An American Dreamer in Paradise [Jim #12, Short Fiction]

“I don’t dream anymore.”

“Nobody dreams anymore.”

“Is it still possible to dream? In this place?”

“Well, anything is possible. But no, not really.”

“I miss it.”

“You miss it?”

“Dreams. Dreaming.”

“They’re just dreams.”

“You don’t miss dreams?”

“No.”

“When I was a kid I dreamed about the world series and hitting a homerun. You know, bottom of the ninth, two outs, down by a run, I’ve got a broken arm and I’m hitting into the wind – and then boom it’s out of the park. I march the bases, wave my hat, I stomp down at home. The crowd goes wild.”

“It’s a nice dream.”

“I think so.”

“You know, you can just do that now.”

“I have.”

“You’ve already done it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well there you go.”

“It wasn’t the same.”

“That’s because it was real.”

“I felt stupid.”

“It is stupid. Incredibly stupid.”

“You just said it was a nice dream.”

“A nice, stupid dream.”

“Well, I miss it.”

“I can’t give you your dreams back. Dreaming requires lacking and you lack nothing. Except for dreaming. Which is weird, but that’s just how it works. And if you try to dream about dreaming you’re in for a real headache. So don’t go doing anything like that.”

“Can you do anything for me? It doesn’t have to be the world series. Just a simple one maybe. I used to dream about driving down the highway. That’s it, just an open road and the engine and the sky. How about that one?”

“No dreams. Here’s what I can do for you though. I’m going to go ahead and diagnose you with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

“I don’t think that’s what I have.”

“Are you sure? It comes with a wagon full of dex.”

“What’s dex?”

“It’s pretty much meth. Your teeth won’t fall out, but it will stimulate your psycho-activity.”

“I can’t dream anymore so you’re giving me a wagon full of meth?”

“Dex.”

“To stimulate my psycho activity?”

“Take it or leave it.”

“Well, I mean, if that’s all you got.”

***

Jim pulled the wagon of dex along the top of the wall. It was like a little red wagon except it was big and blue. The pills were white and they rattled like teeth. The wall, forty feet high and ten feet thick, cut an erratic line through the Middle of Nowhere. Jim popped another pill and went back to stacking bricks.

Somebody called up to him from the ground.

“Hey! You! What’s the big idea?”

“Idea?”

“What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s a wall!” Jim said. “I’m building a wall! Eighteen million nine hundred thousand three hundred and sixteen bricks so far. You never knew how many bricks it took to make a wall!”

“Well who’s it keeping out?”

“Nobody!”

“Where’s it going?”

“That way!”

“Why you building it?”

“I was bummed out and unfocused because there aren’t any dreams anymore but then the doctor gave me all this dex and I started to build a wall. There’s an infinite number of bricks up here and I never even thought to build a wall before. Eighteen million nine hundred thousand three hundred and seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Just look at this beautiful fucking wall!”

“Say, come to think of it, I don’t dream anymore neither.”

“Climb aboard! I’ve got a wagon full of dex and bricks for days!  Yaaachachachaka!

The somebody climbed up and turned into a George, who swallowed a fistful of dex and started scraping mortar. Jim stacked the bricks. When they finished a section George carried the mortar and the bricks and Jim pulled the wagon of dex.

“This is just great!” George said.

“Nineteen million one hundred and thirty-two thousand three hundred and forty-two!” Jim said.

“All this time I was just kind of wandering around I didn’t really know what to do I mean there’s so many things you can do up here I was just a little lost I was overwhelmed and distracted there aren’t any directions around here. You know? But now it’s like I don’t even have to think the thinking is gone and I can just do and do and do and I don’t have to think for myself I can just fucking do.”

“Fuck dreams!”

“Fucking do!”

Yaaachachachaka!

***

There were a lot of people like Jim and George. Everyone they ran into seemed to have dreams that didn’t work anymore. Pretty soon there were a hundred, then a thousand dreamless souls, all tweaking through the Middle of Nowhere and leaving a trail of bricks. Whole teams for mixing clay and mortar, excavating, rock-breaking and landscaping, brick-laying and brick-counting and bricking. They were very organized. A hundred new miles of wall went up every day.

The psychiatrists of Paradise discovered the wall and rallied around its cause and began recruiting every patient for its construction. Thousands more and tens of thousands were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and soon a million men and women roamed the wall. The dex came in trucks.

They sang a song.

Fuck your boring dreams, and fuck your boring soul –
All you need is Dexedrine off you fucking go!
A zillion bricks to stack, eternity to roll –
A wagon full of dex will build a wall to
WHERE?!
Nobody really knows!

So heed this word from us, who build and build it high –
Fuck us living, fuck us dead – Let’s build it to the sky!
A googol miles to march, infinity to fly –
A wagon full of dex will take us all to
WHERE?!
Somewhere, Paradise!

***

For about thirteen years they built the wall. Their numbers swelled to thirty million and the wall stretched on for a million miles. The dex mines of Paradise passed the infinity test and no dreamless builder built without the bumps of Adderall or Ritalin or Dexedrine. Thirty million tweakers united by a single purpose – to build a brick wall through the Middle of Nowhere.

And they made it. Jim and George led them right to it. The great impasse loomed and the building of the wall came to a stop.

“What is it?” said Jim.

“I think it’s a university,” said George. “That there looks like admissions.”

“Can we build through it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Around it?”

“It’s pretty big.”

Just then the gates of the university opened and a man rode out on a white horse.

“I am the Dean of the University of the Place Between the Middle of Nowhere and the Somewhere,” the man said. “What is your business here?”

“We just want to pass through,” Jim said. “We’re building a wall.”

“If you want to get to Somewhere, you have to go through the University. If you want to go through the University, you have to get a Diploma.”

“We don’t want Diplomas,” Jim said. “We just want to pass through.”

“Somewhere can only be reached by those who have Diplomas,” the Dean said. “And to receive a Diploma, you have to give me money.”

“What?! Like, how much money?”

“Lots of it.”

“Well fucking how much?”

The Dean of the University of the Place Between the Middle of Nowhere and Somewhere held up his hands, about three feet apart.

“He wants three feet of money?” George said.

“Three feet per person,” the Dean said.

Jim counted on his fingers.

“So if we get you ninety million feet of money, you’ll give as all Diplomas and we can pass through your University and get to Somewhere?”

“The cost of books is not included,” the Dean said. “There are also administration and athletics fees. And technology fees. And living expenses, such as parking and food.”

“Goddammit how much?”

“Two hundred million feet of pure money,” the Dean said. “I expect it in full no later than two weeks after the day before the beginning of the fall semester.”

The Dean rode his white horse back through the gates and they closed. Jim and George watched and scratched their heads.

“Where we gonna find two hundred million feet of pure money?” George said.

***

The banker spun her pen and clicked it then spun it again and tapped it on her coffee mug. It was a plain coffee mug. She was a plain woman with glasses.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You and all your friends got doped up on amphetamines and built a wall that serves no purpose in the Middle of Nowhere. You crashed your wall into a university, and you want me to give you two hundred million feet of money for diplomas that you neither know how nor intend to use?”

Pure money,” Jim said. “And the dean says the Diplomas will get us to Somewhere.”

“Okay.” She spun her pen and pressed it to the document, paused and looked at Jim over her glasses. “And I have your personal assurance that, following the catastrophic failure of all your ambitions, you will spend the remainder of eternity paying the interest on this loan, in a futile attempt to get back to where you were before you started?”

“Yep,” Jim said.

***

Thirty million people was too many to make the walk, so the University of the Place Between the Middle of Nowhere and Somewhere fired the Diplomas out of T-shirt cannons. The red-ribboned parcels flew through the air like grapeshot. Anthropology Diplomas, Philosophy Diplomas, Liberal Arts and Fine Arts and Commercial Arts and Graphic Design Diplomas. There were Diplomas for Physical Fitness and Taking Pictures. One of the red-ribboned parcels struck Jim in the face and he tore off the ribbon and as he read it his name appeared in black ink.

The University of the Place Between the Middle of Nowhere and Somewhere
The Board of The University of the Place Between the Middle of Nowhere and Somewhere, after verifying the purity of three full feet of his/her money, has conferred upon
JIM
The Degree of
BACHELOR OF ARTS
GENERAL ENGLISH
Together with all the Honors and Privileges belonging to that Degree.

“General English?” Jim said.

“General! Well shit on me.” George stood at attention and saluted. “I got Parks and Recreation.”

“I think it means English in general.” Jim held the paper up to the sky, turned it this way and that, squinted, sniffed it. “I don’t get it. Shouldn’t everybody just have one of these?”

Disappointment and confusion were ubiquitous. Thirty million graduates built a Great Wall through the Middle of Nowhere, and there wasn’t an Engineer among them. No Scientists either. Just a bunch of philosophers and artists. They all seemed to understand at once that a mountain of dex would never bury their shame, and as broken individuals they stumbled off into Somewhere, clutching Diplomas in their anxious fists.

“Hey. Hey.” George jabbed Jim in the ribs. “You’re General Talking, I’m Private Walking. Get it? Parks and Recreation. Get it?”

***

“The drugs didn’t work.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I didn’t get anywhere.”

“It says here you got Somewhere.”

“Well, it turns out Somewhere isn’t any place in particular.”

“So why are you here?”

“I need more drugs.”

“I thought they didn’t work.”

“They don’t.”

“I’m confused.”

“I owe the Bank of Paradise two hundred million feet of pure money. I couldn’t find any English work, but I’m pretty good at stacking bricks now. There’s a guy over on Cloud Fifty-seven with a brick fetish and he pays by the yard. So I need some more drugs.”

“Another wagon?”

“I need at least a truck.”

“Not a problem. So, it says here you were missing your dreams? How are things on that score? Do you still miss them?”

“Not really.”

“Well there you go. I can’t tell you the satisfaction that comes with helping a fellow soul in need. Here’s a prescription for an endless supply of any drug that keeps you productive, a flash-drive  full of NBC sitcoms, and a bucket to scream in. And here’s my card for when it all falls apart again. Good luck to you, Jim.”

“Thanks.”


 

Jim Home

Other Short Stories


Zawning [Short Story, Science Fiction]

Shank rattled down the sidewalk. In some distant and huddled corner of consciousness he remembered what the inside of the city felt like, what it looked like. He looked at himself from that place: the jitter of his eyes, the disheveled clothes, the wild hair, the tweak in his walk. He was repulsive. Dangerous.

He bumped an old woman in furs. She made a noise of surprise, and on seeing him a face of fear and disgust. He barely recognized it as a face. It was more like a residual blur, an afterglow of some strange image he’d never understand. Her poodle yipped as she yanked on its leash and hurried away, and he started laughing. His laugh was insane, and he knew it, and he laughed harder.

People were looking. More faces. More disgust. How does a man fall so far? What did he used to be? Did he used to be anything? The thoughts were his own but seemed to come from elsewhere. The attack confused him, cut his laughter dead, sent him reeling forward.

An alley saved him from the faces and muffled the traffic. His nerves, tense to breaking, loosened. He breathed in the smell of rot and knew he was in the right place. A sign above a rusted door said “The Other Side” and he rapped the hollow metal. The clank of a bolt preceded a pale eye behind a crack and a chain.

“I haven’t seen you in a month.”

“I need to come in. Just let me in. You have to help me.”

“Did you clean the stain?”

“The stain. I am a fucking stain. You’re a paradox. The whole thing is absurdity and it followed me back. I can’t explain it through the cracks. Open the door. Open the door.”

“You don’t look so good.”

“Open the fucking door!”

The crack disappeared, the chain rattled, and the door came open. Shank entered and the hole closed behind him. Before him were the instruments of his madness. He had dreamed of them too. Monitors and grids and panels whose complexity and engineering were far beyond his understanding, they gave the room a strange glow that had once intoxicated him. Now it frightened him. He shuddered.

“I talked to Holly. She said you only made two sessions. Where the hell have you been? We gave you up for roasted.”

There was a parenthetic question mark behind the last. Am I roasted? he wondered.

“I zawned,” he said.

“You . . . zawned?” The incredulity in the voice was drowned in excitement. “It takes people years to – nobody like you has ever – are you sure?”

“It wasn’t a dream.” He turned to Nikolai. “I want to show you.”

The geek’s eyes were wide. “A zawning has never been graphed before. Fuck, Shank, people don’t even think it’s real. You think you copped an image?”

“It’s at least a gigapixel.”

“It ain’t about the damn pixels, man. Anybody can come back with ten gigapixels of foggy shit. You really think you zawned, and came back with a resolved image? I mean, spatially, radiometrically, resolved?”

“Just light me up. You’ve got questions, I’ve got questions, it’s shaking me loose. Just light me up. If it isn’t there, it isn’t there. Maybe it isn’t there. Maybe I’m not here. I’m gonna lose it. You watching this? The whole thing’s melting right the fuck out of my head. Ask me another question.”

“Alright, alright.”

Nikolai wasted no time with the apparatus. For what it did, the thing was pretty simple. Seven nodes attached to the head, they transmitted the data wirelessly to the networked drives. Nine of them, slinging bits and information on the order of a terabyte per nanosecond. It was the cooling that was the suck, and energy wasn’t cheap. Nikolai usually reminded him that every pull cost him a legal month of watts, but this time he just flipped the switch.

The lights flickered and dimmed. The hum of the cooling rods met the hum of the processors, pulsing in a low binaural beat. Shank closed his eyes and called up the image. This was what they called the magic minute. Anybody could dream, but only a few could bring one back, and only a few of the few could render it. And barely any of those could transmit. In the strange glow and invasive rhythm of the machinery, Shank viewed the still from his memory more clearly than his eyes could have seen it. Captured in a dream beyond a dream, enhanced through conscious processes, painted now physically across the synapses of his brain. All else faded away, thoughts became dim then mute then disappeared. The image shuddered once when his fear returned, but even the fear phased out. The world beyond the image dissipated, and the image was everything.

The sensation that occurred as the nodes kicked up their dust storm of neurons was surreal; and with every pull it was newly surreal. It was as if the world became unhinged, and tiny ghosts with stingers attacked from all sides at once. Unseen, unfelt, the prodding force could only be experienced beyond the senses. The assault seemed to last an age. When at last it ended Shank let the image fall and with it some of the memory. He opened his eyes.

Nikolai was at his panel, manipulating the figures on the screen with unconscious dexterity. It was all Greek to Shank. Splatter patterns and algorithms and all sorts of esoteric mathematical jargon bounced around in the display. If he hadn’t seen the results before, he might, like many others, think the whole thing was a parlor trick.

“Here it comes,” said Nikolai.

The back wall shimmered and became white. A wave of black light swept through it, leaving behind a faint pattern of black flecks. Another wave, and another. They came at faster intervals, filling the canvas with black. It was all black. Something was wrong. The image wasn’t coming through. The waves ripped until nothing remained but the deepness of the absence of color. Shank looked into the darkness, not understanding.

“Is this a joke?” said Nikolai. The edge in his voice was fear, and maybe anger.

“It was dark, but it wasn’t that dark. There was horror in the hole, but the disk was made of light. Every color you’ve ever seen. A curling bridge of dust and great storm of white fire, the shadow of the hand that found me. It was there. It’s here. I saw her face. My thoughts are made of color, not this darkness.”

“Get out.”

Shank looked at Nikolai, not seeing him. “My thoughts are made of light,” he said. “My memories are masterpieces.”

“You’re fucking roasted,” Nikolai said. “Forget about the stain, you’re whole brain is fried, man. Who am I going to sell this to, huh? Who the fuck is going to buy an empty piece of fucking nothing?”

Shank replied, but it was an unintelligible mutter. He muttered all the way out the door, down the alley, back into the cracks of the city.

***

The Metroplex was a mountain of glass and metal, ravines and spires. Tar roads trickled through the pits, skyways hovered in the twilight zone, the Church of Man rose up over all, a lonely peak so high it made the tourists dizzy. And orbiting the edifice like a Saturn’s ring a ribbon of Heaven boasted the achievements of the flesh. It was a dreamscape projected onto a stream of particles, built and maintained by the church, the forty-second wonder of the world.

Shank knew the man who dreamed it, a man that used to have an eye for the world. Jon Newton had been among the pioneers of dreamscaping, turning the unknown realms of sleep into the next frontier of expression. He sculpted dreams of diamond oceans, floating cities, falling skies. But then a bishop from the Church of Man slipped a check in his pocket, and now he called himself Wazir and only dreamed of Heaven.

The Church of Man. It brought the bile up, thinking of it. The final resting place for the god of the gaps. The old religions had surrendered to science and reason and the deluge of secularism that came with the second Enlightenment, only to reemerge as a hybrid of humanism and new age mysticism. The clergy wore jeans, the songs had a backbeat, and Jesus was Muhammad was Buddha was Vishnu was the answer to the letter y. Physics, chemistry, biology – they had the how of it, but people still needed a place to go when their bodies gave up the ghost. Escape route, plan B, the way out. Consciousness was the last mystery on earth or in the stars, therefore god. And therefore heaven and Jon Newton’s billion dollar dreams.

Maybe god was in the cards, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was god’s hand reaching out of that darkness, curling its fingers around his mind, giving him this squeeze. Maybe it was the other guy.

Maybe it was me.

Holly and her zawners were on the fifth floor of the church. Through a silent door he found the ocean-blue lobby, pocked with dull-eyed baitfish. They came here to dream because dreaming was the only moral high. The holy LSD. There was a god in the cracks between sleep and death and a cure for existence. Whatever work they did was meaningless, whatever families they had were the same notch of mute. They came here for the numbness.

The receptionist recognized him.

“The artist returns to us,” she said. She had the mystic’s calm, a voice that crawled through time. “He brings a question.”
Heads turned. They knew him here.

“Holly.”

“She makes the dream. Have some tea. The time will pass.”

“I need to see Holly.”

“The time will pass.”

“There isn’t any fucking time!” His fist on the counter was an alien violence. The intrigue of the faithers behind him smelled like plague. He took a breath, lowered his voice. “I have been where you pretend to go. I returned with an image, and the dreamscape was black. There’s a hole in my head and it’s sucking the life out of my eyes and I need to speak to Holly. Now.”

“You projected?”

The voice was in his ear, the lips too close. He turned, and the face was pale with awe. Others came. Faces. Too many faces. They were all flat with wonder, glossed with the oblivion of belief. They surrounded him.

“What did you see?”

“Was there a light?”

“Did it feel like they say? Did it feel like flying?”

Lambs. The folds of the old testaments, dull and willing. He saw the emptiness that built this edifice, the absurdity that furnished and sustained it. All the monuments through the ages, from the Church of Man to the Parthenon, grown brick by brick from these seeds of wish and fear.

He was saved by another door. She stood within its frame, a feminine paradigm and a halo of blue light. The calm these faithers pretended was savage in her. She won through pain what they hoped to purchase through donation.

“Shank,” she said, “Please come inside.”

He followed her.

***

“You are lost.”

“Everybody’s lost. I’m off the plane.”

“You found your way here.”

“You did this to me. You, this place, those people. I came here to get the needle out of my brain, you replaced it with a knife and sent me screaming through the void. I just wanted a pill, something to pop. Something to clean the stain. I didn’t ask for this.”

“For what?”

“Zawning. Your out-of-body freak-show. I don’t believe in this nonsense, I don’t subscribe to magic, I don’t fuck around with prophets and voodoo. I dream, and I paint. There’s nothing mystical about it. I don’t chase angels through the ether. My dreamscapes were smeared, and came here, I found here. They said you’d done it before, gone inside and flushed the pipes. They didn’t say you’d shove a rocket up my ass and aim for the abyss.”

“You believe you’ve zawned?”

“It wasn’t a dream.”

“Can you describe it?”

“Ashes at Midnight. Coal in a Tar-pit. I copped the image and that’s what I pulled. Oblivion.”

“Oblivion?”

“Don’t you get it? It’s impossible. You can’t pull nothing. You can’t pull what you can’t fathom, and nobody can fathom the darkness. Not if you’re blind from birth can you project full absence, because the mind itself is something.”

“And the dream?”

“It wasn’t a dream.”

“The zawn, then.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“I believe you’ve had a transformative experience.”

“Fuck you.”

“I only asked you to describe it.”

“I can’t! It isn’t words. I’m no good with words. Can you describe Picasso? Can you describe a supernova?”

“I could try.”

“I’m not roasted.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You’re thinking it, you’re looking it. I can smell it. Shank’s hit the wall, too much time in lala land, brain-splat, game over. Didn’t come back this time, did I? Buried my soul and shit in the hole.”

“Do you think you’re roasted?”

“I’m not.”

“Then tell me what you saw.”

“Colors. Shapes. The shadow of a hand and the face of beauty. There it is. Picture it if you will.”

“Shank, I can only help you if you’re open.”

“I need to go back. I can’t get back. You have to get me back.”

“Back to what?”

“Back to the hand that found me and the eyes that knew me!”

“Shank – ”

“I was there! I can’t describe it and I can’t prove it and if we were reversed I’d never believe it, but I was there.”

“Shank. Shut up, look directly into my eyes, and do everything I tell you.”

***

Consciousness. Pure and unthinking and ablaze. In high movement above the city it burned with the unbridled positivity of existence without awareness. Then it blinked twice and became afraid.

The city was a gorgeous wound in the earth, its dream of heaven a solemn ring of infection. Around it the skin was flat and smooth until forests or mountains or rivers. The fear became wonder became fear again. A fall from this height was death, and there was a universe to go.

Another blink and Earth was a haloed sphere, wretchedly blue against the white glare of the distant sun. The bleakness of the distance was awful. Earth was a lonely and vulnerable thing, moving at terrible speed through darkness, held to its course by the weakest force in the universe.

A ring of orbiting rocks and mountains, some glistening like diamonds. Tumble weeds blowing through a ghost system. Beyond them the great mass of Jupiter stood like its namesake, its one eye a wandering threat.

Another blink and Saturn was a pale dot and the sun was cold. The Church of Man was a pin prick on a pin prick on a speck of light-stricken dust. The distances were coming in magnitudes and suddenly the sun was just a star. A star among a billion stars. Stars that went shooting past, balls of light that flashed white for a moment and cooled to red as they raced away to punch another hole in the shrinking expansion. Until the flashes became streaks, ribbons of energy bent through time and pointing home.

Then, as if it were the heart ripped out of his chest and dropped from a height, Shank watched the spiral of the galaxy fall away. The whole galaxy, with its legions of stars and men, became a faint glow in the stoic emptiness.

The fear fell with it and he realized he was looking backwards. He turned and discovered that journey had just begun. The void swallowed him. They weren’t stars but galaxies that went streaking past. Embers of the dying fire fighting against the cold and the dark.

And the great darkness loomed. The black disc dominated field and spectrum and sucked existence inwards. A trillion suns made wild orbit, their guts ripped out in whorling torrents and ringing the abyss with a dance of fire. Blue geysers of energy made a violent escape from the belly of the hole and etched a brilliant highway through the absence around it.

Here was the center of things. From this point all points arose.

As before the hand reached out to him. He could feel the consciousness behind it. No other force would dare the demonstration. It was the fifth force, the eyes that made eternal observance and substantiated the others.

But the hand was made of light, and even light surrendered to infinity. The darkness bent it to breaking and swallowed.

When the face emerged it knew him. It moved to speak.

***

“Shank! Shank!”

He was shaking. The eyes were Holly’s.

“Shank, are you there?” She snapped her fingers at him. “Say something.”

“I’m here.” He sat up. He was on the floor, drenched in sweat, and his whole body ached. Holly was frightened. He had never seen her frightened.

“You seized,” she said.

“I have to get to the Other Side,” he said. He tried to stand but his legs were weak and they failed him. “What happened?”

There were faithers in the room. They clutched the walls, afraid to approach, and they looked at him with terrible reverence.
“I’m sorry,” Holly said. “They just . . . came.”

“The Other Side,” he said. “I have the image, Holly. The face at the center of things, at the center of myself, the eyes of darkness and beauty. Nikolai – take me to Nikolai.”

Her hand on his cheek was cool. “You need to rest. Your body is tired.”

Holly. The ages could be traced in the lines of her skin and her voice echoed back from the halls beyond death.

He pushed her away. When he stood, his legs held him. But one of the faithers, tall and glazed, blocked the exit and held up a hand. The calm in him was dumb and the eyes were baked with borrowed dreams.

Shank grabbed a heavy bookend from Holly’s shelf and cracked his faither skull. He cracked it again. Blood ended the mystic playtime and a woman screamed. A final crack and the man fell and Shank stumbled and ran out the door.

The heavy thing, the white ivory in his grip, it was an angel, bowed sublimely with folded wings and splattered red.

***

“Nikolai!” His fist rattled the cheap metal. “Nikolai! I have it! The image is clear! Open the door!”

The bolt, the pale eye and the crack and the chain.

“You’re roasted. Get the fuck out of here.”

“You don’t understand,” Shank said. “I was there. I breathed it. I’m infused. These are the colors of life and the hole is black murder. I have it, Nikolai, and this time it’s real. You have to trust it. You have to risk it.”

“I scrapped a month of watts on your darkness,” Nikolai said. “It’s game over for you, Shank.”

Shank kicked the door. “Explain it then! The image wasn’t smeared, there wasn’t a stain. It was absence, fully resolved. It isn’t supposed to be possible.”

Nikolai said nothing.

“It’s something,” Shank said. He put his face to the crack. The metal was cool. “There’s more of it. I pulled this from the edge, Nikolai. I didn’t cop the lines, they’re seared across my brain. You just have to turn on the machine. This is it. This is the one, the one that puts me back on the map, the one that gets you out of this dive.”

The chain clicked and the door opened. Nikolai wielded two fingers like a dagger and jabbed Shank in the chest.

“You better not be fucking around.”

“Just turn it on. Turn it on, turn it on.”

Seven nodes attached to the head. The cooling and processing thrummed. Shank closed his eyes and brought the image forward and traced its lines with his mind. The magic minute came and the nodes kicked up their storm of neurons, ghosts, and stingers.

When he opened his eyes Nikolai was a blur at his panel. The jargon bounced around his screens like a coded game of pong and the clacking of keys was violent against the hum of the machines. A final clack and the black light began its sweep over the white wall. Patterns emerged, and colors. Colors from a dream that wasn’t a dream.

“What is it?” Nikolai asked.

“You’ll see. Everyone will see,” Shank said.

Every pass of light laid a million flecks. Lines became clear, and then shapes. Shapes that formed a face and the face was Shank’s and it screamed from a hole in the universe. Streams of light and dust shot through the particle miasma and wrapped the hole in a halo of agony and a hand reached out but never touched the stars.

“It’s brilliant,” said Nikolai.

“It wasn’t me,” Shank said. “Where is she? Milk and eyes, Nikolai! This isn’t what I saw. She was beautiful. You fucked it up. What is this? That isn’t me. Where is my masterpiece? What did you do you with my masterpiece?”

The rattling of the door, a thunder from the other side. Nikolai went and opened the crack and the voice came through it like a flood.

“Metroplex Police. Sheldon Banks is wanted for the murder of William Laughlin. We tracked him here. We have a warrant. You can open the door or we can break it down.”

“Murder?”

“Open the door, put your hands on your head, and back away.”

Murder. The red splattered angel and the faither. The face in the hole with the eyes of fear without hope, an elbow against his spine and the taste of concrete and teeth and copper blood.

“My dreams are beautiful. You should have seen my dreams.”

“What the hell is this place?”

“Looks like dreamscaping. Black market, keeps the watts off the grid. You fucked up your friend real good with this back-alley rig, buddy. You’re going down for the juice, and accessory.”

“I barely know this guy! My watts are clean, check the logs!”

Shank had no resistance to give. He was limp as they dragged him.

“I dreamed of purple roses once,” he said. “I dreamed of purple roses that hung from a sheet of sky. The girl, she stood on a blade of grass – she had a face of milk and eyes.”

The officer made a note of it and pushed his head into the car.


 

Limbo Kickstarter

Remember that short film Limbo, based on One Truth Road?  Well, it’s getting made.  Big time.  H. Jon Benjamin (Sterling Archer) is playing Jim.  The kickstarter is set to roll out on Monday, 6/2, but you can sneak in and check it out here:

http://www.limbofilm.com

I’ll be posting updates here and on the main page.  That’s all for now.  If you enjoy the stories, swing by and throw us a fiver and we’ll get you a movie.

***

Update #1 —  6/2 10:30 am

Kickstarter is live, and the first five dollars is in the hole.

***

Update #2 — 6/3 1:40 pm

Up to $2,500.  I’m not familiar with kickstarter, but that seems like an okay way to begin.  The reddit post had some hitches but it was overall pretty successful.  A HUGE thank you to everybody that helped out with your upvotes and social media wizardry (and a few of you even shelled out some cash!)  27 days to go . . .

***

Update #3 — 6/8 10:26 am

Stuck at $3,800.  We’re finding that it’s hard to get people excited about a short film.  Which is understandable – I don’t watch short films all that often myself.  I think some people are also under the impression that short films are profitable, and that by giving to the kickstarter they’re lining somebody’s pockets with money.  But short films have to be real successful just to break even, there just isn’t any money in them, that isn’t why they get made.  They get made, for the most part, by passionate young film makers trying to bust into the business, or who just want to make an awesome little movie.  Fangso and Haines (director and producer) are a little bit of both.  If you’re reading this and it’s still June and you think Jim is fit for the screen, give it a share.  This thing only gets made if people know about it.

***

Update #4 — 6/14  4:38 pm

$7,300.  The number is going up, but it’s looking grim.  We have 16 days to raise 20k.

***

Update #5 — 6/23 10:24 am

$21,500.  Fangso and Haines are pounding the concrete.  With seven days to go we’re 8 thousand from our goal.  Much less grim, but not home yet.

***

FINAL UPDATE — 7/1 7:40 pm

We made it!  $31,404!  Right under the wire.  The film is a go, I’ve exchanged some congratulations with the director, Fangso Liu, and it looks like it’s off to the races.  Will post something more complete soon.  Thank you to everybody who contributed or helped to spread the word.

 

The Devil’s Peace – Part 3 [Jim #10, Short Fiction]

The angel at the docks pointed north and Jim thanked her for the canoe. He rowed for an hour and came to a place where the lake became narrow and snaked between roots and rocks. It opened up into a silent cove. The water looked like a block of metal reflecting the sky, and in the middle of it a small man fished from a wooden raft.

Jim paddled up to him.

“Uh, Mr. Christ?”

The man didn’t move. He sat on his wooden raft with his wooden fishing pole in both hands. He looked at the water.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Christ,” Jim said. “I know you’re retired.”

“I’ve been fishing this spot for three hundred years,” the man said. “Three hundred years, and I haven’t caught a single fish.”

“That sucks,” Jim said.

“If a man casts his pole into a fishless pond, does he deserve to eat?”

Jim had been a long time getting here and he was pretty tired and a little angry. “I’ll be completely honest with you, Mr. Christ, I don’t give a shit and I’m not sorry about it,” he said. “Your followers are ripping Paradise apart, and you’re out here fishing.”

“Josh,” the man said.

“Josh?” Jim knew a Josh back in Tennessee. He was an old drunk with brown teeth and a lazy eye. “Alright, Josh. I’m Jim.”

“I’m glad to meet you, Jim,” said Josh. “But the politics of Paradise no longer interest me.”

“The fuck they don’t!” Jim said. Then he realized he just said fuck at Jesus – or Josh – and he pulled back. “Sorry, maybe that’s not called for. But you’re the guy at the center of the whole thing. They’re all fighting for different versions of you.”

“No they aren’t.”

“Yes they are.”

“Not really.”

“Goddammit they are!”

“People would rather die for the things they can’t see, than live with the ones they can,” said Josh. “One look at me, and they’ll just go die for something else.”

“That’s the problem. Nobody’s dying,” Jim said. “And isn’t that why you died?”

Josh laughed. It was a deep one from the gut.

“Well I’m glad you think it’s funny.”

“Give it a few thousand years and it will be,” Josh said. “I told her those barriers were a bad idea. What finally brought them down?”

“It’s not important,” Jim said. “They’re down and nobody is special anymore and they’re pissed off about it. I came here to convince you to talk to them.”

“What did you do in life?”

“What?”

“What work did you do? How did you eat?”

“Well, I don’t know, I just worked. Welding was good money. I did some roofing and drywalling. I don’t follow you.”

“We are not so different,” Josh said. “I also just worked. Mending ploughs, building houses. I even did some roofing.” He paused and looked Jim in the eye for the first time. “Would you give another man the road because he had clean hands? Would you accept the sting of his whip because you didn’t give it fast enough?”

Jim cringed. This was the rubbery shit that kept him away from church.

“No,” he said. “I’d pull him off his horse and beat him to hell.”

“Well, we had hammers and empty stomachs, and the Romans had armor and swords. They were chosen by many colorful gods and we were slaves to a black one. So one day, after three Roman soldiers raped and killed a friend of mine, I stood on a crate and said, I am a son of God.”

Jim followed Josh’s gaze. The fishing line disappeared into the plate surface of the water. He expected the line to jerk at any moment, and Josh to finally catch his fish, but the surface never broke.

“Between the Aramaic of the people,” Josh said, “and the Hebrew of the scholars, and the Greek of the Romans, the a became a the. Articles don’t translate so well. I became the son of God, and a few years later the fuckers nailed me to a cross.”

It was Jim’s turn to laugh. He nearly capsized.

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Josh said.

“The Articles of Faith!” Jim said. “I get it now.”

“I can’t help you.”

“Seriously though, you’ve got to give me something. I came a long way.”

“Work.”

“What?”

“You said you were a roofer. The firmament is a roof.”

“There’s war in Paradise because the devil lied, and now that the lie is broken the advice of Jesus Christ is that I board it up?”

“My name is Josh,” Josh said.

Jim was at the edge of the cove and still shaking his head when Josh called out some parting words.

“Jim! Before you cast off, make sure there’s fish!”

***

With a bag full of nails, a good hammer, and planks of wood donated by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, Jim went to work. One nail, one board at a time. He started where the crack in the firmament met the ground and worked his way up. He doubted that Josh’s advice had been sincere, but he didn’t care. It felt good to work. Hell, maybe that was the point.

He worked for a long time. Days, weeks, a year. Hundreds of boards and thousands of nails. He didn’t eat and he didn’t sleep. He didn’t look up because it discouraged him, he didn’t look down because he didn’t care for heights. He looked at his hands and the place where the hammer met the nail.

Beneath him the strange sound of a strange war pushed him upward.

But one day the hammer broke and he looked around. He was a mile high over a shredded wonderland. His labor trailed behind him like a dead rainbow. He looked up and saw that he had the whole sky to go.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” he said.

“Jim!”

A friendly and wise old face popped in through the crack in the firmament. Wild hair and the blaze of intelligence.

“You goddamn crazy hillbilly!” Einstein said. “You can’t fix the sky with wood!”

“Yeah, well your dice didn’t work for shit, either.”

Einstein barked a laugh and pulled himself up and mounted the firmament like a horse.

“I’ll make it make it up to you.”

“Yeah?”

“This breach is distorting my antiverse, too. And I think I’ve figured a way to patch it.”

“Alright.”

“Do you remember when you pushed me, Jim? The power of thought and the expansion of Paradise? Well, it turns out that thought travels through the vacuum at exactly the speed of light. This isn’t too surprising, but it gives rise to some wacky results, the most obvious of which is most pertinent. The object of thought is immediately real, but our experience of it is delayed by the intervening distance over c. Everything we dream up exists for a substantial amount of time before we can even see it.”

Jim understood none of it. “I think I preferred Jesus,” he said.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Anyway, I’ve examined what’s left of these barriers, and I believe I understand their function. They refract the light as it returns from the object of thought, and whoever originated the thought receives only the frequencies and colors that satisfy the preconceptions of the original. Unwanted information is essentially filtered out, scattered like a prism. It’s simple and ingenious, but I believe I can improve upon it.”

“Listen, I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I’m at the end of the line here,” Jim said. “You’re talking to me because you think you can fix this thing but you need an extra pair of hands. Well, hands are the only fucking thing I got. Give them something to do. I’ll do it.”

“It’s the particles, Jim,” Einstein said, “They’re goddamn crazier than you are.” He poked wild holes in the air with his index fingers. “As soon as you know where one is, it’s somewhere else, in from the wrong direction and out at unknown speeds. We need to make waves, Jim. Waves!” He made waves with his arms. “Wonderful predictable waves!”

“I don’t know how to make waves,” Jim said.

“I’m going to implode the dark star behind me and send out a wave of anti charm-quarks,” Einstein said. “And along this breach I’ll shoot a hyper-frequency energy beam. The energy in the beam must be concentrated in waves. Any particles will rip the guts out of the anti charm-quarks. That’s where you come in.”

“Of course it is.”

“We need a distraction.”

“You want me to distract the particles?”

“The people, the war, you need to distract all potential observers. Matter and energy come in waves until a somebody takes a look, then they freak out and have a particle party. If a single person down there looks up at the energy beam, its waves will particulize and the jig’s up.”

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Take this walkie-talkie. Contact me when the distraction is in play.”

“You’re fucking with me.”

“I didn’t believe it until I was dead,” Einstein said, slipping back into the antiverse. “Do you know the difference between science and religion, Jim?”

“Kind of.”

“Results! Get me that distraction, and I’ll get us a barrier.”

***

Jim did his best to explain the situation. He left out the part about his atomic ejaculate and failed at explaining particle/wave duality, but he got the important stuff. The firmament had cracked, and fixing it required the distraction of a billion warring Christians.

“I won’t do it,” Hitler said.

“Oh come on,” Jim said.

“It is not a good idea.”

Hitler sat in a soft leather recliner. His pineapple pina colada had a pink umbrella. Some true crime novels lay on the table. It looked like vacation, but his fists were clenched on the armrests and his eyes were pale and serious.

“I am relaxed now,” Hitler said. “I golf. I tell jokes. I read interesting articles.”

“You don’t look relaxed.”

“I am learning.”

Jim looked at his hands. Why couldn’t he just do something with his hands?

“You instigated the biggest war in history,” he said.

“I did.”

“And maybe up here you don’t get any credit, but like a hundred million people died.”

“There was a lot of death.”

“I bet a lot of them still think you’re kind of a prick.”

Hitler pounded his fist on the table and spilled his pineapple pina colada.

“I am given neither the recognition of my conquest nor the forgiveness of the conquered!” he said. “It isn’t fair!”

“Well then let’s flip it on them,” Jim said. “Go out there, talk some shit with that silver Nazi tongue, and save the fucking day!”

Hitler stood.

“Just give me a microphone,” he said. “I will unite the birds against the sky.”

***

Einstein. Einstein. Are you there?

Jim! I am in orbit around the dark star. The apparatus is fully operational. Is the distraction in play?

It’s ready, but it might take some time.

After detonation, it will take two minutes for the anti charm-quark wave to reach the energy beam. Not a single person can witness it. No observers! Our timing must be perfect.

Do not detonate until I give the word. I repeat, Do not detonate.

What is the distraction? Fireworks? A John Wayne movie?

Uh, well, not exactly. Would that have worked?

Anything that draws the eye. We only need a picosecond. What is in play?

I went with Hitler.

What?! You goddamn crazy hillbilly!

***

Hitler stood on the shoulders of a smirking angel. He tapped the microphone, and the thud echoed through the sound system of Paradise. There was a wang of feedback and he cleared his throat.

“The – enemy – is –not – here!” he said. He said it several more times, until some of the fighting around him stopped and he had a small audience.

Jim watched from a safe distance, binoculars in one hand and Einstein’s walkie talkie in the other. The small audience became a fashionable one in a matter of minutes. Mostly Orthodox, but some Anglicans and even Lutherans looked on with interest. At first they seemed mildly amused, glad for a break from the war. But Hitler spoke with a hard rhythm and punctuated with his fists and pretty soon they were punctuating with him.

Hitler really deserves some credit for all that death, Jim thought.

When the Catholics came the sounds of war stopped. They outnumbered the others by far. Methodists, Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Evangelists, Congregationalists, Pentecostalists – all dwarfed by the Catholic hoard. Billions surrounded Hitler, high on the shoulders of the smirking angel.

The Presbyterian Church of Canada was the last to arrive. They brought enough cake for everyone.

Hitler had yet to say anything of substance. Given the full attention of every Christian in Paradise he drew in a breath and cracked his knuckles. A second smirking angel came down from the sky bearing an empty canvas. Hitler raised a brush and rounded out his speech.

“The – enemy – is – not – here! There is – another – barrier! The enemy – lies – in wait! I – will bring – the enemy – to us! I – will paint – Mohammed!”

“Oh shit,” Jim said.

***

Einstein! Now! Fire! Fire!

What’s happening down there?

Hitler is painting Mohammed! I don’t know jack shit about Islam, but you don’t fucking paint Mohammed.

Dammit, hillbilly. Elvis, you could have called up Elvis. Alright, we have detonation. Two minutes to arrival.

Can you make it go faster?

Anti charm-quarks do not have a gas pedal.

He’s got the outline of the face.

One minute, forty seconds.

Is that a nose? I think it’s a nose.

And thirty seconds.

You know, he’s pretty good. It’s kind of sad how good he is.

And fifteen seconds.

The lips are taking shape.

One minute remaining to impact. Is the distraction complete? A single observer, Jim! A single eye looking up and the waves of the energy beam will collapse!

Nobody’s turning away from this shit. He’s working on the eyes.

Forty seconds.

The eyes are fucking brilliant. I almost want him to finish. It’s like, they’re looking through me, man.

Twenty seconds. Jim, if this works, there will be an immense burst of light. Following the burst –

He’s on the ears. All he’s got left is ears. I think he’s going to do it. Holy fuck!

***

FLASH

***

Jim? Jim, come in! Jim, did it work? Damn you hillbilly, what’s going on down there?

I’m – I’m here.

Did it work?

Well, Hitler finished his painting and the whole nation of Islam blitzed in from a new breach. But I think it worked. There was a huge burst of light. Something’s weird though.

What is it? Can they see each other? They should not be able to see each other.

It’s like, the opposite.

Sonofabitch. A million pole dancers in Paradise, and you give Hitler a paintbrush.

No, it’s awesome. We can see each other’s thoughts. I can’t explain it, but . . . I don’t know, it’s like we’re all looking inside each other, but on the outside. And it’s fucking crazy because we’re all thinking the same things. Wait, no, there’s some Mormons thinking something different. Everybody’s looking at them. Oh man they’re super embarrassed. I can feel it, it’s horrible. And we’re empathizing . . . alright, they’re cool. Yeah, turns out we all think the same shit. It just got real friendly down here.

Results!

***

Jim found Lucy on a low-hanging cloud. She was all Lucy now and there were bags under her eyes. Jim said nothing and stood beside her.

The throng of all religions was peaceful but stirring. The spectacle of oneness had lost its charm, and it looked like they might start to go at it again.

Then it began to rain fish.

“Are you doing that?” Jim said.

“Nope,” Lucy said.

Jim pulled out the walkie talkie.

“Einstein, it’s raining fish.”

“Is that some kind of hillbilly riddle?”

“No, it’s raining fish. Does that have anything to do with the energy beam?”

“Well, in theory, if enough neutrinos from the antiverse run up against the quark barrier with sufficient simultaneity, any number of strange physical phenomena could be localized there. Fish rain is a bizarre, but possible, outcome.”

The fish fell and fell. Big juicy happy fish. Children played with them, waving the fish around like swords and beating each other silly. Many of the fish were cooked and eaten. Some of the fish landed in water and were fished again. And the fish kept falling. There were rivers and pools that were nothing but floppy and happy fish. The fish were knee high in some places and waist high in others. Grown men made fish angels and fish snowmen and competed at fish throwing and fish juggling and some of them even tried to sell the fish.

Where oneness by itself fell short of peace, the rain of countless fish fell long of war.

“You know what Jesus said to me?” Jim said.

Lucy stopped him with a hand.

“I don’t care,” she said. “I just need a drink.”


Jim Home

 

 

The Devil’s Peace – Part 2 [Jim #9, Short Fiction]

This is Christopher Hitchens, reporting dead from the godless soup of eternity. Approximately ten hours ago – ten hours relative to what remains unclear – the atomic ejaculate of a Tennessee man cracked the Christian firmaments and the myriad zealots of Christ are swarming. The nest has been stirred, comrades and friends, and they’ve taken to the clouds with Bible, fist, and tongue. The Bible, one supposes, is for bludgeoning; the fist is a reminder – a rather pedestrian one – of the glory of the ever-vacationing Jehovah; and the purpose of the Christian tongue remains scientifically mysterious. If it’s on your bucket list – as impossible as such a list may seem in this Cartesian infinity – but if you have one, and it includes proselytization or purification, catechism or communion, inculcation or inquisition, this is the place to be.

And I have the dubious honor of interviewing the man that frenzied these ridiculous sheep – these hairless and sadomasochistic and sexually inverted apes. Jim, thanks for dropping in.

Yeah. No problem.

You look pretty good for the epicenter of a holy war.

Thanks.

Do you have a god in the race, Jim?

No. I was never religious. My aunt was a Baptist though. I wouldn’t bet on the Baptists.

To bet on any particular sect of this deranged cult, of this outdated menagerie of demagogues and faith-mongers – it’s a bet on a lame horse. A dead horse. A dead lame and plaintive horse. Only the religious would make it.

I guess they might. Or they do.

I have it here that you were even present for the diplomacies.

I was.

Well? Perhaps you could give us the upshot.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, man.

Give us the old college try.

Alright, well uh . . . The devil – or, the woman that introduced herself as the devil – she’s transgender – she came to me in tears and said me and Cherry brought down the barrier. Evidently the angels put up this barrier so the different kinds of Christians couldn’t see each other. That’s part of their Paradise, I guess, is knowing they’re the ones that got it right. Cherry’s the girl I’m seeing, by the way. As far as you can see a girl around here, I guess. Anyway, we had this epic fifteen-rounder and blasted a hole in the, uh – what did you call it? The firmament. So the barrier came down. Lucy – that’s the devil’s name, short for Lucifer – she tells me I broke it so I’ve got to help fix it. Only out of nowhere she turns into Gabriella because these Christians won’t do any deals with the devil. So I’m like, Well what the hell, are you the devil or some kind of angel? She won’t say. It’s all part of the Truth, I guess. Well, we get up to the cloud and Gabriella gives these Christians the bad news. You know, that we’re all just kind of here and there’s a lot of relativism going around. What did she say? She said we’ve got a whole ocean to swim around in and everybody wants to fight over a drop. And that totally floored me – I never thought of it like that before. And it went right past these guys. I couldn’t believe it. Like she laid it right out. Then the Protestant dude found out Pope John Twenty was a counting error and it all went to hell.

What an utterly useless response. If it was of any importance I’d call it tragic. To those of you still with us, I salute your resilience and I’m humbled by your endurance. I’ll try to reward it with a retelling – with an editorial – worthy of the auditory canals. Though I doubt the irony can be missed by anybody, there are some important subtleties that I think might escape the first glance. It’s fairly well established – the one-two punch of sexual repression and deviancy that infests the institutions of religion – Hey! You can’t come in here! I’m a journalist! We’re protected under international –

***

The Anglican sheathed his sword, apologized to Jim for the intrusion, and departed. Christopher’s head lay on the desk next to a decanter of red wine and a half-empty glass. His body lay crumpled on the floor.

“I’m under the impression he hasn’t read the articles of the Geneva Convention,” the head said.

Outside the clangs and bangs of war were getting louder. It sounded like some cavalry charging into modern artillery. Jim watched the journalist’s head biting at the stem of the wine glass, and he realized that nobody was going to die up here.

“Are they going to fight forever?” he said.

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll come to an agreement before eternity’s end,” said Christopher’s head. “Even the religious can’t escape the strangeness of infinity. If it can happen, it will.” He curled his tongue around the stem, yawed back and forth and then gave up. “Do me a favor?”

Jim picked up the glass and poured some of the wine into Christopher’s waiting mouth.

“Why can’t they all just be special together?” Jim said.

“The war of the ages is being fought all around me, and I’m trapped in a windowless room with an autistic pacifist,” Christopher said. “Let me try it this way. We’re pattern-seekers, Jim. Nothing thrills us more than the seventh note of a scale followed by the eighth. It’s coded into our genetics through a hundred thousand years of evolution and survival. To understand is to bring order to chaos, and there is no order here. And in the absence of order the reptilian brain will invent one, and it will smash a million square pegs through the proverbial round hole to maintain it. You’re simple so I’ll put even more plainly: These men invented God that they might shovel all their doubts up his ass, and your coital nuke stabbed Him in the guts and now it’s raining shit.”

“Pattern seekers?”

“Fuck me.”

“Well, help me out then. Because what you just laid out sounds like a pattern.”

“Some patterns exist. One example of false pattern recognition doesn’t convict the thought processes of the entire species.”

“You’re an atheist.”

“By default.”

“So where do the angels fit? This place? An atheist in Paradise is a contradiction.”

“I have certain suspicions in that regard. The ever-expanding thought-reality of this place is reminiscent of Lewis – Hell is a state of mind – I’m sure even you’ve heard that before. This freedom-loving devil sounds an awful lot like she walked out of the pages of Paradise Lost, and all this gallivanting around with dead celebrities is straight out of the pages of Dante. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. I scarcely need to mention the central conflict, this Paradise-sans-Truth tension, a trope as old and quaint as Eden. Throw in the haphazard philosophizing, the hipster pseudo-irony and the cheap jokes – It’s almost as if some publicly educated and unemployed ass is having literary spasms.”

Christopher looked directly at me and I blushed. I looked down at my keyboard and traced the lines of the letters with my eyes and considered all the words I’d ever typed and wondered why I bothered. I stepped outside and smoked a cigarette while I watched the squirrels climbing through the trees. I poured myself another coffee. I thought about quitting. I decided not to, and when I returned I fully expected to martyr myself on the edges of Christopher’s rhetoric. Thankfully, by the time I sat down he had already moved on.

“As for the angels,” he said, “If apes can graduate, so too can men. It would be a cosmic travesty if we were evolution’s end.”

“So everybody’s got a pattern for everything,” Jim said. He stole a drink from the glass and nearly spit it back out. “Ugh, that’s bitter.”

“It’s Amarone.”

“It’s bitter.” He set the glass down. “So what do we do? Nothing?”

“Carry me,” Christopher said.

“What?”

“I don’t need a body to give these demagogues what-for. Even the invicted heart draws blood from the brain. Reason, Jim! We’ll divest them of these superstitions with reason, with the dynamics of logic and argument. From the mud to the clouds and beyond the stars, we scour the fields of battle with the ink of a thousand years of secular thought. Carry me, Jim! I’ll eat in Paradise what I merely disdained on Earth.”

Jim squatted and looked into Christopher’s eyes. “I don’t think it’ll work,” Jim said.

“Carry me.”

“I’d rather not.” He stood and made for the door.

“Jim! What humanity lost through submission it will win back with irony! Mark those words, Jim. One day!”

***

Jim wandered. Feats of violence and insanity surrounded him. He saw the pointy hat of a bishop wobbling in the hatch of a Sherman tank, rolling at the head of a legion armed with shovels and pitchforks. Why, from the unbounded armories of Paradise, would a man choose a shovel? Jim didn’t even bother himself with it. Great volleys of arrows were exchanged between the clouds and artillery shells whistled and cut open the hills. Angels kept a loose perimeter on the ground and in the sky. Some of them appeared confused and sincerely concerned, but most were pointing and laughing and having a pretty good time.

The crack in the firmament hung over the war and glowed inversely.

He came to a place between three hills, sheltered by trees and a river. It was open and flat and filled with thousands of peaceful people. They sat in groups and talked and nibbled. A few walked about and handed out pamphlets. A middle-aged woman in a conservative summer dress met him as he entered.

“Welcome,” she said.

“What is this place?” Jim said. “There’s a war going on, you know.”

“Well, we are the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and we’d much rather have a picnic,” she said. “Would you like some juice or some coffee? There will be some cake and cookies afterwards. I could introduce you to some boys – oh excuse me. Men. You aren’t boys anymore, are you? My son is about your age.”

“Afterwards of what?” Jim said. He made his suspicions known with a squint.

“Oh, we have a very special speaker.” She leaned in and spoke confidentially, “It’s top secret, but I’ll give you a hint. His name is John Calvin.”

The name didn’t mean anything to Jim, but he thought he better act impressed. “Holy buckets,” he said. He retained the squint.

“The holiest,” she said. “Can I bring you to my son? The two of you will get on just great.”

“Sure.”

She led him to a small group that stood at the edge of the gathering. She introduced them and Jim introduced himself and she left. Her son had a thick shoulders and a good handshake and he wasn’t wearing a vest. Jim liked him, and the liking intensified his suspicions.

“So Jim,” Michael said, “Are you looking to buy something or just hiding from the weather?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you have any interest in becoming a Presbyterian?”

“Oh, well, not really. I’m not very religious.”

“That’s quite alright, Jim. No worries, really. You know, I’ve got this theory about Jesus. Don’t shove Him down anybody’s throat, and He won’t fly out of anybody’s ass.” He slapped Jim on the shoulder. “Are you alright? Looks like you’ve got something in your eye.”

Jim had squinted his face into a walnut. He relaxed it a little. “You seem alright,” he said.

When John Calvin arrived he elevated himself on a tree stump and the talking and nibbling came to a polite pause. He spoke for twenty minutes. He condemned the war but not those who fought in it. He asked everyone to pray for their misguided brothers and sisters. He spoke simply and eloquently about the difficulties of moral absolutes and the strangeness of infinity. As he neared the end of his speech, and he said there remained but one theological problem to resolve, Jim was hanging on his words.

Maybe I’m a Presbyterian, Jim thought. He was squintless.

“As we know,” John Calvin said, “God in His wisdom and His mercy has granted Grace Everlasting to some of us, and Damnation to others. We are all mortally bound to the Original Sin and we share equally the depravity of the Human Condition, and His choice has nothing to do with our little world, and everything to do with His mercy. The difficulty we face, following the crack in the Firmament – ”

Jim shrank.

“ – is that everyone is now in Paradise. It has been established theologically that this is not the will of the Creator, and something must be done.

“Lacking the authority to deliver Damnation, and being naturally opposed to it for the frailty of our Condition, there is but one path to Reconciliation with God. Half of our number must sit uncomfortably in chilled buckets of water until the Firmament is mended. We shall make this sacrifice in shifts not less than twelve and not exceeding forty days. And if there any anemics here, or any other persons ill-disposed to chilled buckets of water, please give your name to Mrs. Roy at the front desk. We thank God for His Patience and for giving us this Wisdom. Amen.”

Michael stopped Jim at the exit.

“Jim! At least stay and finish the cake. There’s a whole half left!”

“It’s too sweet,” Jim said.

***

She sat in a mortar hole, her back against the charred and blasted ground. Light played across her through the branches of a broken tree. She was Gabriella where the light touched her, and Lucy in the shade.

“They love this war,” she said.

Jim sat down next to her. The ground was still warm from the explosion.

“They love it more than the lie. They will never stop fighting.”

“I think the ones that aren’t fighting scare me the most,” Jim said. “You know, I swear there’s a guy that could set everybody straight.”

“I made a promise,” she said.

The ground shook beneath sound of faraway devastation. There were shouts, and someone blew a battle horn that belonged in a fantasy novel.

“How long can the angels contain it?”

“Not forever,” she said. She turned to him, and the light made a diagonal cut through her face. A sad eye for the angel and fury in the devil’s. “What do I do, Jim? Break a promise made to a friend, or let this war of fools consume Paradise?”

Jim sighed like a blowfish and shrugged.

With the painted fingers of the devil she pulled from the angel’s pocket a folded and tattered paper, yellowed with age. She handed it to Jim and he unfolded it. It was a map of Paradise, marked neatly with triangle mountains, curving rivers, loops for clouds, dotted cities. Left of center was scrawled an X, with the caption, Christ be here.

“Well, that settles it then,” Jim said, standing. “It’s time to find Jesus.”

 

_____________________________________

Jim Home

Intermission [Not a Story]

It was my intention to keep this blog strictly fiction, every inch of content nothing but stories.  But the more I look into this world of blogs the more it seems like kind of a silly and unrealistic goal.  I think it’s alright if this one is mostly stories.

First, I want to thank everybody that’s been stopping by to read the Jim series.  Getting around 40 visitors every day, which is infinitely more than zero and plenty to keep me going.  Considering the saturation of the blog-sphere and the fiction markets it’s amazing that anybody is finding this place at all.  And a few of you are actually bothering to read this.  And I think that’s kinda neat.

Second, there’s a possible short film in the making that’s based on the 1 Truth Road story.  The project is in the preliminary stages, and it’s a coin flip as to whether it gets made, but when they sent me this poster I just had to share it with you guys:

Poster-4

Obviously, the working title of the film is Limbo.  I like it because it’s direct, and people can grab it and know what they’re getting into.  (Well, aside from the transgender devil and the chicken wing orgasms.)  I don’t like it because it seems very Catholic.  What do you guys think?

Last, there will definitely be an illustrated Jim novella when all is said and done.  I started blogging Jim because I wanted to throw shit at the wall and see what stuck, and I’m pretty close to having the central story and character built.  It will be months before it happens, but it will happen.

So, with some luck this dead guy from Tennessee will get himself a movie and a book in the coming months.  Which ain’t so bad.  At any rate, The Devil’s Peace Parts 2 and 3 will get posted soon.

Thanks for reading.

 

The Devil’s Peace – Part 1 [Jim #8, Short Fiction]

Jim stood and stretched. The house was gone and the Paradise around them was flat and gray. Above them the mushroom cloud looked like an inverse tornado. He looked at his penis.

“How many megatons do you think that was?” Jim said.

Cherry lay on her back, nearly comatose.

“A lot,” she said. Her breasts were pink beneath the fallout. If she ever moved again, there would be an imprint of an angel in the ashes.

“Do you ever feel like we’re overdoing it?” Jim said.

Cherry didn’t answer. Jim caught a flake of ash in his palm and watched it dissolve.

Out over the flatness a jagged light broke the sky. It was bright and Jim shielded his eyes. A tremor swam through the ground.

“Are you there?”

“I’m here.”

“What was that?”

“It wasn’t me.”

Then the air shimmered and warbled and out of the hole walked the devil. Jim thought at first that the face was painted, but it was mascara. She was weeping.

***

“They are so cruel to me,” she said. “Why are they so cruel? What have I ever done but give them freedom and happiness? By what rights do they accuse me? I work – so – hard – ”

Her voice quivered and her hands shook.  There was rage beneath the sadness.

Jim had always been terrified of emotional women, and this one was the devil.  He gulped and looked to Cherry for help but she was glazed and dumb.

“What happened?” he said.

Lucy walked at him. Jim thought it was all over, that he’d pissed off the devil and hell had found him at last. Instead, she buried her face in his neck and cried.

“What am I going to do?” she said. “What can I do, Jim? The barrier is broken. There will be war. I hate the wars of men. It’s the blood, I can’t stand it.”

Jim held her and let her cry. “It’s okay,” he said.

“I give and I give and I give and it’s never enough or maybe it’s too much I don’t know I just work so hard and now everybody’s going to hate me. They’re going to hate me and all I ever did was give them everything they ever wanted and they won’t stop until it’s all gone everything I worked for,” she said into his neck.

He patted her back and said shhhh.

Another tremor rolled through and the jagged light flared above the bleakness.

“What did I do?” he said.

Lucy pulled her face from his neck and set her eyes into his. They were beautiful and timeless and bleary. Her hand on his cheek put warmth in his bones.

Jim,” she said. “So reckless and innocent.”

He kissed her. It was reflex. When it was over Lucy laughed and wiped some of the mascara from her eyes.

“I’m quite the devil, aren’t I?”

“You’re a beautiful devil.”

“And you’re very sweet.”

“Did I really break Paradise?”

“Paradise is yours to break.”

“Ughh,” Cherry said. “Get a fucking room.”

The rebuke stabbed Lucy in the chest. She looked staggered. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and opened different ones. “She’s right,” she said.

Her transformation was swift and Jim stood looking at a professional and determined woman in white heels, skirt, and blazer. And he was covered in a suit and tie. He made a question mark with his face.

“You’re going to help me fix this,” she said.

“I still don’t understand what’s broken.”

“With the barrier down, the Christians can see each other.”

That didn’t make enough sense to Jim. He furrowed the question mark.

“They needed to gloat, so I let them gloat,” she said. “They were all very special until about ten minutes ago, and they will not like this equality.”

Jim looked at his tie. He flopped it around. “I don’t know,” he said. “This sounds like a job for Jesus.”

“He retired.”

“What?! Why?”

“You’re about to find out.”

A shimmer and a warble and the air opened up. Lucy checked her complexion in a pocket mirror.

“And Jim, they know me as Gabriella. Say nothing about the devil.”

“Okay. Wait. Which are you?”

Her smile was coy. They went through the hole.

***

The cloud was furnished with a round table and some chairs and an 18th century neoclassical Venetian chandelier. In the chairs sat Martin Luther, Pope John XX, King Henry VIII, Saint Paul, and Joseph Smith. Gabriella claimed the final chair and Jim stood behind her.

“Thank you for coming,” Gabriella said. Her white blazer glimmered. “You are all aware of this by now, but I will say it plainly so there is no mistake. Everybody goes to heaven, and heaven is uniformly wonderful.”

There was some silence. King Henry coughed but his heart wasn’t in it. Martin Luther stood.

“Let me be the first to welcome this news, and to praise God in His mercy and His wisdom. It brings joy to my heart that the entirety of the human spirit is given this plane to thrive upon. I have ever contended for a democratic eternity, tempered by the dominion of a merciful Master, and all Protestants glory in this new brotherhood.”

Luther retrieved a stack of papers from under his seat and thudded them on the table. They were a foot high.

“And I formally submit this petition, signed by one hundred millions, demanding that the Catholics be evicted immediately.”

Hurrrrr hurrrrr hurrr,” said Pope John XX. “One hundred millions. Hurrrr hurrr hurrr.”

“They are honest millions!” Luther said. “I would take any individual among them against all of your corrupted legions!”

Gabriella accepted the petition and coaxed Luther back into his seat. She informed him that there would be no evictions.

“Everybody goes to heaven,” she said again. “It was decided a long time ago that Earth is a hard place with an obstructed view, and it’s unfair to expect people to get anything right. If entry were contingent upon rightness, the place would be empty. Every one of you is here because none of you are right.”

“Proverbs thirteen verse three,” Saint Paul said. Arms folded, head bowed. “He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life; but he that openeth his lips shall have destruction.”

“Very good, Paul,” Gabriella said. She threw him a treat and he ate it. “It may have been a mistake to veil this relativism. It may be that the orders of angels have purchased your happiness with an awful hubris. But the barriers were built and you were given your time to gloat. That time is finished. Now that you see one another you have two options: Join together and celebrate your failures, or fight for nothing.”

“Hubris,” said the Pope. “Hurrr hurrrr hurrrr.”

“This man cannot be retained in heaven! King Henry, surely you have no love for these vicars.”

“Ay, these wonky twats been on the piss for yonks,” King Henry said. “All smart for God but they go arse over tit for an Irish penny. Never been a Pope that didn’t beggar the poor cunts that fagged around for him. Give England a sword if it’s a buggered Pope that stiffs you.”

“What?”

“It means ay. Fuck Rome.”

Hurrr hurrr hurrrrrrr.”

“Imposter!”

It was the first word to come out of Joseph Smith’s mouth. All eyes snapped to him.

“There is no Pope John Twenty,” he said. He stood and brandished a tablet. “It says right here on Wikipedia. There is a Pope John Nineteen, and a Pope John Twenty-one, but due to an accounting error they skipped John Twenty!”

“Ha!” King Henry pounded the table with his fist. “Counting Popes is a mug’s game, any road. Can’t build a cathedral with holy bell-ends. Fuck the Popes, count the shillings! Yaa haa harr!”

“ENOUGH!”

Gabriella stood and her beauty and fury diminished everything. Jim stepped back, afraid to be near it.

“Are these trivialities not yet beneath you?” she said. “Even here, in the seats of Paradise, will you squabble over small ideas and circumstantial prejudice? Existence itself stretches out before you in all of its eternal possibility, and this is where you sit, and these are your discussions. The world that sorrowed you is a drop in the ocean. In recompense I give you the ocean, and you fight over the drop.”

She breathed and shook. Jim could not believe this was the same woman that welcomed him to Paradise with a blowjob.

“There is only one question that should concern you,” she said. “Why must angels lie to keep the peace in heaven?”

The air shimmered and warbled and she stepped through the hole and was gone, devil or angel. Jim stood forgotten on the cloud of war that he had nutted.

***

When Jim looked back to the table, Joseph Smith was crouched like a cat behind the Pope. He pounced and snatched off the vicar’s hat. There was nothing underneath it.

“Pope Fishbowl the First!” King Henry laughed.

Jim gaped. The words that nearly brought him to his knees had no effect on these men. That, and the Pope’s head was hollow.

Joseph Smith had his nose in the papal cap. “There’s something in here!” he said. The cap echoed, something in here, in here, here.

“If you pull another Testament out of there,” Luther said, “I’ll see that you eat every doorbell in Paradise.”

Smith reached into the papal cap. It required the full length of his arm and his face puckered with effort. When he withdrew his hand it held a single sheet of paper. He read,

“By the time you read this, we will have won the war. Hurrr hurrr hurrr.”

“It’s a rouse!” Luther jumped from his seat.

“Sabbing bastards!” King Henry drew his sword and slew the falsely numbered Pope.

Luther whistled and a silver osprey flew forth. “Black smoke!” he said and leapt on the bird. “Black smoke forever more!”  He flew.

Joseph Smith unchained his bicycle and pedaled away.

King Henry mounted his steed and approached Jim and towered over him. “That’s a right stonker in those yankee breeches. Wield it for England and I’ll grant you all the fadges north of Leeds.”

“No thanks,” Jim said, and the king insulted him severally and galloped off.

Jim looked around and found the elevator. He held the door for Saint Paul, who entered slowly, arms crossed and head bowed. The glass door closed and soft jazz fueled the descent.

“Corinthians six, verse three,” the saint said. “Know ye not that we shall judge the angels?”

“I don’t have any treats,” Jim said.

The saint let fall a single tear, and the 18th century neoclassical Venetian chandelier rose out of view.

 

_____________________________

Next Jim Story

Jim Home

I Hate Myself and I Can’t Die [Jim #7, Short Fiction]

In Paradise, the snooze button gave you six minutes.  Jim hit his again.  He’d lost count.  Maybe two hundred hits, maybe a thousand.

Outside his window the sun was shining and the birds were chirping.  Every goddamn day with the sun and the birds and the breeze.  He buried his head in the pillow.

His phone rattled and chimed.  He grabbed it and squeezed out an eye.  Cherry.

Happy hundred!  Wanna party?

Had it already been a hundred years?

Na.  Let’s skip it.

He drifted.  The alarm sounded and he snoozed it.  Another rattling chime.

Oh come on.  Me and the girls made plans . . .

Great, Jim thought.  Free holes: empty, wet, dark, used.

Not hungry.

No pie, I promise.

Let’s do it tomorrow.

I want you to nuke my pussy.

That almost got Jim out of bed.  He’d pumped a lot of things into a lot of holes, but he’d never seen a clit go nuclear.

I don’t have that kind of energy.

Haha.  Are you Mr. Bummy Pants today or what?

Fuck you.

I’m just tired. 

I know just what you need, Mr. Bummy Pants.

Don’t –

Happy Hundred, Jim.  Good luck!

***

His door banged open.  A wild man with a beard and shining eyes grabbed Jim by the ankles and pulled him off the bed.  His head bounced on the floor.

“Goosh!”

“Art thou Jim?”

Jim sat up and rubbed his head.

“I art,” he said.

The man picked up the bed and threw it out the window.  Glass shattered.  The frame clattered on the walk below.  The mattress clung for dear life, impaled by a shard.

“I am Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, and you are fortunate in the company you keep.”  He kicked over the nightstand.  “I am neither cheap nor easily persuaded.  And I’m the best.”

With a fist like a rock he made three neat holes in the wall.  He unzipped his fly and began to piss in the corner.  He spoke over his shoulder.

“You have exactly three minutes to dress yourself and pack one bag.  The bag may not weigh more than a stone.  It ought to contain knickers for all seasons and terrain.”

“I’m not packing a bag,” Jim said.  “Did Cherry send you?  Tell her she owes me a bed.  I’m not going out, I don’t want to go out.  I don’t care about the years and I just feel like sleeping for a while.”

“Two minutes,” Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton said.  He zipped up and kicked another hole in the wall.

Jim groaned and put his head in his hands.  He wanted to cry.  He listened as the Sir furthered the destruction of his bedroom.

“One minute.”

“Alright,” Jim said.  “Alright, I’m getting up.  I’m up.  Just give me an hour or so.  I’ll take a shower and get my shit together.  You hear me?  Let me get sorted, you British psycho.”

“Too late,” Sir Shackleton said.  He grabbed Jim by the shoulders.    “Look at this place.  It’s unlivable.  I’ve scheduled it for demolition.”

“You what?!”

But Sir Shackleton walked out the door without another word.  Jim hopped after him, one leg in a pair of jeans.

“What does that mean, demolition?  You’re not serious.  I like this house.  What’s wrong with a house?  People live in houses.  Sunnuva bitch.”

He got his pants on just in time for the front door.  A tank rolled through his fence and onto the yard.  Shackleton gave it a thumbs up.  Jim yelled stop! but it fired a shell and his house exploded.  It fired another shell and the house fell over.  Jim was pretty sure the third shell was just for fun.

“This isn’t funny!” Jim said.  “I was just taking a few days off.  A few months maybe.  Years.  It doesn’t matter.  Is it fucking crime to have the blues?  I had stuff in there!”

Sir Shackleton’s eyes clogged his throat.

“Was it the stuff of dreams, Jim?  The stuff of adventure?  Did it smell like the dead salt of acrid seas or the sour sweat of the jungle?  Was it a fist raised against winter and the hot blood of glory?”

Jim swallowed.  “Uh, no.  It was, like, albums and stuff.”

“Art thou a man?”

“Sure.”

“Sign this.”

“What is it?”

“Sign it.”

Jim signed it.

“Good.  My starship is down at the bar.  We’ll have to take a cab.”

***

Olympus was a mountain in orbit around a red giant.  Ten thousand miles from base to peak, with no planet to support it, the mountain spun like a top that the giant had flicked into motion.

“I have to climb that?” Jim said.

“You’re going to conquer it,” Sir Shackleton said.

“Listen, I get what you’re doing and I appreciate it, but can’t you just drop me at the top?  You go tool around for a while and come back and pick me up.  I won’t tell anybody.”

Shackleton slapped Jim through the face.

“Thou art Jim!  Thou art a man!  Every moment in a man’s life is a woman, Jim, a woman with brass legs and wrecking ball chicken-tippers.   Every moment is her walking by.  There she goes.  There goes another one.  Maybe the next one will blow your sad chubby a kiss.  And they’ll keep walking by, Jim.  It’s a doll train to pussy town and you’re not on it.    And you won’t be on it until you grab one of these broads by the throat, lift up her skirt, and open up the turnpike.”

Shackleton had both hands on Jim’s shoulders and his eyes were lasers.

“Open the turnpike, Jim.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Open the turnpike.”

“Half way, just drop me half the way up.”

Sir Shackleton sighed and released him.  He handed Jim a piece of paper.  It was the thing he’d signed.

“Read the last paragraph,” Shackleton said.

The undersigned hereby agrees that, upon failure to reach the summit of Olympus in full compliance with the rules stated above, all freedoms shall be forfeit for one year and one day, during which period the undersigned shall be placed in the custody of psychotics and have experiences including, but not limited to, rape, torture, and mutilation.

“I really have to start reading these things,” Jim said.

A foot to his chest and he fell out of the starship and landed on his back at the base of Olympus.

***

Jim was a quarter of the way up when he heard a foreign but familiar sound.  He followed his ears, and sitting against a bare tree a young man played a haggard guitar.  Blonde hair hid the edges of his face and the noise he made was brutal and sincere.

Cobain looked up and saw him.  Jim felt like a gazelle coming upon a lion in the wild.

“Hi,” Cobain said.  It was friendly.

“Hey,” Jim said.  He took a cautious step.  “I, uh, heard you playing.”

Cobain ran his fingers over rough body of the guitar.  It looked like it had been hacked out of a stump and strung with wire.

“I didn’t think I’d ever play one of these again,” he said.  He moved some of the hair out of his face.  “Something about this place, I guess.”

“Yeah . . .”

“Sir Shackleton?”

“Yeah!”

Jim found a rock to sit on.  He sat with his elbows on his knees.

“It’s funny,” Cobain said.  “When you get everything you’ve got nothing.  Somebody comes along and takes it from you, then you have something again.”  He strummed a soft chord on the guitar.  Its imperfections rattled.  “You hear that?  That’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s raw,” Jim said.

The two of them sat in like posture for a while.  The peak of Olympus was shrouded in distance and the vacuum was close enough to touch.  It was quiet.

 “Can I ask you something?” Jim said.  “I guess it’s kind of personal.”

“That’s alright.”

“Why did you kill yourself?”

Cobain looked at his guitar.  “You know, I can’t really remember what it was like to be in that space.  I remember being there, I remember the thoughts, I just can’t pick up the moment.  There was a lot of pain and I didn’t know where it was coming from, and I made a decision and everything was over.”

He moved some of the hair from his eyes.  There was a smile playing in them.

“The craziest thing about it was seeing it.  I just expected the world to go black, and then I was standing there over my body.  Like, the mess never occurred to me – it was all cerebral.  It was metaphysical.  But when I saw the chunks of my brain mashed into the ceiling, the whole philosophy of it seemed kind of absurd.  Less than absurd, like it didn’t exist.  It was more embarrassing than anything.”

Jim tried to think of something to say, the right question to ask.  He couldn’t.  Instead, he shifted his weight and looked at the dirt.

“What really fucked with me was when the angel popped up next to me.  He said, I bet you’d have written a kickass song about that.”

“Did you?” Jim said.

Cobain plucked a few notes.

“It’s a little rough around the edges,” he said.

He played a song.

***

The peak was a fist against the bleakness.  Jim pulled himself up the steep wall of the forearm one hold at a time.  His arms and legs burned.  It had taken a long time to get this far and it was strange to have the top so close.

He wondered how many people had made this climb.  How many had gone numb with happiness and come here to feel something again?  He wondered if Cobain would ever look down from here, or if he’d work at his song for eternity.

He reached the top and pulled himself up.  Ten thousand miles were beneath him, and as many thoughts behind him.  He stood up and breathed in.  The red giant burned a red hole in the sky.

Jim pulled out his phone.

Stock your shelves, bitches.  The nuke is hot.

Jim Home

Jarmo excerpt – Disenfranchised [New Fiction, Novel]

Disenfranchised

Pluffkin had been nipping purses and jacking wallets since he was nine years old.  As he often introduced himself, he was born to nothing, raised by the low, and he only drank from the top shelf. 

Aside from purses and wallets he was certified master of every sort of con.  He could deal himself a high pair and roll a hard six at will.  He had once relieved an old widow of five gold with nothing more than a jacket, a banker’s apology, and terrible news about a recent wave of counterfeits –  and after she made him her special tea and showered him with gratitude she offered him her only umbrella for the rain.  A more upscale hustle, he and a few buddies used to run the Oakridge Tumble on the rich daisies on Westborough and Central Plaza: one fool thief making a racket, one guard to take him away, and another guard to walk through and secure the premises of the frightened owner, snatching a few gold-lacquered candlesticks and silver cutlery for his time.   (That shuffle ended when Flack got his head shoveled in for scamming the wrong lumberjack, rest his soul).  His biggest score to date was eleven gold and twenty-two silver, a broad daylight transaction between an ambitious young graduate and a smirking entrepreneur.  

Always on the outside looking in, forever smash-grabbing and conning and looting, Pluffkin had pulled from the street the only philosophy that could support him – that earning gold was for the suckers not wise enough to steal it.  It was a code he believed in and lived by, and he understood it as the invisible pillar that kept civilization from crumbling.  Those daisies living it up in the inner city, they were nothing more than a savvy guild of thieves.  They were the ones wise enough to enfranchise the looting, to stamp it and market it and call it business, call it economics.  They had whole masses of men out in the fields reaping gold for payments of copper.  Their genius wasn’t in producing or manufacturing; their genius was in the hustle, the greatest con ever played.  It was a fact that Pluffkin saluted, and a position he aspired to.

That is why, when a storm of angry working men swept through the Reformatory shouting the words “Equal Opportunity!” and “Corruption!” and “Fair Share!”, Pluffkin’s heart sank in his chest.  When they came round to his cell and unlatched it, he grabbed one of them violently by the shoulders, and pressing him to the wall he demanded,

“Who told you?”

He looked around and saw the furious action of ragged men, men who belonged plowing fields and forging iron and whatever else suckers did to feed their families.  The excited glow of newfound freedom lit their faces as they marched and cartwheeled through the cavernous halls of the Reformatory, throwing wide the steel gates and setting loose every sort of murderer and rapist and beggar.

A burly man with spit caked in his beard paused as he ran by, a torch throwing red across his creased forehead.

“Gods bless you, son,” he panted, shaking Pluffkin’s shoulder with a comrade’s compassion.  “Those bastard’s can’t keep you in chains no longer.  The reckoning has come!”

As Pluffkin watched the torch sink into the black distance of the hall, several more men came whooping after him, slapping Pluffkin on the back and offering him their flyby congratulations. 

“Go free, son of man!” they shouted.

“Tyranny has ended!” they proclaimed.

“We gone light this bitch up like a dandy’s pyre!” someone added.

Their hollering filled the darkness, rattling down up and through the long halls, echoing and stomping and squealing.  It was the laughter of mad banshees, awakening from a long slumber and ecstatic to find that their voices could still wail. 

And each voice was an arrow that pierced his ego along with his dreams.  The one thing that he had ever been able to hold over other men was his secret knowledge, knowing that it was a world with thieves up on top and suckers on the bottom, knowing that the true worth of a man was measured by his cunning and his loyalty unto himself.  He had been sentenced by the court to serve six months for “swindling a good man of some repute”, had served only three, and somehow in those three short months the secret seemed to have gotten out. 

The suckers got wise.

The thought made him shudder as he searched for a way out of the chasm of the lower dungeon.  A world without suckers was a tree without roots.  A soft breeze and it would all be over.

The excited shouts of freed prisoners began to join those of the liberators.  Toothless, half-starved, jubilant faces skittered by, picking up the righteous chants or making some of their own.  Some of these men had been down here a long time, most for good reasons.  Pluffkin had spent plenty of his life in rotten company, and he knew lechers and psychos when he saw them.  It was the constant suspicion in their eyes that gave them away, a paranoia that made them jittery.

Finally he found the stone stairs that led up and out of the dungeon.  Once he navigated the labyrinth of upper level cells and hallways and the cheering clusters of victorious morons, he stepped outside into the bright cold afternoon sun and was accosted by a chaos leaps beyond his expectations.

Fires of pitch and hay grew into black plumes of smoke.  Taverns, smithies, homes were ablaze.  Those not on fire were swarming with desperate women, fanatical men, laughing children, all pulling what they could from the wreckage.  Glass mugs, picture frames, cabinet doors, mirrors, ash trays, chairs, broken off railings and torn up squares of carpeting, lamps, wash rags, bedding, bars of soap – people scurried through the streets with armloads of junk and faces full of exhilaration and wonder.  Hundreds of them.  Thousands.  And he could hear more of them down on other streets.  Two bodies hung from nooses outside a tavern called The Copper Pint, a poorly scrawled caption marking them “Suns of Greed.”  Pluffkin watched as one man hucked leather bound books out of a third story window, to his friend waiting with a wheelbarrow below. 

There wasn’t a second that passed when the air wasn’t filled with one of their battle cries.  It was either, “Free the poor!” or “Hang the king!” or “Zebithias!”  Pluffkin wasn’t sure, but he assumed the last was their leader, or at least the man who had whispered to them that powerful secret.

Pluffkin saw in his mind’s eye that pillar of civilization crumbling, one bar of soap, one empty desk drawer at a time.  The shroud had been lifted, and the suckers were hacking away at the pillar with generations of latent rage and anguish.  It was they who suffered and toiled, they who bled in the field, they who sweat in the shop, they who were the sacrifice necessary for progress, the willing victims of institutionalized thievery.  He saw it in their faces, the elation of a long awaited revelation, the eureka behind their eyes. 

Dazed, distraught and disheartened, Pluffkin wandered the teeming streets.  The Reformatory was near the edge of River End, and he knew the area well.  Or he used to know it well.  The whole thing seemed up in flame and looted to hell.  He watched as two women fought over a crystal chalice in the snowy mud, screaming at each other all sorts of obscenities, drawing even more obscene jeers from the men around them.  One of them finally twisted it from the other’s grasp and dashed her in the head with it and hurried away with her prize.  The woman she had dashed, a scrawny wretch of a thing, lay unconscious and facedown in the muck.  Pluffkin felt his blood heat when the laughing idiots around her moved on to other entertainments and diversions.  He walked over to her, bent down, rolled her over, scraped the mud from her face.

She wasn’t beautiful, and she wasn’t young, but goddammit she was a woman.  What the hell was wrong with these people?  All the years he’d spent running cons he never did anything half as despicable as those savages who just walked away.  As he looked down at her shapeless plain face, her ruddy hair, he felt a tinge of hope.

Maybe they don’t have any damned idea what they’re doing, he thought.  Maybe they’ve just gone mad.  It was a strange hope, but it was hope.

The woman’s eyes fluttered open, glazed at first before they came into focus.

“You alright, miss?” he said.

She looked at him, felt his arms cradling her, and went stiff with indignation.

“Well aren’t you the fucking hero,” she chided.  She threw his arms away, stood up, spit in his face, walked away.

For the life of him, he could not understand what had caused her to say and do such a thing.

“Power is need; fuck their greed!  Power is need; fuck their greed!”

Five men, faces black with soot, came dragging a sixth through the muddy street.  The man was in such a condition that Pluffkin’s stomach turned on him, and it took a hand over his mouth and a strenuous conscious effort not to vomit.  His right leg was broken, flopping along the ground, the bone protruding from his skin.  The whole left side of his body was horribly burned, and where his flesh wasn’t black it was an angry bubbling red and purple.  A face that was only recognizable as a face because of its location on the front of his head was swollen and bloody and broken.

His begging was a hopeless whimper, a choked plea that was already beyond the grave.

“Please – I’m just an armorer.  Chain mail, I could make you some chain mail.  Please.”

One of the men had a length of rope with him.  He fashioned a noose, put it around the armorer’s neck, and they strung him up.  His mouth worked desperately and silently.  His leg dangled horribly.  His arms were free to clutch and paw at the rope that was pulling him into death, but they were panicked and feeble.  His entire body convulsed, convulsed, was still.  Empty eyes in a shattered face, and his final expression in this life was the vacation of his bowls, shit and piss dripping from his legs and staining the snow.

Pluffkin had thought he’d seen men at their worst.  He’d once been an unwilling witness to a brutal gang rape outside of Dusty’s Tavern; he had been part of a black market winterleaf deal that went bad and got his accomplice’s throat slit; he’d seen the bloody aftermath of a loan shark’s collection methods.  But he realized now, as he stared up at the amorer’s wrecked body, and listened to the cackles of his assailants, that he had only glimpsed a shadow in the corner of the darkness.  Those things he had previously witnessed he at least understood.  The violence of lust, the greed that inspired treachery, the power of brute force – though outside his own code of morality, these things were at least within the realm of comprehension.  They followed their own internally cohesive logic.  But this – this was an abuse and a debauchery that soared high above his understanding. 

One thought haunted him above all others: What have they gained?

He pulled himself away from that place and moved to another.  And to another.  But it didn’t matter where he was; the chaos was everywhere.

A ragged man with a pointed beard declared from the roof of an inn that the best rum was free rum, and taking a swill from a bottle he lost his footing and fell two stories to his face.  Inexplicably, he stood up unwinded and apparently uninjured without having spilled a drop of the liquor.  He looked up at the roof, laughed, enjoyed another swill and went on his way.

Around the corner were several children, tossing between them a finely painted clay vase, laughing and spitting venom Pluffkin had thought impossible for such creatures.  Between them, her fine linen dress torn and muddied, a young woman stumbled about desperately, pleading with them.

“Please,” she begged, “it was my grandfather’s.  He was a good man.  It’s all that’s left.  It’s all we have left of him.  Please.”

A freckled boy with ratty curls of hair caught the vase in one hand.  “My grandy never had such a nice vass.  Never had nothin.  Cause of greedy bitches like you.”  He tossed the vase over her head.  She fell in an effort to intercept it, and chorus of heckling followed her to the ground.

“You dirty bitch!”

“Yeah!  What a dirty bitch!”

“Nice tits, bitch!”

“Ohhhh!  You hear what Kenny said!”

“Good one Kenny.  She’s a real titty bitch.”

“Titty bitch, titty bitch, titty bitch!”

The chant took on the poisonous rhythm of blind mischief, the kids tossing the vase about the woman, who lay weeping, soaked, begging.  Then her eyes found Pluffkin’s, and he saw in hers a terrifying bewilderment, the wide and shocked orbs of an animal whose world had just been ripped from its feet.  The shock, discovering its own uselessness, ascended to rage.

“Why don’t you do something!” she screamed at Pluffkin.  “How can you just stand there!  We isn’t anybody doing anything!  Why isn’t anybody stopping this!  Help me!”

“Titty bitch, titty bitch!”

Pluffkin, feeling every bit as lost as the woman, remembering the strange result of his last encounter, was about to quietly walk away when he heard a familiar jingle.  He glanced toward the freckled boy and saw a leather purse hanging dumbly from his belt.  A fat purse.  Probably nipped it from someone’s house, Pluffkin thought.

“Do I smell a titty bitch?” he said, sliding into the laughing circle.  He held up his hands, calling for the vase.  The little girl who currently held it looked at him, looked at the freckled boy, unsure of what to do.

“Don’t give it to him!” yelled the freckled boy.  “He’ll just give it back to her!”

But Pluffkin smiled at her, and she smiled back and tossed him the vase.  He caught it, and the children waited silently and expectantly.  He took two steps towards the woman and bent down as if to give her the vase.  The children gasped and moaned, thinking their game over, but as the woman reached for it he pulled it back and kicked mud and snow into her face.

“Titty bitch,” he said, and passed it over to the freckled boy.

The children cheered wildly, taking up the chant with redoubled voracity.  More importantly, Freckles was impressed.  He threw the vase to another boy.

“You’re smart not to trust anybody,” Pluffkin said to him.  “Most people, they trust too much.”

The kid’s chest grew bigger by half and his freckled head tilted up.  “I don’t trust nobody,” he said.

Pluffkin suppressed a grin.  When the vase came back to him, he walked it over to Freckles, handed it to him, crouched down to eye level.  The boy looked at him defiantly but couldn’t hide the respect and the fear from his eyes.

“If you’re really smart,” Pluffkin said, “you’ll take your prize and get the hell out of here.”

“Why?” 

“Because I’m going to drag this titty bitch down that alley and fuck her face until she learns some good manners.”

Pluffkin almost laughed.  The boy’s eyes went wide in sheer terror and his freckles turned ashen.  This game had just gotten a bit too adult for him. 

“Come on, guys,” he said to everyone.  “I’m sick of this bitch anyway.”

The little gang of hounds kicked a storm of muck on the disheveled woman as they ran past, Freckles leading them.  In a final gesture he turned back and raised the vase high and threw it against the side of a building, shattering it into several pieces.  When they disappeared down an alley, Pluffkin looked at the purse cupped in his left hand.  When he pulled back the string and looked inside, he laughed.  The kid had a small fortune on him.  There were no coppers at all, only silver and gold.  Fingering through the coins he counted almost fifteen gold.

“Please, don’t hurt me.”

The woman was staring at him.  She didn’t seem to have the strength to get up.

“I just wanted his purse,” Pluffkin said.  She scuttled back as he approached her, and he stopped and held up his hands.  “I’m sorry about your grandfather’s vase, and I have no intention of hurting you.  I’d like to share some of the loot with you.  For your assistance.”

“Loot?”

He held out three gold coins in his hand.

“Gold!” she screamed.  “Gold!  What am I going to do with gold!  You goddamn coward!  You kicked mud on me!  They came into my house!  My husband is dead!”

Pluffkin added a fourth coin, and he flinched as she let out a wail that shook his bones.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  He left the coins on the ground, and tried not to hear her screaming at him as he walked away.  The purse he tucked beneath the waist of his tattered pants, leaving only the drawstring and a small bulge visible.

What little pleasure he’d gotten from his heist quickly faded.  Everything he saw made him feel more lost, and he wondered what use was gold if there was no one around to covet it, no one to keep it sacred.  More and more frequently the looters he saw were drunk, and the looted beaten and torn if not dead.  The hollers and the cheers and the chants of the people had waned considerably, but it was still often enough that they would come rampaging by, shouting, “Born free!” and “Burn the gold!” and “Hang the king!”  Pluffkin felt the cold weight of the purse against his thigh as he shuffled out of their way, thinking it was more gold than he had ever held at one time and that these lunatics had rendered it completely useless. 

There weren’t any guards out here, none of the king’s soldiers to put the rebellion down.  From what he had seen, they had focused their efforts at the wall that divided the districts from the rest of the city.  They were letting the mad ones eat each other.

And theirs were ravenous appetites.  He wandered the streets, all littered with empty bottles and casks and bedding and broken stools and burning piles of refuse, with all the direction of a ghost returning to a place it once remembered.  Around him swelled the energy of life and chaos that he couldn’t define or comprehend.  A man running along the walk and breaking out all the remaining windows for no other reason than to hear the glass break; another trying to mount a spooked horse, taking a hoof to his belly, screaming in agony until he was silent; an old and withered raisin of a woman, with a fine mantle of fur draped impudently over her cotton rags, smoking a fine cigar from the comfort of a plush recliner that lay drowning in the middle of the muddy street; a couple of prepubescent teens probing each other in fascination in front of an inn engulfed by flame.

Unconsciously his legs carried him to a place he knew very well.  The Riverside Shuffle was a sprawl of a three story bar and casino, with a few rooms on the top level for anyone with enough scratch to purchase the services of one of the serving girls, and a kitchen that served food in name only.  His father, a man called Desh, had been a hard luck wheelwright and a poorly adjusted sucker; he went down to the Shuffle any time he had more than a silver in his pocket.  He often brought Pluffkin along to “help tote the winnings home” and on one such night he lost more than he was worth and fell from the table with a knife between his shoulder blades.  Pluffkin didn’t like his mother so much, and his sisters were hellish creatures whose only ambition in life was to reform him into a little girl; unwilling to go home, he haunted the Shuffle, the ghost of his father, until the owner took some pity on him and gave him some work.  Pluffkin soon proved his grit to Ribbald, the owner, and he wasn’t ten years old before he was cooking the books, soft-dealing the “copperheads”, or even beating the heater out of a half-drunk fish in a stand-up game of poker.  Ribbald showed him all the ropes, became a father and a mentor to him, showed him all the reasons Desh had been a sucker.  Pluffkin remembered with stark clarity the day Ribbald had planted a big hand on his shoulder and spoken to him as if he were an adult:

“Your father got axed because he was a sucker.  Suckers are scramblers, bottom feeders, wishers and hopers.  He should have wished for some sense, if he really believed in that sort of thing.  Look around you, damn near all of them just like your old man, hoping and wishing,  hoping and wishing.  Oh please give me that three of hearts; mother of mine I need to roll a seven.  But a thousand lucky turns can’t save a sucker, because on the next one he’ll just lose it all right back.

“Desh was a good man, if they come that way, but he was the worst kind of sucker.  He played to lose.  Never even tried to walk away.  He came to flush it away so he could tell himself rotten luck was the stick in his spokes.  Cause suckers can’t see themselves.  All they see is everyone else getting all the breaks.

“But you ain’t a sucker, Pluffkin.  You ain’t your father.  It’s got nothing to do with blood.  For every hundred suckers born there’s a wolf to lick them clean – clean as a temple bust, you hear me?”

Pluffkin heard him.  When he thought of that moment, surrounded by cigar smoke and the clatter of silver and gold chips wrinkling through the air, it rose up like a great tower that cast a shadow over all the rest of his life.  It was a shadow in which the wolf prowled, darting out of its cover only when some sucker wandered in too close.

Now, as he looked at the Riverside Shuffle, the only place he could call home, he saw that it was besieged on all sides.  At least fifty men surrounded it, waving torches or throwing rocks or wielding makeshift bludgeons.  Above them, leaning out of a third story window, was Ribbald’s shining old tobacco-creased face.  Pluffkin was amazed to see that it was peeled back in laughter.

“It’s all here, boys!” Ribbald shouted from the window.  “Everything you ever lost, what was never found!  Your self respect, your pride, your common sense – everything!  Hhey haa!”

He was forced to duck inside as a number of rocks clattered around the window, a few of them making it through.  The skirmish over, he poked out his shining face again.

“But you’ll never get it back!  I ain’t the giving kind!”

Inexplicably, Ribbald’s laughing, almost good-natured taunting was a contagion that spread through the mob beneath him.  Their shouts and their demands remained the same, cries of “Burn him out!” and “Hang all sons of greed!” issuing from their lips, but the venom was gone.  They might have been cheering on a horse race or heckling an out-of-key minstrel. 

“Ribbald!” cried one of the men wielding torches, stepping forward, “We’re fixing, at long last, to purify that golden ass of yours!”

“Is that Sodermock?” returned Ribbald.

“It is!”

“Not the goldsmith!”

“The same!”

“How is it you’ve not been purified yourself?”

“I lost everything I had at your damned tables!”

“Hey hhaa!” Ribbald laughed, howling it to the sky.  “Indeed, here stands the worst card player the land has ever known.  I myself have seen this man flush a month’s wages on a naked pair of jackals!”

The men guffawed, and the goldsmith’s face went red.

“They were ladies, you old bastard, and they nearly won!”

“And good fortune has come to you at last.  The worst hand is now the best; the losing strategy has won!”

“Enough of this!”

“Hang the prick!”

“Power is the people!”

Ribbald’s shining head rolled back in the deepest, most guttural fit of laughter Pluffkin had ever heard.  It sounded like the death rattle of a man who had just come to understand the nature of all existence, and finding it absurdly angled he was unable to hold it, instead letting it escape out his throat.

“There are a thousand princes at this sucker’s ball!” he declared from his euphoric height, “And lo! they are all prettier than I!”

The men with the torches and hammers apparently understood just enough of this statement to know that it was the gravest kind of insult, and their collective demeanor became grim and resolute.  The torches were set and flames began running up the walls, crawling at first and then rising faster and faster.  The men cheered as the flames engulfed the sign that marked the establishment as The Riverside Shuffle, and hollered with increasing fervency as they licked inevitably closer to the laughing visage above.  Just before the fire engulfed him entirely, Ribbald’s eyes came down on Pluffkin.

“Pluffkin, my boy!” he shouted through the cackling flames.  “It was good to know you!”

As he said it, the flames finally roared up past him, and the whole building became a pulsing, waving storm of heat.  As Pluffkin watched his home, and the man that had been his father, being reduced to so much smoke, he was scarcely aware of the men that surrounded him, grabbed him by the arms, dragged him forward.

“Good to know you, eh?”

“Then he should have kept his mouth shut.”

Pluffkin looked from face to face, seeing only hate and malice in all of them.  Dead-set eyes and sooted cheeks and foreheads, tangles of unwashed beards and the smell of stale sweat and rancid breath. 

“And what’s this here?”

One of them pulled at the string that hung from his waist band, and the purse opened and spilled its contents down his leg and onto the ground.  Gold and silver coins shimmering in the light of the fire.

“Saving that for a rainy day, were you?”

“Feed my family for a year with that, I could.”

“Goddamn sons of greed!  String him up!”

“You ain’t no better than us!”

“Feed him to the fire!”

“Rope!  Do we have any more rope?”

Pluffkin discovered that they did, when he felt the coarse twine of the noose tighten around his neck.  As they pulled him beneath a hooked post and threw the end of the rope over, he found himself wondering why the same people would liberate a thief and then hang him for thieving.  He felt his feet lifted from the ground and his breath cut short, and the blood in his face became thick and hot.  He didn’t have the heart to put up an honest struggle, and could only cling to the rope around his neck and kick his feet against the post. 

The last thing he saw, from the height of the post, was a mass of skeletal apparitions floating down the street, emaciated shades with green orbs for eyes.  Hundreds of them.  Thousands.  Moving toward him with the creeping conviction of a thunderhead.  As his vision blurred and began to fade, all that was left were those glowing green eyes, all of them looking at him, waiting for him.  In his final moment he mistook them for the ghostly messengers of the gods, come to carry him away to a place he had never believed in.

_____________________________________________________________

You can find Jarmo on Amazon right here.

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The Face that Employed a Thousand Angels [Jim #6, Short Fiction]

Annual Cleopatra Lottery

Spend a Night with the Egyptian Queen!

Enter in person at:  777 Lay Lady Lane

We accept both chance and fate.

The Cleopatra Lottery is run by the Paradise Grant Committee and is in full compliance with the Pussy Pact.  All participants enter willingly and with full knowledge that their indulgence rights will be abused.

Jim read the flyer three times before he looked at the man who had given it to him.

“What is this?” he said.

“It’s the Cleo lotto,” the man said.  “We run it every year.  Winner gets to bury his bone in the Queen of the Nile.”  He failed at handing out another flyer.  “You must be fresh from the circus if you haven’t rolled for Cleopatra.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”  Jim read the flyer again.  It was a plain piece of paper, black and white and matter-of-fact.  “She’s the one with the face, right?  I mean, the thousand ships.”

“Nope.”

“Oh.”

“You there!  Cleopatra Lottery!  Lay Lady Lane!  Chance or fate, don’t be late!”

***

Lay Lady Lane was a long shining broadway of neon lights.  Marquis flashed the names of history’s most beautiful women.  Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Mata Hari, Pocahontas, Brigitte Bardot.  There were more that he didn’t recognize – Wang Zhaojun, Madhubala, Hwang Jini – and Jim lost count.  Above them all in the center of the broadway Cleopatra glittered.

Jim walked in through the revolving doors.  The lobby was crimson and gold.  The men in front of him and the ones pushing past him went through one of two doors, above which read Take Your Chances and Accept Your Fate.  He went to the help desk.

“First time?” the man said.  His nametag said Butch, Angel in Training.

“Yeah,” Jim said.

“Well, it’s pretty simple.  You go through that door, you get what’s coming to you.  You go through that one, you get something else.  It’s like, you walk the path or you roll the dice.”

“Dice?”

“Yep.”

Jim checked his pocket.  The dice were still there.

“What about this bit where my indulgence gets abused?” Jim said, showing Butch the flyer.  “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Jesus.  Really?”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re here to roll dice for a chance to spear the queen and you’re asking me about the fine print.”

Butch, Angel in Training, had a point.  Jim laughed, shook his head, shrugged.  “Man, sometimes I just want to know what the hell’s happening to me.”

“Tell you what,” Butch said, “Here’s the short of it.  Lucy, her whole thing is everybody gets what they want, right?  She hates rules.  But what’s the first thing you want to do when you get to Paradise?  You want to fuck Cleopatra.  So Cleopatra’s got, like, millions of dudes trying to fuck her every day.  And that’s a shitty Paradise.  So Cleopatra rounds up all the scorchers, you know, your Marilyn Monroes and your Joan of Arcs, and they all march on Lucy.  And Lucy’s cool – have you met her?”  Jim nodded.  “Yeah, you seem like the type.  Anyway, she sets up this whole infrastructure and assigns a team of angels to field requests, they sort it all out and pass on the good ones.  Now Cleopatra just gets an email every week, and if she sees something she likes she can jump on it.

“It all sounds good, except Cleopatra – just Cleopatra – needs a thousand angels to sift through all these requests.  There’s a shortage of angels.  And there’s millions of dudes that are pissed off because of the selection process – they know damn well Cleopatra isn’t gonna blow some salesman from Alabama.  So there’s hardly an angel in Paradise that isn’t on fuck request detail, and everything with a dick is crying foul.  I mean, they don’t even have the personnel to do the whole meet and greet thing.  People are getting hit by buses, waking up here, they don’t know what’s going on.  They’re still clogging up traffic.  It’s a fucking mess.

“Finally Lucy comes out with the lottery and the Pussy Pact.  She tells Cleopatra and every other scorcher if they spread their legs once a year they’ll get angelic privilege.  To the hard-ons, she says you’ve got an eternity to win, if you don’t like it the Truth Road is that way.  That cooled everybody off, and we built Lay Lady Lane.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Jim said.  “So, this is just saying I might not win.”

“Pretty much.”

Jim said thanks and went to take his chances.

***

He walked out of the casino, rattling his glossy reds and shitting a grin.  He hadn’t lost a roll.  The room he walked into was all windows and cushions.  Light played on the marble floor.  An angel, not in training, greeted him.

“Congratulations,” the angel said.  “Please, if you’ll take a seat, fate will present the final challenger soon.  Feel free with the fruit and wine.”

“Is Cleopatra –”  Then he saw her.  She lay draped over a sofa, a bare and tan leg dripping from its side, one arm a triangle behind her head.  What fabric she wore was white and pulled taut by golden rings that pressed against her skin.  Midnight hair, cropped short, cut straight across her forehead.  Blue eyes.  They looked at Jim.

“Uh, hi,” Jim said.  He aborted a handshake mid-step, failed to convert it into a wave, tried to save it with a scratch and tripped over a pillow.  His dice skittered over the marble and came to rest at Cleopatra’s hand.  She picked them up and held them in her palm.

“Well?” she said.

“Those are my dice,” Jim said, pointing.

The angel chuckled.  Jim flushed.

“Einstein gave them to me,” he said.

The angel snorted.

“They are lovely dice,” Cleopatra said.  They were still in her palm.

Jim stepped carefully over the pillow.  He stood over her.  She saw him look at her breasts.  He cleared his throat and took the dice.

The other door opened.  A man in a white suit strolled through it.  Jet hair slicked over a sculpted head.  One hand disappeared into his jacket pocket, the other held a boot.

“There’s at least one man back there,” he said, “who thinks if you can throw a boot, you can change destiny.”

“Welcome, and congratulations,” the angel said.

“Angel,” the man said.  “Cleopatra.”  A nod for each.  To the angel – “So which kind are you?  The kind that takes my coat, or the ethereal kind?”

“I can manage both.”  The angel took his jacket, and the boot, and showed him to a seat.

“This is a lovely apartment.  Say, you there, I’m sure the lady loves the view, but mine’s obscured.  What do you say we dispense with flirtation and get down to business?”

Jim realized he was standing right in front of the Egyptian Queen with his ass in her face.  He took a breath, gritted his teeth, composed himself.  He wasn’t any less of a man than this guy.

“Business it is,” Jim said, and sat down.  He could see the angel biting his lip.  God he wanted to punch that fucking angel.

“It is customary for the representative of fate to choose the final game,” the angel said.

“I represent myself,” the man said.  “Fate’s your word, it isn’t mine.  I don’t want any part of it.  Besides, I’ve been out of ideas since I woke up in this crazy joint.  Let the kid decide, he’s good for it.”

Jim held out the dice.  “One roll,” he said.  “High roll wins.”

“Short and sweet.  I like it.  Who’s first?”

“You.”

He rolled a nine.

Jim shook, blew, rolled.  Eleven.

“Yes!”  On his feet, fists in the air.  “Eat shit, Bogart, the queen is mine!”

Humphrey  twirled a finger.  “Reel it in, cod slayer.  I’d say you should play it closer to the vest but you wouldn’t know how to wear it.”  He stood up, leaned over, spoke from the corner of his mouth.  “And I didn’t want to say this in front of the lady, but Joe Louis is taking a dive.”

“What?”

“The unknown soldier is going for a walk.”

“I don’t . . .”

“Your zipper’s down and I can see your testicles.”

Jim coughed and pivoted.  With his back to the queen he checked his crotch.  It was fine.  He double-checked.  No Joe Loius.

*Shit.*

He turned around and Bogart had her slung over his shoulder.  The actor kicked open a window, pulled a gun from his jacket and fired a zip-line into the gardens.

“What the hell, man?  You lost!  Angel, stop him!”

Bogart give him the dramatic profile, the last look back.

“It was a good roll, kid,” Bogart said.  “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

The two of them zipped out of sight.  Jim ran to the window and watched as the actor stuffed Cleopatra into the back of a Packard Super Eight and drove away.

“Can he do that?” Jim said.  “Why aren’t you doing anything?  You should be doing something!”

The angel was laughing freely now.  “Don’t beat yourself up,” he said.  “He does that every year.”  He doubled over.  “The boot!” he gasped.  “Oh, I almost died.”

“But I won,” Jim said.

“Eat shit, Bogart!  Eeeeeheeeheehehe!

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