Phantasmangoria

September 11, 2008 at 2:56 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

The nose of the car breached the divide between broiling asphalt and dry, rocky sand all yellow-brown and shimmering with translucent wavelets of heat. It was an undeveloped lot just off the city street and right in between two nondescript concrete and glass strip malls. I continued on a few yards and parked behind a pale green palo verde, too stubborn like the rest of its bristly species to let the searing sun and miserly sky overcome its will to endure.

“You got the cash?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Here.” She pulled a new ten out of her blood-red wallet.

“This won’t take long,” I said, hoping it wasn’t a lie.

“I’m coming with you,” she said.

“No, stay in the car.”

Dust puffed up and enveloped the toes of my shoes as my feet hit the desert earth. Sweat formed a thin film all over my skin. In the front of the lot squatted a rusty food service coach, the kind you can buy a taco out of if you’re willing to brave a few parts per dozen of insect viscera. I had parked somewhat behind and to the side of it. Walking around to the front I could see that it probably hadn’t moved in years, its tires exhausted and splitting and large swaths of paint having preferred disintegration among the grains of sand to continued service on the metal sides. A wide awning ran the length of the side closest to the street, and in front of the driver’s cab sat a no less dilapidated but probably more mobile van, the big kind from before suburban moms demanded a sleeker, more feminine silhouette from that type of vehicle.

A man clambered out of the back of the coach as I came around. He was ancient and weather-beaten like one of those ramshackle barbed-wire fences you encounter on hikes over the open range, face pitted and lumpy from sun exposure and grey-white hair untouched by any cleansing agent since the Carter administration. Outside of this rotting establishment I would’ve taken him for a wino. His gait stiff but hurried, he continued on without a word to the open cab and half sat on the driver’s seat, at last turning to survey me with his puffy, deadened eyes. They probably had cataracts. Still he said nothing.

I stepped in under the awning, dodging one of several hanging wreaths made of dried red peppers. I took off my sunglasses and nodded in silence to my taciturn, decrepit host before moving forward to the slapdash table bearing the mangos.

“Whatcha lookin’ for?” he rasped at last. I had set my hands on a few mangos in succession, giving each a light squeeze to test the firmness of its moist, nectary flesh.

“Mangos, old man. Or couldn’t you tell?”

“I can tell you which ones are ripe, if that’s what you mean to determine with all that intimate fondlin’,” he said.

“I know my way around a mango.” I continued to press my fingertips into the pliable red and green skins. Most felt a little squishy for my purposes.

The old man cleared his throat. “Well lookie here, son—”

“No, you lookie here,” I cut in. “I need these mangos for a fruit salad. A good one, none of that these-were-about-to-go-bad-so-mom-cut-em-up-and-threw-em-together crap. There’ll be jicama and cilantro. Now where do you get these mangos?”

He looked down at his feet and kicked the dirt. “I don’t like to talk about my sources. And they don’t like me talkin’ ’bout them either.”

“Oh, I’ve heard that line a thousand times. You wanna sell some mangos? Talk.”

“Son, these are the finest mangos you’ll find in town. I can vouch for that.”

Fuck it. I lunged at him and seized the front of his shirt with my left hand, then lifted, pulled, and slammed him against the side of the coach, pinning him there and moving my face in close. He gave a token squirm or two but seemed too indifferent to really struggle.

the dread mango nut weevil in all his infernal glory

“Where did these come from, old man?” I shouted, my voice lashing his eyes as their wrinkled flesh-shutters flickered rapidly up and down. “You bought them at a supermarket, didn’t you? Or stole them, more likely. But there they were, idling their freshness away under the pale glare of the fluorescent tubes, already exhausted from an odyssey that began in the dirty fields of India and went on through weeks crammed in a dank hold and a few miserable seconds sucking in radiation like a Chernobyl tick. Lest the dreaded mango nut weevil get us all, of course.”

“I swear, I didn’t…” he wheezed, his fetid breath washing over me like swamp gas. I fought the urge to retch. My right hand still clutched one of his mangos. Rearing back, I smashed it into the coach right next to his head. It exploded like a massive insect, spraying sticky orange glop all over the side of his face.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” I continued, my words popping out faster and faster like sparks from a bonfire. “You think I came here for the three-dollar basket your sign announces to every credulous idiot rolling by? Mangos come cheap lots of places, but you come to the bum in the jalopy on the side of the road for the good stuff, the juicy gold, the virgin fruit that hasn’t been blasted within an inch of its life by the FDA’s machines. I need the real mangos, dammit, the ones that come fresh as the morning dew on Eve’s bosom.” With my pulp-coated hand I gave him a brisk slap that snapped his face like a fresh latex glove.

“Alright! Alright! There, in the back on the right. Let me go, you son of a bitch!” I eased my grip, letting the fabric of his greasy shirt slip out. He bent over to catch his breath. “That basket’s different,” he said, eyes fixed on the ground. “Got it from the Mexicans. They bring a couple crates up each week.”

I felt them. They were as firm and supple as your high-school girlfriend’s ass. “Never been boiled or irradiated?” I already knew the answer just from the touch.

“No, no, I swear.”

“How much?”

“Eight dollars for the bunch.”

I pulled out the ten and dropped it by the man’s feet. “Keep the change.” Taking a plastic sack from the side of the table, I piled the mangos into it and turned to walk away. Just before crossing out into the sun again, I turned. “You’ve got strange ways with your mangos, old timer. You could have just told me at the start.”

He glared at me out of the corners of his eyes. “They ain’t supposed to be for sale. People who know the Mexicans, I guess, come around to grab ’em. Always the same folks, and they know which ones to get. They ain’t gonna be happy about this.”

I chuckled. “I hope they don’t slap you around too much.”

“They will. And then they’ll come for you. And they probably won’t knock first.”

“Tell them I’ll be waiting.” I stepped out into the shade, brushing a wreath with shoulder and snapping off part of a pepper. “Sorry, old man. You’ve got the change. We’ll call it even.”

Back in the car, I handed her the bag of mangos. “How are they?” she asked.

“We’ll have people knocking down our doors for this stuff, sugar.”

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The Awakening

September 6, 2008 at 12:11 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

I am on a concrete city street and I am running towards my wife. A muscular, hirsute man is attacking her. I attack him, grabbing him around his neck, which would thrust up well above mine if his knees were not bent. He leaves my wife and focuses on me. I will be crushed. He rises up and I am jerked off the ground. I release my hands and begin punching his head as strongly and quickly as I am able. I am surprisingly good at this but he seems unaffected. He throws me against a brick wall. I too resist the attack, again to my surprise. We trade furious blows, beating and tossing one another without accomplishing anything. I think that my wife is safe for the moment. But they have my child. They have my baby child. Where is my child? I am dreaming.

I knew that I was dreaming for a moment perhaps before I woke up to glaring sun and baby screams, but only with part of my whirling stew of a mind. Another part took a half-second after I awoke to realize that it had been witness to a pointless fabrication, the two states of awareness floating over and around each other like well-shaken quantities of oil and water. In that blended instant of wakeful acuity and sleep-induced hallucination I felt my veins freeze and blood congeal. Full realization quickly melted them.

The black posts of my bed towered above me and were rendered crooked by my hazy mind. Another late night, another early morning. I’ll sleep when I’m dead; it won’t be long. My circadians are like a six-year-old drummer.

“Can you get him?” she asked, her voice craggy with sleep. I rolled over towards her, unable just yet to force my lead-limbed body to comply. Her face was turned away, her back towards me, but the soft line of her side enticed me still, the high shoulder sloping down to her narrow waist before the dramatic rise of her hips and those intoxicating limbs all splayed and warm. I set my lips to her neck-nape and inhaled her dulcet woman-scent as my hand came to rest on the topmost surface of pelvis.

Alright. I rolled back to the left and off the bed, then staggered to the kid’s room. He stood there in his crib, eyes full of agony and desperation but lit up by the spark of hope that here I was to get him. Beneath them his mouth hung open and taut with twisted yammering. All that melted to exhausted relief as I lifted him to my chest and let his pliant cheek nestle onto my shoulder like a bird returning to its roosting spot. The world is too cursed and fucked for something like this to be, and yet it is. I guess that’s why we’re all hanging around here still after all this godforsaken time. I kissed him absently.

We headed out to the living room. Forty-five minutes til work. Forty-five minutes of harried, half-nourishing sleep. Better than forty-five minutes of whipping my spastic body and reeling mind just enough to keep them upright and conscious. I sat on the couch, set the kid on the ground so he could lean against it, and collapsed back, aiming my head at a barely receptive cushion. He gurgled and slapped the sofa a few times while staring off and up. Forty-five minutes of dreams, fevered and insane like all dreams caught in fitful, preoccupied almost-sleep.

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Where There’s Clove-Smoke There’s Firing Synapses

September 4, 2008 at 11:08 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

Outside the silver-black night sky is pierced only by a few struggling points of light, ancient beams from the primordial past bearing random, inscrutable messages to the infinite puny planets of the cosmos. What news, stars? You were expecting dinosaurs? They’re fucking dead.

The match-head flares and dies out, mimicking in miniature time and miniature space the life-cycle of one of those distant, indifferent suns. I light another and hold it to the end of my Djarum Black. Acrid: that’s what the smell of a burnt match-head is. All the experts agree on this. Dry, pungent, with a crisp sting of reacted chemicals. But that scent is soon overwhelmed by the clove, sweet, spicy, and earthy underneath. The smoke has almost a syrup quality. Syrup that carves your lungs like a Christmas goose into bleeding, cancerous filets. It cloys and coarsens at the same time, like eating a charred sugar cane.

The wooden plank fence around the patio stands black up to the height of my eyes, perforated only by the slits between the slats and the few small holes left behind by long-rotted knots. Light from two free-standing lamps outside it filters in at the tops of a few of the planks, highlighting thin, irregular crenellations where water and sun have filed away the weaker veins of wood. These lamps, two yellowed, opaque globes, light the thorned, byzantine mesquite branches above them like the faces of kids telling cheap scare-stories. And those useless stars peak through the cross-hatched twigs and miniscule leaves here and there.

 

A man can smoke cloves without sacrificing manliness. I submit that. Big shots chew on cigars, brainy types puff their pipes, and third-world guerilla generals prefer cigarillos. Hippies smoke pot, but not for the smoking part. Pretty much everyone else who shares a dim view of lying around watching assholes in court all day every day from years seventy-five to ninety smokes cigarettes. No one smokes cloves. Maybe some girly men and the damaged women who hang out with them. Smoking cloves throws you in with that lot, but fuck it. A man, even a hard man, has to have his simple pleasures.

 

I sip my homemade limoncello between drags. It echoes the clove, sweetly herby yet harsh underneath, almost too closely. But then such is life on this never-still planet. High and low, agony and ecstasy, one after another until they blend into one simultaneous sensation, at least in the compressed form of memory. Maybe not for all the bastards toiling through the endless days out there. I guess the churchgoers and the officeworkers might find the hours all too equivocal, an interminable series of clay-colored moments that never get shaped into anything. It’s an appealing life. But not that appealing. I pour another dram.

 

The clove is out. The stars are not, as far as we know or ever will. Somewhere seventy million years from now, the eye of someone in the daughter-species of our daughter-species of our daughter-species catches the gleam being emitted right this very instant by one of these stars whose screaming ghost has just met me. She is thinking the same things I am.

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Evening Coffee

September 2, 2008 at 3:50 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

The inside of the coffee joint was almost affluent, its blue-painted walls, light wooden shelves, and warm lighting betrayed by the shabbiness of its off-white drop-panel ceiling. The “acoustical” panel, to euphemize: always the last hallmark of short funds to be eradicated by a low-rent but aspiring grub spot. The polyester trousers of interior design.

 

Shoddy ceiling or no, I felt like a junkyard dog in the “Best Terrier” competition. It’s rare that I ask for coffee from a menu that doesn’t advertise along with it a full stack of flapjacks and a side order of grease-sodden bacon, and rarer still that I stop in any joint after sundown that doesn’t have half-busted neon signs in the windows and something a bit stronger than caffeine in the bottles behind the bar. Too easy to see faces in a shadowless place like this, for your peripatetic eyes and those of everyone else bestowing custom there alike. But our circumstances aren’t always shacking up with our self-mythologies. Besides, if you can’t smoke in a bar in this town, you might as well not smoke in a coffeehouse.

 

I stepped up to the register, feeling naked as a rattlesnake under the soft glare from overhead. My rubber soles rapped a drum major’s tattoo on the large tiles of the floor and fuzzy golden discs of light intruded into the corners of my eyes. I addressed the girl behind the counter. “I’ll have the usual.”

 

She stared for a moment, her bemused eyes standing out from her otherwise plain, round face. “The usual? Have I seen you before?”

 

“Just make something up.”

 

“I…I’m sorry,” she said, flustered. “I’m new here, I don’t–”

 

“Anything. Make anything up.”

 

She hesitated, then set her fingers to punching imaginary keys on the inconstant touchscreen surface in front of her. “Four eighty-five.”

 

Looks like I’m drinking top shelf tonight. I pulled out my card. It flexed between my fingers and my thumb like a well-stuck knife blade. Three minutes later I was handed a clear plastic cup filled with ice and a dark tan liquid. And how cutely nostalgic, a straw. There better be shots of something besides espresso in there.

 

I surveyed the seating. One slouching couch-chair and a herd of small table sets, hard and spindly. All the wall seats were window seats, too, so I risked the exposure and sat as close to the copper-lit night as I could. Cars swished by on the main drag outside, tunneling glibly through the semi-darkness on missions of their own, saluting only in farewell with a fading red fanfare. I turned my eyes straight down, into the transparent lid of my swishy-modern libation, and tried to minimize their exposure to the interior light. My lips closed around the straw tip. Sucking on it felt like riding a brake-by-backpedaling bicycle again, foreign but easily done without a moment’s reorientation.

 

The sweet, smoky concoction suffused my mouth, a half-cold splash of combating flavors and textures. I had to admit it had an appeal, the way kissing a cheap broad with cheaper perfume does: cloying, yeah, but counterweighted by an inescapable current of earthy bitterness, and with a hardwired zing coming up through it too (at least in the best of cases). The sweetness had grace notes as well – hazelnut, I guessed. No way to metaphor that.

 

I began flicking the tip of my tongue up and down the top half-inch of the straw, letting the tender part at the end of my lingual member scratch itself mildly on the sharp plastic rim. I hadn’t removed the straw from my mouth, though I was only inhaling the latte intermittently. My eyes darted here, there, not needing my direction to swerve around over their surroundings. A scattering of college kids filled out the rest of the shop’s customer roster. They leaned over to fix their eyes on row after row of indistinguishable text in thick, joyless books, or they leaned back to let their fingers clatter across yielding laptop keys and produce text of their own. It was, I guessed, the first weekend of the semester. This is where you come to find the overachievers, then, the cretins who’ve swallowed the worm of lucre, the hook of condescending praise, and the line of corporate exploitation. Or hell, maybe I’m an asshole, maybe they’re just earnest would-be academics, fools of a lesser order, studying, studying, studying until they find out, too late, that everything worth knowing is either gut-rippingly obvious or well beyond the brittle, clawing grasp of man’s overweening mind. Let the naïve be naifs, I mused: better to let them enjoy the well-compartmentalized view afforded by their blinders for as long as they can manage to keep them on. They’ll join the rest of us in the dark, dirty bars and the darker, dirtier alleys behind them soon enough.

 

My right heel began tapping in double time, jerking up and down in rhythmic spasms as my ankle, knee, and hip co-moved with smooth, unbidden harmony. I had finished my drink. Every digit and appendage twitched, besotted with caffeine and exuberant at its power to free them from the autocratic regime of my nervous system. I had been infiltrated, hijacked, though to no real end. Time for countermeasures. I pulled out my flask from my back pocket and poured a surreptitious dollop over the lingering ice cubelets. It could be tea, I reasoned. Fuck it, who cares what they think it is? Too true. I threw it back in one frigid, shaky gulp.

 

Soon I was vibrating and losing coordination. How do these college assholes throw back vodka-Red Bulls all night long? The light had at last succeeded in boring its way through my skull, and I felt the pressure building up behind my eyes and around my cranium. I had to move, go somewhere, do something, even if I botched all three. Standing up, I lurched towards the door.

 

“How’d I do?” chirped the barista as I tried to speed past.

 

I started. “Huh?”

 

“The drink, how was it?”

 

I thought about cursing her out but stopped short. “It left me cold,” I said. Ugh. Bad puns never let you see their true colors until the last word is about to spout from your mouth and leave you all wet. You get that one instant of horror and shame and then fuck.

 

“Um, good then?”

 

“Yeah, kid. Best I’ll ever have.”

 

I took off for the exit again and the safety of the night. “Not if you make it the usual!” she called at my back before the door swung shut behind me. The usual. I swigged once more, no pretense this time, and I pulled a smoke from another pocket. Lighting up, I set out into the night, watching my surfaces transit from near-black to pale electric orange and back again as I moved under the streetlamps. I had no idea where I was going.

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