by K. Foley |2020
I should’ve known something was up when Bottle Rocket said, “Look at that. You’re club foot’s healed.”
That was an arched eyebrow moment considering she completely ignored the bullet hole in my forehead.
“It’s time to come with me,” she added.
To which I said, “You’re nuts. I’m not going anywhere.”
To which she replied, “Oh yes you are.”
I was flat on the ground. Lying there like a dried up pancake. Cased in pitch black, surely the darkest night of the year. Overhead, fireworks cut fancy through the sky. I remember that so vividly…brazen, wild swathes of disco-dancing colors. And that sound. That eerie cackle and hiss from the dying embers raining out of midnight. A sound that I recognized from somewhere. But couldn’t recall where.
“Don’t be so stubborn,” Bottle Rocket said. “Come on before it’s too late.”
I stared at her, at that beehive quivering in an afterglow of unknown origins. Regardless of what she thinks, Bottle Rocket is not the boss of the universe. So I dug in my sneakers. Possibly for spite.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She said this nonchalantly as if she did not have deep ethereal notions of the overworld. The annoying confidence of the dead.
“Don’t worry. I won’t!” I snapped those words against the bitter cold and listened to them fracture the freezing air.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Positive! I’ll never give you the satisfaction of telling you that you were right.”
“Last chance.” Nothing fazes Bottle Rocket.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh yes you are.” And she was gone. Sucked into the night sky closing in behind her.
That left me staring. Staring up into the night. And staring at my body sprawled on the road. I didn’t know which was real. Or if any of it was real. Maybe I was home in bed tucked safely under the electric blanket, welcoming the New Year with a mystery novel and a glass of wine. Or maybe I’m just bone-crazy and forgot that I was locked up in an asylum somewhere out in the hinterland and suffering one of my daily hallucinations.
The last time you heard from me I was alive and kicking. Well, kicking is probably taking it too far. Alive and bumbling around is more accurate. A club foot does not make for easy transport. The point is, I’m not myself these days. Things are upside down now. A real Alice In Wonderland quandary. I think it has to do with the bullet hole in my forehead. It’s making my thinking fuzzy.
I’m accustomed to mental acuity. But I say this with full honesty, I’m adjusting to my brain fuzziness. Plenty of people are absentminded. It’s not a big deal. I’m just fine…really. The hole is small, barely noticeable. It doesn’t even hurt. I tried to tell Them that. I tried to tell Them that all I need is a little cover-up and a baseball cap, studded with rhinestones, of course, and I’m good to go…to go back home. Really. “Trust me,” I keep telling Them. But They just look at me with the controlled patience and warmhearted pity reserved for stupid people. And tell me again and again that I didn’t survive the event, as They call it. The event. It sounds like a soiree calling for silk stockings and a diamond tiara. Not a bullet hole to the head.
They’ve taken to using the actual word dead. I can tell it’s not their chosen description as it sounds so harsh, so final. But I think they’re running out of ways to convince me that it’s time for me to accept the facts. As according to Them, the facts are obvious. I don’t think so. They don’t know everything. I do not--and will not—accept their premise. Which is why, I assume, They have shuttled me off to this. What They call the Twelve Step--More or Less--Program.
From the looks of it, apparently my spite and digging in my sneakers didn’t pay off. What a motley crew of freaks and misfits I’m stuck with. This place is absolutely, one hundred percent, full-on Bettlejuice. Not that I’m admitting that I should’ve heeded Bottle Rocket’s warning and gone off with her, but if I had, things might be different right now.
This is a royal disaster. What the hell am I doing here? This is ridiculous. And I’ve had enough of it. If I hear the words, Hello. I’m… one more time, I’m going to fling myself to the floor and throw a tantrum the likes of what no one in this room has ever witnessed. And I won’t stop. Ever. I will pound the floor with my fists and scream at the top of my lungs. I will thrash around pounding and screaming until all the blithering idiots in this place run back into the caves where they came from. Then I will pound and scream for all eternity. Because: I. Do. Not. Belong. Here.
Why won’t anyone listen to me? I am not like this bunch. If you were here, you would confirm this. I have landed in the kingdom of monsters and absurdities. Look at me! Do I have an axe sticking out of my back like that guy over there? I mean, too bad for him and his bad luck, but that has nothing to do with me. And I don’t see any tendons dangling from where my arm used to be. When was the last time I fell off a tractor and ran over myself? That’s a thought not even worth entertaining. Furthermore, I have zero in common with the tightrope walker and her floppy head and broken neck.
This is depressing. All I see are disfigurements. Gaping wounds. Flesh-eating diseases. Every malady and misfortune you can think of gathered here in this room. It’s a grisly carnival of gruesome proportions. A damn macabre sideshow. And none of it applies to me. Bottle Rocket warned me. There I said it. Or at least thought it. I hope she’s happy.
Before the bullet hole drained my brain, life was brilliant. I had tremendous plans. And they were coming to fruition too. I’d just landed a literary agent. Imagine, at my age, landing a top New York agent. And she landed a deal. On the first try! Not a lot of money, mind you, but prestige. Coming from a backwoods town, prestige is everything. Backwoods nobodies aren’t supposed to get highbrow literary nods. Since basically, how can we even read and write with our eighth-grade-one-room-school-house educations? And here I had a literary agent and a book deal. Which, by the way, took me over twenty years and hundreds—many hundreds actually—of rejections to accomplish. In case you’re wondering: no, it is not a romance novel.
I admit, the deal is not with a major publishing house, but I don’t care one spit. The issue is that I—a squat, old, woman with gray hair and a limp—is (was?) on the cusp of living my dream. I could feel it. I could taste it. I saw it, for god’s sakes. I saw the ink on the pages. I saw my book clutched in the hands of a reader. One reader. That’s all I needed. All I ever wanted. Just one reader.
But now I’m beginning to think that my dream is lost to a stanza in a self-conscious poem. I’m not sure if I still have a beating heart or not, but I can hear it wailing in high-pitched grief. Can feel its deadweight mourning the aborted sun. I claw at the unseen bubbles of acid attacking the echoes of tissue and fiber inside my hollow chest. An underground torrent ramming through the stratum. Searching for light. Oxygen. Relief.
A lifetime of hammering away. Prodding twenty six simple letters into millions and millions of words. Goading them into sentences sturdy enough to convey complex philosophies far beyond my formal schooling. Wrestling with structure and syntax. And punctuation. Controlling the dashes and semicolons. Looking after periods and quotation marks. Expelling clichés trying to sneak in looking for an easy ride. Restraining overkill. Filtering out bullshit. Shaping unwieldy work into a logical, readable piece: sculpting sand into something resembling a castle. Loving it. Hating it. Creating, at the very least, a fairly cohesive narrative. A story that makes sense. A story that means something.
Decades and decades of bitter disappointments and crippling self-doubt. Searching for the pearl in the broken shell. For my pot of fevered riches. A fusion of satisfaction and suicide. Waiting for “my something” to burst through the earth’s crust in a plume of sparkle and ballet. And finally, finally an alignment of the stars. And look who slipped in through a teeny crack in the forbidden wall. Into a world not meant for me. And was crowned a bona fide writer. The Day I Broke Up With Jesus had found its home. A real home. Bourgeois boomer angst and all.
The moon was in a good mood on New Year’s Eve this year, gilding the treetops with silver. Flooding its beams onto the sugar sand along the rutted deer paths beside the road near my house. I was walking in diamond dust. I was a diamond borne out of the rough. I’d declared this New Year, My Year: The Year Of The Author. I felt triumphant. Worthy of self-congratulations. Tingling with the sensation that only anticipation can produce, if you don’t count caffeine. A never-lost dream, at long last, unfolding. My joy luminous as the fireworks ushering in the New Year in the town square a short car ride away. My year. My signature waiting at the bottom of a contract. My year: The Year Of The Author. My Year.
Milliseconds before the impact I sensed a change in the distant wind. Energy tightening up into a beeline. Cruising along its fierce, unalterable trajectory. In the microsecond before its impact knocked me to the frozen ground, I remembered the poachers who prowl the woods at night covered in camouflage. Armed with guns and spotlights. And too many beers. A few seconds into My year: The Year Of The Author. BOOM! Shot in the head. Before the first page of my manuscript was ever printed. Oh shit—the last words I uttered still a greasy slick on my lips.
I survey this room of freaks and misfits. Aberrations from treacherous times. And like a slow-motion arc of crystal waters bursting through the ground mud, a thought explodes into form and freezes into a chilling block of ice: What ifI’m creating my own hell? What if all the freaks and misfits in this sorry place are really just me? Are actually tragic reflections of my own personal beliefs about my unfortunate self?
Narcissus pops into my head without an invitation. Love in all its personal inducements. Enveloping its object of affection. Reflecting pristine beauty. If that’s so, the laws of nature must prevail and the opposite has to be true. And I’m Narcissus’ deformed twin. Mesmerized with visions of the repulsive. Of failure. Seeing my clubfoot everywhere. The clubfoot that is no longer attached to me. But is still present. Is still everywhere I look. I’m a freak. Surrounded by freaks. Freaks are everywhere. Everywhere I look. I’m here because this must be where I decided that I belong. This is not wisdom rushing over me in a wave of insight. It is regret. Heaves and swells of bitter regret.
They tell me that it’s time. Time to introduce myself to the others in this Twelve Step--More or Less--Program. “It’s your turn,” They say. “What are you going to do?”
Right. As if I have a choice. As if I am not a prisoner here. I rise. My healed foot is light and nimble, and steadies me as I glide to the forefront to declare… Declare what? My status? My condition? My faults and vices? The state of my affairs at this nonsense moment in time that makes no sense?
My gait is a buoyant betrayal. Because I feel heavy as cement stuffed inside a wet sack. I hesitate. For just a second. Just as I did on New Year’s Eve along the roadside. Listening. Barely moving. Something beckons. A familiar whisper. A tease of light edging the darkness. A seductive call from the distance within. They are staring at me. Waiting. All the freaks breathing in pneumonic unison—the mucus rattle of death. I peer around. At them. At this room with no walls. At the yawning horizon beyond.
I stand front and center in this cave of dead freaks. But before I can muster the energy to speak, an understanding blooms. Exactly as oil blooms on the surface of water. And yells in a familiar voice. I am a freak. Like them. Killed in a freak accident. Like them. Before my time. Like them.
I was killed before my time. By a stray bullet. In a freak accident. I whine this to my audience. And to myself. All the freaks nod their heads. Commiseration feels so good. Like a blanket of soft velvet. One freak pounds his cane on the floor. Another shouts, me too! I am so fired up. I launch into my list of grievances. Already polished. Awaiting such an occasion. The freaks are captivated. They cry tears. Possibly of the crocodile variety. But I don’t care. I’m captivated by my own salty tears. This is where I belong. I am happy here in this place of misfortune. I am home.
What I do not mention is the secret drifting in and out of my awareness. A truth so sinister that I cannot bear to confess it, even to myself: I summoned the bullet that killed me.
by khf | 2020
She tumbles out of the clear blue sky and lands right on my dresser. Carrying an obituary, no less. She’s looking for yesterday. I can hear it whispering below the static on the line. Or maybe above the static. I’m not sure. But I’m sure yesterday is lurking
--I don’t live here anymore. I say these words loud. Loud enough to be heard above the static. Clear as I can make them. Words pealing like perfect clichéd church bells. Zippering down the wire, speeding across twenty miles—more or less—of trees and roadways. Through rush hour traffic. Past school buses. Pick up trucks. And gray-hairs poking along at 20 mph with their stockpiles snagged at the flea market from vendors reeking of funk. Good-enough Ensure—good enough if you ignore the use-by date. And cigarettes you can’t actually smoke for being so stale, but good enough to dangle from your lips when nostalgia strikes. I don’t live here anymore. Radiant words rocketing all the way to there. The sound of holiness itself. Precise speech traveling all that way. Imagine…
--I don’t live here anymore. The lick of my tongue sparks fire like a rocker attacking his Fender. And ignites the grudge. And that grudge races through the cord, right alongside the words. In tandem: words and grudge. Soaring up telephone poles pounded into sand and clay, holding stiff at the edges of pitted macadam and oil-slicked highways. In tandem, spitting and crackling along droop-bellied cables. Tearing through gray metal boxes and loops of tangled wire. Words and grudge: electrified currents racing across miles of hardship just to deliver my loathing. A triumph of science and velocity. Imagine…
Frankly, I can barely hear the caller for all the static. Something about a woman we knew decades ago. From the old neighborhood. Cancer. Teenager daughters. A bum ex-husband.
Yeah…shame…but: I don’t live here anymore, I shout over (or under) the hiss and cackle. Fingernails scraping down a schoolhouse blackboard. Shredding my temples. Right next to my eyeballs where the migraines roost.
Cancer. Ovarian. Remember her? Remember Carolyn?
Yesterday. Forced into my brain like black mold. Dust you inhale. Invisible fumes that’ll slurp up your brain. Liquefy it until all that’s left is a gelatinousness puddle.
--I don’t live here anymore.
Can you hear me?
--I don’t live here anymore. What did I just say? I don’t live here anymore!
Loud and clear. Above the cackle. Below the hiss. Loud and clear.
What? I said Carolyn died.
Here it comes: yesterday. Atlantic City. Silver not sliding against chrome. Quarters not jangling. Just flashing neon lights flirting with my common sense. And the nonsensical, come-hither melody stolen from a carnival ride courting me. Twenty five dollars. All I had. Gone like that. Lickety-split.
Me—sidestepping flinty, furtive eyes for a portion of her good fortune. Listening to coins clattering into her tray. Right next to me. Handfuls of quarters. Hundreds jumping ship, spilling onto the rug gaudy with damask roses and morning glory vines. Bells. Whistles. A deluge. More coins than I’ve ever seen in one place. Brinks comes to mind. Moneybags with dollar signs. The rush of red-vested attendants to validate, verify, and offer assistance retrieving the loot—ankle deep now— from the “queen’s garden” at our feet. Where tacky blooms and meandering fronds lie encrusted with the sweat and tears of the losers.
Losers like me. Consigned to the margins. Obliged to endure incessant boasting with a spent purse. Hoping for charity. From darting eyes with the magic touch. Hoping for a free lunch. Or a roll of quarters tossed my way out of friendship. So I can try my luck just once more. Convinced that my change-your-life jackpot is waiting inside the next pull. Or the one after. A windfall that I’d cart home in buckets and spill across the kitchen table and announce, “We’re rich, god damnit! We’re rich!” Hey sister, can you spare a quarter? Reduced to silent begging.
The phone. Something must be wrong with your phone. I can’t hear you. Carolyn. I’m calling to tell you that Carolyn…
My brain on fire from being forced small again. From being pressed into service as the clown again. The clown along for the ride. Enlisted to provide entertainment. Self-mockery. Years and years of bowing. Making nice. Lost in the grift. Growing fat on on the cotton candy dripping from the klieg lights. Carrying the cross. Years of eating shit on bended knee. My brain on fire. Being forced small again. Broke again. Broken again.
--I don’t live here anymore. But now with the phone clamped against my ear, I’m thinking that I didn’t, in actuality, say those words out loud. This is a sad situation because maybe that precise speech of holiness itself—the statement I am desperate to hurl across the wire from here to there—is just a bad-mannered wish thundering around behind my eyeballs where the migraine is beginning its rise and lift.
I don’t like this development. Because that leads me to that annoying, earsplitting static. And me thinking that the bonfire in my brain is mysteriously creating the hiss and cackle across twenty miles of phone lines on its very own. This is not a welcome consideration, imagining my own kinetic energy ginning up a major commotion like that. And now that I’m doing all this concentrating—listening while mumbling while thinking—I’m figuring that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I am plugged into an energetic power from alien sources. An earth-to-orbit connection without all the elaborate equipment. A deep, inhuman resonance mighty enough to screw up communication through thick telephone cables. An encounter of the 5th kind. I watch documentaries. Area 51 and all that.
Clearly my brain is working overtime ironing out this dilemma of the static, because now I’m imagining the interference of angry dead ancestors. A chorus of static would be right up their alley. Don’t laugh. You don’t know my kin women. Nothing could hold back that bunch of gut-punching grudge holders, not even death itself. Jeeze-us! Give me a minute. Let me think about this. Jeeze-us!—a disembodied cabal of woebegotten women rising up across time and space itching for a righteous battle in the here and now. Wronged women. Mean women. Women with bad hair and a penchant for hooch. Women who never forget. Who regard revenge as a sacrament no matter if the slights and insults are real or imaginary. Ghost women you would never conjure up if you had any sense. Jeeze-us!
This phone call mess has been going on for hours, right? Wrong! It’s barely been three minutes since the past fell from the sky twisted in static that, by the way, I’m really thinking is my fault anyhow. The static, not the phone call. But now I’m realizing that’s a harsh judgment against myself. Unfair, even, since I am not one bit scientific and know absolutely nothing about wires and such. Which leads me to ponder about walking and cracking gum at the same time—a skill I’ve always been proud of. And how that skill is paying off right at this very moment. Because same time as I’m mumbling “too bad” and “humph” into the static, I’ve thought myself into a conclusion.
It is not my bonfire brain creating this electrical mess. And it’s no alien encounter of the 5th kind. Though it could be, given Indra’s Net—that spider web of a notion that I hardily cozy up to since that explains why I cry at sad movies. And why when I SNEEZE in the shampoo aisle at Wal-Mart somebody two aisles over in Pet Toys shouts BLESS YOU. It’s all about invisible hand-holding the entire universe over. Everything touches everything. At all times. A cosmic marvel I read about in a book.
Let me be very clear: I should have expected this. I’m exasperated that I didn’t truly think that angry kin women would make an appearance. Today. In my bedroom. If I had, I could have saved myself aggravation and a major headache. Why I don’t pay proper attention to what I know is a question I can’t answer. But the minute that static began horsing around with a perfectly normal connection I should have known that it wasn’t just me and my death grip on the phone in this room.
I’ll be straightforward about this: I’m accustomed to ghosts. When you come from apoplectic people, restless spirits are a foregone conclusion. Mostly I ignore them. Though I admit that sometimes I make inquiries about matters of great importance—I’ll get to that later. But ignoring them is the only way I can get any semblance of peace in this place.
So, I’m just standing here clutching the phone. Weighing my options. Do I continue silent-screaming I don’t live here anymore into the hiss and cackle hoping my obdurate, non-friend will hear my veiled message and end the call gracefully by offering a kindhearted excuse for such a hasty exit? A pot of spaghetti boiling over, for example. UPS driver banging on the door? Or do I push the fatal button? Hang up on her and the past. And dash her into oblivion where she belongs.
It seems that today isn’t the day for making believe ghosts don’t exist. Energy is amping up: the cabal has gathered. I see them congregated across the room hovering in the haze drifting in through the picture windows on this late autumn afternoon. Those ancestral under-feminists who apparently stood at the nexus of peace and anger in Indra’s Net and chose the pissed-off route through eternity.
My mother’s been gone for a good thirty years, but I’d know that beehive anywhere. Now as her ghost-self inches out of the haze, I’m thinking that it must be true about the higher the hair, the closer to God. Then I remind myself that my mom waitressed in dives where she earned the nickname Bottle Rocket due to her masterful aim with a ketchup bottle that she would hurl across a smoky room smacking her target right between the eyes before he ever saw it coming. And if that drunk needed stitches, well…he asked for it, now didn’t he. Bottle Rocket’s words, not mine.
What I’d do for sweet memories. But memories are not sweet when you had to suffer the mortification of your mother marching into parent-teacher conferences with BOTTLE ROCKET hand-stenciled in bold black letters across the back of her pink uniform. Maybe in truth, the higher the hair, the bigger the balls. I’m in trouble.
All of them have unfortunate hair. I can spot wild whorls of haywire pricking the sundown. Dry, pine needle haloes and bad attitudes that don’t take a holiday. And don’t cater to death. Great Grandma Norman, ever since I can remember called Old Ice Eye for the cold, empty stare from her fake eye—the regular one apparently lost in a brawl. A battle over some sailor, the story goes. Death has not been kind to her. And Cousin Ester who went by Crazy Scarbo. All I know is that whenever a knife turned up in any capacity—mentioned in a conversation or poised to slice through red velvet—the next six words out of some fool’s mouth always were, “Hey, how about that Crazy Scarbo?”
Truth be, I know a lot about these under-feminists. They didn’t give a damn about equal rights. But with the right provocation, would jump into a rusted-out Chevy, wrench that gearshift into action, floor the gas, and run over a man. Once to knock him down. The second time to make sure he’s dead. Hymns at church, tar and feathers at home. That’s the way it was. I can’t rule out lye and its alternative applications either, if you get my drift. And… No! I’m going too far. Things could get hairy for me with a cabal of wronged women staring at me from their places in the haze. Mean women. Women paranoid about the statute of limitations—that devil that could do them in. Death does not do right by women with unfortunate hair.
“What are you doing?” Bottle Rocket asks. She’s scowling and slow-shaking her head in that old familiar way that makes that beehive wiggle with life. St. Vitus dance.
“It’s too late for that. The decision’s already been made. You just have to execute it.”
“What do you mean?”
This is no flurry of superego verbal jousting, the kind you make up in your brain where you play all the parts and set yourself up to win. This is fine-tuned, cogent, wretched soul-to-wretched soul combat. Serious stuff. The stuff of Carl Jung and Philemon, the magician—Jung’s “ghostly guru.” I studied the Red Book. Deadly serious stuff.
“Just what I said. I don’t mince words. You know that.”
“Are you and your cabal concocting this racket in my phone?” I make a grand sweeping gesture with my free hand. When talking with ghosts, especially ones with an attitude, a show of strength is imperative. Don’t forget that. It’s crucial. You will need this advice in the future. I guarantee it.
“It’s not important. Do what you have to do.”
“And what is that?”
Bottle Rocket raises her right eyebrow. It’s a signal. She’s losing patience with me. I’m prepared to duck.
“You already know what you have to do. Why are you asking me? We’re just here to support you.”
“Am I dreaming? Is this a hallucination?”
“Stop it. What does it matter? Everything’s real at all times. I’m real. You’re real. Dreams are real. Hallucinations are real. Pain is real. Your decision is real. Do I have to go on?”
This is what I love. Or, depending on the day, hate. About ghosts: their practicality. Although I’m thinking now that I’m not an authority on all ghosts. Definitely not the ones who laze around on clouds and glide over sun-drenched shores, whispering I love you and everything is beautiful while dispensing Kool-Aid to the thirsty. But I am an authority on the ghosts I know. Whose lives were raw. And real. Raw Deal Lives. Lacking bullshit. Full of bullshit. Lacking clarity. Complete clarity. Ghosts with simple answers to matters of great importance. Such as: Are ghosts really real? “Yes.” Why can’t I lose weight? “Because you eat too much.” Do I have to be polite all the time? “Are you really asking that?” To which I am always tempted to reply, It’s impolite to answer a question with a question. But don’t dare, given the misfortune of bad hair and Bottle Rocket’s aim.
“Here.” I push the phone towards Bottle Rocket. “You do it.”
“That’s not how this works. And you know it.”
Seriously? Being shamed by a ghost with bad hair? Could aliens and their probes be any worse?
Bottle Rocket sashays backwards. I watch until her beehive disappears into the haze. They’re gone. Not a single beam of rose blush twilight left in their wake to lift the gloom. Not even a few pine needles scattered across the rug.
And no, it is not like the cabal was never here. Apoplectic leaves its blister. A jolting against the skin. Electrical currents still juicing the room. A scorched brain. The phone in flames. Poetry in damning motion.
Can you hear me? Can you hear me? screeches across the wires—a shipman squawking into a shortwave. Can you hear me? over and over.
Ominous is here: hissing, cackling, spitting.
Finger—petrified wood, fiddling with riddance.
Are you still there?
Years of eating shit on bended knee. Bonfire for a brain. Being forced small again. Broke again. Broken again.
Shrinking. Getting smaller. And smaller. A shriveled clown tripping backwards. Falling into the abyss. Ass first. Clown shoes last. Plunging back. Back.
Bottle Rocket. Crazy Scarbo. Old Ice Eye. A lineage of wronged women. Apoplectic women gathered in the mist of time. Ancestors. Under-feminists. Watching from the spectrum of anger. Waiting.