The attention did little to break my focus. Whenever I was asked about my improved physique and stoic, non-bleary-eyed demeanor, I’d mumble something about training for a half-marathon and quickly change the subject. I wasn’t dumb enough to share my beliefs with people who thought that the Military-Industrial Complex was the name of an electronic music festival, and it wasn’t like I could bring any prospective hookup back to a fifth-floor walk-up that now looked like the ideal bunker in a doomsday prepper’s wet dream.
I had one goal: witness some wild, world-changing shit – whatever that might be – and figure out how to survive it. Nothing else mattered.
As September, October, and November rolled by, I stayed quiet, kept my head down, and finished my preparations. Every afternoon when I came home from the gym, I cleaned and catalogued my growing weapons and food stockpiles. When I wasn’t doing Yoga or tinkering with homemade squirrel traps, I kept my eyes glued to every form of media available. But besides the occasional rehashed History Channel “documentary” or someone claiming on their blog that they’d seen a massive dark object enter the solar system through their hobby telescope, there wasn’t much new information to be gleaned.
The calm before the storm, I told myself.
December twentieth was a Thursday, but Fat Frank’s was oddly quiet, even during happy hour. Which was fine by me. I set up my laptop, two tablets and my phone behind the bar, each one tuned to a different obscure message board or subreddit. I turned three of the TVs to mainstream news networks of various sociopolitical persuasions. My bug-out bag was parked next to my feet, stuffed with enough supplies to weather society’s collapse, or at least get me out of New York.
The hours went by and I focused on the screens, unconsciously pouring drinks and not caring if anyone paid for them. The main news stories on the TVs were about health care legislation, an increase in botched plastic surgeries, and a decrease in teen smoking rates. The conspiracy sites were maddeningly quiet. A small sliver of anxiety rose from my stomach, then another, building until I felt like the kid who spends all night working on a history paper and wakes up realizing she forgot about her first-period calculus test. Or maybe school had been cancelled and I was the only one who didn’t know about it.
Then it was midnight.
A newscaster made a joke about putting his “survival ark” on eBay. A live feed of the retiree in Arizona showed him peering over the edge of cliff, shrugging and walking off-screen, past several of his clearly disappointed followers. Someone on a preppers forum posted an apology for mistaking a Nutella smudge on his laptop screen as a fiery gateway to the underworld enveloping his Google Earth maps.  
Outside, a snarling bum pressed his bare chest against one of the bar’s windows, manipulating it seductively in a counter-clockwise motion.
Nothing happened.
I frantically studied the monitors for a few more minutes, my anxiety at full-throttle, before looking up to scan the room I’d been neglecting. There was Mina, the heavily tattooed waitress from the Asian tapas place across the street, a trio of flush-cheeked finance bros, and a scrawny, asthmatic ecstasy peddler named Big Rickey. They stared mindlessly at their phones or at the basketball game I’d left on one of the TVs. Their spirits hadn’t suddenly ascended to a higher level of consciousness. They were the same boring, willfully ignorant sheep they’d always been. But that made them smarter than me. They hadn’t spent the last several years suckered into the false belief that anything truly interesting could ever happen. And they definitely hadn’t spent the better part of a week comparing deer urine and crossbow prices on Amazon.
I sighed, grabbed two bottles from the well and placed them on the bar.
“Who’s trying to get fucked up?” I asked, rhetorically, before taking a monstrous slug of cheap tequila that my now-healed liver was only too happy to accommodate.
The next two or three hours were a collection of blurry snapshots: handing out shots of whiskey, shots of rum, shots of vodka, shots of whatever was left on the quickly dwindling shelves behind the bar. Pretending to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail by flipping bottles behind my back, then watching those bottles shatter on the floor in slow motion. Mistaking Mina’s enthusiasm for my antics as an invitation to make out. Rickey and two of the bros going into the bathroom and staying there for a long time. New people coming and going, faceless and unimportant. Someone cutting me off mid-sentence and saying, “At least with Y2K there was some credible evidence,” and me half-heartedly trying to stab his or her hand with a wine opener.

       I took the last bottle of Jameson off the shelf, poured a glassful, and disappeared into it. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Tunnel


“Fuck Bigfoot.”
      Michael’s brow creased and his lips curled into a slight frown as he considered those two words I’d just muttered, a phrase I’d really only meant for myself. He looked down at the phone-like device in his hand, then at the tunnel in the warehouse floor that the device had made visible a few seconds earlier, presumably trying to think of an appropriate response.
      “I’m not sure what that means,” he said, finally, “but you have to understand that –”
      He was interrupted by a vague hissing noise and a muffled thud from one the building’s upper floors, maybe twenty or thirty feet above the basement where we were standing. He looked up nervously at the pipe and valve-covered ceiling, shoved the phone-slash-decloaking-thing into the breast pocket of his navy-blue jumpsuit, and motioned at the gaping hole in the ground that was looking more and more like the last place any marginally sane, non-suicidal person would want to jump into.
      “They’ll get down here in around ninety seconds,” he said. “Mark was compromised, I don’t have the weaponry to fend them off. We need to leave now.”
      “Compromised?” I snorted sarcastically, listening to another hiss-and-thud sequence that sounded much closer than the last one. “Remind me again which one Mark was. The guy with whom I was conducting a routine, confidential business transaction, or the guy who he vaporized when the two of you busted into the room?”
       “It’s called CMD,” Michael sighed sadly. “Complete molecular destabilization.”
       “What your dealer did to Mark,” he said. “He was my buddy.”
       “Well, I’m not your buddy,” I said, “and I don’t know who “they” are, but when “they” get down here I’m going to explain to them that I’ve never met you or Mark or the guy who I thought was going to sell me a gram of kush. I have nothing to do with whatever special ops craziness is going down right now. I’m an innocent, mostly law-abiding citizen just looking to get buzzed enough to forget how shitty my life is for a couple hours.”
        Another hiss and thud, this one only a foot or two above the ceiling, strong enough that it caused the basement floor to vibrate. Suddenly the air around the tunnel began to shimmer and pop, a living layer of bubble wrap expanding and altering the depth of what was visible. Which would normally have been cause for a major bug-out, if the last few minutes hadn’t consisted of watching a dude’s molecules rip themselves apart and another guy getting offed in a more conventional manner, being chased by unsavory – and clearly misinformed – military types, and seeing the entrance to what looked like a complex, underground passageway system materialize out of thin air.
        At this point, the bubble-wrap air was just par for what was quickly becoming the most ludicrous course imaginable.
        Michael stepped onto the tunnel’s rim, then turned and faced me. “You can tell them whatever you want,” he said, his pale eyes widening as he went into dramatic-speech-mode. “They might keep you alive to question you first, but probably not. It’s enough for them that you saw the CMD. You’ve become a liability. On the other hand, if you continue to follow me and do exactly what I tell you to do, you’ll be safe. More than safe. I can show you all the crazy shit you’ve ever been curious about, the truth behind everything you’ve ever wanted to know. This is your blue-pill-or-red-pill moment, Vance. Except in this case, opting out means a one-hundred-percent chance of extermination, possibly involving quite a bit of pain.”
        I had to admit, the opportunity to avoid certain death did sound enticing. But what was up with all of that truth mumbo jumbo? “How do you know what I’m curious about?” I asked, as the pipes above us began to tremble. “Is that decloaking thing in your pocket capable of reading my brain waves as well?”
        Michael shrugged. “You were at the convention,” he said.
   A few yards from where we were standing, a large square-shaped section of the ceiling turned purple, then orange, giving off enough heat to immediately raise the temperature in the basement by several degrees. At least two distinct – and decidedly displeased – human voices were barely audible over the hissing that had now reached the volume of a commercial lawnmower.
       The goddamn convention. Rudy and his nerd brigade and their stupid plans to get me out of the house. I wanted to hate the moron, but staying mad at Rudy was like staying mad at a two-legged dog trying to take a piss; it just wasn’t worth it, especially when he was only trying to make me feel better. When it was obvious who the real culprit was.
        Fucking Bigfoot, I mouthed silently, fingering the folded-up photograph in my pocket. That abominable jerk-wad had gotten me into this, whatever this was. And, considering that the epicenter of his alleged habitat was roughly three thousand miles west of Midtown Manhattan, he probably wouldn’t be getting me out of it any time soon.  
       Michael frowned as the ceiling near us started to collapse, the pipes and valves gasping out wafts of chemical-tinged air as they severed and scattered across the floor.
      “Ten more seconds and the entryway will disappear for good,” he said. “Make a choice.”
       He took a step backward into the bubble-wrap air. There was a brief pneumatic whooshing sound as he disappeared down the hole.
       The square in the ceiling turned a blinding yellow color, then suddenly evaporated, leaving a gaping hole. Before I could make out what was on the other side, three bodies leapt through. It was the same goon from earlier, the one who had turned Mark into space dust. He was now joined by two other similarly gargantuan specimens, all of them wearing the same black SWAT-team gear, all of them pointing hand-held, gun-like objects in the direction of my midsection. Their faces twisted into annoyed scowls, definitely not seeming like they were in the mood to listen to any rational explanation for my presence that I might be able to offer.  
The lead goon nodded. His blaster started to glow, illuminating his clenched fist. 
Oh, hell no.
I cursed Bigfoot once more and jumped into the tunnel. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

capricorns are the worst

HOW TO FIND A FLOCK, a collection of stories, will be published as a limited, numbered edition by Unsolicited Press on January 8, 2017:

A man decides to transform himself into a bird to escape his phone-wielding, formaldehyde-scented girlfriend. A professional clipboarder spends her days enduring the humiliation cast upon her by potential donors and her nights conjuring visions of the Appalachian Trail. A streaming video epiphany jumpstarts a drug-addled outcast’s plan to become the person she’s always wanted to be. A tiny spider creates just the right amount of potential chaos to inflate a dejected husband’s spirit. The stories in “How to Find a Flock” reveal characters and settings – both implicitly and explicitly connected – that explore the inherent difficulties and the unforeseen elation in forming connections – romantic, spiritual, economic – amidst a post-empire landscape that inevitably crumbles as it retreats further into its digital self. Fatally marred by the cynicism, anxiety, and selfishness inherent in their generation’s version of cultural currency, the mostly young and unhinged protagonists of these stories realize, sometimes too late, that even the briefest moments of genuine human touch are more potent than any keystroke or screen swipe. Featuring a prose that is variously biting, reflective, caustic, and exuberant, “How to Find a Flock” is a collection for anyone who has ever felt the crush of loneliness, the indifference of a blinking monitor, the cruelty of utter boredom and hopelessness, and the exhilaration of finally doing something to change it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

An Occurrence at the Only Place You've Ever Known

Full dick or get the fuck out.
He absorbed Allison’s message, the acknowledgment of his cop-out deflating Roger’s confidence faster than the flushed, un-full dick that was still drooped sadly across his knuckles like an ulcer-prone salamander.
Drawing the blue alien thing and/or palm tree over it in the Snapchat he’d sent her had been a gamble, stupid enough for her to forgo an acronym and use proper punctuation in her Gchat response. He’d done it because Allison had told him about how she, before sending a pic, would sometimes doodle Pac-Man ghosts skirting across her cleavage, how she and her friends would turn their nipples into rabbit noses or penguin eyes or a “titmouse,” her favorite pun.
When he couldn’t find flattering lighting in his room or seated on the toilet, when he’d only managed to achieve the thin-blooded hard-on of a gun-shy flesh rookie, when he’d found it impossible, given the length of his arm, to get a proper dick selfie angle that wasn’t an anatomy-book close-up but didn’t provide too much unnecessary perspective, he’d decided to compromise. Life was compromise. A breast partially blocked by a stick-figure rendition of a woodland creature was still a breast. He could live with that.
He’d positioned himself at his desk, scrolled through a few of Allison’s recent Facebook photos, worked himself to a state of semi-stiffness, gripped the base, extended his phone and tapped. The image had been fuzzy, the lack of contrast between skin and white tee shirt making for a less-than-enthusiastic representation of the focal appendage.
He’d used the app’s drawing tool to make a blue outline, expanding its parameters, shading it in. He’d added green palm leaves and/or antennae on top of the head, and two eyes and/or coconuts about halfway down the shaft. Not bad, he’d thought. Open to interpretation.
There would be neither interpretation nor reciprocation from Allison.

-          Doesn’t count since I can’t even see it.

-          you racist against blue dicks?

-          a little. come on roger. Full dick or get the fuck out.

-          fine, fine.

Roger listened for distractions, hoping his suitemate might need to borrow laundry detergent or ask why the bottle of Lubriderm was missing from the bathroom. He glanced out his window to see if any of the likely green-card-less Asian guys working construction on the adjacent building were having one of their frequent smoke breaks-slash-bullshitting sessions but the rooftop was empty except for plastic bags doing battle in the breeze. He remembered a movie where a maladjusted loner filmed a similar scene with a 90s camcorder and told his girlfriend that it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever witnessed. To Roger, the twirling sacks reminded him of a sadness he couldn’t quite place, emptiness under the guise of total freedom.
More importantly, he had no excuses for Allison, whose emojis had gone from tongue-flicking and joyous to crying/barfing zombies.
Roger removed his boxers a second time.


She’d gotten his email from the bottom of an article he’d published on an obscure site curated by a former professor. Some drivel about the evolution of celebrity worship syndrome focusing on the potential illuminati symbolism of fingerless gloves worn by Beyoncé and Jay-Z at a diabetes fundraiser. She wrote to Roger that she liked his acknowledging that the “legal framework in post-racial America relies on the myth that racist concepts no longer exist,” and was impressed with his portrayal of Beyoncé, noting that it reminded her of “that slutty girl who you keep around bc she’s a hot mess, makes you feel better about your life and always has good stories bc she’s a pathological liar – who i havent talked to after she got married at age 18 to a guy who needed a visa, just messaged me asking if she could use my email because she lost her pw. wut?”
He’d given up actual psychological research as an undergrad, and writing was a hobby in the downtime between preparing invoices and market analyses, but it felt cool to have a fan. Even if she didn’t seem like the throws-panties-on-stage type. Even if she didn’t seem like any type.
Allison Anvil. Her name sounded like a proto-feminist but retroactively offensive comic book character, like her online persona was administered by a psoriatic identity thief trolling in his basement for passwords and social security numbers.
Roger knew she was real, though. As in, not a dude.
Their exchanges followed a natural progression: Gchats, texts, following, friend requests. Her mobile uploads and posting history formed a more or less complete depiction of her last five years, too thorough to be forged. There were throwbacks of beach trips, a blurry ride on Disney World teacups. Diatribes about Holocaust Remembrance Day and World of Warcraft. A Young Democrats dinner highlighted by a Bill Clinton handshake and an ex-boyfriend Roger thought looked like a younger version of himself minus ~fifteen pounds of beer inflation. And the most recent ones – drinking simultaneously with lip-glossed companions from a bowl of neon-infused sludge, their duckfaces straw-induced and therefore permissible.
The kind of stuff Roger imagined he’d see and read from Jocelyn – the neighbor who did her laundry at the same time as him in their building’s communal basement dungeon and, when she wasn’t buried in her phone, appeared to be around the same age as Allison – if they’d been friends on Facebook or in reality.
Roger was a man who had done so much laundry.
He still lived in the first apartment he’d found on Craigslist, stayed put through several drug- and career-related roommate transitions and absurd rent increases, worked as a headhunter at the same IT company where he’d started even though he was mostly bored and there wasn’t much chance for upward mobility. He used the same hair product – “power putty for a windblown surfer look!” – long after his faux-scraggle days had ceased.
In the nine years since he’d graduated and moved to New York, his only relationship had been brief and on FaceTime with a girl who was still at the school he’d gone to in Maryland, who couldn’t deal with the distance between them and her desire for at least two members of the ultimate frisbee team.
That someone who seemed to crave stability would remain single for so long was puzzling to the friends and coworkers who populated the periphery of Roger’s life. He didn’t suffer from a recurring skin condition or extraordinarily gross breath; he was no better and no worse than the majority of his boat-shoed, IPA-swilling comrades.
There were women, maybe one or two a month. Bar-hookups, Tinder dates, alumni functions. Connections that lasted a couple hours, or petered off after a few increasingly foggy mornings after, and ranged from the outrageous – the day trader who let him put it in her ass after he bought a $400 bottle of Grey Goose and told her his Kindle sales rivaled James Franco’s, the daddy-funded poet from whom he received a period blood mustache and who later tried to cover it up by asking if he’d had a nosebleed – to the more pedestrian: a texting moratorium, an unrequited friend request.
It wasn’t that he was incapable of reciprocating passion, that his moments of sensitivity were feigned and served an ulterior motive.
He was alone because above all else, Roger loved ideas.
Age seven or eight, he would sit in Sunday school, listening to a watered-down version of Revelation, thrilled by the cartoon chaos it evoked. He would spend hours in his room creating his own action-figure End of Days – Mumm-Ra as the Antichrist, Princess Leia and Wonder Woman as angelic mediators, Ninja Turtles as the Four Horsemen. But a couple of years later, during a stretch of summer that included the demise of a second cousin, a cat, and a Siamese fighting fish, death became something far more brutal than the easy deus ex machina redemption found in dismembering a villain’s plastic limbs. If there was a god, Roger no longer wanted to be a part of his or her utter fucked-up-ness.
Instead, he focused on another portal that was mostly reliable and seemingly infinite, where age/sex/location was as malleable as his grasp of geography and his desire to blend in with whatever chatty den of liars and pedophiles his clicks would lead him. His first girlfriend was ninety-eight percent instant messages and two percent hugs before and after school. When she broke up with him in-person before the seventh grade winter formal, using more audible words than she’d spoken to him in the past month, he was only shocked because her messages the previous evening had included the requisite number of extra vowels and punctuations – byebyeee talk to u sooooon!!!! – to make it seem like everything was going smoothly.
High school nights, holed up in a parental home office suckling on filched Bacardi, he would scroll through his AIM contacts. He devised and honed a system for gathering information, for establishing a connection that seemed more meaningful because it usually played out on his own terms, the rehearsed-yet-casual sequences of manipulation that belied the painfully ordinary insecurity that consumed his non-typing life. He’d start with a simple, hi, hey, hello, wait for the nm u? response. The trick was in dictating the movement, carving its direction. If KatyKay40286 complained about the frumpy patterns rimming her newly issued field hockey skirt, he would commiserate by mentioning how his swim coach had screwed up everyone’s Speedo sizes – yea sucks its a little uh…tight hehe. After her expected LOLish response, he would write that it was probably nothing compared to the sports bras she was forced to endure (KatyKay40286 being a notable subject of bust-related speculation). Roger would then suggest that they play The Question Game. You had to alternate asking each other questions, one at a time, and that while the questions could be about anything, yes/no answers were discouraged. The game would start innocently enough – what life decisions caused Mr. Neary to become the kind of teacher whose coffee mug reeks of Kahlua every other class? – but would quickly veer toward the erotic:

whats your favorite position?
how big is/are your [                ]?

The questions were far tamer than what he’d encountered as a pubescent smut room devotee, but there was a thrill in the forging of textual intimacy, an arousal on par with what he imagined actual physical contact would elicit. If the girl got skittish and stopped playing or signed off, he would resort to another slightly less gratifying pastime: scouring the streaming video landscape in order to check in on which of his favorite starlets was farther along on the oft-tread arc, from casting couches and coy handjobs to triple penetration and rectal prolapse.
To an adult Roger, Allison was a welcome throwback to that indispensable era, though not in any sexual sense; the need to fulfill unrequited horny-boy urges no longer existed. Instead, they traded the facts – the loan-drowned reality of her recent graduation from a small school in a rust-colored Ohio city, his summer share on the straight part of Fire Island – and the obsessions – her resentment of a single-mother childhood and the sperm donation that led to her creation, his fear of developing colorectal cancer due to chronic Burger King gluttony – that comprised their inner and outer lives. She was fascinatingly ADD, filterless, able to jump, in the space of a few lines, from her internship at a law firm where she was trying hard not to perpetuate “America’s meritocracy myth,” to her quest to pillage the interwebs for the most awful sounding white baby names (my personal favorite so far is Kamdyn – aka murder capitol of the east coast), to the vitriol she posted on random people’s walls: “You do realize that Native Americans are a marginalized ethnic group that still exist, not a cutesie halloween costume. and your baby isn’t cute, fyi. is this an ad for birth control?”
For all she confessed, she never demanded the same from him. She could discuss how her roommate was a popular webcam model who got paid to play videogames in an elf costume and how sometimes Allison would try on the ears to not feel lonely, or how her bulimia phase had been so extreme that she wouldn’t go to class unless she was guaranteed a seat by the door and a clear path to a bathroom or garbage bin, and Roger wouldn’t feel compelled to tell her about how he cried constantly for months after he beat a pregnant squirrel to death with a nine iron or how he and his neighbor Timmy, before his mother found out about it, would take turns wiping themselves, post-toilet, as part of a game Timmy called “family time.”
All he had to do was keep the conversation going.
He would come home from work or a bar or wake up late and activate one of his devices and know that in a moment he’d be inundated with the same pleasing stream of pathos:

ugh roggerrrrr im dying
i took a vicodin
but i just took it
whenever i get really bad insomnia i get scared that i’ve developed bipolar
because that’s an early warning sign
and this is the age when people show their first symptoms
like stay awake for a week straight babbling like a homeless veteran
oh no. katy perry is back on Reddit.
save me from myself.

He could absorb her brand of damage until sated, take what he wanted and give back nothing.

Sounds awful :( gotta pick up a jacket at the dry cleaner. Later

After a year Allison started trying to meet Roger in person. At first it was subtle. She was thinking of staying at a friend’s in Hoboken, would he be around if they took the train into the city? She had to come in from her mother’s house near Trenton to get her passport renewed at a Midtown office that happened to be near Roger’s office, would he want to get smoothies?
His limp excuses – he was sick, he had to attend a company-mandated retreat at a mud-covered obstacle course upstate, he would be starting a juice cleanse that would render him unbearably flatulent – awoke in her a directness that Roger found difficult to combat. They could hang out on his schedule. What weekends did he have free? When was she going to finally meet the famous suitemate who used Febreze as body wash? She would have no problem sleeping on the couch as long as fewer than three sex offenders lived in his building.
Roger knew that it might go down like this, that she would try to sabotage the idea of herself he had worked so hard to cultivate and maintain. He wasn’t skilled enough at Instagram to keep conjuring images of the places that coincided with his cop-outs, so he tried broaching the subject honestly.

-          Do you ever think that if we met in person it would ruin our internet bond?
          just that once you meet in person, that’s it, it’s no longer an internet friendship and there’s no turning back and reinternetizing it.

Her middle-finger emojis were swift, relentless.
He was selfish. He was a solipsist. He was needy. He was too privileged to understand the consequences of cultural appropriation. He wore the same Third Eye Blind tee shirt in at least fifteen of his pictures.
Though Roger agreed with most of her accusations, he didn’t feel the sting of her absence until the third day of signed-off silence. His coworkers had left their usual happy hour spot and he had secured a seventh pint. He was looking at a Buzzfeed list of horrible-sounding Trader Joe’s products that “seem vegan but shockingly aren’t!” and wanted to text Allison the link. He tried thinking of someone else whose opinion about the article he would find interesting or worthwhile. The bartender was mostly ignoring him, occasionally glancing at the dwindling pile of singles in front of his beer with increasing trepidation. With Allison he could drink to the point of being a dickhead and send her stupid shit and regardless of her response he would know that they were on the same wavelength for at least a few moments, feeding a deeper need, what he imagined it would be like to have someone worth coming home to.
Now he was simply another lonely dick.
When she signed back on (heyyy dummy I still h8t you and im never coming to nyc but hows ur week been??) he decided he would be more present, give a little more of himself, enough to keep her appeased. Even if she only wanted to tell him about sending her ex-boyfriend Photoshopped pregnancy tests or her ideas about the patriarchy’s relationship to anti-Semitism that evolved into a treatise on the shortcomings of biology. He would try.

-          if i could redesign sexy parts, balls would be on the inside, as would clits, and there would be no vagina, just a little hole, covered by the labia. and nobody would have hair.
it would be like the iOS 11 of genitalia.

-          isnt that pretty much what a vag is

-          no there’s the other shit inside
i don’t know what it’s called
the labia minora!

-          idk i kind of like my genitalia

-          you’re the only one.
the worst is when guys send dick pics.
like okay, i can tell if someone has a nice dick but i don’t need to see a picture of it.

-          note to self do not send dick pics anymore

-          i’m not going to get off to a picture of an erect penis

-          lol

-          you would never send a dick pic

-          haha only if asked

-          send me one
thats what snapchat was made for

-          i dont have an erection tho

-          that and me sending pictures of my boobs with animal faces drawn on them
how hard is it to get an erection? pun intended

-          very punny

-          now i’m inspired to send another boob creature

-          do it

-          not to you. i would only send it to you in exchange for a dick pic.
i just sent my friend a boob puppy.

-          are you going to have me arrested if i send one

-          no!

-          as long as you don’t screenshot mine

-          i dont even know how to do that

He didn’t know how, either, and wouldn’t have done it if he did. He didn’t want to deal with pissing her off again. The reference to a relative state of photographic permanence awoke in him a twinge of memory, an ugliness he tried to shake off while looking for his phone.
While Allison waited, faceless and soundless somewhere in New Jersey.


Roger took a second photo – this one blatant, unaltered – and pressed send.
As the image slid through the data channel to Allison’s screen, he felt a sharp pressure on his throat, a sense of suffocation that sped down through his limbs, a putrefying heat. Then a dizziness like when he was a child and would intentionally spin in a circle until falling to the ground, except now he was trying not to move, fighting the downward plummet.
At some point his vision ceased and he was aware of nothing but a feeling of fullness, a widening, a roar of liquid forcing him towards an artery-choking torment. He was swimming in near-darkness, submerged in a milk-thick sludge that, while alternatively burning and sponging his lungs was also buoying him in the direction of a faint light that kept getting closer until he collided with an earthen hardness a few feet beneath the surface where the water was now soup-thin, gleaming. He reached for one of the root-like structures whose ends rippled and flickered from the embankment and it broke loose, rubbering down into the murk.
He reached for another, another until he gripped one that held, pulled himself and emerged into an air that convulsed, engulfed his chest. He crawled onto a sandy outcrop and closed his eyes.
When he opened them he was upright, walking on a path that reminded him of a condo-stunted nature preserve where he and other ambitious young degenerates would share saliva and hastily rolled joints. Except here the sun-doused vegetation pulsed with a velocity that made him giddy, growing denser as he whirled into what became a vortex, a sequence of spirals that disintegrated and regrouped as irregular rows of hulking columns, multi-shaded and huge and formed of a substance that was softer than bark and free of branches.
Giant dicks. Thousands of them.
And tiny ones, lining both sides of the path, a sea-smelling undergrowth of brown and pink mushroom caps. The members implied an entire pulsing diaspora of masculine possibility: erections with varying degrees of height and curvature, throbbing and agitated, drooping, foreskinned willows, boulder-balls jostling the exposed earth, a coarse pubic lichen that could be dense or peach-sparse, leafy dark ringlets curling and twisting past the base of shafts, others manicured to a new-purse sheen.
As he took in the now-sharp environment, he realized that he had seen these dicks before, their context obvious in the memories with which they corresponded. Timmy’s baby carrot dangling in a toilet bowl. His first timid side-glances at adult equipment (including his father’s) in the piss-trough at the old Yankee Stadium. A fraternity brother whose primary career aspiration was to join an off-Broadway troupe of “genital origami” artists and who would practice his craft during chapter meetings. The ex-roommate he found one morning passed out naked on the couch, shit drooling onto the carpet, a sheet of bruised tinfoil splayed across his lap.
The path began to widen and bend, and as he followed its curve, he noticed that while the skin foliage was thinning out and revealing shards of waning sun, the individual dicks were becoming over-rigid and mammoth, redwoods where once had only been saplings. He easily recognized which porn actor each belonged to, remembering the many holes that had contained them. Billy Glide’s barrel-girth, a ring of freckles just below the circumcision scar. The pale English hammer of Danny Dong, thinner at the base and rouge-tipped. And Lexington Steele, an obsidian tower stabbing and combining with the dusk, glossy with lube.
The path ended in another shock of color and vertigo and he found himself in a field at night, standing at the entrance to what looked like a medicine man’s sweat lodge he’d seen set up at a “pow wow” near an Indian casino where his mother bought wolf-claw necklaces and he watched complacent men pound drums and yodel. The structure, under the clamor of frozen stars, bubbled like a marshmallow, hissing from the pressure of whatever resided inside. The entrance was concealed by a curtain of six-foot-long chrome dicks, tips swaying a few inches from the muddy ground. He spread them apart, gently, and walked inside. As he tried to adjust his eyes and to not gag on the corrosive fog that now contained him, a groan flared from somewhere close and the hut expanded, recoiling at his presence. A spurt of flame – a hearth? – throbbed in a far-off distance and he moved toward it, coughing, lifting the crew neck of his tee shirt over his nose.
The smoke pulled and ebbed and spewed a montage of images, each featuring the same expanding and contracting protagonist. He saw himself in an earth-toned bathroom he barely recognized, his tiny pink nub sud-shielded and bobbing alongside rubber Sesame Street toys; slouching in a ski resort’s communal shower, peach-fuzzed and shy-shrunken; adjusting to the unwelcome rawness of his first jock strap; cautiously assessing the welcome friction that resulted in his first unexpected dollop of salty release. An assortment of time-lapsed close-ups, varying levels of pubic hair, razor stubble, the sores last year that were only a harmless reaction to defective latex. And then, the twinge that had gnawed earlier when he’d sent the Snapchat to Allison: pictures he’d taken with a primitive digital camera and sent over AIM a decade ago – some full-body, others side-posed, spread-eagled – to someone named peachez00100 who never sent anything back, and who, he found out much later at a reunion, from snickering classmates who had seen the pictures, turned out to be a guy he’d gone to high school with.
He let the old embarrassment rise and blind his brain with a shattering percussion that, when it subsided, left him cold and feverish, tongue swollen with thirst.
He was a few yards from the source of the hut’s light, a tube of fire that loomed phallic and enormous, though it emitted no discernable heat. The flames in his direct line of vision parted and realigned as a projector screen that appeared to be operating at an archaically low definition. The video was a point-of-view shot, missionary position, the first girl he’d slept with – whose name he couldn’t remember – her pleasure-stunned stares at him while he surveyed her neck, breasts, belly button, plunging in callow, arrhythmic excitement. Then a flicker and she changed, her body’s outline blurring. Lighter hair and lips, a thickening of thighs, paler skin, still familiar.
His dick remained.
The screen wasn’t deficient, he realized. There were many screens layered against each another, a living composite of everyone he’d ever fucked. The length of time that each body would rise and dominate the surface appeared to correspond to how many times he’d been with that person and the duration of the encounter(s). The college-era girls cycled through at a brisk rate, the end results of mostly un-remembered brownouts or casualties of his prematurity. As the bodies beneath him aged and held their focus longer, it grew harder to look at them, though he had no choice but to absorb the emotions that manifested the same way every time: the pleading for something greater, a future not predicated on his dick, a future he would never give them.
After several minutes he watched himself pull out and deposit a belly-smearing load, but instead of the relief and fade-to-black he expected, the girl/girls remained and he was still inside, though not in any way he’d felt before. He was the negative space that his dick had created, a shadow that nevertheless had the ability to bore beyond any untested womb, to inflict a greater pain that he now shared, the pain of never transcending a definition, of once-harmless ideas destroyed in a searing of flesh.
He knew what he was.
He tried to run from the flames and the screens that had separated and surrounded him in every direction, the lives he could no longer thwart, a white light and sparks and the stars were above and whirling and he leapt into it, screaming, and the light snuffed out and he was alone in a dim halogen glow and silence. Something soft in his hand and he knew without looking down that he was in the old recurring dream, the one where his dick had come off and he couldn’t figure out why there was no blood and he forced himself to wake up but when he reached down he touched a smoothness, a nothing of skin, and he heard a humming laughter, receding with the light, a joy from which he would forever be sundered unless he could reattach himself, if he could find a way to avert the stars’ dissecting gaze, if he could convince his feet to move, if he could only…

Allison’s message blinked at the bottom of the screen: nice, roger!! followed by a sequence of emojis that included various salutatory hand gestures and what looked like a frog with a potentially hazardous goiter. He reached for his phone, opened Snapchat to view the response picture she’d sent. One visible breast – large, pale, mostly unremarkable except for a nipple that was pinker than he’d imagined and possibly larger, if it hadn’t been obstructed by the nostrils of a monochromatic alligator head. Ten seconds later it was gone.
Outside, on the adjacent rooftop, a hooting. Construction workers on their break, smoking, chugging Powerades. Most of them were lined up near the ledge, tossing junk from the vacant apartments they’d been renovating. Whenever one of them found something worthwhile – a scarred Blu-ray player, a pack of Parliament Lights – they would take turns aiming and dropping garbage bundles into the commercial dumpster positioned near the front of the building.
Whoever’s bundle landed closest to the dumpster’s center, Roger assumed, would win the prize.
One of the workers was cradling a filthy doll, clothed in the shreds of a baby blue dress and stockings. The head was missing an eye and most of its orange curls, and those that remained looked like they’d been burned. Each time someone hovered over the ledge, ready to toss, the man with the doll would move behind him and pretend to hump it, hold its arms and make it dance, simulate oral sex. The other workers would crack up and the tosser, also laughing, would turn around and smack the doll across the face or stomach, as if blaming it for his poor aim.
When everyone else had tossed, the man with the doll snatched one of the plastic bags that were swirling around the roof and placed his projectile inside. He gripped the bag by its handles, swung it in a series of circular arcs, and released. As the bundle flew upwards, doll and bag separated, terminating on the horizon, a black rift in the sun. A flutter of garments and for a second it looked like she might float down, saved by a parachute of fabric and air.
She fell no slower than the rest of the trash, made the same echoing crunch against the dumpster’s metal.
The unencumbered bag drifted and landed where it had been thrown, where the workers stomped out butts, jostling and grinning, shuffling into the building through the fire exit.
Roger sat down and waited for whatever Allison was typing.