I have this friend. A writer of pretty good prose and godawful poetry (which even he would admit) A playwright in remission with the dramatic impulse re-emerging (he's always been a drama queen) And my friend? He has this little problem. Every October, he wants to write the ultimate horror story or ghost story or other Eldritch indulgence. But he can't. Not because he's blocked. Because he's afraid.
He's mystically minded but grounded enough in reality to avoid any label of “superstitious.” Kind of like Edgar Cayce targeted by the mob and fitted with concrete boots for a quick dip in the Hudson River. (Actually, now that you mention it: a real freak show anomaly.) He spent years shaking off the shackles of his religious upbringing--only to have certain elements replaced by equally intractable beliefs, even if they are unencumbered by orthodoxy or dogma. And the belief that holds him back each Halloween season? It all begins with etymology.
As he's told me countless times: "spelling" actually means "spell-ing." As in, yes, casting a spell. Because to our ancestors, the written word was magic, the mystical art of bringing down the abstraction and ephemera of spoken language and concretizing it in alphabetic expression, immortalizing it for all time, the thoughts of the dead and the soon-to-be-dead there to be accessed by anyone and everyone forever and ever Amen. No longer did orality constrain reality. No longer was knowledge circumscribed by memory. With the advent of spell-ing, bards could bark at us from centuries in the past. Philosophers could channel their thoughts through our voices from their millennia-old rest with the worms. From my mouth could come the wisdom and the ridiculousness of the ages, shot out from my lips as if the thoughts were my very own. Cultural memory and civilization’s march were no longer limited by the too-small processors of the synapses. Reality was suddenly boundless. All through the glyphs that were most assuredly magic.
I always appreciated the figurative aspect of this belief. And, as a writer: of course I believe in the power of words to shape reality, expand consciousness, and generally impact the world according to the dictum that "sticks and stones may break your bones but words can fuck you up for life." (even if we are perhaps entering a post-literate age in which this is beginning to feel less true…but more on that later.) But my friend? He believes it literally. That laying down his fictions might warp reality according to the dictates of the tale. Actually, scratch the "might." He believes the very act of writing, of laying down your intention, fictional or no, he believes this act catalyzes our context. For good or for ill, depending on the words. Which means that all those terrible tales of twisted terror he'd love to weave this time of the year? He doesn’t dare. Lest the horrors come true.
Now before you think he's a complete schizophrenic: he doesn't believe that writing about a zombie apocalypse will summon hordes of shambling brain-eaters from their worm-ridden graves. Or that getting all Lovecraftian will conjure legions of tentacled terrors to enslave us to their diabolical will (actually: can we even call those desires "diabolical," any more than we can say that our desire to, say, eradicate mold from our bathroom tiles is so? Again--another time….) He's grounded enough in those concrete Caycean boots to know that reality can't be changed that willy-nilly according to some writer's will, no matter how good the writing may be. But: just as we've always been told to be careful what we wish for, he knows to be careful what he writes about.
I've seen his belief system manifest often enough to think he might have a point. He's written about some of the most improbable (yet completely possible) scenarios, often with the protagonist existing as little more than a cipher of himself, and voila! That stuff he wrote about happened. Some of it good. Very good. And some of it personally devastating.This hasn't happened once or twice. It happens all the time. I've also seen him prognosticate events in the broader culture, from the trivial to the traumatic. Some of these "predictions" felt more like synchronicity than causality. After all, any writer worth his words should have his ear close enough to the train tracks of the cultural psyche that he can see a few things coming down the line. But others he’s predicted? (or caused?) Others have made me want to rewrite that tragic ending to a story I might have been basing, however loosely, on my own life.
Stephen King said that he had to shelve Pet Sematary for years because it was all too awful; it even scared him. I wonder if he's a true believer in spell-ing as well. Not that his child could be buried in the yard and come back as an undead, brain-dead revenant…But was he worried that a child could metaphorically die if he put too much intent into the telling of that tale? That one of his kids could "die" to his parents and come back zombi-fied, say as an addict or a depressive? As some figurative analogue of the dead kid in the book?
I can't think too long and hard on such imponderables--not when I've got this essay to finish. And while I'm no true believer: I do believe that anything is possible (or almost anything). Especially when we have so little idea of what so much of our brains are doing most of the time. Could the activation of certain components of our consciousness have some occult connection to the broader workings of the universe? Could our consciousness be the key to coding the software of the world around us, creating causes and effects according to "laws" of "physics" as of yet undiscovered? And even in our media-saturated, image-obsessive age, don't stories still control our very reality? Whether it's the grand narratives of religion or the not-so-grand delusions of politics? (Or the little stories we tell ourselves about ourselves every day?)
One thing I do know: I wish mass consciousness believed my friend’s theory to be true. If everyone acknowledged the power our intentions and our words actually have, or maybe have: then perhaps we'd use them differently. More carefully and conscientiously. Like my friend does. As individuals and organizations and cultures. Wouldn't that be nice….
But for now, I really can't ponder the imponderable any longer. Because I've got a piece of flash fiction to write. You see: it's for this friend. This friend who's become afraid of his own words. And it goes a little something like this:
He sat down to write the worst thing he could possibly imagine, to name it as it was and see it the worst it could be and thus get it out of his head and safely onto the page, circumscribed by language as surely as a summoned demon is constrained within a pentagram. And he wrote it all down. And he waited and he waited and he waited, from day until night until day again. And nothing happened. Nothing at all. All because of the other story he had written, the one that would always remain unread, sealed in an envelope and tucked away in his dresser, a harbinger of many more nothings to come.
The fourth Action Fiction! performance, held October 18, drew a crowd of over 50 to San Francisco's Chez Poulet to see some amazing interpretations of some amazing stories.
We're working to get the video up so you can see for yourself: in the meantime, text of all the stories is now up and available on our partner site Fiction365.com - to be read the old fashioned way.
- The performance began with Alisa Golden's look at love, the nature of reality, and pets: "We'll Always Have Parrots."
- It continued with Gabriel Bellman's surprising tour de force: "Vaginas."
- Kevin Halleran was up next with an insightful look into jealousy and suburbia: "Vipers"
- The first half concluded with Benjamin Wachs' meditation on the nature of belief, religion, and sacrifice: "Abraham."
- Abigail Jardine's look at the sexuality of an empowered woman ahead of her time opened the second half: "Queen Bee: Goddess of Pheremones"
- Sarah Griff's flash fiction about a fashion casualty has to be read to be believed: "Kitchen Blinding"
- The show concluded with an excerpt from Lysley Tenorio's incredible short story "SuperAssassin"
That's enough ready for right now. The Omnibucket home page will let you know when the video's up so you can see the extraordinary performances that went with these stories ... and keep watching for an announcement about our next Action Fiction! show.
She saw the cottage from a long way off, and wondered if this was a bad sign: if she could see it, other things could too. But it offered shelter. If offered protection. Maybe there would be something inside to use as a weapon. She ran. Ran over uneven forest ground, over tree roots and muddy patches, and didn’t dare fall: fear kept one foot in the air at all times. She reached the wooden door: it was creaky, not very sturdy, but it was open. She pulled on it, stepped in, and closed it behind her. The first thing she saw was a latch. She closed it.
Then she gasped for air.
Her lungs were on fire. Her legs were wobbly. Her tendons were in revolt. She couldn’t help herself, she leaned back into the door, panting and heaving and crying: but as soon as she could stand up again, she would. She had to.
Across the room was a little girl in a red dress, staring at her.
“There’s a ...” she gasped. “There’s a ...” she stopped trying to talk, for a moment. She needed to breathe first. Breathe first. That’s the only way it works.
“Do you have any weapons?” she finally asked.
The girl pointed to the cold fireplace. There were pokers. The girl pointed to the kitchen, where there were knives.
“Good,” she said. “There’s a ... there’s a ...” she waited for her breath to catch up with her. “There’s a big, bad wolf out there.” They were the only words she had to describe it.
“Yes,” said the little girl.
She walked over to the fireplace, and picked up the heaviest poker. She walked over to the kitchen, and picked up the longest knife. “Are your parents around?”
“You’ve led it here?” asked the little girl.
“Maybe. It was chasing me. Is there a phone? I don’t get any cell reception out here.”
“No,” said the girl. “There is no phone. These walls won’t protect us.”
“I know.” She wanted to lie down, to sleep for a hundred years. “Is there a safe place? Should we keep moving?”
“No,” said the little girl. “There is a castle of strong stone on top of the hill, but it is not any safer.”
She nodded. “What’s there?”
The little girl thought about how to explain this. “A man who kills his wives, and uses them as bait for more wives.”
“Dammit.” She didn’t know which was worse. “Is there anything else?”
“There is a poison lake where the sea serpents play.”
No good. No good. “Where are your parents?”
“They are leading my step-brother and step-sister out to die. There is not enough food to feed all of us, and they would prefer to give it to their child, rather than his children from his other wife.”
She nodded, and straightened up. Tested the heft of her weapons. Not nearly good enough, but all she had. “All right,” she said. “I’m going to make a run for it.”
She looked at the peculiar child in her red dress. “Do you want to come with me?”
“Do you want to try to escape?”
She shook her head. Leaned against the creaky wooden door again. “Why? How can you not want to escape?”
The girl in the red dress smiled. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a very bad wolf.”
She didn’t take another breath: she unlatched the door and ran, ran onward, ran as fast as she could, knife in one hand, poker in the other.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.
In 1974, an F5 tornado hit the downtown of Xenia, Ohio, killing thirty-four people and injuring 1,150. Tossed railcars obliterated the entire downtown and a school bus landed on the stage of the high school play. The damage from this tornado, surveyed by Richard M. Nixon (and prompting him to pass the Federal Disaster Relief Act) is considered one of the most significant twisters in U.S. history.
The Xenia tornado happened just a few miles from where I grew up. Though I was a small kid at the time, the tragic event was discussed in dark tones by the old and young for decades to follow. The idea that something so powerful could, without any warning, turn your surroundings upside down and, ahem, kill you, along with scores of others, sits at the primal heart of what scares people, particularly people in the middle swath of the United States.
Forget 1996’s “Twister,” or all those Weather Channel quote-unquote documentaries. Take just the pure force of a tornado and remove all meteorological mumbo jumbo, drain it of any chase or thrill-seeking, and just keep one thing: blind panic. Keep that and you have touched a nightmare that has no choice but to become a high-concept horror film. Do that and you’ll fill theatre seats from Baton Rouge to Chicago, from Topeka to D.C. Take the pure helplessness of storm travel and turn it into a collision with fate.
Take that, add a few monsters, and you have the new film, “Nailbiter.”
Director Patrick Rea – born and raised in tornado country – knows well the stomach-punch of warning sirens and the psychological effects of heavy winds and ominous clouds. Rea’s film recently played at L.A.’s big horror fest, where it won the best of the fest award. Already on the path to wider distribution and recognition, “Nailbiter” is a unique horror film in a land of copycat thrillers – variations on “Saw,” or “Paranormal Activity,” or the latest grindhouse de jour. (Only director Ti West – of “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers” – is able to wrestle a modicum of originality, with his slow burn, low-budget ventures, directed with precision and a solid point of view.) With “Nailbiter,” the charm is in the situation, concocted by screenwriter Kendal Sinn. There are characters (a bit close to type), and violence (much of it offscreen), and a bit of razzle-dazzle with the camera and the effects, plus a score that turns from nice to very naughty (music which, misleadingly, takes the bite out of the first twenty minutes, in arrangements that would stand alongside John Williams 80s work quite nicely.) But it’s none of these things that make “Nailbiter” a nailbiter.
It’s the plot. Just the simple hook:
A mom and three young daughters, en route to the airport, spot a tornado in the road. Busting for the nearest shelter, a seemingly abandoned farmhouse cellar, they’re soon locked in by barely-glimpsed creatures that, most likely, plan to eat them later. The action leaves the cellar from time to time, just enough to add a bit of “will they be found?” suspense, but, for the most part, it’s a film about being trapped in a storm. The family is resourceful and likeable and, probably, doomed, but as the storms continue to rage at intervals outside the house, you really do want to see how and if they get out of this mess.
If you’re naturally afraid of tornados – or monsters for that matter – best stay clear. But, on a night in the fall, possibly in the Midwest, when there’s wind and rain outside and a storm watch crawler moving across the television screen, “Nailbiter” is probably the perfect thing to switch on. If you’re not from Xenia, that is…
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, on various labels. His website is darrencallahan.com.
The back door of my apartment opens into an alleyway covered in murals. On weekends, people flock to this urban tourist attraction, cameras at the ready. They photograph one another posing against the vivid colors, hoping to get an ‘original’ shot of the graffiti so many others have already developed. By Monday, litter is the only sign of the recent influx of visitors. Discarded spray paint cans, beer bottles, and snack food wrappers move like tumbleweeds down the street they can’t seem to escape. The acidic scent of urine attracts a plague-worthy number of flies that scatter in black clouds when footsteps draw near. Prostitutes offer sexual favors in exchange for cigarettes at six AM. The homeless situate their carts against the colorful garages, looking to the alley as a haven from wind-chill. Addicts bring their needles, their baggies, their lighters, and wait for the walls come alive.
At the northern mouth of the alley lies a police station. But the cops don’t come here. This is the city’s forgotten place. People come to see the street art, leaving before they catch a glimpse of the real street life. It’s not something you can photograph with friends, smiling. It’s not vibrant like the walls.
I keep my dog on a tight leash as we leave the security of the gated driveway, exiting into the middle portion of the alleyway. He’s easily distracted from doing his business by the lurking humans—and I’ve devoted the length of a filtered cigarette for him to take a shit. My dog leads the way up the narrow street, pausing to lift his leg on weeds that sprout from the cracks in the uneven concrete. I look blankly at the murals I’ve seen on over a thousand dog walks. The paint is peeling. The artwork has been tagged with markers. I’m not convinced of its beauty.
My dog tows me past a sheltered driveway that had been hiding a man from view. A tall African American man emerges, stepping toward me, clothed in all black, his hair in braids that drape over his shoulders. “Pray for me,” he says, pleading, the intensity of words mirroring the torment in his wide eyes. Before I can respond, he explains, “I relapsed yesterday. I need some good prayers.”
I nod, a little awestruck by his honesty. It’s a strange favor to request from a stranger. “All-right,” I agreed, “I will.”
At my words, he almost cowers in the corner, up against the two joining walls, crumbling into a ball. I don’t know what else to say. Or do. The moment’s somehow suspended. My dog tugs at the leash, pulling me forward, and out of the conversation.
A few yards later, the dog is circling, and I’m pulling the plastic bag from my pocket. I’m sorting through my past, back to ten years ago, when I was hooked on a myriad of substances. I’m fairly sure it takes more than a prayer to come clean. But a prayer is something I could give. Even if I haven’t talked to God in awhile.
I’m trying to recall the words to the ‘Serenity’ prayer while pulling the plastic bag over my right hand but all I can come up with is the hardcore rendition by ‘Blood for Blood.’ I’m remembering the zombie-like gatherings at AA meetings in the foothills that I attended when I was fifteen. Maybe this situation calls for a stronger prayer. “My name’s Victor, by the way,” the man’s voice calls out to me. As though this would be a sensible thing to tell God. As if he knew I was going to follow through.
As I’m picking up shit out of the gutter, I’m writing a letter to God in my head.
Dear God. Please grant Victor the strength he needs to resist temptation. Fill him resilience to fight his addiction. Give him unwavering faith to withstand challenges on his path to recovery.
I turn back down the alley, toward my garage door, baggie in one hand, leash in the other. I spot Victor, his back turned, shielding his face from sight. I want to tell him that I prayed for him. I want to wish him luck, as if luck had anything to do with it. It feels like I should say something but I don’t.
Victor’s hands are occupied in front of him, the dark skin on one of his arms exposed. From this angle, I can only catch a glimpse of his face, grey with hurt. I see an eye roll up into the back of his head, all white and dreamy, as a lone tear streams down his face, wiping a streak of grime away. I come closer, considering what I can say to comfort him. Ethereal light refracts over the mural beside him. There’s a needle in his arm and a bead of saliva forming in the corner of his mouth.
I step away, telling myself it’s his choice. His life. God’s problem. It feels almost shameful as I open my garage door and toss the shit into the blue garbage bin. My dog wags his tail happily in the sun as I think about Victor over in the shadows.
Megan Enright edits and publishes Tough Times Magazine, your guide for living the high life at no cost in San Francisco
I knew about the wallet.
The wallet had been there for years, just inside the door, in a drawer nobody much used. There was a key drawer above it, but underneath was the stuck drawer, and in it was the wallet, and in the wallet was $2, 627. I knew about that. The keys – well, they were just keys, and maybe there was nothing to make of the way they were sewn into a little bag with some magnets and then hooked to the bottom of the car. I wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that Dad always had to hook them off the undercarriage before he took the car in for service. If they put it on a lift, the keys would have been pretty obvious, so he slid down on the cement and retrieved them when he thought no one was looking. So that was the keys.
The glasses were a more serious thing, and I didn’t know what to make of them. I found them about a year ago. I was back in the work room off the garage, and there was a big silver suitcase under the bench. The kind you see in movies full of the ransom money, or drugs. It was locked, but I was feeling pretty nosey, and a little resentful about having to come out to Dad’s anyway to do routine maintenance that he could have paid anyone to do. It didn’t really call for my skills. So I got the keys from under the car when I thought he wasn’t looking and opened the suitcase. Twenty-seven pairs of glasses, neatly in rows. It must have been an optometrist’s sample case, ‘cause the foam was cut to nestle each pair securely, but so you could see the designs. They were pretty stylish glasses – some with dark lenses, some with funky plastic frames, some that looked like they belonged to a pharmacist in the ‘70s. Not a fun drug pharmacist, I mean a guy who sold enema packs, and valium. I checked, and they all had the same prescription, more or less.
I wanted to put the keys back under the car, but I’d opened the thread on the little bag, and I really didn’t want the keys to spill out. There were a bunch of those tiny mighty magnets in the bag, and the keys did stick to them, but I was still worried about it so I started to root around for fresh thread. Oh no, I really needed the same thread, ‘cause otherwise he’d see that I’d opened the bag. I was digging way back now, behind the workbench, where Mom’s old sewing stuff was stored. She’d been a quilter, my Mom, and won some prizes, but mostly her quilts were for sleeping under. Anyway, that’s when I opened an oversized fishing tackle box, like the ones she used for threads and notions, and found the lederhosen.
They were really old, the leather was worn and polished, the seat was bent and shiny from use. They were man-sized. In fact, they were Dad-sized. And they were wrapped in fresh tissue paper, almost uncrinkled, it was so fresh. They had just been put there.
Really, upon reflection, I’d never considered the keys and the wallet and the glasses together. They were just separate manifestations of my odd Dad. He was always a kind of a strange man, secretive in his comings and goings. I’d asked him if he had a second family somewhere, once, after Mom died, but he said no. He didn’t even smile funny, or choke, so I believed him, but he had something. Something else. When I saw the Lederhosen, everything came rushing together, and I thought I knew what it was.
Forgetting about his clogged gutters and the bit of wainscotting that had come loose, I knew what I had to do. I began to search for the missing item, the one thing I needed to prove my thesis and, well, really, to know my Dad. I had to find the guitar.
Dad had never played guitar. He picked at the piano, but the piano was Mom’s. He sang cheerfully enough when we were doing Christmas carols, or it was somebody’s birthday. If he had the guitar, if he played the guitar, then the jig was up. I had to find it.
It took me a week. I came every day, first using the chores he’d asked me to do as my excuse, and then I told him my water was turned off while they replaced the mains. That bought me three more days. I went through every box and bag, every corner of every room. Finally I came to him. He was sitting at his desk, pushed back, and pushed back in his chair as well. He looked like The Godfather. “I suppose you’ve come because you are looking for the guitar, and you cannot find it, ” he said. I had never seen his jaw look so heavy.
“Yeah, Dad. Where is the guitar?”
“It’s here. You just don’t know where, … no, you don’t know how to look.”
“So? Where is it?”
“You call yourself my son, but what are you? I’ve never seen you make one good thing happen.”
“Um, Dad, don’t go all tragic chorus on me.”
“What do you care? It’s my guitar.”
He was right, of course. It was his guitar. And when he made his escape, using the keys which opened the valise, but also how many other things? It was a lot of keys. Maybe a chalet? Maybe a modern loft in a tony San Francisco neighborhood, or some Barcelona riverboat. When he made his escape he could be anyone, anyone at all. He didn’t have to be my dad. He was a man with a guitar.
“I’d still like to know. I like guitars,” I said at last.
“It’s hidden in your mother’s piano. Like my musical genius was hidden in your mother. It’s a symbol.”
I went to the piano and opened the top, and there it was, resting gently on the strings. Even resting gently, I thought, that’s bound to mess up the tuning.
Leslie Ingham is a founding member of the Portuguese Artists Colony. She is currently at work on a novel.
Okay, this is how James died. He and his wife Annie, who never really liked me but we tried to get along because we knew he couldn’t choose between us, were on a trip to Spain. They take trips all the time, and I’m incredibly jealous. James is an intellectual property lawyer, so they have money, and Annie doesn’t work, so they don’t have to coordinate schedules. They just up and go when he gets vacation. My girlfriend has a government job, and our vacation schedules never seem to overlap. We’d go on trips if we could.
They’d just seen the Alhambra, which I hear is beautiful, and gone back to their hotel to clean up before going to some fancy Spanish restaurant. James liked to say, “Do you like tapas?” the way I used to say, “Do you like sushi?” back when there was a good chance somebody would have never tried it. But I stopped. I knew when to stop.
So James gets into the shower first … if MY girlfriend and I had been on vacation, we would have showered together … and he starts to rinse himself off and (this is according to the official report) he slips, and starts to fall. So he grabs on to the bar that holds the shower curtain up, but it’s a flimsy European job, not an American manufactured shower curtain bar, and so it comes right off the wall.
“Shit no!” he shouts, and his feet go up in the air, he falls back against the tub, and cracks his head open. He was dead by the the time the Spanish paramedics arrived, and his last words were “Shit no!”
He really wouldn’t have liked that. “Shit no!” He was an eloquent guy. A lawyer. He liked to put little legal jokes in his court briefs, something that would make the judge laugh without coming across as inappropriate. He liked to walk that line. “Shit no”? Are you kidding me? He was the kind of guy who would have worked on his last words for months. They still wouldn’t have been half as good as something I whipped up on the train ride home, but, he could have done a lot better than “Shit no!” That wasn’t him at all.
Except, of course, that it was. That was him. Even if it wasn’t before, it is now. We’ve all heard the story.
And now I have to write his eulogy. And everybody will be there, and they’re all expecting something big from me. I’ve known James since the second grade. His family is expecting me to blow the roof off the church. At James’ wedding, his dad actually told me that he was disappointed in my impromptu toast, because he’d expected so much more from me. “It was kind of … conventional,” he said.
Jack and Bill are going to be there, the popular kids who James threw me over for in high school, and even after making that up to me in college always kind of liked better. He made Jack his fucking best man, not me. I’ve been nursing that grudge for years. James was always going to be my best man, always – and then I couldn’t do it, because it would have been like asking a favor of the kid who took your lunch money. So I assumed that Masa would be my best man, except that then Masa asked Jack to do it, too. So I was out in the cold; if I’d gotten married, I don’t know what I would have done. I’d been insulted by all the men I’d known that long and felt that close to.
But now that it’s time to write James eulogy? Now they turn to me. Now they all turn to me, expectantly, waiting, hoping — knowing that I’m the only guy who can write “Shit no!” out of their minds. Give his dignity a chance to live again. Bring James back, just that much.
Benjamin Wachs Edited "The Book of the Is," by Chicken John, and has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.
Omnibucket was founded six years ago because publishing needed to be reinvented –beginning with the product. Today we’re reinventing ourselves.
The new Omnibucket is much like the old – only more so. We’re stepping up our productions schedule – not just because we’ll get to publish more books, but because it means more chances to experiment. More chances to step on the drummer less beaten. More chances to take chances.
You’re going to see us do things we’ve never done before. New content every weekday: a moving short story, a challenging essay, a provocative review. We’re going to be playing more with sound and video; we’re taking advantage of tablet technology to create entirely new ways to present books and stories; we’re going to produce eBooks, fast and furious, expanding the kind of content we do.
You’re also going to see us take our own goddamn time on exquisite, carefully produced, hard and soft cover books, getting every detail right: cutting words like diamonds until they slice the paper we print them on. Just like we used to.
So look around, and come back: there will be something new tomorrow.
A man walks into a bar. It sounds like a joke, I know. A man walks into a bar with a white plastic bucket. No one recognized him. Andrea the Chilean waitress leaned in and said to me, “That man, he looks like a real scum bucket,” and I laughed and wished she would say it again, but when he placed the bucket on one of the shaky tables, Sofia, the wife of the bar owner, O’Malley, yelled, “Holy fuck, a little baby alligator!” She flipped her wet rag over her shoulder and leaned in. We crowded around, as many of us that could, trying to get all our heads near the opening of the white plastic bucket. There it was, just as prehistoric as we’d hoped. Green as a lizard should be. The color of its swamp. And bulbous jelly eyes lifted above the water, not so ridiculous as a slug’s stalks. Noble, for hunting. O’Malley, one of our circle around the bucket, turned his shoulders out, I could tell, to create just enough space that another, slim body, might enter, and it is difficult to say if his wife noticed that the invitation wasn’t for her, but for Andrea who hadn’t followed us yet to the bucket, Andrea who took one glance into the bucket before shrieking and throwing her hands up and flipping the bottom of her dress this way and that across to the other side of the room, cowering in the frame made by the countertop separating the bathrooms, her eyes shining black between her little fingers. There were six or seven of us crammed around that bucket, and a little blonde boy was the one who bumped up against O’Malley, and took the spot intended for Andrea, though he was too short to even see inside.
But we looked, and that baby alligator, it did what we wanted it to, at least at first, in that it was itself, an alligator, in miniature form. It could bite, of course, and it would hurt, and we’ve all heard about those jaws snapping shut and never opening until death, death, death, and not even then, but still, it was just a baby, barely eight inches long. But it was not a baby as we are babies, lumps of clay, sloughed from some unfinished mold, all essentially the same (tabula rasa), and “oh its eyes are like” and “oh she has your mother’s feet” and “oh it has the hands of a drummer” are fine and dandy games, but really they are lumps of flesh and the joy is in that differentiation, that “what will it become that is unlike what anything else has become,” but not this baby alligator, because it was already exactly what it was, and it had only to double, triple, quadruple, 10x, 100x, grow, grow, a question only of scale, how big would it grow, how much enormity could become of this, this same this, and if instead we shrank ourselves down by an order of magnitude, as a doll or a baby but without that mush of formlessness, it would look like a full-grown giant of the swamp, a mouth only, and some supportive infrastructure, its body curved against the scratched white surface of the bucket in two inches of yellow water.
“Feed it!” said the blonde boy, without ceremony, the thing we all wanted to say, and O’Malley said, “Manners, boy!” but then O’Malley’s eye twitched, which was as good as a nod from him. Our breathing became heavy. Feed it, we begged, because this baby alligator isn’t moving. It’s just sitting there. We don’t have all day.
It wasn’t that our sense of wonder was spent already, it was just that we had nothing more to talk about because the wonder of watching something that doesn’t move is introspective, branched and convoluted as evolution itself, filled with all the metaphoric self-revelations we have whenever contemplating the immobile, the patterns on floor tiles, the petals of a flower, the ocean (for the ocean though it moves also does not move), the elements reorganized in our minds into new patterns resembling the…
“Feed the damn thing,” said O’Malley, making us all jump and the bucket slosh, though the alligator still didn’t move. “It’s gotta be hungry!” he said, and on the other side of the bar, watching, Andrea blushed, I swear she did, and O’Malley’s wife nodded, nodded at the alligator, but did not acknowledge her husband. The man who brought the baby alligator in his white plastic bucket (no one had yet asked him his name), that magician, salesman, psychologist, naturalist that he is, he pulled an inflated plastic bag with a pair of weightless goldfish, each with a strip of black running vertically at the edge of its tail, up to the tip, where one of them was torn, so immediately if you noticed this bite mark, you’d feel instant pity for that fish, and anger toward the other.
“Put ‘em both in so we can see which it goes for!” yelled the boy, hopping on one foot, shaking the table, shaking the alligator who still did not move. We all knew it was up to O’Malley to choose. And which fish would he choose to die? If he suggested the predatory goldfish, he was showing Andrea that he was sworn to justice, an eye for an eye, a fin for a life, and was prone to sentimentality for those pitiable ones who bore the brunt of their own weaker natures, and yet she might also think that O’Malley was such a pitiable soul as to desire the stronger be put to death, breaking with the natural course of nature, upsetting what the wild would have likely enacted on its own, all because of some inferiority complex that Andrea would never find attractive. And yet if he chose the goldfish already accustomed to being prey he was throwing the lamb to slaughter and showing his sadism to Andrea; she might see that only, and not the adherence to the natural order that he was inclined to observe, though it was also possible that his sadism would excite her, even as she cowered, even as she watched between her fingers. At the same time, if O’Malley chose the injured one he was sacrificing a better chase, and why would someone on the brink of a spectacle sacrifice maximum entertainment and duration?
Before O’Malley could choose, the man emptied the bag into the bucket.
Down in the hole, the alligator’s body curved against the inside of the scratched bucket, the fish swam about, past each other, past the alligator’s open eyes, past the tips of its protruding teeth, but the alligator never opened its mouth as I imagined it, slowly, ratcheting open micrometers at a time, barely noticeable, until you’re surrounded by teeth, inside that mouth, waiting for that snap, how fast how strong will that snap will really be, but then O’Malley’s wife’s voice reminds me that the two fish are just swimming in circles on the opposite side of the bucket but the alligator hasn’t moved a goddamn muscle.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she huffs, throwing her hands up. And O’Malley sighs, half a growl.
“Yeah, always poor Pete,” he grumbles, and his wife leaves the circular porthole of the bucket for the smaller ones at the bottom of the glasses she dunks into the hot sink, shaking, drying, holding out before her, closing one eye and looking through each shape of glass, each a unique porthole from which to see the rest of the bar, the crooked looks of her husband, the movements of Andrea and the rest of the help they’d hired to give them more time for themselves, Andrea’s hand-covered eyes watching Sofia’s husband watch the alligator, and I saw O’Malley and his wife for the first time with absolute clarity.
You see, Sofia thought that by expressing her exasperation, O’Malley would agree and they’d be able to storm off together, leaving Andrea in the corner by herself, but O’Malley only became frustrated with his wife’s frustration, so typical, so impatient, and scolded her by looking across the bar to that young waitress who wants to be a dancer over there. I wondered if O’Malley would have the moment that I’d had once, sitting on a similar cracked stool in a similar dim bar, if a slow sinking can even be called a moment; the realization that love for another can reach a dangerous paradox. Sofia’s “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” and O’Malley’s sigh was just like my wife Angie’s “Jesus Christ,” and my “Jesus Christ what?” Her expression of frustration, followed by my frustration at her frustration. And it was often the other way around, where I’d express an innocent frustration, and she’d get flustered trying to solve it, and eventually we’d be yelling at each other, in a fight that would last until dream, as I’m sure I’d see happen to O’Malley and Sofia if I kept watching. It comes from our desire to tell our lover all the things that bother us, often in sequences triggered by an immediate cause, but reaching back through time: “Damn this lazy alligator, and speaking of, damn these slippery glasses, and damn these dim light bulbs, and damn the coldness of ice, etc, etc.” They are only expressions of frustration translating to, “Honey, darling, love, this is me, I am being honest now; these are my unedited and uncensored frustrations, and I desire you to be frustrated with me as if we were the only two in agreement against the entire world,” but this poorly articulated desire, this “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” when it hits an ear like O’Malley’s becomes confused with the need to solve your lover’s problems, to take upon yourself that threat which degrades the happiness of the person you’ve sworn to keep happy, so O’Malley hears only blame, the complaint taking on the precedent of “Because of you,” or “Maybe if you’d have,” such as, “Maybe if you’d have been a better husband this alligator would eat the damn fish, or else you’d have had the forethought to keep it out of our bar, or else you’d have better prepared me, philosophically, through the course of our relationship, for dealing with so much disappointment.”
Now I know, of course, that it was not my fault that the power in our entire apartment block went out, ruining the eggs Angie had been cooking, and O’Malley knows it’s not his fault that the alligator isn’t lunging for the fish, as of course Sofia knows it too, but O’Malley’s instinct that she has no right to blame him for something he can’t control further aggravates him, and Sofia’s knowledge that he’ll just take her exclamation as a personal insult further aggravates her, and so it goes, in a terrible cycle until the bed at bedtime becomes too large and the sheets between you cold, and it takes until well into the night for her to finally articulate to him that she was simply expressing her dissatisfaction in the hopes that O’Malley would acknowledge and agree and they’d be one moment closer to each other, instead of apart, as they are now, with Andrea still looking from behind the wooden frame near the bathrooms, towards the alligator’s bucket, but not at me because I have also stepped away and back to my table.
Later, after relieving the man of his plastic bucket with its baby alligator, now sitting beneath my table, with what felt like the ghost of the girlfriend who would become my wife hovering above my hand, I wondered if we’d ever get past the argument that had sent me here, into this situation where I’d become the proud owner of a baby alligator I had no idea what to do with, a baby alligator that swished its tail among the flakes of golden scales that had once been fish, for of course the alligator had mauled them when we weren’t looking. And instead of imagining what my girlfriend would think of living with a baby alligator in the bathtub, or how long it would take before I was the unknown man in another bar across town offering a baby alligator in a white plastic bucket to the first taker, I instead scribbled furiously into my notebook an explanation of how two lovers’ desire for both sharing and service are, and will always be, at least in the moment they are expressed, completely adversarial, and how it is with love that we enter into this paradox, and with love also that we will always try to overcome it, and always fail, only to try, and fail, and try.
A founder of Omnibucket.com, Scott Lambridis’ stories have appeared in Storyglossia, Black Static, received the Leo Litwak award in Transfer, and are forthcoming in New American Writing. Scott is the founder of Omnibucket.com, and while completing his MFA at San Francisco State (where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship), he’s working on a novel about the scientist who discovered the end of time. You know, the usual. Email Scott at email@example.com.